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by Scott Bay

August 16, 2013

Practicing patience in coaching and teaching

We all know someone (maybe you are one yourself) who is a great multitasker. You know—the type of person who can concentrate on multiple things at the same time and seem to do all of them pretty darn well. Some people are just naturally able to split their focus. But for the rest of us, how well we do depends on the tasks at hand and the way our brains are wired. Personally, I can only handle one thing at a time, and this characteristic has spilled over into my coaching.

One of the greatest ways to learn how to be a better coach is to watch other coaches. In some instances, it doesn't even matter what the sport is. Here are some observations that have changed my thinking about skill acquisition and swimming.

Golf: Swing Lessons at the Driving Range

A coach had a novice golfer. He gave the student three different corrections (head, hands, and hips) at the same time. After repeating these instructions a bunch of times with no observable success, the golfer finally got frustrated and had to take a break.

What went wrong? Certainly not a lack of effort on either party’s part. Both were trying. The problem might have been simply overload: asking the brain to process too much at once.

What does this mean for swim coaches? Especially with our novice swimmers, we see more than one thing we want to correct in a swimmer’s technique. Instead of overloading them with too much feedback at once, try to figure out what one, single thing is the most important to fix first. After that, make sure they have time to practice and develop that skill sufficiently before moving on to the next thing. A word of caution: Some people catch on more quickly than others; managing the expectations of both groups is important.

Baseball: The Batting Cages

The batting coach in this case kept reminding a player to use his “trigger” when getting ready to swing. After repeating this many times with little success, the player finally got frustrated and used some very colorful language to inquire what a “trigger” was.

What went wrong? Clearly this is a communication issue. Maybe the player did not ask for clarification because he was afraid to. The coach may have been thinking there was a lack of effort or concentration on the player’s part. Either way, neither person was happy.

What does this mean for swim coaches? The sport of swimming has its own vocabulary. We speak a language all our own and we have different dialects within the sport. With novices and newcomers, we need to make sure the instructions given are clear and comprehensible. Ask if swimmers know what you mean when you're finished giving direction and, if necessary, say the same thing differently. People don’t always like to raise their hands when asked if they don’t understand something, so ask one of your experienced swimmers to describe the meaning of a term to the group, to help further clarify your intentions.


In these two examples, both coaches are experts in their field. One a golf club pro and the other spent several years in the major leagues. Both were enthusiastic and caring and wanted their athletes to succeed. But in the first instance, the coach gave feedback for so many different things that the player was facing the proverbial fire hose: too much all at once. In the second example, the athlete had no way to use the feedback because he didn't know what it meant.

Skill acquisition and habit changing are arduous journeys and sometimes we rush. Much of that behavior stems from our culture—our on-demand world—and it is difficult for all of us to slow down; however, the results are well worth it when we do.


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Coaches
  • New Swimmers