Working with a Team of Varied Abilities by Arvel McElroy, Blue Valley Southwest High School (2014)


Good morning. My name is Arvel McElroy, and I am beginning my 36th year of high school coaching. This topic of teaching a team, or coaching a team, of varied abilities is every one of the teams that I have ever had. But it is not an easy topic to address, because it is kind of like I live it, I am not sure I can talk about it. What we are going to talk about today, or what we will discuss, are: the typical high school team, the kinds of differences you might encounter—because there are different abilities in many different areas—and the tips that I have come across for handling varied abilities.

Your typical high school team. That is a myth: there is no typical high school team. You may have a team of elite swimmers. You may have an entire team of athletes who have had some swimming experience or no swimming experience. You might have a single sex team; you might have a combined team. You might have situation where you can have: a varsity squad, a j.v. practice, a freshman practice, and a sophomore Practice. And yet you have varied abilities on each of those teams.

I have never had the luxury of having more than one practice session for my high school team. In other words, we may have a morning practice and an afternoon practice, and I might have just a select few come for the morning, but everybody is in the pool in the afternoon—we only have an allotment between 3:00 and 6:00 that we can practice. A lot of the teams in our area have an hour-and-a-half in two lanes of a YMCA that they rent and so forth. You have to adapt what you do according to the personnel that you get. And no one year is like another, as far as what abilities you get with the team.

With the limited pool space and the time, you do not have the luxuries that some coaches have at some of the elite programs where they have two pools to deal with a sophomore class, a freshman class, and then a varsity and a j.v. practice. I have tried to talk the Kansas [high school] coaches into: well if we combine seasons, we’re not going to have enough pool space. And I will say, “Well, you have a varsity Basketball practice, and another gym for the sophomores and the freshman. Or they come in later at night. Why is Swimming different?” But they like to rent our pools out in the evening for income for the [school] district, so that does not always fly.

So we have to work with the kids of varied abilities. Some of the differences that you might encounter. Those that have no competitive Swimming experience, whatsoever. They can swim, maybe.

Had a girl come out for the swim team about 10-15 years ago. First day practice, I said, “Okay, if you’ve had some experience, I want you in this lane. If you’ve had no experience, if you know the four strokes, go to this lane.” And so forth. “And those of you who have no experience, we’re going to put you over in lanes 1, 2, 3, and we’re going to start with a 400 stretch, just to see where we are.” And the girls all moved toward the blocks to get in the water, they were going to step in the water. She comes up to me and she goes: “Coach I’ve never been in the deep end of the pool before.” I said, “Go to Lane 6, where the wall is, and if you have issues, grab ahold of wall and we’ll kind of go from there.”

About three minutes later she comes to me, and she goes, “I don’t think Swimming is the sport for me.” And I said, “Why did you come out for the swim team if you had never been in the deep end, and didn’t feel like your Swimming abilities were good?” She said “Well, because all my friends are on the team, and I wanted to be part of the team.” I offered her a manager’s job—that she could be part of the team—but she chose to do some other sport that Spring instead. But you never know what you are going to get in a high school situation.

You have some that have no formal swimming training whatsoever; they can swim, but it is not real pretty. They do not have knowledge of all four competitive strokes. You may end up with a team that ends up with all freestylers, and it takes you some time to teach that. And that dictates how you design your practices. You will have some that are your All American-, Senior/elite-level swimmers; and you may have some that have competitive swimming experience, they have been on a club for years, but they do not have the abilities that a Senior/elite swimmer would have. So you have to figure out: what am I going to do with all of these swimmers?

You may end up with swimmers that have different physical abilities; teams mature at different levels. Your freshmen may be really little and they are standing next to a senior who has gone through the growth spurt and matured some. You have to deal with the physiological changes of those swimmers. If you have a combined team, the girls oftentimes mature more quickly than the boys. So the girls maybe out-swimming the boys—another problem we will talk about later.

And then you have some swimmers who have a great knowledge of body awareness—their kinesthetic awareness—they know exactly what they are doing. Some of them may have been a gymnast, for instance, in the past, or they have been involved with other sports. So you can tell them what their arm movements are and so forth, and they know what they are doing. And then you have some that have no idea; you can tell them once or twice or three times, and so forth, and they still are not understanding what you are trying to get across. So you have approach those kids in a different way as well.

Remember: not all kids are created equally, regardless of what their desire or their ability is. They may desire to be the best swimmer in the world, but they may not have the physical attributes to do that right now. And so you have to treat them with respect, but you have to work with them on being realistic about what it is that they want to accomplish. Then you may have some of the most talented kids in the world, who have real… they lack desire or effort. (I have the few of those, right now, that I struggle with.)

Motivation. Some kids are very, very competitive—sometimes too competitive. But that is a difference in ability from other kids who have no work ethic. The worst, or the toughest one to deal with is the kid who has all the athletic ability in the world and no work ethic.

