The Wisdom of the Giants by Michael Lawrence, Lake Forest Swim Club (2012)


Published


[introduction by Ira Klein]
You might not all know Mike Lawrence; hopefully we’re going to change that pretty soon. And it’s important that you know who Michael is and some of what he does. A lot of our coaches believe that in order to make a difference in coaching in USA Swimming, you have to be coaching the Olympic team, you need to be a coach of a major university. And Michael is one of those coaches who shows that involvement can come from all levels and all stages. Mike coaches at the Lake Forest Swim Club up in Illinois; a club I knew very well, since I competed against them for a good couple of years. Before that he coached two different YMCAs in the Illinois area. He’s the Assistant Senior Coach (right?); works along with Maureen Sheehan. But just as importantly, Michael has been the Chairman of OIO: the Olympic International Operations Committee [of USA Swimming]. It means that he represents us at [USA Swimming’s] Steering [Committee] and at the Board of Directors meetings of USA Swimming. And he’s there because of his background, his knowledge, his involvement, for a lot of years. And again, as I said, he shows that all that can come-together whether you’re that lead coach at the major university recruiting a couple of our best swimmers to help you get to be an Olympic coach, or if you’re just doing the job day-to-day in the trenches, like the rest of us, to keep doing. So I’d like to take this time to introduce the next speaker: Michael Lawrence.

[Lawrence begins]
Thanks Ira. Welcome everybody. I want to thank the American Swimming Coaches Association for inviting me to come here and speak to you today. I want to thank Ira for that nice introduction. I have known Ira for quite a long time, and we made a little deal before he introduced me, that he would not say anything embarrassing from the past and I would not do the same. But Ira is a great friend, and I have known him for close to 30 years in coaching and away from the pool. That is one of the great things about coming to this clinic is interacting with great coaches and great friends. Ira is in Sarasota now (is that right?) and I’m in the Chicago area. In the geography, we don’t see each other very often. But we can come, two or three times a year, one of them being here; renew friendships and share information. And both of us walk away, and be better people and better coaches.

It is really humbling to be able to speak in the front of the room to the best coaches in America. And the best coaches in America are some of the best coaches in the world—and that’s everybody here. As you look at the global field of coaching, a lot of coaches that we might consider to be in-the-trenches and just doing the day-in/day-out job here, are extremely talented coaches, if you spread out and look around the world. We have such a wealth of talent in our athlete pool and even greater depth of talent in our coaching pool.

The title of my talk today is: the Wisdom of the Giants. And it is a retrospective look at some of the great wisdom and information that coaches, the best coaches in our profession, have given to us over the year. It is not a comprehensive review—there is nowhere near time for that. But it is one coach’s retrospective-look back at some of the things that I’ve learned along the way, and some of the things that I believe are important in coaching, and some of the things that I hope you will believe are important in coaching also.

In a sense, it is great to be an American swimming coach. Most people who coach could coach anything, because they are teachers. They care about people; they care about kids; they care about what they’re doing. Coaches can simply coach. Swimming coaches are different. Think of another sport where you get to walk out there on the pool deck with the best in the world. You can run into them in the hospitality room at a local B meet—some of the best coaches in the world. Think about being a youth football coach at the local park district. What are the chances you are ever going to run into a Bill Walsh? A Mike Ditka—my personal hero? What are the chances that you are going to run into one of the great football coaches, or even a college coach, a great, great college coach? What are the chances you are going to run into Lou Saban; probably zero. But in American coaching, we can go on the pool deck, show up an hour early before warm up, and I promise you, you can sit down to the great coach Mark Schubert—one of the giants of coaching—and ask him anything you want. You can walk into the hospitality room, not just at a National meet, and you might walk in there, and find Dave Salo or Dave Marsh. And that is one of the great things about American coaching.

Over the years I have taken a… learned to take a really minimalist approach to coaching; a real minimalist approach. And that is because early in my coaching—the first year, within six months of starting coaching in a little tiny team, YMCA team outside of Chicago—I got some great advice. When we come to the ASCA [World Clinic], everybody tells you: whoever it is, if you have a question, walk up and ask them the question. It does not matter what it is, no matter how dumb you think the question is, go ask it. Everybody here is willing to share, and the great coaches are willing to share a lot—they will help anybody.

