You chuckle when you hear “Coach of the Year,” and “Coach of the Year” certainly is a tremendous honor, but as I look back over the years that I have coached, usually the years that I have not been Coach of the Year are the years that I have done the best job. As you look back on your career, you know what I am talking about, the years that are challenging, the years that are not easy. The years that you do not have super talents to work with, but that is really what coaching is about. I have been blessed to have coached some outstanding athletes, but I can honestly tell you that I have just as good a feeling helping a person make nationals for the first time as I do helping a person win an Olympic gold medal.
I should mention my mentor, Dick Wells, who was the Head Coach at Firestone High School, Akron Ohio, when the school first built its pool. I was not an age group swimmer. I started off in high school, and Coach Wells really got me fired up about swimming. My goal, and I wrote a paper on this my junior year in high school, was to be a swimming coach like my swimming coach. I wanted to create the enthusiasm that my coach created for me. I wanted to create a team feeling that our high school team had, and that was really my only goal.
When I was in college, I got a job coaching at a summer swim club, and I remind my daughters of this when they complain about working for minimum wage, for a dollar ten cents an hour. I would of have done this free, and that is when I realized that I had a gift to coach. I really think that gift came from excitement and enthusiasm, from the love of running training sessions, from a love of motivating a group to swim fast for a group goal. I was only an assistant coach for two years during my junior and senior years of college. I never had a desire to be an assistant coach. I always wanted to be a head coach. I always wanted to go out and learn on my own, stumble, and hopefully rise again.
I returned to my hometown of Falls, Ohio and coached for one year. When I tried to get them to put a bubble over a 50 meter pool so that I could form a club team, the recreation director probably did me the best favor of my life when he said, “Mark, you will be a great coach some day, but it is never going to be in Falls, Ohio.
After that meeting, I applied for six different jobs in California. I did not get the one that I wanted at Santa Anna High School. A friend of mine, who was a graduate assistant at the University of Kentucky, got that job, and I took a job at a small age group program that had two twenty five yard pools in Mission Viejo, California. My goal there was to develop a program where people could say. “He runs a good program.” That was my goal plain and simple. The first year I was there, we qualified on girl for the national championships. I remember when that girl qualified, I told myself, “Mark, if every year you can just qualify one swimmer for nationals, make sure that you are happy.” I have always remembered that and I am always happy. If I can qualify on swimmer, I feel blessed and I feel grateful.
Two years later, I was standing soaking wet next to the greatest swimming coach of all time, who was also soaking wet. His name was George Haines. George and his Santa Clara team, and it was the last Santa Clara team that he coached, won the combined team championship and the men’s championship, and Mission Viejo won the women’s championship. He walked over to me; we were the only two guys in the locker room, and shook my hand and congratulated me. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I could not believe it. How did I get from wanting to be a high school coach to coaching some great teams and some great swimmers?
The number one thing is the need for knowledge. I remember when I went to California I actually asked for a job that paid $200 a month and they turned me down because they said that I was over qualified. However, I wanted to be there so bad because there were so many great coaches that I could observe, that I could watch. You have to create a belief, a confidence, and I needed to learn how to do that. I think you can attend a clinic and listen to people talk about their programs and talk about how they train people, but you really need to observe how they work with people, because that is the key. In fact, one of the blessings of college coaching is the fact that I get to go around and observe club programs and coaches, and learn every day. Every time I go watch, either I learn something, or I am reminded of something that I had forgotten. You need to develop a championship environment. It is different for everybody. Nevertheless, you need to look at what your environment is and it needs to be an environment for excellence.
As I look back on that recreation director in Falls, Ohio, I sometimes wish that I would have stayed there and proved him wrong. I think a lot of us see our coaching positions as the key to whether we are going to be successful or not, as opposed to the effort put into the coaching that makes the position what it is. I truly believe that. You need to expect excellence, but you need to do it in steps. You need to create relationships with your athletes, your parents, and with your assistant coaches.