I coach in a situation where, in Kansas, we divided into two classes for Swimming about six years ago. And the talent at the lower/smaller class, which my school is because it is a… this is the fifth year for the school. The talent in the lower level is greatly divided: you have some that are very elite swimmers, and then a lot of them that are not. So it is easier to medal, or to make the top-8 at the State meet, for those kids. And we have automatic qualifying times in Kansas, and it is not unusual for me to have a team that will have 8 or 10 qualifying times at the end of the first meet of the seasons—since we do not have sectionals or regionals, they can qualify in any meet. But then you have to deal with I’ve-already-arrived attitudes: so they do not have to work because they have already made the State team. Or they might even medal at the State meet and not do a whole lot of work. Those are things that you might have to address.

So I will talk a little about some of the tips that I use, some of the things that I have found to be successful.

Lane management is what I call it. It is placing swimmers in lanes according to either: ability, their skill level or their speed. It depends from day-to-day on what it is you want to accomplish. Some days I put my fastest kids next to one another in consecutive lanes, so that they will race one another. That keeps them from so behind one another and one person setting the pace for all. Depending on what we are working, if we are working on drills and so forth, I may put some of my more-experienced swimmers in lanes with some of the less-experienced swimmers so that they can demonstrate/model the skills and can encourage those that are beginning.

Do not be afraid to change your swimmers up, as far as different lanes. They need to understand the reason you are doing that. You do not want them to feel like they are being demoted for not doing something that you want them to do. So you have to communicate with them what it is you are doing.

We will switch lanes during the practices; sometimes we will do it randomly. I will tell a swimmer: Pick a number between 1 and 6. And Logan might say 3. And I say, “Okay, Logan, you’re going to lead Lane 3; you’re going to lead Lane 3 right now on this set.” Or they do not know what it means: I might say “Pick a number between 1 and 6”, and they are thinking Oh, I am going to pick Lane 6, because that’s where I where I’m at right now; I just want to stay here.” So I might say, “Okay, we’re going 6×500.” Try and mix it up a little bit, try to make it fun. But to get them to understand that they need to perform regardless of what lane they are swimming in for practice.

We begin each season with technique work. We may work as a large group doing those drills. That helps the beginning swimmers feel like they belong. It is a great equalizer because some of the faster swimmers, their technique is at the same level as some of the kids that are just learning the skills—in other words, they are fast but they have poor technique. It might be streamlining, for instance. It is pretty even if you are streamlining off the wall and just doing push-offs with streamlining; it does not matter what your ability level is with kids. Usually, they have strength enough with their legs to push off from the side of the pool in a streamline position; it does not make them feel like they are competing against one another.

The more experienced swimmers could help coach the new members. I oftentimes will pair them up. They like doing that on a Saturday, where they will go over and work with the kids that are new on the team so that they can demonstrate. It makes them feel like they are the experts—after we have discussed some things. The important thing to remember here is to make sure that those experienced swimmers are doing the skills correctly, and then have them demonstrate. If they like working with the younger kids. It also helps make the team be cohesive. They get to learn the other swimmers names, what their abilities are, and so forth.

Just by a show of hands: how many of you, if you start with your season and you are starting a warm-up in a practice, and you say “Okay let’s all start with just a 400 stretch”, and the swimmers take off and everybody finishes at the same time? It is amazing how many of them think they all swim the 400 in the same amount of time. So I finally gave up on distances for warm-up, on many days. I give them a timed warm up: Okay, we’re going to swim for 13 minutes, or we’re going to swim for 11 minutes. They are going to all finish at the same time anyways, so I do not worry about the yardage with that. It gives them a good warm-up, and then we can all start together. They are all ready for instruction on a skill or on drill work and so forth, after we have done that warm-up by doing a timed warm-up instead.

The other thing is that for those stragglers that get in and think: Okay, we’re going to do at 13-minute warm-up. I’ll get in at about six minutes into the warm-up and I’ll be done. I just go over and flip the clock and start it over—because we have a digital clock. Start it over so they get their 13-minutes in. Now, the ones that started on time, let them know you get-in-and-go because they have just done 19-20 minutes of warm-up because somebody did not get in on time.

I try and teach… we do certain sets some times during our practices, and I try and teach them all what the names of the sets are. So that if we are doing different things, I can tell one group: okay, we’re going to do a fartlek. I explain to them: yes, it is named after a Swedish scientist who developed the set, and I ran them in Track. We would splint the straightaways and jog the curves. So you are going to vary speeds through your fartlek.

Or we have as set called the Steamroller, or a set called the Shotgun. And they go: well, what’s a Shotgun? And I say, “It’s 1×400, then 2×200, 4×100, 8×50, and 16×25; it equals 2,000 yards. But it’s like a shotgun being shot out and the little pellets spread. They hate it when we do a double barrel, because then we repeat it the other way.

