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One at a Time, Please!

Practicing patience in coaching and teaching

Scott Bay | August 16, 2013

We all know someone (maybe you are one yourself) who is a great multitasker. You know—the type of person who can concentrate on multiple things at the same time and seem to do all of them pretty darn well. Some people are just naturally able to split their focus. But for the rest of us, how well we do depends on the tasks at hand and the way our brains are wired. Personally, I can only handle one thing at a time, and this characteristic has spilled over into my coaching.

One of the greatest ways to learn how to be a better coach is to watch other coaches. In some instances, it doesn't even matter what the sport is. Here are some observations that have changed my thinking about skill acquisition and swimming.

Golf: Swing Lessons at the Driving Range

A coach had a novice golfer. He gave the student three different corrections (head, hands, and hips) at the same time. After repeating these instructions a bunch of times with no observable success, the golfer finally got frustrated and had to take a break.

What went wrong? Certainly not a lack of effort on either party’s part. Both were trying. The problem might have been simply overload: asking the brain to process too much at once.

What does this mean for swim coaches? Especially with our novice swimmers, we see more than one thing we want to correct in a swimmer’s technique. Instead of overloading them with too much feedback at once, try to figure out what one, single thing is the most important to fix first. After that, make sure they have time to practice and develop that skill sufficiently before moving on to the next thing. A word of caution: Some people catch on more quickly than others; managing the expectations of both groups is important.

Baseball: The Batting Cages

The batting coach in this case kept reminding a player to use his “trigger” when getting ready to swing. After repeating this many times with little success, the player finally got frustrated and used some very colorful language to inquire what a “trigger” was.

What went wrong? Clearly this is a communication issue. Maybe the player did not ask for clarification because he was afraid to. The coach may have been thinking there was a lack of effort or concentration on the player’s part. Either way, neither person was happy.

What does this mean for swim coaches? The sport of swimming has its own vocabulary. We speak a language all our own and we have different dialects within the sport. With novices and newcomers, we need to make sure the instructions given are clear and comprehensible. Ask if swimmers know what you mean when you're finished giving direction and, if necessary, say the same thing differently. People don’t always like to raise their hands when asked if they don’t understand something, so ask one of your experienced swimmers to describe the meaning of a term to the group, to help further clarify your intentions.

Summary

In these two examples, both coaches are experts in their field. One a golf club pro and the other spent several years in the major leagues. Both were enthusiastic and caring and wanted their athletes to succeed. But in the first instance, the coach gave feedback for so many different things that the player was facing the proverbial fire hose: too much all at once. In the second example, the athlete had no way to use the feedback because he didn't know what it meant.

Skill acquisition and habit changing are arduous journeys and sometimes we rush. Much of that behavior stems from our culture—our on-demand world—and it is difficult for all of us to slow down; however, the results are well worth it when we do.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS/ASCA Level 5 Certified Coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 at a variety of levels.  He began teaching swim lessons in the YMCA system in Cincinnati Ohio shortly after graduating High School.  He then went on to coach age group and senior swimmers in competitive YMCA and USA Swimming while continuing to teach swim lessons to both youth and adult swimmers throughout college and graduate school.

Scott Bay moved to Florida in the 1990’s and took to coaching High School swimmers and Masters swimmers.  High School swimmers he has coached have gone to state meets and placed in the top ten on numerous occasions and Masters swimmers he currently coaches include National Champions, All Americans, and World Record Holders who have swam to over 300 top ten USMS swims and more than 30 World records in just the last 5 years. 

Throughout a career that includes teaching swim lessons, coaching Age Groupers and Senior Swimmers, as well as Triathletes and adults, Bay has taught literally thousands how to swim or how to swim better.  He has also written numerous articles on technique and coaching for both websites and publications in addition to being a major contributor to the revised USMS/ASCA certification curriculum and presents at clinics across the country in addition to writing an instructional book Swimming Steps to Success  by Human Kinetics Publishing.   Coach Bay is also the past Chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters. 

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