The first summer I was hired at Mission Viejo, I came to within a whisker of being fired. One of the championship meets at the end of the summer was the Orange County Swim Conference. This was big time and we had won the sectionals. The parents wanted to throw me in the pool. I refused and I said, “I am not going to be thrown in the pool until we win Nationals.” Well, they looked at me as if I was some kind of wild man. Who does this guy think he is? The Vice-President of the company called me in and he said, “Mark, I want you to know something. These parents are important. We are in the business of selling houses and you get a lot more bears with honey than you do vinegar, and every once in a while you need to give in to what they want.” Therefore, the next meet, which was the championship for the Orange County Swim Conference, we won and I did let them throw me in the pool. We had a t-shirt that we came up with in the fall that said, “Think Nationals.” That is where we started to head from that point on.
I do think, although my relationship with the parents of Mission Viejo started off rocky, that eventually the respect that we developed for each other was tremendous. I thought it was important for me to listen to their goals, for them to listen to my goals, and for them to listen to the swimmers’ goals. I am a great believer of a coach run and coach owned club program. I know that it is not always possible, but even if the parents own the club and they pay your salary, somehow you need to get to the point where they feel they are working for you. I think that you can do that, though it does take some work. Remember, you get more bears with honey than you do with vinegar.
Loyalty…loyalty is an interesting subject and what I have learned about it in coaching, is that it is important to give it, but never to expect it in return. If it comes back to you, it is a gift. I appreciate so much the few people, no matter how good they were, that write me a note or send me an e-mail twenty or thirty years later. I received a fax one time at the Olympic Trials for a girl just telling me what a great experience she had had at the Olympic Trials twenty years beforehand. It is important that you know that it is your job to be loyal and that it is your job to express gratitude to your swimmers and to your parents. If it comes back to you, it is a gift.
The other thing that I learned, and I actually did learn this at the ASCA Clinic from one of Karen Moe’s talks, or at least it started me thinking about the subject, is that the coach needs to act like a parent. When I started coaching, when I was young, I really had to be a disciplinarian. I was a very tough disciplinarian. You break the rules and in many cases, you were gone. In some instances, I was a year or two older than the swimmers I was coaching, and I had to make sure that I did not socialize with them on their level. It had to be a distinct coach/swimmer situation. The same went with the parents. The parents were very much used to drinking beers with the coach and things of that nature. I felt that it was important to gain their respect, that I act like a coach and act like a professional.
Since I have become a college coach and seen the situations, that one of my responsibilities in working with young people, particularly when they go away from home for the first time, is to help them grow up. I am a lot more willing to give them a second chance. I have very little tolerance for not learning from a second chance, but I am very willing to give it and I think it is important on every level, because you should be like a parent. You are like a parent and in fact, when you think about it, you spend a lot more time with them unfortunately more than their parents do.
Another way I have changed is technique. I was a kind of a book-learned technique guy. I can remember the first book I read on swimming was written by Forbes Carlisle. I also think I had a good knowledge after reading Doc Counsilman’s book and a number of books like that about technique, but I never really emphasized it in practice when I was young.
I remember going to a clinic one time in northern California and hearing Howard Furby talk. At Nationals, we had seven of eight girls make the finals in the 1500 Free and the winning girl broke the world record, and I was proud of that. I thought that it was a good team accomplishment. Howard had made the comment about the thrashers from Mission Viejo. At first, I got mad. Then I started to think about it a little bit and then I realized that we could probably be doing even better by focusing as much on technique as we focus on training. I think that is probably a way I have gotten better.
I do not learn about technique as much from books anymore as I do from observation. I really believe in observation of underwater film of the world’s best swimmers. I think there are a couple of things that you can learn from that. Not only can you learn how to do things properly, but also how to do things creatively. I think that is where you find the next step in going faster. I try once a week with my team to sit down and watch underwater films of the Olympics, the Pan-Pacs, the World Championships and talk about technique. I do not do all of the talking. I let them do a lot of the talking, a lot of the questioning. Then when we film them, they know what they are striving to achieve.
Sam Vancura’s underwater camera is probably the best coaching tool there is. We use it everyday. However, if you just film somebody and they do not know what the goal is, what are they striving for? For some of them it is hard to make adjustments. You can tell them verbally, but it is hard to make adjustments. A lot of times, I will stop somebody in the middle of a set and just have them sit on the edge of the pool and watch someone that is doing something correctly, and that can be pretty powerful. First, it pisses them off a little bit that I stopped them in the middle of the set. But that is alright, because I am telling them that this is important and then it is amazing how they get back into the set and start working on that aspect of technique, or turn, or push-off that they were not thinking of before.
