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by Carol Nip

September 20, 2021

Coaches using this system will have swimmers smoothly progressing from one goal to another

Medical doctors use a systematic and well-defined approach to treating patients, regardless of their medical specialty or the patient’s symptoms: examination, diagnosis, and treatment. Swim coaches who incorporate this system will be rewarded with swimmers who smoothly progress from one goal to another.


Before a new swimmer (new to your club) enters the water, ask questions to assess the swimmer’s condition. You may conduct this exam through email, phone/computer call, or face to face.

  • What is your swim experience?
  • What sort of swimmer do you consider yourself? Fitness, open water, competitive, triathlete? All or none of these?
  • Do you want to swim all strokes? Do you have a favorite event or distance?
  • What do you expect to get out of your swimming experience? Are there specific things you’re looking for from your coach?
  • Do you have disabilities or challenges that affect your swimming? Any injuries that might affect your progress? If yes: Have you seen a medical doctor who has subsequently recommended and approved swimming for your condition?

If you have the facilities and expertise to do it, you might also consider dryland testing (strength, balance, range of motion, etc.), but the meat of the physical exam comes from observing the swimmer in the water. Take note of all aspects of the swimmer’s technique, paying special attention to anything that might result in injury or that could be causing problems the swimmer had mentioned in your discussions. Go easy on novice athletes—at this point you’re just gathering information, not training them.


Based on your observations, select the most important issues you noted to discuss with the swimmer. You can hold this discussion while the swimmer is still in the water or later through email or a call.

Don’t overwhelm the swimmer with everything you saw. Do make sure you cover issues that relate to concerns the swimmer expressed during your exam. Verify the accuracy of communication by repeating back to the swimmer concerns expressed, and then outline the stroke technique you believe will be part of the solution. For example, "So what I hear you saying is that you’re concerned about the painful twinge originating from the front part of your shoulder darting to your wrist after swimming 2,000 yards freestyle? I’d like to suggest modifying your pull to help alleviate that."

Explain your solution in detail, ask additional questions to confirm and corroborate, and try to obtain mutual agreement that you’ve accurately described the problem and that the swimmer understands your diagnosis.


Once a mutual understanding of the diagnosis has been reached between swimmer and coach, it’s time to begin treatment. Teach the swimmer about body mechanics and recommend drills. You may choose to point out examples of correct form performed by nearby swimmers. Implement specific drills before the main set of your workout to help new swimmers learn from others and so experienced swimmers can continue to develop their skills. Other solutions include private lessons, spending more of your coaching time on deck to focus on the swimmer, or sharing videos (USMS has a library of technique and drill videos) to teach about recovery or early vertical forearm or hand entry.

Just as in medicine, the treatment phase requires follow-up examinations and possible adjustments to the treatment protocol. Touch base with swimmers regularly to make sure you’re seeing the expected results. If not, you may need to adjust your diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Poolside Manner

Anyone facing a new situation can experience anxiety along with hope. Do your best to maintain a positive approach and encouraging demeanor, even when you’re forced to deliver bad news.

For example, instead of saying “your breaststroke kick is hopeless,” you might instead say “I’m thinking you’re going to see the best results by focusing on freestyle at first, then we can work on your breaststroke.” Also try to focus on the result you want (positive), not the problem (negative). Instead of saying “don’t cross over,” say “keep your hand entry directly in front of your shoulder.”

Even when a treatment isn’t yielding the desired results, just knowing that the coach cares and is serious about nurturing progress can keep a swimmer’s spirits high. In the end, relief and a smile on the swimmer's face may confirm that your choices provided just the right treatment.

Remember that your coaching skills and dedication are valuable resources for the community. You serve as an ambassador for the sport, so keep in mind that your conduct is seen by others who may eventually become your swimmers. Always smile and encourage lap swimmers and consider programs such as Try Masters Swimming to help make swimming more accessible in your area.


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