So I went to my first ASCA clinic, and I wanted to be a good coach. I wanted to be a good coach, but I did not want to start and stumble a lot. I wanted to go from here to here as quickly as I could. So what I did is I went to the clinic, and Mark Schubert was speaking. And I went to every single talk that Mark did, every single talk. And in those days, there were three sessions: get up and you do one in the morning, you do one in the afternoon, and you do one at night. So Mark was speaking and he probably did six talks. And I went to every single one of them, and I probably wrote every single word that he said. And then I went home, and then I decided that now I have got it. I have got all the information I need, and I was going to have a great program. I was going to go from Day One, September 1 or whatever, and by October 15, it was going to be a lights-out, nobody-even-knew-what-hit-them.

I never knew what hit me. Because about three weeks later, it was a disaster: I wasn’t happy, kids were not happy, parents were looking at me like Where did you come from?. And I didn’t panic. What I did is I took the advice that I had heard at the clinic, and I picked up the phone and I called Mark Schubert. There was no email, no cell phones; you just picked up the phone in those days. So I did, I picked up the phone. As I am sitting there on the phone—rings a couple of times—I said, “Oh my God, I am calling Mark Schubert.” And I did not know Mark at all. I call him up; and I sat there thinking, ‘Please, please, please have an answering machine or a secretary.’ But nope: on the other end Mark picks up the phone. And he picks up the phone, and I lose my breath, and I gather myself. I said, ‘Okay, you’re way in; you’re way in right now.’ So I said, “Coach, I need some help; and I’m hoping that you’ll take the time to talk to me.” And he did. He said, “Well, what can I help you with?” I said, “You know, I went to every single one of your talks a few weeks back at ASCA. And I wrote everything down, and then I came back here and I started working with it, and now things were just a disaster. Nobody is happy including me. I just need some help figuring out what I did wrong.” And I started to tell him well, I did this that you said in this talk, and he just cut me off right there.

He said, “Let’s just stop here for a minute. I’m going to give you two pieces of advice.” And maybe it is three. And this is the very foundation of coaching that I learned within probably three weeks of my first coaching job. “First, don’t try and do my program, just try and understand my program.” The most obvious thing that I should have known, the most obvious. We all know how that is: you get so into what you are doing, you forget what is going on around you, and I didn’t see it. Don’t try and do my program, try and understand it. Well duh! Here I am outside Chicago, this little YMCA, and: kids are not very good, coach is not very good, parent support group is different, I have got no Brian Goodell in front of me. So how I was going to be successful doing the Mark-Schubert program? So the first thing he taught me and I learned; and Mark is certainly one of the giants, both in his achievements and his wisdom and his willingness to share.

Second thing he told me is: “You need to find the foundation of what you think. What do you think is the foundation of coaching; what do you believe in.” Well, that’s a big tall order when you have been only coaching three weeks. Then he followed it up. He said, “Keep it simple, and make everything you do your own.” And those three points there, have just followed me all through my coaching career, and I think have contributed to any success that I have had and success with the athletes that I have coached. And I hope that little minimalist approach will show through this presentation. And I hope when you leave, anything that you have heard, you will be able to make your own and you will work to keep it simple in your own program.

I want to take a little sideway step here and talk about a book that just came out—maybe some of you are familiar with. It is by Dan Coyle; it is called The Little Book of Talent. It is a follow-up book to his book The Talent Code; which is a more-accessible version of the work by Anders Ericsson, who spoke here [at the ASCA World Clinic], I believe it was 2009, about deliberate practice and how that makes athletes better. I picked up the book when it first came out, probably the second day it was out. I grabbed it, I sat down, and I spent the day, and I read it in one sitting. Then I came back the next day and I read it again, in one sitting, to see if there was anything in there that I might have missed. And I will go back and I will read it again, because I know there is still more in there for me.

Why is this relevant to what I am talking about today? Early in the book Dan Coyle advises us that if you want to be good at something, stare at what you want to be. Stare at what you want to be. If you want to be a good coach, stare at a great coach. Watch them; watch how they interact with their athletes; watch what they do on deck. Listen, read, study; stare at what you want to be, in order to be that. That was a great… it is a simple, simple concept; and it means so much. And it is relevant to my presentation because that is what I have done in preparing for this is stare at some of the great coaches, and great minds, of the swimming profession.

The second thing in there, it is a little bit more personal: I am someone who likes to cite and source everything. I do not want to give information to somebody and not be able to say: well, here is where you can go find that. This is a pretty daunting task, trying to look back retrospectively at some 30 to 40 years of American coaching and try and consolidate it into a talk. And I am reading through there, and there is a little tip in Dan Coyle’s book—and it just kind of took the lid off for me and made this a little bit easier. And his tip is to steal without apology; if you want to be good at something, steal without apology. I do not mean steal the intellectual property, do not steal things and claim them for yourself, [do not] go to your crosstown rival’s website and run away with it, and we certainly do not steal athletes from other programs. But in terms of being able to talk to you today, to be able to steal without apology and grab the thoughts of coaches and the many encounters that I have had. Whether they are here at ASCA, whether they are contained in a report or a journal someplace, or whether they are casual conversation that I have had; I am going to present those to you.