I have actually given them a written test—about the third week of the season, second week of the season—over the sets. I made my assistant coach take it one day, or my former assistant coach one day, and she failed. I always had to explain to her what the sets were. But I can say: “Okay, lanes 4, 5, and 6, you’re going to do a shotgun; I’m going to go work with these kids over here.” And they can take-off and know the set. It makes it a lot easier to handle if everyone knows the names of your specially sets. You know, KDDS is kick-drill-drill-swim.

We do a set where you get 3 breaths on the first 25, 3 breaths on the second 25, 4 breaths on the third 25; and then you can either do an open turn or five seconds rest—although that becomes… they cannot tell time when it is a 5 or 10 seconds rest, it becomes 20 or 25—and then you swim 25 no-breather. They really hate it when I tell them it is just an open turn, right into the no-breather. And we may do a set of ten of those, like on 2:00.

But if they know the names of the sets, it makes it a lot easier on you as a coach and it is a lot easier for the kids. You can just adjust the time intervals for some of those kids, in order to keep them doing the same things during your practice. You do not have to explain things over and over and over again. And they can work at their particular pace, because they do not all necessarily work the sets at the same pace.

Not everyone is a Michael Phelps. In other words: you have to utilize flexibility when you are developing your training sets for kids of different abilities. You may only have one elite swimmer, and that makes it really difficult. Now, the secretary of NISCA, Eve, says that she has a swimmer who it was suggested to her to have him swim backstroke while the other kids are doing freestyle. It ends-up being about the same time on some of the sets and some of the distance things too, because he is using a lot of the same muscles. But, also, it kind of equalizes things so he is not running over everyone, or you have to put everybody else in a lane.

My first high school coaching experience was in a 4-lane, 25-yard pool. Which was not too bad, except that the center two lanes was also where the diving board was, and we had to Diving practice at the same time as Swimming practice, and I was the only coach. My fifth year coaching there was my third year of coaching boys, and we’ve gone from 7 kids to 36 kids. We had 36 kids in the 4 lanes, including two of them were swimmers/divers, trying to do practice all at one time. So, you have to be very, very flexible about what you are doing.

The kids learned real quickly that they were going to have to keep up; they could not just stand around on the ends of the pool. They get that message when somebody else comes and does a flip-turn on them—so to speak. Or they get hit when a foot comes over, not intentionally.

The easy way is to look at the numbers of repetitions and the time interval, or the time interval and the distances. I may have one group that is more experienced doing 200s, my middle group might be doing 150s on the same interval, and my beginners might be doing 100s on the same interval; and it is all at the same time. Or I might say: you are doing 10×200, you guys are doing 8×200, you guys are doing 6×200; and adjust the time intervals so that if you go on a 1:15, this group is 2:00, this group over here—they are just learning—may do 2:30. So that you keep things moving.

When I first started, the school had a no-cut policy. In my current school, Swimming has a no-cut policy. We do not have tryouts and then have to cut, because we have a 6-lane pool, we have enough… well, I usually have about 30-35 kids, at the most, for our team. I know some of you are in a situation where you may have to cut athletes. I know there are couple of schools in our conference that have to do that; they will get 65 or 70 kids out for a sport and they actually hold cuts instead of trying to keep all 65 kids involved. But I have always been of the belief that an athlete is going to cut himself or herself if they decide that after…. I ask them to give me two weeks—especially the beginners, give me two weeks. And if you just think after the two weeks that are you are not going to survive, then it is okay. But do not quit for two weeks; it does get easier. And it is amazing the number of kids that just said I can’t do this, and by the end of two weeks they have decided: yes I can well.

Quinn was one of these. Quinn came to me, he was a short, scrawny 9th grader. By the time he grew to be a senior, he was taller than I was, he more muscular than I was. He had decided that 1:10 in a 100 Free was not what he wanted, so he started training in the off-season. He did weights, he grew, and by his senior year he went 50-point at the State meet and medaled at the State meet. But if I had had a cut policy, I would have never seen Quinn after his freshman year because he would have been gone—he would not have been somebody that I would have kept on the team. Because his technique was not all that good either—we worked a lot on technique. But you never know: you may have a diamond-in-the-rough. Those kids that surprise you because they invest the time and the effort, and they have the desire to succeed.

Another tip that I use with some of my athletes: on some practices rather than worry about an interval, we will say “Okay we’re going to do this set at 80%. You’re going to do 8×50 at 80%.” Or “We’re going to say we’re go 8×50 at 80%, 10 seconds rest, go again.” That helps those that are even in the same lane swimming against one be able to keep up with the set. Also, they do not all swim the 50 at the same time. They maybe have a range of 5-10 seconds within their lane as to what their 200 time would be, and we can adjust their intervals according to rest periods and effort levels, rather just a straight interval for time.

