Swim Coaching for Youth and Adults
By Coach Julia Purrington, Level 1 USAT Coach
Coaching swimming has many different faces. Coaching groups of athletes is different than working with a swimmer one on one. Coaching adults is yet again different from coaching children. In my career of coaching swimming, I have had the opportunity to work in many scenarios, including coaching a competitive USA Swimming team, coaching a less competitive summer league team, coaching high school teams, masters teams, and one-on-one coaching for specific events. The key to success is to realize that there is not a one size fits all approach to swim coaching.
For this article, I will focus on group coaching for kids. The first key is to realize what type of team and what type of swimmers you are coaching. My favorite part of coaching is working with new swimmers, which is far different from working with seasoned swimmers. The most important thing when working with newbies is to make sure that they are ENJOYING it. Swimming should be a lifelong sport, but if is not introduced properly, it can end up being a short lived endeavor. So when a parent asks me if their child is ready to join the swim team, it is not just about their ability level. I look at their drive and enjoyment of the sport. If they are a pretty good swimmer, but don’t LOVE it, I would suggest that they start with a summer club or recreational team. Some more competitive teams will have an entry level group or a pre-team group with a coach that will embrace this philosophy.
It is important to keep the kids having fun, but also progressing in their abilities. With a larger group this can be a challenge, but there are several tactics that can help. I like to have the swimmers get out of the water frequently to WATCH the other swimmers. I will have one or two swimmers show the rest of the group how to do a specific drill. A picture says a thousand words, but a demonstration says a million. It also allows the swimmers that are the example to feel good about themselves and show off their strengths. I try to find SOMETHING that each swimmer is good at and have the group watch them. This is the positive reinforcement that will keep them feeling good about their efforts and also pay more attention when it is their turn to watch. Having them get out of the water also wakes them up and changes their sense of the air and water so they get renewed.
With my summer team, after a few weeks of the season, I like to set up 10 minute 1-on-1 sessions with the kids. The kids have to “sign up” for a session during practice with one of the coaches. I like to wait until we get through a few weeks of the season and everyone is feeling comfortable, then I choose days when I have 3-4 coaches on deck and let the kids choose a coach and a time. This makes the kids – AND the parents- feel like they are getting individual attention, which they are.
Most of the challenges with coaching a team come from the parents, not the swimmers. Frequently, the parents will feel that their child is doing something wrong and the coach isn’t correcting them or that their child should be challenged more or less. Providing 1-on-1 time allows both the parents and swimmers to feel supported. There is nothing more difficult for the coach than a parent who is coaching on deck and yelling at their child during practices or swim meets. This is often the reason a child wants to quit. This is why good communication with the parents is paramount. Coaching the swimmers is important, but coaching the parents is just as important. A pre-season parent meeting, handouts, and group emails for parents go a long way. If the parents understand your coaching philosophy, they will better trust that you are coaching their child. Parents should understand the team philosophy as well as the individual coaching philosophy for them to know that the team and coach are right for them. If the team or coaching is not right for the parent, it won’t be right for the swimmer. I try to impress on the parents that their role on the swim team is SUPPORT and love and ouir job as coaches is to guide, teach and motivate.
I wish there were some magic formula that could be written for coaching, but as with most challenges in life, it is all situational. The key to success is to provide the right atmosphere for the situation and keep making small changes as the teams change and grow.
Julia Purrington is a USA Swimming and ASCA certified swimming coach has been the head coach for the Mount Vernon Makos and the Evergreen Recreation USMS Masters Swim Teams, as well as the assistant coach for the Evergreen Hurricanes for the last 4 years. She grew up swimming in Boston and began her competitive swimming career at age 5, which she continued through part of her college years. She now competes in Masters swimming and Open Water Swimming events.