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by Terry Heggy

October 15, 2019

What do your swimmers hear you say?

We didn’t become Masters coaches so we could buy jet airplanes, football teams, and diamond-encrusted snorkels. Oh sure, there are great benefits that come with the job, such as getting to take free showers at the gym and being allowed to work in T-shirts and sandals. But very few of us are likely to end up arriving at swim meets in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. We’re more likely to drive a 1977 Pinto held together with duct tape.

No, we’re in this profession because to us, there’s nothing as satisfying as helping swimmers achieve (or exceed) their goals. The smile we see when an athlete makes a personal breakthrough is the reward we crave.

Here’s an example: After coaching several aspiring triathletes through the anxiety of their first-ever open water workouts before their inaugural competition, I was gratified to hear several of them say they heard my voice in their heads during the race. With jubilant grins, they told me that “Keep it long,” “Exhale,” and “You can do this,” became mantras that helped them overcome panic and hold form as they swam. It’s flattering to hear that echoes of my coaching contributed to their success, but it also made me think about the power of a coach’s words.

What do your swimmers hear in their heads during a workout or a race?

Repetition Becomes Reputation

Creating workouts involves much more than writing a list of sets to swim. Teaching technique is the key to enabling dramatic improvement. Think about the things you most want your swimmers to learn, and repetitively incorporate those elements into each workout. These include:

  • Stroke components (entry/catch, pull, head motion, kick, rotation)
  • Effort management (pacing/timekeeping, sprinting, threshold awareness)
  • Drag reduction (streamlining, balance, alignment, turns)
  • Mindset (competitiveness, teamwork, lifestyle)

Your unique coaching style includes not only your swimming vocabulary, but also your gestures, inflections, energy level, and humor. Be consistent in your delivery to ensure that your message becomes memorable. You may choose to:

  • Assume a standing streamlined position each time you talk about drag reduction.
  • Bend over and extend your arm each time you discuss the catch.
  • Crouch down and lean forward as you count down to the start of an interval.
  • Clap your hands over your head when a swimmer achieves a workout time target.

Be bold. Be silly. If swimmers make fun of your animation or vocal quirks, it means they have noticed and will remember—especially if those notable elements are associated with something you repeatedly teach. The indelible images you create as you dance down the deck will reinforce your messages in a way the swimmer can access when you’re not around.

I’m not suggesting that you always describe things in the same way; not everyone will understand a single example. Explain each technique or idea from several viewpoints to ensure clear communication. Then once your point is established, associate that point with a few key words, sounds, or gestures that will serve to trigger memories of the entire lesson. Think of it as a shorthand code you can use when folks need a concise reminder.


My college coach used the phrase “Gentlemen, the time is now,” to mean we needed to get serious. Another memorable coach wore an obnoxious hat that made him recognizable from 100 meters away; when he took it off and waved it, we knew it was time to put the hammer down. Other coaches wave towels, brandish kickboards, or do the chicken dance to get their points across. Find what works for you and make it a part of your coaching persona. Elements to consider include:

  • GO code—Whether it’s “hup,” “ho,” “go,” or a whistle, your GO command should have a consistent pitch and texture.
  • Team memes—“Put on your Barracuda hat” could mean that the main set is coming. “Now that’s a Shark swim right there!” could be a way of saying “good job!”
  • Mime gestures—Associate specific postures with stroke-element focus to communicate reminders during workout sets. An outstretched arm could mean “focus on your catch,” or holding up one goggle lens could mean “keep your head level when you breathe.”
  • Workout catchphrases—“This ain’t warm-up!” “Stream-diddly-eamline!” “Hot potato!” “Plenty of air at the surface.” “Past the flags underwater, dude” “Ain’t askin’ for much, just a two-hand touch.” Have fun letting swimmers know that you expect excellence from everyone on the team.

You may already have catchphrases that you use unconsciously. Ask your team what they hear you repeat frequently. And if you see eyes light up when you use a particular phrase, consider incorporating that phrase into your workout vocabulary. Look for phrases that are positive (“You’ve got more in you” rather than “You’re loafing”) and repeat them until they’re deeply embedded. If swimmers subconsciously start to hear those phrases when you’re not around, you can consider the technique a success!


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