I do not worry about yardage always. I know that my beginning kids are not going to do the same number of yards as my more experienced kids. I do not worry about that; I am more worried about their technique. And some days we know it is just a losing battle to try and get them to do the yardage we would like for them to do. If they are a beginning athlete, if you work on technique, and the fact that they are actually just swimming some yards, they are going to improve. Maybe not as much or as quickly as we would like, but they will improve. You have to be flexible in your expectations.

But it is amazing, those kids will come up to you after the first couple of meets: I took 6 seconds off of my time. Well part of that is because, you know, our first meet is two weeks into our season, because we only have a 14-week season. So they have not had a whole lot of training when they go that first meet. Especially the kids that have never been in the pool before—as far as being a competitive swimmer—and did not do anything until November because the swimming pools closed on Labor Day. So they get real excited about how they improve; we know that that is going to happen for most of those kids. The baseline becomes the first meet, and then we move from there.

Stations is another way to work, where you work on something different in each station. My kids love station day. They love going for one lane to the next, to try and work on those things. We might use stretch courts in one lane, and we use monofins in another lane. Or we might be working on no-breathers. We might be working on breaststroke technique, or breaststroke turns in one lane. We might be working on starts in another lane.

I am fortunate that I have an assistant coach, so we can kind of divide the lanes up when we work on that and move them from one lane to another. Another way to do that is to have a particular thing that you have the swimmers do for 20 minutes within a lane, and then move over to another lane and 20 minutes they work on something else, and the kids just rotate through. And so you can work on a variety of things within a session.

If the kids are divided by ability levels, then they do not feel like they are being… that helps them sometimes. Sometimes it helps to have the kids with more experience work with the other kids during this time. They are working on streamlining, and then they help the beginners work on streamlining as well.

The important thing to do is to keep it fun. Mix it up a little bit. It helps with team bonding and it helps with making everybody seem a part of the team.

We do some specialty workouts over the course of the season. We do one the last practice before Winter break; we call it the 12 Days of Christmas. It is a challenge for my guys if they can complete the whole thing. I do not require that they complete the whole thing; I make them go through Day 11, because Day 12 is over 3,000 yards. They do at 25 for Day 1. And then they do 2×25 or a 50, and a 25 for Day 2. And they get up to Day 7/Day 8, and they think they are doing great. Then all of a sudden they start realizing that the higher days are the high-yardage days. But if they finish the whole thing, they get a t-shirt that says I survived the 12 Days of Christmas. It is amazing how motivated they can be to get a free t-shirt.

Because our girls’ season is in the Spring, they cannot do a 12-Days-of-Christmas workout, but they always wanted something. Well, on March 14 (3/14), pi as in Math, we do Pi Day. They do 3 of something, 1 of something, 4 of something; and we go out to ten decimal places. And then we ended this year’s practice with having quiche—egg pie—at the end of practice, because we had a morning practice. If it had been afternoon practice, the mothers would have brought in pie and they would have pie afterwards. I kind of stole that from the math teaches in my previous building; they celebrated Pi Day, and the kids bring in pies and they would eat pie on March 14—if school was in session.

We do a dartboard workout, on occasion. I had a dartboard with magnetic darts; we do not use the sharp ones because you never know with teenage boys if you give them darts what they might do. We will do that and it is kind of luck of a draw. Each one of the sections on the dartboard is worth a 1,000 yards. They get six darts and their challenge is to get all 6,000 yards done according to whatever it lands on. It might end up being 6,000 yards of sets of butterfly, and drills for butterfly and I.M. Or it might be, you know, 10×100 on 1:15. It just depends on what they throw. If they throw a bull’s-eye, I let them do the warm-up and then they can go home if they chose, but strongly encourage not to. I have only had one that ever got out and went home. Of course, I have only had two that hit the bull’s-eye, because the bull’s-eye is not very big.

The girls like to do Fun Fridays, where you do something different and unexpected. That is some of the times when we do the things where I would have them call out a number, okay, we’re going to do that number sets, or you’re going to go over to this lane and swim, or you’re going to put that many people in the lane and swim together—those kinds of things.

We also do a greeting-card workout right before the Holiday season with the boys, and you can do it with girls, depending on the season. Does not have to be… it could be a Halloween card or whatever. What it is: I give guidelines to the swimmers and they draw a name of somebody on their team and they write a workout for that person. The guidelines of where they usually train to kind of… guidelines for how many yards and intervals, and that kind of thing. So they write workouts for one another, and challenge one another. Now if they are totally unrealistic with that—and I have only had a couple swimmers do that—they get to do a workout that I write, that they do not want to do. Or if they write one that is totally unrealistic, the one that they got from somebody goes to the person they wrote it for, and then they will do the workout that I did. So you can mix that up a little bit.

They kind of like the idea of writing a workout for one another. It helps them also understand… the beginners begin to understand that: yes they have to have a kick set, yes they need to be working on drill work, yes they need to work on some speed work. And we have worked on some of those things, and it gets them to start thinking about what it is they do in practicing and why they do certain things. If they understand the names of the sets—by this time, hopefully—they could put down: okay Complex 1,000. And it helps them to start formulating in their mind why they do what they do. Plus, it makes it kind of fun for them.