I am not much for socializing on the pool deck during practice. When I watch a football practice at USC, those coaches are not socializing. They are coaching. I think that it is important when we are on the pool deck that we are coaching all the time, and that we have 100% focus on the athletes in the water, that we make comments to them and find ways to help them make changes. It is different for everybody. I have some people that I tell them the same thing over and over again, 365 days a year, but you will be surprised how sometimes it will just click in, particularly I the big competition.
A lot of times if you film your competitions and you show them, it can make a big difference. You can say, “remember what we talked about in practice all season long…do you see this? Do you see how this guy pushed of versus how you are pushing off? Do you see what the difference is?” I think it can make a big difference. I think that you need to create an environment where the swimmers feel safe correcting each other. We need to remember, that even though we can stick that camera in the water and watch what is going on, nobody sees the swimmers as they see each other. Sometimes egos can become involved. Somebody is correcting Lenny Krazelburg’s stroke, but he is very open to it and he does not hesitate correction somebody else’s stroke. I think that is a very important environment to create. With you kids, I think that you have to be a little bit more careful to make sure that they are making the corrections that are the right corrections. If you have educated them well, you will be surprised at how well they can do that.
The importance of starts and turns: The reason that this comes up is something that I have done a lot better job on in recent years. I recently went back and watched all of the 1976 Montreal Olympics; because I made some tapes for Eric Vendt of Brian Goddell, and God did we turn awful. It was terrible. However, sometimes it is kind of fun to show the kids how it used to be done versus how well it is done today. Sometimes I will say to somebody, “Hey, you are turning like you are swimming in Montreal in 1976.”
Enthusiasm is probably the most important thing about coaching. It is contagious. You have to demonstrate it yourself. You have to teach it. You have to encourage it and if somebody demonstrates and another person squashes it, you need to pull him or her out and talk to them about it. Being positive, being enthusiastic is important and I think that it goes along with developing and fostering team leadership, because talk is not just in the pool, in team meetings, or in the locker room. It is important away from the pool and you need to spend some time talking to you swimmers about that. Often times if there is anything that I neglect, it is teaching out of the water and I try to make an effort to do more of that in team meetings. I try to really help them to teach each other, because it is a lot more effective if they hear it from the more experienced swimmers.
For coaches, I think that it is important to coach little kids. If I were to go back and do it over again when I coached club, I think that I would take the time to coach the little kids more often. I ran camps when I first became a college coach at Texas; I rather resented running those camps. I had to run these camps so I could make enough money to supplement my salary and I really resented it. Then I went to Southern Cal and I had to start from scratch and it became my thing. My attitude was completely different and I would say it is one of the more fun things that I do throughout the year. Not only do I learn a lot about my coaching and what I need to do with my athletes, but also for my athletes that work with the campers, it is an invaluable experience. They learn more technique in trying to teach it to others than anything that I could do for them. In addition, they appreciate me a lot more in what I go through on the pool deck.
It is important to take advantage of people’s strengths and cover their weaknesses. We complain about people’s weaknesses instead of really concentrating on their strengths and this applies to the head coach, the assistant coach, the swimmer and to the parents. With an assistant, if you have somebody that is administratively weak do not spend you time trying to make a strength out of a weakness when you have somebody else that can do that job and you can get this coach to be working on people’s technique. Focus on people’s strengths. If somebody is not doing a good job in a certain area, tactfully get them working on a new project and get somebody else working on that area. There are many strengths out there.
You also need to recognize your own strengths and make sure that you are hiring people to cover your weaknesses. This is very important and I have always been blessed with tremendous assistant coaches. I think that the only time I ever got in trouble hiring an assistant coach was a time I hired an assistant coach that was like me. I thought, “Man, you know this coach is something else, just like me.” Bad move, because I needed assistant coaches that complemented me so I could play on my strengths and they could cover my weaknesses. I tend to be a very intense guy and it helps to have a more low-keyed assistant in my situation. If you are a head coach and you were very intense or real low-key, it might help to have an assistant that is different. My advice to you is to do a few things well and delegate. I would rather take on a few tasks and do them with true excellence than to take on too much, get frustrated, and do a bad job on the things that are important. As far as I am concerned, the things that are important are helping your athletes go faster.
