How an unanticipated golf lesson made me a better coach
Most coaches take pride in their knowledge of technique, training methods, and motivational skills. They study hard to keep up with the latest swimming research and innovations, and consistently apply creativity in writing workouts. They delight in sharing their expertise with their swimmers and are committed to doing everything they can to help them improve.
At one time, I thought that was enough, but a trip to the driving range taught me a valuable lesson about a coaching component I was in desperate need of experiencing.
The Driving Range
I played golf as a kid and learned some basic skills. But as my passion for swimming grew, I abandoned golf to make room for additional time in the pool. Many years later, I was invited to participate in a fundraising golf tournament, and I realized that my rusty skills were in dire need of resharpening. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I took a trip to the Topgolf driving range for some practice and fine-tuning.
The range featured targets and a scorekeeping system to help you track power and accuracy. I started to swing away, trying to recapture whatever I could from my past. Some shots were bad, some were OK, and some made me think I might have a shot at a decent performance in the tournament. But then I received some unsolicited help.
A young woman approached me and started chatting, asking if I had ever played before. After a few minutes of conversation, she told me that I was using women’s clubs. I laughed at my rookie mistake. It was obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. She didn’t ask if I wanted feedback or technique tips, though; she just started telling me how to fix my swing. Turned out she was an instructor there looking for a new client. She told me to change my grip, my arm motion, and even the placement of my toes. She criticized my balance and hip movement, as well.
I tried to implement her advice but quickly became frustrated as my form deteriorated. Disappointed in my sudden drop in performance, I just wanted her to leave me alone since I never asked for help. After a few more minutes, she finally took the hint and wandered off to bless some other unsuspecting soul with her insights.
As a coach, I’m an uncompromising enthusiast about the value of proper technique. I’m good at deconstructing complex motions into their component parts. But as I continued to swing the golf club, I realized that trying to incorporate her advice was really messing me up. I couldn’t hit anything straight.
As I approached the end of my session on the range, I tried to find a hybrid between what I had previously done (my comfort zone) and the new techniques I had just been offered. I managed to hit a few decent shots before I left but continued to feel frustrated by the entire experience and unsolicited advice.
One Thing at a Time
Driving home, it struck me how my driving range frustration could resemble what a new swimmer might feel, and a new empathy dawned on me. Some swimmers may not want to compete or focus their energy on quick improvement; they may just want to crank out some yards to make themselves feel better. And if they have a limited background in swimming technique, a plethora of tips could leave them angry and confused rather than enlightened. My unwanted golf mentor’s intentions were unquestionably noble, but her actions didn’t produce the results she expected. How much of my coaching was causing damage instead of producing the help I envisioned?
I realized that I needed to cut back on how much feedback I was giving. My enthusiasm for providing technique advice had tended to result in a data dump—potentially overwhelming (and consequently depressing) the people I was trying to help. I learned that the best feedback focuses on one element at a time, giving the swimmer the time and space to absorb and implement the lesson before I pile on additional advice. I may notice more work to be done, but I need to resist the urge to share those other observations. Instead, I let it go for now, cataloging those topics for future sessions while allowing the athlete space to master that one current element.This may seem like simple advice, but I really urge you to get the experience for yourself. I urge you to take a lesson in a sport you’ve never done before. Pay close attention to how you’re treated as a customer and how that makes you feel. You’ll recognize that the best coaches don’t assume that everyone’s motivations are the same and will take the time to nurture improvement one step at a time. Understanding what it feels like to be new to a sport will help you empathize with your athletes, and you’ll become a better coach as a result.
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