We do a lot of team building activities. The first week of the season, we do a camera scavenger hunt. They come in on Friday, they are given a list of point values of things, and it is everything from… the high point values are 10. We have done everything from dress up as Santa and his elves—and they got creative with that—or the Village People, or a rock band. Or a variety of different things. They have things like take a picture of your athlete director, so they have to go out and find the athletic director. Or a swim cap from another team—kind of warn the other teams in the area that they might be coming by. We have sent them out, I divide them up: new kids and older kids that are driving. The parents know that the kids drive, and drive the kids. And they go out in the community and gather the points. And then we gather back at the end of the evening for dinner. Did have one parent, years ago, that would have the kids all spend the night at their house. Served snacks to the kids about Midnight, and then the kids would all be asleep. Then we would get up and go to Saturday morning practice together. But that is a good way for them to get to know one another, and get to know each other by name rather than just by face, by the end of the first week.

The important thing is communication. Everybody needs to feel important on a team of differing abilities. So it is important for a coach to talk to every swimmer, every practice session. Or every day. If you have two practice sessions, you may only speak to them during the second practice session or maybe the first one. It might just be I really like the work that you’re doing; it might be Nice streamline of that wall today; It might be I see that you’re really improving. But something to be positive to give them some encouragement that lets them know that you care about them. It is easy for some coaches to spend all of their time focusing on those kids that are the most competitive, those with the most talent, those with the greatest speed; and kind of lump everybody else together and they just kind of are part of the team but not a focus of the coach.

So I found that if you speak to all of them every day, you get to know their names. That is important: use their names. Sometimes you might to have them write the name down and then explain it to you. Especially if you have exchange students on your team—which I always seem to have—because their names oftentimes are unusual or they are difficult to pronounce. Especially if they are Asian, I found; and they just say oh, just call me this, because everybody else calls me this, because they do not use their real name. It helps them to feel important.

When it comes time to meets be flexible in choosing events for your swimmers. Sometimes it helps to have them chose their own events early in the season. Of course everybody wants to be a 50 freestyler and a 100 freestyler, because that is the least amount of swimming that they have to do. We are fortunate in our area, we do a lot of what we call exhibition swimming. We will have the varsity, our 3 or 4 entries, and then we may have endless heats of 50 and 100 for one another at the meets because we want everybody to be involved but that is all the further they have gotten so far.

I try to encourage them after the first meet or two to step outside of their comfort zone. You know, you might try the 500, and they look at you like you were on Mars or something. But then they start to realize that they are very few people that want to swim the 500 or the 100 Butterfly, or very few people that have those skills on a beginning team, and so that might be something they want to work toward. It is easy for them to just get stuck in the rut of: 50-100, 50-100, 50-100, put me on the 200 Free Relay; I really do not want to swim the 400 Free Relay because that is another 100 that I do not want to do. So I try to encourage them to step outside that comfort zone as quickly as possible.

This may seem a little unorthodox, but in our area when we go to big meets we get one assigned lane, oftentimes, for warm-up. And even if we have a dual meet, if we have got divers warming-up in our pool, we do not have an L-shaped pool or separate diving well so we have to give-up two lanes during warm-up for Diving. And so we have four lanes for two teams to warm-up in. So we practice our meet warm-ups in practice, two or three days before… two or three times… the consecutive days right before the first meet. And then I will remind them before we get to some of the big meets. We always do the same warm-up, every meet. About 2,000 yards worth of warm-up. And everyone does the same.

So when we get ready for a meet warm-up and it is getting ready for the first meet, I take everybody from the six lanes, or four lanes since we have Diving in practice as well. Take them from the four lanes and say, “Okay, everybody in Lane 6.” And they look at me. And I go, “This is what the meet warm-up is going to be tomorrow, so everybody, you are all in Lane 6. 400-stretch, go.” And they learn real quickly that if you stand on the end, there is no room for anybody else to swim and so forth.

Now when we get to the meet, I will not put all of them in at one time. Oftentimes, we will have the half the team and then the other half of the team that will get in and warm-up. But I teach them the meet warm-up so that they do not have to stop and ask questions every time that we get to a meet: what is it I’m supposed to do? And the beginning kids, the junior varsity kids, know just as well as the varsity kids what that meet warm-up is. It also helps reduces their anxiety because they know what to expect.

One of the teams in my former conference, they were only a team of 6 swimmers. When they got ready to go the conference meet, only 4 of those of kids were there. And it came time for warm-up, and one of the kids got in the lane and was starting to warm up. And Carol turned to her second swimmer that was standing on the deck, and she said, “You need to get in for warm-up.” He said, “I can’t get in for warm-up: there is somebody in my lane.” Because in practice all season long, they each had their own lane to warm-up. So they need to know what to expect, regardless of what level.