Do not try to be somebody you are not. I made that mistake at Mission Viejo. We were winning championships, all of a sudden, another coach came along and was doing a terrific job and winning championships, and we were coming in second. I thought, “I have to do it this guy’s way.” We never swam worse for the two years that I tried to do it that guy’s way. Everybody has their own personality, their own style. Play to your style. It is okay to watch other people, learn from them, and add to that style. However, do not try to make yourself into somebody that you are not. It just will not work.
Personally, I never keep score and the reason for that is very simple. When I first coached a Mission Viejo in the short course season, we were second to Santa Clara. I figured out every single point before we went into the meet. We lost by fifty points. I thought to myself, “Mark, if you just concentrate on helping everyone of your swimmers to do the best they can and do a great job at the meet, the score will take care of itself.” Moreover, it did. That is when I stopped keeping score. At a championship meet, I will read the score at a nightly team meeting for motivation, but I will not keep score. If the meet is close, like a dual meet situation where a tactical change may need to be made, I am going to have the assistant coach keep score because I do not want to be distracted form watching the athletes, helping them to swim fast, motivating them, and watching the dynamics of the meet by the team score. I will play out all the scenarios and I will know what changes I am going to make if something does not go our way, but I do not keep score.
Be demanding. Find ways to develop superior practices. Superior practice performance always equals superior meet performance. Do not be afraid to be demanding. Make sure that it makes sense and that it is progressive. Make sure that your athletes understand that occasionally you may ask them to do a set that they may not make. Sometimes they will surprise you and surprise themselves. When they do, continue to be demanding.
I think that along with that, you have to be demanding in competitions as well. I see a lot of coach’s fall into the “we will swim well when we taper.” “We will drop big at the end of the year.” “Do not worry about how you are swimming unshaved.” If you want to truly swim fast, competition is part of training. Plan your competitions well. Have them be progressive throughout the year and have expectations for them. You might not always make them, but have them. Maybe the expectation is to swim well six out of six events. If you have somebody that does no more than two events well and falls off, maybe it is swim four events well. Maybe it best unshaved time or best time in October, but make sure that you are progressively asking them to go faster in competitions and to swim at one level higher than their comfort zone.
If there is anything that I did right at Mission Viejo, it was taking athletes to meets that really opened their eyes. Again, you have to do this in a progressive fashion. If you have a “B” swimmer, you cannot take him/her to Senior Regionals, but you have to take them to a meet that is one level above their comfort zone. I will never forget Brian Goddell’s reaction when we got on the bus to go to LAX to swim in the Santa Clara meet and he did not make it. He missed his flight. He was so upset. He was fourteen and he was so upset. Obviously, he never missed another one. But, we went from winning the Orange County Swim Conference Championship the year before to being pissed off about not going to Santa Clara the next summer simply because we were going to meets that were a level above our comfort zone.
You have to be very careful with how much credit you give yourself. I think that you need to look at yourself as a facilitator. You are creating an environment. You are helping the athlete to learn more about themselves and hopefully you are helping the athlete to be self-sufficient. There is nothing as a coach that I take more pride in that if I look at the results of the World Championships, and I am not there, and my athletes had performed well. I feel like I have done my job. Now obviously I do not like not being there. I would rather be there every single time, but you want to make sure that you teach your athletes about themselves, so that they could coach themselves if they had to, and that they are not dependent on you. You want them to be self-confident and independent. That way when they get up on the block, they will know what to do. You cannot do anything for them when the referee says, “take your mark.”
