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by Richard Garza

December 12, 2018

Surveying your swimmers can make you a better coach

As a coach, your job is to provide feedback to your swimmers in a variety of ways. This feedback usually takes the form of technique corrections or helping athletes learn how to pace themselves. Feedback can even take the shape of something personal, like how to handle an old injury or how to manage swimming, work, and life.

But how often do you take an honest look at your coaching as something that needs evaluating? It takes a courageous soul to not only handle constructive criticism but to also seek it out.

If you’ve never asked your swimmers for feedback through an end-of-season survey, now might be time to do so. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to ask your swimmers for useful feedback. Here’s how to help your swimmers help you become a better coach.

Ask the Right Questions

First, look at the things that are most important to running your club, the things that help you maintain your membership, and your bottom line. While evaluating that list, remember to only ask about things that you have direct control of—the quality of coaching, the amount of communication that occurs between you and your swimmers, and the intervals, sets, workouts, and vision for the club.

Once you have a list of topics where feedback will help, ask two kinds of questions: measurable questions and open-ended questions.

A measurable question would be something like, "From 1 to 10, how would you rate the quality of coaching and feedback?" Although the value a swimmer might assign to his or her interactions with you are completely subjective, enough responses will give you a pretty good idea of how you're doing in that area.

Open-ended questions lead the surveyor to elaborate on his or her answer. Following up the measurable question, you could ask, "What would it take for the quality of coaching and feedback to reach a 10?” If your swimmers answered anything less than a 10 to the first question, there’s always a reason why. This gap between what they think is worth a 10 and what they perceive you're doing is the small difference that can help you become a better coach. (Don’t ask close-ended questions—they rarely lead to enough feedback.)

Avoid misleading or loaded questions such as, "Is the coaching and feedback awesome or amazing?" Loaded questions lead the swimmers to provide answers that you want to hear, not necessarily the answers that you need to hear.

To ensure that you receive honest feedback, make sure that responses are anonymous. You shouldn’t require your swimmers to log in to anything or answer any questions that would give away their identity.

Analyze the Results

Once you’ve received the responses, it’s time to look at your feedback. How did you do? As well as you hoped? Are there any surprises? This is where the rubber meets the road. You're going to get different kinds of feedback, and it's important to know the difference between quality feedback and noise.

Some of it’s going to regard something you might not have any control over, such as how much the fees are or how clean the locker room is. Some of it’s going to be about issues you've already addressed, such as adding an extra practice time where there’s no space available. Some of it’s going to be about providing more information, even though the information the person is asking for has been posted on the club bulletin board and website for two years. This might or might not be valuable feedback, depending upon how many swimmers have similar complaints and how you communicate about factors beyond your control.

Some feedback will be about you, and it’s important to pay attention to things such as a swimmer who feels ignored, or a swimmer that didn’t like being placed in a certain lane, or someone who was offended by a rude joke, or that a swimmer would like more information about upcoming events.

This is your chance to bridge the gap between what you're doing and what you can do to improve. Pay attention to complaints that are mentioned more than once. Look for trends that might mean you need to take a different approach to your coaching and communicating.

Of course, enjoy the positive feedback you receive and keep doing the things that earned you the trust and admiration of your swimmers.

At Texas Ford Aquatics Masters, we do an end-of-season survey every four to six months. The most common complaint we received in our most recent survey was that there wasn't enough participation at meets. This told us that we had a high number of people who wanted to share their experience at meets with other people and that there was a social aspect to the meets they felt was missing.

This could mean several things: communication about upcoming meets was subpar, fees were too high, it wasn’t talked about enough at practice, we didn’t practice starts enough, or the sign-up process was too complicated.

We thought if we tried to fix all five things at once that we might not figure out which was the problem, so we decided to focus on one of the possibilities and tried to do a better job communicating the future meets and events to swimmers during practice. We bought plastic flyer holders for every lane we use and inserted a calendar of upcoming events into each one. This way, we could point to it during practice, allowing people who prefer to take things in visually to read the information.

We also found it useful to include other information, including inspirational quotes, any schedule changes, and deadlines for non-meet events, like the ePostal national championships.

Make Changes

Brainstorming solutions to your quality complaints should involve other coaches and a few swimmers. Hearing all the various answers to the problem will help you come up with a simple and effective solution that can be implemented immediately. If your solution doesn't work, then change your approach. If it still doesn't work, keep changing your approach until it does work.

Give yourself and your club ample time to adjust to changes you've made. After a few months and the new behaviors have become the norm, be sure to survey your club again and ask the exact same questions. Only then can you see if you've improved or if new challenges have arisen.

Have fun coming up with solutions but don’t sweat the small stuff.


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