Now this talk came about… John [Leonard] and I were talking several months ago, and we were just talking about coaching and swimming. And we started talking about, gosh all the old stuff that we had, and all the stuff that’s around, and how we don’t seem to have it catalogued or anything like that. And I made this offhand comment that a great project for ASCA would be to have an area where you consolidated the wisdom of the giants, the giants of our sport. We have lost some of those giants: Doc [Counsilman], Richard [Quick], Forbes [Carlile]. And we have a lot of people in coaching that are retiring and moving off of the deck—some of the giants of the sport and the profession. We need to consolidate and get that information, so we do not lose it. Because everything that is “new” is not new.

There is a lot that is out there, information, that when it comes to us, it is new because it is the first time we have heard it. But it is not new; sometimes it is just repackaged. I want to give you a little example. One of the things that is out there right now, and it gets a lot of play and it has a great name: early vertical forearm. I hear people say “EVF”, and all of this. Does anybody remember Doc Counsilman and Doc Counsilman Swim Camps? And “Doc Counsilman Swim Camps” across the front, and what it did say on the back? “Elbows up; elbows up, coach.” Elbows up in front, early vertical forearm, elbows up in the recovery. So everything that is new, no matter what we call it, is not always new. And it is really… fun, and it is really good to know where some of these ideas came forward. And they really cement your knowledge as a coach and your ability to teach and interact with a lot of different coaches.

Well, a few months after that—few weeks actually—I got this little envelope in the mail, and it was from ASCA. And I assumed it was a membership renewal or a reminder to register for the clinics. So I put it over in that pile of the pile—you know the pile you have in the busy part of the season—and did not open it. And then when the pile got a little bit too tall, I started at the top. And I opened up this letter from ASCA, and I said, oh my gosh, John wants me to speak at [the] ASCA [World Clinic]. And I called him up, and he said: “Well, it’s too late; you’re committed.” And so here I am, talking there.

Who are the giants that we should listen to? Well, there is a lot of them. Who are the giants of coaching? Some of them I would tell you are obvious and some of them are maybe not so obvious; and all of us have personal giants within our own experience. People [like]: Doc, Forbes, Richard, Eddie—those are all some of the giants of the sport. And the way that you, I, know that they are giants is that I look around the room and I see people nodding their heads, because you all know that “Doc” is Doc Counsilman, and “Forbes” is Forbes Carlile, and Richard Quick and Eddie Reese. Or “Jon” is Jon Urbanchek. We all know who they are. Then there are new giants on the pool deck, who are replacing some of the old giants, that we will be talking about for many years into the future.

You know the other measure of the giants of coaching? I will tell you that that shortlist that I just mentioned, every single coach in the world has been affected by them. Every single coach, no matter where they are on the planet, has been affected by the work and the thoughts of Doc Counsilman. Even if they do not know it, do not know who he is—never heard of him—they have been affected. Every first-year coach who walks on the deck may never have heard of Forbes Carlile; but the work of Forbes Carlile has come forward and they will eventually know who Forbes Carlile is.

At the end of every season coaches sit down and reflect on what just happened. What went well? What did not go well? What do I want to keep? What do I want to throw away? What is new? What do I want to change? Those kinds of things. At the end of an Olympic cycle, we tend to sit back a little bit farther, and look a little bit farther forward, and say, well, what do I want to do in four years? The Olympic team? Olympic Trials? Maybe I feel my team is ready to move-up the LSC ladder, or some athletes are ready to qualify for LSC championships, Sectionals, a different meet. Maybe something different about your team.

But we all get a little bit overloaded with the administrative responsibilities, and it seems that more-and-more that overwhelms us. I talked to a lot of coaches, prior to coming into this, to try to find out some information that the coaches thought was important to their foundation of coaching. And so many of them said: I get to the end of the season and I have no time to sit there and really reflect and do what I’d like to do to plan the next season, next quad, the next 10 years for my program. And it just makes the work of coaching, taking care of our athletes, so difficult. But I think it is important that we do take the time, and go back and reset everything that we do.