Also, be careful how much blame you put on yourself. I think that many times, coaches beat themselves up and maybe unfairly so. If you make a mistake, you made a mistake. I do not think that it is bad to admit to the athlete, “We are not going to do that again.” Great swims at the end of the season do not come from great tapers. That is a myth. Great swims come from superior practice performances. Tapering is just resting. It is just fluff. Sure, you build some confidence. You work on the little things. But, I get so tired of hearing, “Coach, I missed my taper” and I am thinking to myself, “No, you missed your season.” I also think that you have to be a little bit careful making the statement to your swimmers that you blew the taper. If you keep saying that, they are going to lose faith in you taper and that is why I really try to play down the taper. Try to ride it out and meet with all of them. Have them agree on it, sign off on it, and that is it. It is not a debatable item during the season. Teach them that great swims come from great performances in practice and in competitions. Watch, listen, and talk. You need to constantly be observing them, listening to them, and getting a feel for where they are. That goes for your team as individuals and that goes for your team collectively. That is where you learn.
I have probably the greatest assistant coach in the world in Larry Liebowitz. He always has these great philosophies. Here is a great “Liebowitzism,” he says, “Mark, the swimmers have the right to complain and you have the right not to listen to them.” I think that is true to a sense, because you know they are going to complain and some of it you need to kind of let go over your head. However, some of it you need to pay attention too because whether it is valid or invalid, if they think that it is wrong…it is wrong. Therefore, some type of educational process is very important. Do not stop talking to your swimmers individually and as a team.
When I was named the Head Coach for Sydney, I sent out an e-mail to quite a few of the former head coaches. I got one response back and that was from George Haines. He said, “Don’t assume anything.” To me, that was one of the best pieces of advice that a coach could ever have. Do not assume that people know things about swimming. You would be surprised, even on the national team level, about the little points that people do not know. It is kind of like girls not shaving their legs. If you do not tell them not to do it, they are going to do it. You have to tell them every season and you have to tell them why you do not want them to do it. It is kind of like nutrition or drinking. Some of them are going to listen to you and some of them are not. but you just have to keep hammering way. Keep talking, and believe me, more are listening than you think.
Going back to team leadership. I think that this is a very powerful tool and usually when I have successful teams, I have had great team leadership. Team leadership is something that you foster, that you encourage, that you point out when it is happening and when it is not happening. People need to lead by example every day in the pool. They need to lead by their talk in practice, and if people are being excessively negative, the team needs to take care of it. I can take care of it, but if the team takes care of it, it is a lot more effective. When people are positive in practice the team needs to praise that as well as express gratitude, as I do. Encourage them to talk in meetings. I hate meetings that are like this talk where I sit up there and lecture. I want interactive meetings, meetings where they talk. Where they talk about what is important to them, what the problems are, and what the solutions are. Sure, I am going to put my two cents in and sure, I have my share of meetings that are just like this, and those are not very pleasant when I have to have one of those. I would much rather have an interactive meeting and then you can really see where the leadership it. You can see it from the people that have the experience, the ones that have been there before. You probably have some young people in there that have not been there before and need to learn this. They are the ones in there faking it, saying, “Oh yeah, I am in this group you know, I am good, I am hanging with these guys, no problem.” You need to talk to them. They need to learn. Do not assume anything. Talk away from the pool. This is probably the most powerful, and in team meetings, you need to talk about talk away from the pool, because a lot of times our swimmers are going to spend time with each other away from the pool. What is talk like away from the pool? Talk about how important that is for team success.
I have two final things that I would like to touch on before I take questions. The first one is the importance as a coach to take care of you first. You cannot be successful if you do not take care of yourself first. If you are not doing all the things that you are preaching to your athletes, then you are not taking care of yourself first and eventually it will catch up with you. Exercise, sleep, and the ability to say “no” are the important factors. Filter out what is important and what is not. The reason you need to say “no” is because you should not take your family for granted. I think the toughest thing about being a swimming coach is the fact that we spend more time and have more influence over other people’s children than we have over our own.
If there were one thing that I could do over again, it would be to spend more time with my family. Although, I have to say that my family has always supported me, and I am very grateful that I have learned that lesson. We are closer than ever. Say “no” a little bit more often and try hard not to let that happen. Are there any questions?
The question is, at what point do I allow my assistant coaches to write a workout on their own and do I give them a framework. I think that it is very important to allow them to write workouts on their own. I think that it really gives them a great sense of self-esteem. Usually I sit down with the assistants before practice and we talk about the practice. I might give them my ideas and then they throw in their ideas. Many times their ideas are better than mine are for that day, so I will go with theirs. Sometimes I will just have them write their own. We do have a framework of what we are doing at certain times of the year and what we are doing on a weekly basis, so I will expect that practice to fall into the framework. Larry Liebowitz likes to throw what he calls the “curve ball” practice, which is something completely off the wall. Whenever that happens the kids always know that it was written by him and that is always fun. He is thinking about having fun and that is a good thing.
