How Coaches Can Listen Better to Their Swimmers
Listening to swimmers is an important skill for all coaches
Like most teenagers, I spent my youth talking more than listening. As I matured and began to understand how to communicate more effectively, I learned to listen better. Certain key stages in my life each provided lessons in how to quiet my own thoughts and truly open myself to receiving messages from others.
In college, listening helped me expand my horizons and think outside the box. Becoming a believer and developing spiritual ears revealed deeper messages. The love and commitment of marriage challenged me to listen with understanding to how and what my partner communicates. And the bonding of motherhood helped me empathize with the cries, needs, and angst of my children.
Masters coaching—leading athletes toward their goals—requires discovering and understanding both spoken and unspoken needs. Bringing mindful listening skills onto the pool deck enables a coach to provide much more than simply listing workout sets. Coaches can make a significant impact on their athletes’ lives by being better listeners.
When a swimmer expresses interest in joining your club, ask leading questions to find out why they want to swim in your program. Typical reasons include general fitness, weight loss, doctor’s order for health or injury rehab, recapturing the joy from swimming when they were younger, competitive goals (pool, open water, triathlon), and skills acquisition (better form, flip turns, mastering butterfly).
These reasons are important and provide insight into the role you can play as this athlete’s coach. You can make specific training recommendations based on what you learn from listening. But a caring coach will look beyond these initial conversations to discover additional motivations that remain unspoken.
Unspoken Needs: Case Studies
Although it seems that a coach’s main responsibility is to talk, what you do when silent may be even more important. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears for awareness of swimmer behavior, both in and out of workouts. Here are some examples of swimmers who had unspoken needs. Their behavior led me to listening in different ways, which gave me insight into their individual needs and helped me be a better coach to them. (Identities have been changed to protect the swimmers.)
Spencer didn’t like being pushed into a descend set. Instead, he frequently engaged in chats with Kelly on the other side of the pool where the coach would not hear them. Investigation revealed that Spencer was going through a terrible divorce and Kelly, decades older than Spencer, was supporting him emotionally. Masters swimming provided a way to deal with stress and to receive encouragement from a swim buddy during a hard time in his life.
I’ve made sure to give Spencer the space he needs to sort out his thoughts and the option to descend his sets. He’s respectful of his lanemates and doesn’t interrupt them by leading the lane. I acknowledge his efforts.
Megan was a job seeker with no social life who felt unfit and overweight. She wasn’t unfriendly, just withdrawn and a private person. She swam in the slowest lane, with fins, openly stating that she did not want to be pushed. From time to time, she would submerge at the far end of the pool, appearing to scream underwater. With support from her coach, Megan was able to open up about the loss of her husband and how swimming helped her deal with her grief. With Masters swimming as a positive part of her life, Megan was able to find a job, become fit, and volunteer to organize team socials.
I’ve asked Megan about her goals, and I keep them on my mind when she swims. She often wants to leave practice early but is also working on endurance. I recognize her whenever she stays for the full workout.
Kevin’s previous club collapsed during the pandemic. Although a Masters swimmer for many years, he seemed willing only to follow others in his lane. He avoided kick sets and appeared to lack confidence. During a quiet chat with the coach, away from earshot of others, he confessed embarrassment that his weak kick and lack of progress in swimming remained frustrating, even after years of swimming. This conversation opened the door to developing a strategy to tackle the issues that bothered him.
On deck, I’ve explained what it looks like when a leg engages the hip to kick a ball and the foot follows through. “In the water, Kevin, your kick stops the moment your feet approach the ball,” I say. I know he gets it when his eyes light up, and he begins moving just a little bit more in the water.
Though we may excel at speaking, giving advice, and asking swimmers to perform, the skills of observing, listening, and empathizing may make our ears far more valuable than our mouths in helping swimmers find what they need from their Masters swimming experience and help provide it.
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