You know there are a lot of great coaches in the world. And a lot of them have spoken here [at the World Clinic], and there is a lot of information that you can get just by walking out into that lobby and picking up one of the ASCA binders of information there [the home-study courses]. There is a lot of wisdom that has been passed-on in informal settings, and I am going to bring some of that up in my own experience. I have worked with twelve National Teams, including an Olympic team. When you get in that environment, you get exposed to some of the great minds of swimming, and some of the great wisdom—pearls of wisdom—from different coaches. And I am going to use all that to try and highlight a few points for you here today.

So this is a little bit of a personal reflection; and I hope that in looking at what is personally important to me, there is something that is personally important to you. I did try and look, and find, not just what was important to me, but what people much smarter with much more experience thought was important for coaches to know.

And I have divided-up the work that I did and the research—we will call it research—into four different areas:
• First, the foundations of coaching. What we believe; most of us believe a lot of similar things, some things a little bit different. And I am going to look at some of those signs, the foundations of coaching. And some of those, frankly, I picked up here; fortunate to be speaking at the end of the week and can listen to some of the giants of the sport and listen to what they have to say.
• Second is form technique. What we spend so much time [on], the form part, of what we do, teaching athletes how to use their body to move through the water.
• The third part is fitness. The training which consumes a lot of our time, and consumes a lot of our creativity. The training aspect of what we do.
• And then fourth is the other stuff. What is the other stuff that brings everything together, and gives us great performances like we have seen with our Olympic team.

So first let me talk about the foundations of coaching. Coaching is taking care of our athletes. I learned that from Eddie Reese, one of the great giants, spoke earlier [at the clinic]—a lot of you know him. Eddie is truly a giant. When you are around Eddie, you want to have a tape recorder or a notebook around because he says so many things in such a casual way that are so important to what we do and so important to the success of our athletes. And I looked at talks that Eddie had done; I have ASCA talks—you can download mp3 files—I have them on my iPod, and when I exercise—there is a lot of forest reserves in my area and I walk around them—I can sit there and go for an hour walk in a forest reserve, lose myself, and listen to old ASCA talks. May not be as exciting for some people as listening to the latest music, but I just love to do it. And as I listen to those, over and over and over again, in almost every single one of Eddie’s talks, he talks about taking care of the athletes. And he talks about how coaches need to take care of athletes; athletes take care of athletes. And what better definition could there be of coaching? What better definition than: taking care of the athletes.

In 2004, I was the Olympic team manager, and one of my jobs was to go everyday to the pool and setup the pool. And the job, of course, that I hate is putting in lane lines. But, that was my job, and that is what you do. And I went there on the second day and I am starting to pull the lane lines—and I’m talking, I am there an hour before the team is getting ready to come in. I look over there, and there is Eddie standing by a reel, starting to help me put in the lane lines. I said, “Coach; you don’t have to do this; this is my job. Why don’t you go sit down?” And he said two things there that I think are really critical for coaching. He said, “I do this because it’s so important that you never forget how hard you had to work to get where you are. And I’m at a certain place in coaching, and a certain place with my athletes, but it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t always that way. And putting in the lane lines, when no one else is doing it, reminds me of that.” He said, “The second thing that I just want to tell you, is it’s important that we take care of the athletes.” And I watched Eddie for the entire time, and I have been on to several other National Team experiences with him, and he talks about it all the time: taking care of the athletes.

You know Richard Quick—great Richard Quick, giant of the coaching profession—would always advise and admonish us to do all things today in the best interest of our athletes. Just take care of the athletes: I can’t think of a better definition of coaching. I think it is so good that ASCA should ask Eddie if they can use it. American Swimming Coaches Association: taking care of athletes.

You know Bob Bowman, and certainly his record of achievement towers over the coaching world right now. He always talks about having a ten-year plan for his athletes. He had a ten-year plan for Michael Phelps and his success. And it brought him forward. Ten-year plan that came forward out of the Sydney Olympics; we are 12 years from that—it is just an extension of that.

But what better way to express caring for your athletes than to have a ten-year plan for them? And we all have a ten-year plan. Young swimmer comes in and they are 8, and they come into our program and we have a way we are going to bring them through. And most of us in the trenches, as Ira says, are going to take them through their high school years; they are going to move-on and maybe be a part of our program a little bit different[ly] through their collegiate years. But we all have a ten-year plan. But “taking care of the athlete” means adjusting that ten-year plan, as the athlete grows and matures, and tweaking it so that it is individual for the athletes that you are working with. So there is not one ten-year plan; you might have twenty-or-so ten-year plans going-on all at the same time, in order to accomplish the variety of athletes that you have in front of us. And I think taking care of the athletes, if it is something that every coach remembers, every athlete that we deal with will be better off for it.