And I find I always have to repeat the warm-up. I try to teach my older kids. The ones that are more experienced, the ones that have been on the team for four years, they still do not understand what the warm up is part of the time.

Another thing that is important to do with the team of varied abilities is to talk about goal setting. We do a goal setting session as a group to explain why you do goals and how you set about goals. Have some of the experienced swimmers talk about their experiences with goals, and how successful they have been, or unsuccessful they have been, depending on what they had set as a goal.

And then I try to meet with the individuals to talk about their goals, and make sure that they are realistic and attainable. Especially new kids: they are not going to know what they can do and what they cannot do. They may be swimming a 30-second 50 and they put down their goal that they are going to swim at 22.9 in a 50 free. And we talk little bit about: okay let’s look at some short term goals. What can you do?

I make them write their goals down: it is not solid unless you write the goal down. And then we revisit that. Then when it comes time to a swim meet, we talk about: okay this is what, you know, you have been working on. So they swim their race and then I always have them come talk to me afterwards for feedback about: Okay, where are you in relationships to your goal. These are things that I saw that looked good in your race. Think about doing this on your next race. It is important that they talk to you, no matter what level of athlete they are and what point in the season they are, that they talk to you after each race, because the feedback you give them impacts their next race.

Things to consider. If you coach a coed team, it is different than if you are coaching a coed team in club—at least that is the experience I have found. Now I have never coached a coed high school team, specifically; I have coached a club team in the summer. And they did not really pay attention to each other as to… you know, they are off in the tent in the summertime, and the kids are swimming and then they go back, and they do not necessarily pay attention to one another.

But high school boys are very conscious about the fact that there are girls that may out-swim them. This is my fifth year at a new high school. At the end of the first year, the girls finished in May. And they came back to school in the Fall, and the school records were up on the wall. And in our school they put all the recordboards in the commons where everybody eats lunch and everybody sees them every day. And my backstroker looked at me and was horrified, because the girls’ backstroke record was 14 seconds faster than his time, which was the boys’ backstroke record. Now, it did not matter to him that the Anna was the State champion in the 100 backstroke and had gone undefeated all season long, regardless of class. It was just the fact that his name was next to hers, and the times were.

Well, we are five years into the school now, and the girls’ backstroke record is still faster than the boys’, because we had another swimmer that came through that was All American two years ago. She was about two seconds faster than the boy that holds the backstroke record now. For him, he is not mortified by that; he sees that as challenge, that is what he is going for. Dennis, on the other hand, when it was 14 seconds difference, never wanted to swim the backstroke again. That is what he had done when he was growing-up in club, and he knew he was not really necessarily a backstroker but he was the best we had. But to him that was embarrassing. To Austin, Austin took that as a challenge. So you have to treat those kinds of things differently.

If you are having a coed meet and you may have a bunch of their friends up in the stands, they might realize right away that things are not equal, especially with the new kids. You want to talk about those things a little bit; about if you focus on individual times and individual improvement rather than comparing yourself to someone else, you will find you are lot more successful and they do not have as much as problem with that.

I had another swimmer, years ago when I started coaching in Kansas; there was a team in western Kansas that came to swim and they had some outstanding swimmers—collegiate-level swimmers. They did not have a girls team, so the girl was swimming on the boys team. And I had a swimmer that had been with the program two years but he was never going to be a State qualifier. He ended-up having to swim the 200 and the 500 against her, and she beat him in both races. He was in an English class with the assistant athletic director the next day. And the assistant athletic director had a kind of joking relationship with the kids: he could rib them and give them a bad time, and they did not really worry too much about it.

But he goes to the class and he goes: Well Joe, you got beat yesterday by a girl. Twice. Joe’s response was, “Just give me a paper bag, and I’ll put it over my head and sit here today.” Well it kind of bugged him a little bit. But, you know, the assistant athletic director was not trying to rub it in; he knew that Joe would take it fairly lightly. But whenever we mentioned Garden City, Joe just did not want to talk about it. But that was difficult for him to deal with it, that he had actually been beaten by an athlete that was better than him. The fact that it was a girl really bothered him.

I want to switch gears for just a minute. You may end up with… I took varied abilities to also mean those that have different learning styles or different learning abilities, which you can have with the most prominent athletes. This has been a huge factor on our team. I have a swimmer by the name of Duncan. Duncan had an issue last year, and I explained to him this was what was going to happen. But somehow or other, Duncan did not process what I was going to tell him, so he did not get to swim the next meet. Then his parents were upset with me, and wanted an hour of sit-down as to why he was not swimming, why had I not called them, and so forth. And I said: Well, he is 17 years-old. I explained to him the reason he was not swimming in the meet, because he had unexcused absence. Because he chose to skip practice to work on a school project that was long term, okay; but it was not his school project it was a friend of his. If it had been his school project, I would have said okay. So they were not happy with me.

