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What Swimmers Want from Their Coach

Workout delivery techniques that result in happy athletes

Terry Heggy | April 13, 2016

Athletes join Masters swim teams for a variety of reasons. As coaches, we’re most effective when we get to know our swimmers personally and truly understand their individual needs and goals. At the same time, we’re tasked with providing workouts that satisfy the needs of many swimmers at once. It would help if we had some general guidelines about what most swimmers like and dislike about workouts, so we could deliver swim practices that keep them coming back for more.

With that in mind, here is some feedback from Masters swimmers regarding what they like and dislike about the way swim coaches design and run their workouts. This discussion covers only coaching behavior, not specific training techniques, seasonal planning, or individual workout sets.

Likes

  • Hard work: Despite what they may say during warmup (or when you announce the set), swimmers do love a challenge. The harder a workout is, the more they tend to thank you after it’s over.
  • Yardage: Many swimmers (especially newer triathletes and less experienced fitness swimmers) tend to erroneously equate the quality of the workout to how many yards they swam. Although we need to be aware of this tendency and should definitely provide long workouts when appropriate, it’s the coach’s job to ensure that everyone understands the purpose of every workout element. We need to explain why short-yardage, high-intensity sets are also an important part of training.
  • Appropriate rest: Rest intervals and sendoff times are important for achieving the desired intensity within a set. Pay attention and enforce those intervals to ensure that each swimmer is getting the results intended from the set.
  • Concise explanations: Like any public speaker, you’ll do best if you practice your dialog in advance. Try to describe sets quickly and completely, covering any likely questions. Use the DRIPS acronym as a guideline:
    • Distance (length of each swim within the set)
    • Repeats (number of times you perform each set component)
    • Interval (either duration of rest or clock interval for sendoff)
    • Purpose (including technique focus, effort level, time targets, etc.)
    • Stroke
  • Attention: Some swimmers want specific stroke feedback, and some may not. But all of them want to be recognized and acknowledged. Greet them, call out their times, give them technique advice (including dryland workout tips), and thank them for participating.
  • Integrity: Swimmers want a knowledgeable coach who shows up on time and with enthusiasm. They appreciate your expertise and effort, and will try very hard to please you if you come prepared and continuously demonstrate your commitment to the team.
  • Consistency (sort of): Swimmers tend to be creatures of habit, wanting to swim in the same lane with the same lane mates, and have the workout structure feel familiar. This does not mean they want to be bored, or do the same workout over and over. Your creativity in creating variety is what makes it interesting—just be aware that radical changes will require an accompanying explanation.
  • Socializing: The social element is one of the most appealing things about Masters swimming, but it can be frustrating if everyone is talking during the workout. Acknowledge and applaud the friendships within the team by providing times for socializing (warmup, buddy drills, participative sets, parties, etc.) while politely enforcing respect for everyone’s right to hear the workout descriptions.

Dislikes

  • Wasted time: Swimmers paid good money to come to practice, and don’t want to be standing around for no reason. Time-wasters to avoid include:
    • Idle chitchat: Yes, I know I was just stressing the importance of acknowledgement, feedback, explanation, and socialization, but find a way to integrate those elements without leaving people standing around with nothing to do while you’re blabbing away instead of running a workout.
    • Useless drills: Even if a drill is popular in books or on the Internet, it has no value if the swimmers can’t understand it or perform it correctly. Sometimes this happens because we haven’t explained the purpose and execution properly, and sometimes it happens because we borrowed a drill from an elite college coach that simply doesn’t work for more seasoned (less flexible) athletes. Make sure you explain and demonstrate drills well, and then watch the swimmers to ensure they’re getting it right.
    • Incomprehensible sets: Long, complicated sets with multiple components and stroke/speed changes are difficult for swimmers to understand, remember, and perform. There’s no need to impress them with your cleverness in creating Einsteinian sets; there are still infinite varieties of sets that are simple to grasp. We’ll discuss more on these ideas in future articles. (Note: Small writing on white boards or printed workout sheets can be incomprehensible to people who wear glasses. Always go LARGE when using written instructions.)
  • Bad lane mates: Swimmers are easily frustrated if there are problems in the lane. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of enough space to ensure each lane’s swimmers are 100% compatible. But it is our responsibility to pay attention so we can identify lane problems and quickly come up with the best solution available. This might include providing lessons in lane etiquette, changing distances or intervals, or moving individuals to another lane.
  • Meanness: It is OK to have high expectations and to ask your swimmers for levels of effort beyond their comfort zone. It’s also OK to let people know when you notice a sub-par workout performance. On occasion you might even need to reprimand someone who violates your team’s rules. But it’s not OK to be a jerk about it. Never engage in profanity, physical abuse, or personal attacks. USMS coaches have a professional and moral obligation to be respectful and appropriate at all times.
  • Neglect: This bullet is a supplement to the Attention bullet from the Likes section. There are two special neglect traps that coaches can fall into. One is the pure form—not watching the workout (e.g., posting a workout on a board and then playing Minesweeper until practice is over). The other is subtler—when you get into the habit of ignoring a sub-group within your team. This usually happens to folks at the ends of the expertise spectrum; you either ignore the elite swimmers (because you feel they don’t need your help) or you ignore the swimmers who seem to have reached their technical limits. It may be true that you cannot help these folks as much as the middle group, but it does not mean they don’t deserve your acknowledgement and attention.

Other Considerations

Not everyone is going to like every single workout. That’s OK. But you still want to tune into what’s working and what isn’t. In addition to asking for feedback, pay attention to swimmers faces during the workout. You’ll learn to recognize the difference between the “I don’t like it because it sounds hard” face and the “I have no idea what he’s talking about” face. And be sensitive to special circumstances when people might need extra attention or a personalized workout modification. These circumstances include injuries, personal stress or family issues, cross-training or race schedules, or someone simply having a bad day.

The bottom line is that there’s more to your job than just dreaming up workout sets. You and your swimmers will get more out of each set when you consider their point of view as an integral part of your coaching.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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