You know a good coach is, themselves, coachable. Good coach has to be coachable; they have to be adaptable and they have to learn to listen to everybody around them. In the mid-80s, I worked with Don Gambril for a while—the great Don Gambril. He was seven-time Olympic team coach; last time he was head coach in 1984. In post-’84, I worked with Don a little bit. And he would say over and over again… I was a young coach there, just starting out. And he would say something and I would say, “Jeez, gosh, where did you… where did you pick that up?” And he would just say all the time, “Coach, if you’re not learning, you’re not living. You’re not learning, you’re not living.” What a great thing for a young coach to learn there.

Now how many times did Gregg Troy talk about learning from other people yesterday [in his talk]. And you know the great coaches, the ones as I encountered them, they are so humble about what they know. And they are so willing to say: I didn’t come up with this on my own; I learned it from her or from him or from him. They do not worry about it; they just assemble the knowledge and are constantly learning on that. And a great coach never stops learning.

Back to learning to keep it simple and to make things on your own. I think it is great advice for everybody here. In about, I think, 1999, I was in Australia and I was working with one of the great Australian coaches, Scott Volkers. And I was just happy as I could-be there, one day on deck. Actually it was raining, it was up in Brisbane, and it was raining down on the pool deck. And over there, there is a world-record-holder, Samantha Riley, and over here, there is world-record-holder Susie O’Neill, and here is the great coach of those athletes, Scott Volkers, Olympic team coach for Australia. And I was standing there on the deck, I have got a stopwatch in one hand, I got a heart-rate monitor in this hand. I have got a log down here, with an umbrella over it, because it was raining so hard. And I am recording all this and writing it down, and I think, ‘God, this was just coaching heaven.’

We were doing one of those great Australian heart-rate sets; I think it was 5×100, best average, on 1:40, easy 100 and then a 200 even-split at the same—we were doing like three rounds of that, and I was just in heaven doing that. And after, oh maybe, 5-10 minutes, Scott comes over and he hands me a book and says, “Hey, here is one of my training logs; why don’t you take it home with you?” Now, I am really in heaven. So I take the thing and what did I do? I put the stopwatch down, I put the heart-rate monitor down, I step back out of the rain, and I started reading it. And Scott let me read it for about three or four minutes, and he walked over and he just said the same thing that Mark Schubert said to me. He said, “Reading my log won’t help you a bit. You need to understand my log if it’s going to have any value. If you don’t understand, there’s no point in taking it home.” I was embarrassed. I put the log down, grabbed the watch, grabbed the heart-rate monitor, stepped-up to the side of the pool. For the next 45-50 minutes I just sat there, talking to Scott, as I was recording things and trying to understand the way that his program worked; how it worked with these two world record holders in the pool at the time. The message there one more time came through to me that one of the most important things in coaching is to keep everything simple and make everything that I learned my own in order to make it a success.

Coaches need to create confident, committed athletes; confident, committed athletes. And I think it was 2005, Mark Schubert was giving a talk—and I think we were in Fort Lauderdale—and his talk was: what athletes need from their coach. And I went to that talk, and I just listened to this last week on one of my walks, and I was surprised when I first heard it and reminded last week. Mark said: “One of the most important things that a coach has to do is give an athlete self-confidence. They train hard.” (That’s my phone going off; pay no attention to it.) He said, “You have got to give athletes self-confidence in order for them to be able to perform.” And I was surprised. Most important thing was not training. Here is the great Mark Schubert, great master of distance freestyle and volume, saying the most important thing was to make sure that they had self-confidence. Self-confidence builds commitment, and commitment supports high-performance.

And doing that, the most-simple way that Coach Schubert said you can do that, is to make sure you talk to every athlete, every single day. Even if the only thing that you do is say “hi”, it is important to talk to every athlete. And he talks about the difficulty, sometimes, in the morning when your eyes are, you know, your eyes are not open. Or the athletes come in and they are not quite awake yet or they are grumpy, or you are grumpy. But it is important, no matter what: every practice, every day to talk to every single athlete.

Richard Quick had a talk, I believe it was around 2006, said pretty much the exact same thing, just a little bit differently. “Talk to every single athlete, every day, even if it’s just to chew them out. No matter what.” Soon as you start not talking to an athlete, ignoring an athlete, then you really do not care. And when you do not care, the athlete loses confidence and the athlete cannot perform. So make sure that we build those confident athletes by talking to them.