Then about 45-minutes into the conversation, Dad finally said, “Well, you know, Duncan has a processing problem.” And I said, What do you mean? Dad said, “If I give him three things to do, he can get the first two but he never remembers the third one.” Mom did not want to tell me that, but this is the second year we had on the team. Well then I discovered that rather than telling Duncan verbally what we were doing to do, I had to write everything down—it needed to be visible on the board for him to understand. Would have made it a lot easier if I had known that two years ago.

Patrick was always standing around. We would get done… get ready for the set, we were going to go this on this interval, and ready, go. And here is Patrick: what are we doing? That was during his 9th grade of year, and I said, “Patrick you need to listen. We’re doing this.” Found out when Patrick moved-up to the high school—because he was in a junior high school situation; we were a sophomore/junior/senior high school—moved-up to the high school situation, found out that he had to an extreme attention deficit disorder. Well it made a lot of sense. So then we would tell the kids what we were going to do, and then: Patrick, what is it we’re going to do? And have him repeat the set back to me, so that I made sure he had processed it.

But it helps if you know those things about your athletes, because otherwise you might get upset with them and not be real happy with them during the practice when it really is not their fault.

Had a swimmer by the name of Clayton; I had to be very careful with Clayton this last several years. Clayton had a hearing loss; and if he was not looking right at you, he would not pick-up everything. Now, his hearing loss was not so severe that he had to wear a hearing aid. So you did not know unless Mom had told me—and she did—that he had a hearing impairment. So it was always making sure that Clayton was looking at me.

And also making sure that when we covered things, we had a big… we have a big whiteboard on the wall now—which my previous school, we did not have one—so it makes it a lot of easier for me to write things down and then go through them with them. But some of them are visual learners, some of them are auditory learners, some of them are kinesthetic. Some do not have kinesthetic awareness, and so they have to actually have somebody move the parts for them for them to really understand.

I find it helps to be inclusive. I find the kids learn from the experience. I have had several Down’s syndrome kids on my team. And I put TOM in a capital letters because I have no swimmer on my team that works harder than Tom. Tom will come in and just swim in, if I let him. He would come in and just swim endless laps for two hours, while everybody else is swimming. He will get a kickboard when everybody else is kicking, but otherwise he just swims back-and-forth and back-and-forth. Probably would do great at a marathon swimming. Never have to tell Tom: okay let’s get moving—like I do the other kids.

But what is exciting is to see the other kids go over and want to work with him on his strokes, because he is kinesthetically unaware. But it is exciting to see them when we get to a swim meet, and they are all cheering on the side of pool while Tom is doing 50 free in about a 1:10. And they have no problems with Tom leading-off their 200 Freestyle Relay. They welcome him on their relays.

Now I have done it several different ways. I had another young man, years before, and he would get in at the deep end and swim at 25 while everybody else was racing a 50—we made arrangements with the official ahead of time. He would only come part-time. We would put him in the two lanes where the divers were down at the end. And he would swim halfway down the pool, and he knew where the line was, and then he would turn around and come back rather than going the whole distance of the pool every day. But he came to work on social skills and for some physical exercise. Tom, on the other hand, is one that really wants to be part of the team, and is an active part of our team. So if you can be as inclusive as possible, it really helps.

Any questions or comments? Any of your experiences?


[audience member]: Do you have an attendance policy?

[McElroy]: We do have an attendance policy. My attendance policy is: we have five workouts in the afternoon during the week and we have one Saturday morning; you are expected to be there. If you have an academic issue, please let me know ahead of time. Over the holiday break, we have a five day moratorium where we cannot practice—over the Winter break. And I do not make it mandatory that they make every practice over that time period. As long as they are… if it is a family issue, I think family comes before the team. Academics come first with me, so if they have an academic issue, they need to let me know.

We have a program in our building called Academics First: if they have a D or an F in a class they are automatically assigned to a study hall on Monday and Tuesday afternoons from 3:30-4:30, which means they are missing my practice. And then a delayed start: when the other kids come at 9:00, they have come in at 7:45 and they go to the study hall then, until the grade is raised. Then there are some penalties, as far as I may not hold them out of the meet—depending on how long it takes him to get back into academic good standing—but they may not get to swim necessarily what they would like to swim in a meet.

If they have an unexcused absence, then they miss the next meet.

[audience]: One unexcused absence?

[McElroy]: Yes. Because if they bring a written note and I know ahead of time—and it has to be written. Written means from the parent, not from a text message five minutes before practice starts that they are not going to be there. Now, some of them text me—I do not like to give my phone number out, but they have gotten it from the parents—and they will text me and I have to tell them over and over and over again: when you text me to say you’re making up a test and you will be a little bit late to practice, please tell me who you are because I don’t have your numbers in my phone. You might have my number in your phone, but I’m not going to put you in my phone because you are underage and I will not do that until you graduate. And so I am guessing as to who this swimmer might be.

They are not real good about that, but they are learning. Some might say: This is Anna, and I am going to be late because the test that I missed from yesterday’s meet and so forth. Those are excused absences.

