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by Lisa Wolf

October 20, 2011

What is it that makes coaches great? Is it their workouts, their motivational skills, their knowledge of swimming? It’s an interesting question and if you posed it to 10 people, I bet you would get 10 different answers.

Over time, as a swimmer and as a coach, I’ve learned many things, but a few basic tenets of good coaching keep popping up over and over again. To me, coaching is “the journey that never ends” and I wanted to share some of the ideas I’ve tucked away in my coaching toolbox.

Continue Your Education

Continued education for a coach is critical. The minute we stop learning, listening, or reading, we are dead in the water. Keep an open mind and be willing to learn about a new technique, or invest in your swimmers by taking a continuing education course. Review old materials you have—you might be surprised what you have forgotten! If you are a new coach, find a mentor to learn from and ask questions. These are invaluable resources to becoming a better coach.

Be Prepared and Be On Time

Workouts should be written in advance. A workout in a notebook not only allows you to keep track of your training schedule, but it shows your swimmers that you value their participation. Same goes for showing up 10 minutes before practice. Be the first one on deck and the last one to leave. It’s only a few extra minutes and you’d be surprised how often a swimmer wants to ask a question privately.


Make your swimmers feel special. During practice time, they should be your sole focus. Put your personal issues and worries on the back burner during workouts.

Say Hello

Greet swimmers as they arrive and strive to have at least one personal interaction with each one during the workout. Swimmers appreciate you asking about their injuries, races or even their kids. Nothing is more disheartening than swimmers leaving a practice feeling like they were invisible.

Welcome New Swimmers

Take the time to talk to new swimmers before they get in the pool. Welcome them to the team, share the information about your practice, and ask about their prior experience and why they are joining. Make sure you interact with them individually during that first practice—they are probably feeling a bit overwhelmed, so personal attention is a great way to make sure they return another day.

Review and Post Results

Take a few minutes after each swim meet or triathlon and review the results. There is nothing like an “atta girl” email from a coach to make a swimmer beam.


Understand your swimmers- don’t be irritated at late arrivals and early departures. Life is crazy and be comforted with the thought that for Masters swimmers, any swim is better than no swim. Be willing to adjust workouts for swimmers recovering from illness or injury.

Speak in Words

Not every swimmer understands swim lingo. As you announce the sets, say use various ways such as, “We’re going to go 10 x 50 free on :50 with strong streamlines off each wall,” then later repeat it a second way, “This is a freestyle set. The interval is :50 and we’re going to do 10 x 50’s. Really focus on getting a good push off the wall and keep your arms in and head down.” Folks hear and see things in many different ways and what seems obvious to you might not be so for the person in the pool.

Give Feedback

Feedback is great—I use the good /improvement comment approach. Start with a compliment and then gently move to the correction. An example may be “I love seeing the bilateral breathing but I see that you are crossing over underneath your body when you take a breath. If you can keep your arms outside your shoulder plane when you pull, it will make your stroke more efficient and even.”

Drills and Kicking

Incorporate drills and kicking into your workouts. It creates a change of pace and allows the kickers in the group to shine. And drills reinforce proper technique.

Demonstrate and Explain

If you can demonstrate drills or corrections, swimmers understand it more quickly. Ask your swimmers to get out and stand on deck while you place their arms in the proper position, as it can help convey the concept. Also, if you can tell a swimmer WHY you are asking them to do something, it gets better “buy in.” Saying, “We’re going to do 5 x 200 free with bilateral breathing” is fine. But even better is, “We’re going to do 5 x 200 free with bilateral breathing. This will help even out strokes and help eliminate undue stress on the shoulder/rotator cuff. Breathing every three provides a better aerobic set than breathing every two.”

Keep it Fun

Add a crazy set once in awhile. I have swimmers that love to jump into the diving well and do treading water drills for 10 minutes. Make up a set of 25s with all illegal strokes or mixtures. It evokes memories of our childhood swimming and that is good!

Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk

This one isn’t for everyone but as a current swimmer, I put myself through the workouts and continue to swim competitively, for fitness, as well as the ability to say, “I swam this workout (or set) and if I can do it, you certainly can.”

As coaches, we are the ambassadors of USMS. We are often the first person a new swimmer meets and possibly the last one a swimmer sees on deck after practice. Set a good example and coach in the manner that reflects your commitment and dedication to the sport.