Now Teri McKeever is an amazing coach. I count Teri as one of my good friends. And she just has a special way of interacting with athletes; an extremely special way of interacting with athletes. And what I have learned from Teri is a couple things. The first is that it is important to be honest about the progress with the athletes. If you are not honest, then they do not trust you. Now in age group coaching, you cannot tell a swimmer that they did a turn right unless they did it right. I have had little kids, you know: well, that turn was illegal, you touched like this. Sometimes little kids will cry, “I did it right; I didn’t do it.” We all know; we have been there. But you have got to tell them, you know, in as compassionate way as you can, but firmly: no that is not right. How do you have an athlete… if you tell them every single time they go in that they did something right, then they go to a meet, hand goes up, DQ’d. Now, what have you done? I did it exactly the way you taught me. You do not build trust with an athlete, you do not build self-confidence, you do not build the performance of the athlete; unless you are honest with them.

Little story to highlight that. In 2004, we were in the Athens [Olympics] dining hall, and the coaches were just sitting there eating, and Natalie Coughlin walks in. She is obviously a little bit agitated, and she comes and she sits down there and nobody is talking to her. And after a while Teri said, “Natalie, what’s wrong?” And she said, “I’m so tired of everybody telling me I’m doing great. I’m so tired of everybody telling me that every time I do something, I’m doing it right. I’m not, and I know it. I have this big goal and I can’t achieve it if everybody’s… unless people are going to be honest with me.” And she just wanted people to tell her: that turn wasn’t as good as you could do… or whatever it is. Your streamline wasn’t, wasn’t as good. And I am sure that Teri went and talked to the other coaches and changed that for her.

Another great thing I learned from Teri is that it is important for us to give our athletes and ourselves multiple goals, and multiple ways to measure success. After the Beijing Games we were doing our debrief in the [USA Swimming’s] Steering Committee meeting, and Teri was in-there talking about the importance of giving athletes those multiple goals and multiple measures of the success. And what she said was so simple; she said: “If the only goal is gold, there’s only one way to go home happy.” Just think about that: if the only goal is a gold medal, there’s only one way and only a few people that are going to go home from the Games happy. And it is no different than the meets that we take our age group teams to. Everybody wants to go home happy. May have a disappointing performance, but we want to go home happy; so we have to figure-out what those multiple goals are and what the measures of success. And even for ourselves make sure that our success is not only tied into winning a medal there.

Talk a little about stroke form and technique. Pretty simple: it is important to establish a good stroke philosophy, to be able to communicate it with your athletes and your coaches and yourself, in as few words as possible, in as few sentences as possible. For me, it is a high, flat body position, point A to point B, in a straight line, and hopefully fast.

You have to be committed to what you believe but open to change. Part of being a coach, we all know, is being an artist. And being an artist means you have to use your imagination. And all of us have an imagination we can use. And our imagination is always ahead of the science; it is always ahead of the science and the academics. And I want you to think a little bit about a coach: Joe Bernal. And I know some of you in the room know Joe. What his great contribution, one of his great contributions, to coaching and the sport: the underwater dolphin kick. It was called the Berkoff Blastoff. And how did Joe come up with that? His imagination.

He was at the Boston Aquarium. There is an article—and I believe it was 1989 in the Harvard Crimson magazine, if you want to go back and find it. And there is Joe at the aquarium, watching the dolphins and how they move through the water. And watching how they come up out of the water. And it hit him that maybe you could teach a human being to do that in the water. He had a great student, in David Berkoff, who transformed that and changed Swimming. But just imagine if Joe had let naysayers, academic science, get in the way. I talked to him earlier this week and he told me about the number of coaches who told him: Nope, not good. Don’t do that; doesn’t work. But Joe stayed with it because his imagination told him yes it will work. And then eventually some of the science came and said, yeah it’s a more powerful kick, you know this and that. And now look where we are, close to 25 years later, everybody teaches dolphin kicking, everybody does it. If you think… what did Eddie say in one of his talks: when he recruits that is what he looks for, fly kicking off the wall. But Joe Bernal did not let anything get in the way of his imagination, and he changed the sport. Not only in the pool, but he changed it in the pool and that changed the rules of the game.

In ’97 I was at a clinic in Birmingham, England. I heard a statement, a really simple one, an obvious one; it was the first time that I had heard it. And it was: “Repetition is the mother of all learning.” There was a Chinese coach there speaking—I do not member his name and probably could not pronounce it. But he said… the first time I heard the phrase repetition is the mother of all learning. And that is backed-up now by research, by the work that we have talked about by Anders Eriksson and [the] more accessible work by Dan Coyle. Repetition is the mother of all learning.