Unexcused is: Oh I’m taking this girl home after school, and then we had a wreck on the way home. The show up and it is 5:25, and practice started at three o’clock and we are done at six o’clock. That happened this last season with an athlete. So that is my attendance policy.

Yes, sir?

[audience member]: How do you handle kids that want to stay with their club programs instead of swimming with the high school program?

[McElroy]: Some of that is dictated by the state associations. Kansas did not allow dual-participation until two years ago—now three years ago—when a state legislator who was a former swimmer parent attached it to a head concussion bill and it went through the legislator that swimmers and divers can dual-participate as long as they meet the reasonable expectations of the high school program first. They are the only sport in the State of Kansas that can do that.

I am not allowed to coach my athletes outside of the high school season, except during the Summer. As long as school is in session, I can only coach them during the high school season. I tell my girls and guys that they must attend the five afternoon practices, Saturday is optional. They can go to the morning practices with their club if they would like, or they can go to practice after we have our practice. I will not allow kids to practice with the club and then show-up for a swim meet; that does not build team, in my concept of team and it does not allow those kids to have a positive influence on the other kids in the program.

[audience member]: So do you find elite high school athletes leaving out swimming high school so that they stay…?

[McElroy]: I had two girls on the State team as freshman when we won the first championship for the school. My first; it was my 34th year of coaching. When they were sophomores, they had just moved up to the elite team, the club coach told them it would ruin their career if they swam high school, so they chose not to swim high school. I said that is okay. One of them, we tried to work it out and it did not work out. My girls surprised everyone, including themselves and me, and repeated as state champions this year. And I think it kind of bothered the two girls that did not swim that they won a state championship without them, because they could have the potential of doing four years in a row as a state champion. Which would be rather unusual for our area of the state, or our area.

But I try and work as much as I can with the club coach as far as if there are specific things they are working on, we try and implement them in our practices as well. I find that the better communication you have with the club coach in sharing athletes, the last thing you want to do is put the kid in the middle. So if an athlete chooses to stay with a club, I understand: that is the choice they make. We offer the program, and they can choose.


[audience member]: I have different experiences, maybe because I have younger athletes. I have like 55 kids on my middle school team, and my experience is the kids love the fact that the elite swimmers go to the club because it gives me more time to work with them. They respect their talent ability. So if they go to club… I do not have pool space for all of them anyway. So it actually is a team-builder for me. Now I am very clear with those kids that they are to be leaders, and they are to help the others swimmers when they are there. They are there to support the other swimmers, like they cannot be off listening to their music when a kid is swimming just because they are not swimming.

[McElroy]: I think every program is a little different. We had a situation in Kansas, oh probably 25 years ago or so, when we could not have dual participation but we did not have a minimum number of meets that you needed to swim in, in order to swim in the State championships, either. We had a school where girls had qualified by the time standard and swam with the high school program all season long, and then the week of the conference meet, all the kids that had been swimming club joined the high school team. And the girls that had been with the team were immediately dropped from the conference championships because they were not faster than the ones that came from club, and they were left home from State. It caused a major issue with parents, if you can imagine. So we have a rule that they must be a member of the team for greater than 50% of the season. And so that.

I allow the kids to come out after their Spring/Winter championships. I would not expect a club coach to say right before State: you must come joining us for practice, so drop your team. I am not going to do that with a club that works all season long, to say right before Sectionals, you must join me the first day of practice, you know. Because our Sectionals is like a week or two into the season. I allow them to that and then they come join our team.

If you work together, it can be a very rewarding experience.

Yes sir?

[audience member]: You said your practice is from 3:00-6:00. Is that all pool time, or is that dryland and pool?

[McElroy]: We will start dryland probably about 3:05 and go to about 3:30, and then get in the water. It depends. I am at the school this year, instead of being retired and driving from another school—I am one of those that I retired and then I took a long-term sub[stitute] position seven times in the last six years. But I am doing a year-long sub position where I coach now, so I am there. We will probably started 3:05; we will dryland for about 30 minutes. My assistance coach is big into CrossFit, so we do a lot of CrossFit-types of training. And then if we say six o’clock, we are probably out of water most of time between 5:30 and 5:40.

I tell the kids our practices on Saturday morning from 8:00-Noon, and they look at me. And I tell the parents, I say 8:00-Noon is our time, you block that out. I do not want to say after I meet that we have on Friday that we are going to come meet at ten o’clock on Saturday, instead of at 8:00, and you say Oh, well I have to be at work 10:30. Block out 8:00-Noon. We will never go till Noon, but we may go from 8:00 to like 10:00-10:30. It may be that we come in at 9:00 and then we have the time to go until 11:30. In other words, we have a little bit more flexibility with Saturday if they block that time out. So that is what I tell them the practice time is; that they need to block that amount of time out

Anything else? Thank you for coming.

##### asca #####

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news