The question is what would you touch upon at a coaches meeting for 13-14 year olds. I think that the first thing that I would talk about is the schedule. I would ask them what their expectations are of the season and try to get a little input from them. Start to get the goal process going. Talk about the meet from the season and just start working a little bit on the importance of hard work and how we are going to accomplish that. Then I would also talk a little bit about fun. What are we going to do for fun this year, other than just swim up and down the pool? Those are probably the things that I would touch on.
The question is how often during the season would I meet with my team as a group. That is an interesting question, because I have found that in the summer I always meet with the men and women together, and in the winter I always meet with them separately. I do that simply because the goals are a little bit different and they need to be talked to a bit differently too. However, it is funny, that in the summer they do not need to be talked to differently because the goals are the same. I try to have a meeting at least once a week, whether it is separate meetings or meetings together. If it is a meeting together, it is probably one on technique where we are showing a videotape. I might take clips of people on the team if we have just filmed the team and show them the people that are doing things very well. We might show underwater films or both as if we would if we were looking at breaststroke turns. I have used Ed Moses. For example, his turn at the Olympics in 100 breaststroke when he broke a minute, and Michael Klem’s butterfly turns, and Jenny Thompson’s turns. Thing of that nature, and then we will play some of our kids turns. Some of them are good and some them say, “Oh, wow…we need to work on that.” At least once a week I want to try to have some kind of meeting. I may just be thirty minutes where we watch technique and then we go out and work on it.
The question is how do young and ambitious coaches intern with me in present days. We have certainly had interns and we would welcome interns, but again, my feeling is to observe the good coaches. Do not feel like you have to spend the whole season with one to be a good head coach. You are going to learn as you go along. All of you have good coaches in your area that you can watch. All of you have good meets that you can go to and watch good coaches. Make sure that you do that. When I was at Mission Viejo, I never missed women or men’s NCAAs in all the years I was there. Many times, I would sit at the top with Ernie Maglisco and listen to him talk about technique. There is an awful lot to be learned by that.
The question is what is the form that we use to show videotape to the swimmers. I am not in the digital age yet only because I am happy with my Super 8 camera. Therefore, I use a Super 8 camera and a Super 8 playback machine. We film them above and below during practice. We transfer that onto a VHS tape and make three copies so that we have four copies and then all the assistants and I review those with the swimmers several times during the year. During the season, we film every meet. The meets have always been filmed from above and the swimmers can come in at any time and review their races by themselves or ask a coach to review it with them. Recently I have started to film the meets underwater, which is really interesting, and I am finding that we are actually getting a lot more out of that at times than we are when we film from above. Sure, you can see what side of the lane they are on and what the turn is like, what the push off is like, but you cannot see what is going on underwater, which is the most important thing.
Do I evaluate my assistants and my team on a regular basis? Well, usually at the end of the season the team will sit down and we will evaluate ourselves and talk about what we did well, what we need to keep, what we need to discard, and what we need to do better. As far as assistants go, I have a form that I use to go down and talk about strengths and weaknesses. I really think that it is more important for me to teach them throughout the year on what I expect, compliment them on what they are doing well, and ask them to do things differently. I really try to give the assistants a lot of autonomy and I never criticize an assistant in front of the team. If they make what I consider a mistake, I will take them inside afterwards and discuss it with them, ask them why they made that decision, and if I disagree with it, I will ask them to do it differently in the future. Usually I will always try to stand behind the decision that an assistant coach makes.
The question is are you related to John Leonard. John gave me this topic and what came to mind visually was if you saw the interview in 1996 of Amanda Beard when she made the Olympic Team and they asked her a question, and she looked at the camera, smiled, and said “I have absolutely no idea.” I would love to coach at Southern Cal until I retire. When I retire, I would love to be an age group coach. I really enjoy working with young kids and I think that I have a lot to give in that area. That is what I would like to do. Maybe not doubles, but once a day. Thank you very much.