If you look in other sports… think of Ben Hogan if you are a golfer. Ben Hogan, who some people think he had the best swing in the game ever, and he would talk about trying to create the repeatable swing that would stand-up under the pressure of competition. And isn’t that what we want with our athletes: the repeatable stroke that stands-up at the end of the race under the pressure of pressure of competition? Bill Sweetenham talks about that over and over and over again; that real endurance is when the stroke at the beginning of the practice is the stroke that is at the end of the practice. That you have trained the body and you have trained the form, form and fitness, to be able to marry together so the end of the race has strong integrity.

You know, in Chicago there is two athletes that we have kind of been blessed with: Walter Payton and Michael Jordan. Both of those athletes were made… they were always on TV during their career, just like athletes are at in other cities. And Michael Jordan would always talk about getting the fundamentals right—getting the fundamentals. If something went wrong in the game, I need to go back to my fundamentals, get my footwork back and get this and that back. And he wrote a little book called Michael Jordan on Excellence. In there, he talked about the fundamentals. And he said the fundamentals never change. Fundamentals never change. What changes is your attention to the fundamentals; and you have to have the fundamentals in order to be successful.

I want to finish off this section with form and others, and another great story in my coaching career. I think it was ’82 maybe ’83, and [USA] Swimming was running those coaches colleges out in Colorado Springs, if anyone ever went there. And Ernie Maglischo, one of the great scientists and great coaches of our profession, and most of us know he wrote Swimming Fast, Swimming Faster, Swimming Fastest—those books. And he was a great scientist, but he was also… used that to be a great coach. And I was in there; and I was a bit overwhelmed because of learning about vectors and lift and drag, and all these things were a little bit, a little bit foreign to my liberal arts brain. And there was a coach there who kept drilling-down on Ernie and asking him questions, and each question was a little more granular, a little more granular. And he was very patient; very patient with the coach. And then finally the coach asked this question: “Well, should the angle of attack on my hand be 64° or 67°? And if it’s 67, do I need to raise my elbow and do this, or am I okay leaving it down like-“. And Ernie said, “Stop, stop, stop. Here’s all you need to know. Tell your swimmers to put their hand in the water like this, and pull. A great athlete will get it, and the good athlete will be better for trying.” It is just so simple. So I shut all those books and pull all that stuff away, about science, and got down to the art of coaching, coaching form.

What we have learned about fitness training, learned about fitness, and every great coach and all of the giants will tell you is: you need aerobic endurance. You need aerobic endurance in order to perform—you need that. I was with Bob Bowman on a World Cup tour, I think in 2009, and in one of those little off-hand comments over dinner, he said one night: “There’s very little in swimming that can’t be cured with a little aerobic swimming. From fatigue, from muscle fatigue to brain fatigue, aerobic swimming can help a lot of things.” And I have never wanted to question Bob and just the importance of aerobic swimming on that.

And one of the great… you do not have to be a scientist, you do not have to be a Ph.D. in physiology to understand physiology. I saw Jon Urbanchek in the back of the room, there—I am going to talk about Jon. He gave us one of the greatest gifts that we have in coaching, and that is a color-coding system for training. And a lot of people are familiar with it. It is so brilliantly simple. You do not need to understand everything that is on the chart that accompanies it. You do not have to understand all of the biochemical changes and hormonal changes and all of that, if you can understand the simplicity of his work there.

When an athlete is not working very hard, their skin color does not change much; he calls that white. And then you do a little bit more exercise, a little higher level, it turns pink—blood flows to the surface there, to the skin. And then as you really get going, into that threshold-type level work, you turn red. Then you work a little harder, and you become anaerobic, no oxygen. And what happens when you have no oxygen? Lips turn blue, skin turns blue—so simple. And as you move through, what happens when you have no oxygen, really hard? You are purple. And then you go a little bit harder and you approach the puke threshold: green. And it is just so simple, if you understand the rainbow, there, that he talks about; and how you can apply that. It is one of the greatest gifts from one of the greatest coaches, and certainly one of the nicest coaches and friend to everybody, Jon Urbanchek.

I just want to tell you one more story about Jon, even though he has given us that great gift. And I told him that I was going to tell the story and he said it was okay. You know coaches when we get together, we talk about training. And in 2004 again, we were sitting there talking and all about training and doing this and doing that. And Jon, going along with Ernie you know, make sure that we remain artists in what we are doing. Jon made this comment. Jon’s wife is a researcher, a physiology researcher at the University of Michigan and she is still doing the work there. And we are going through and talking about all this, and about training there. And Jon said, “I tell my wife all the time: there’s very little that happens in the left hind leg of a white rat in a laboratory at midnight that has anything to do with the last 15 meters of the 1500 Olympic final.” And it was important. It was a humorous moment there, but it was also important because just like Ernie said make it simple, Jon said make it simple and understand that there might be something else there at play.

What is it that is at play after you do all this? Form, fitness, [both] rest on a foundation; and then comes the finish of the race, and what happens there? Well all those things come out right there at the end of the race, but there is something else that happens—there is something else that happens there. How do athletes perform at the end of the race? Under the pressure, what do they do?

Well, if you look at Bill Walsh, a great football coach, he talked about Joe Montana, Hall of Fame quarterback. And people would always ask him: how did Joe do it at the end of the game? How did he raise his game over and over and over again? How did he do it? And Bill Walsh would say he did not: Joe Montana did not raise his game. What Joe did is every day he practiced at the highest level possible, and then when he got under pressure, he just continued to perform at exactly the level he practiced. Because when you try and raise your game, that is when you make mistakes. You try too hard; you try to do something you have never tried to do before. So Joe practiced at a high level, and then performed in the games in the same level, and let the other people make the mistakes of trying too hard and doing things they could not do, in making mistakes.

And I was at a clinic once with Jon Urbanchek and Joseph Nagy, and I thought that I… we were rooming together. And I thought that I would get a little bit of extra information out of Joseph about how Mike Barrowman always seem to get his hand on the wall at the end of the race. I knew that there had to be something different; there had to be a technique thing, and I was going to get it from Joseph. Well, I asked him, and he said: “No, no, no. The finish line is about energy and willpower, not technique. The first 190 meters are about technique; the last 10 are about energy and willpower.” And that is how Mike Barrowman did it. Another simple explanation for something that is going on there.

You know Eddie talks about the finish line, that there is 80% of the athletes who want to win, and there is 20% who hate to lose. And that 20% that hate to lose, there is something else going on—we have all seen it. Sometimes, the 20% that hate to lose, they have not trained the way that they need to. They have not trained… they have not done certain things that we would like to see them do, but somehow, they hate to lose and, they get their hand on the wall. So there is something else that goes on. The form and the fitness are important, but there is something else that goes on with the athletes.

Form and fitness, resting on foundation, put our athletes in a great position there. But then something else takes over: persistence, willpower and guts. Now is there something else in coaching that defines the great coaches? Well, I think there might be. I am going to touch-on that right now. What I am going to do is read from one of… the closing paragraphs of what some people think is the greatest talk ever delivered at the ASCA [World Clinic]—maybe the greatest talk ever. It is a talk called, “The X Factor”; it was delivered by Doc Counsilman. I suspect there are some people in the room that might have been there when he gave this talk. But it is a talk worth repeating; not my interpretation but Doc’s words. Doc says:

Is there any one factor or trait that determines a successful swimming coach? And if there is, can we educate coaches in order to have this particular trait? Well the difference is the “x” factor. And the X factor is the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. You must be able to recognize the important things and work on them; minimize the unimportant. The present trend of doing everything for an athlete is not good. I can put a timer on every swimmer in my practice, and keep all their splits, but I do not. I want them to be aware of what they are doing. And too often we do so much for them, that they stop using their brains. And when they stop using their brains they stop thinking about their own activity.

The X factor is the ability to see what has to be done and then do it. A great coach recognizes what is needed to do the job and then does it. This applies not only in coaching; it applies in business, in administration, and every aspect of our lives.

And another way of saying this is: just cut through all the detail and get to the heart of the matter. And I thank Doc Counsilman for such great insight and wisdom; and I circle back to the beginning to the great wisdom that I got from Mark Schubert to: keep everything simple, search for the foundations, and then make everything that you learn your own. And as Doc said, you have got to figure out… you got to have the X factor. Figure out what is important; let the other stuff go; go after the X, go after the important.

I want to thank all of you for taking the time to listen to me. I would certainly answer any questions that you might have. I also want to take time here to thank all of the giants of coaching—some of them are here at this conference. And I would encourage everybody, that if you have a question and you want to talk to some of the giants of coaching, you just walk right up there and talk to them. You know if you… right outside that door is some of the greatest wisdom in coaching [in the ASCA store], and I would encourage everybody just stop there and find something that is going to add to your coaching. And if you do one thing before the coming season, one thing that will impact your coaching, go find the article “The X Factor” by Doc Counsilman. Go out there—they will help you find it—and read it and put it into your program.

I want to thank you, everybody, for listening. Good luck going forward. And all of us would take great care of our athletes.

##### end #####

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news