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by Jeff Ockerman

May 7, 2018

Three Ways to Become a Better Coach

Nashville Aquatic Club Masters’ Jeff Ockerman shares three tips he’s learned in coaching

I'm a relative newcomer as a coach, but here are three things I've learned coaching with the Nashville Aquatic Club Masters program. 

Keep Workouts Fun

Swimming most of my life, I was worried my skills wouldn’t transfer to coaching. Like many old swimmers, I was also concerned I’d run out of ideas and practice would become boring. I couldn’t have been farther off base. There are so many workout ideas and technical forums on usms.org that the website has become my best friend if I’m at a loss for a practice.

A smile really helps as well! Every Wednesday, I begin practice with a joke and this deckside humor is something many swimmers have come to expect and look forward to before jumping into Nashville Aquatic Club’s pool.

I remember my college coach Eddie Reese [at Auburn] creating fun practices, even having us playing frisbee or other made-up games a few times instead of getting in the water, to break the boredom of the workout routine.

Masters swimmers, of course, are there to be in the water, so we don't go outside and throw a frisbee; instead, I’ve dubbed the fifth day of the week “Floatation Friday,” and I build the workout around kickboards, pull buoys, and just plain floating and underwater play—important drills to help triathletes become more at ease in the water and to keep the former competitive swimmers from becoming bored.

I’ve thought about using noodles but haven’t gotten there yet! And when the blocks are in place, we’ll do a few starts—not too many, because starts can be very hard on older athletes’ bodies, but enough so they have fun.

Plus, I’m always open to changing a workout to make it more interesting or to allowing them to do their own thing (so long as it doesn’t interfere with the other swimmers). My motto is, “It’s all a suggestion in Masters!”

Connect With Your Swimmers

I remember swimming as an age-grouper and in college, and if I didn’t hear from my coach in practice or at a meet, I was really disappointed. I take that to heart every day. At practice and at meets, it’s all about being interested in the swimmer as an individual. Everyone wants to swim more effortlessly and go a little faster, but I always ask them what they want to accomplish.

Goal-setting is really important for both the swimmer and the coach. Talking to my swimmers about their goals not only creates a communication opportunity, it helps me craft workouts so I can reach different swimmers in different ways, even while using the same workout sets. And the swimmers appreciate that kind of “fine-tuning.”

I also ask about injuries, especially past surgeries. Often that’s a reason why a swimmer’s shoulder or hip acts oddly in the water, and it usually can’t be changed. And you don’t want to aggravate an old injury. Understanding their limitations, and making sure they know I understand them, helps us all.

And that takes me to the most important part of coaching Masters—understanding the strain a workout can put on the aging athlete’s body. As a young swimmer, that of course was never a concern for me, but now I definitely have felt the unexpected consequences of going too far or too hard. I often tell an older swimmer to take an extra minute or two to rest, or to swim instead of doing a kick set, or to go slower and focus on his stroke. And I tell them, "Rest is always an option." When a Masters swimmer’s stroke starts to fall apart, there’s no sense in pushing her further and risking injury; that’s the opportunity for him or her to slow down and work on technique.

Approach Different Swimmers Differently

We swimmers have no idea what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in the water. We jump and it’s like we’re home. It’s effortless. But that’s not the case for new adult swimmers and triathletes.

For new adult swimmers, I keep corrections at a minimum until they’re more relaxed in the water, which can take time. Swimming is a very complicated activity, and it encourages new swimmers for them to make progress in one area at a time. And they can make that progress fairly swiftly, even if it’s just, “Keep your fingers together,” or, “Kick from your hip, not your knees.”

Also, I give them compliments like, “You float so well,” or “Your pull is nearly perfect,” which gains their trust. After the compliment, I try and change their stroke gently.

When it comes to triathletes, you have to be very intentional with them because they’re so intense and all their land training is opposite to what brings success in the water. Plus, running and cycling are natural actions we all did as kids. Competitive swimming, for most of them, wasn't.

It took me a few months as a coach to understand this about them. I give a lot of descriptions like, “Put your arms at 11:00 and 1:00," especially with backstroke and freestyle, and, “Freestyle isn’t like running. Your pull isn’t efficient if your arms are circling opposite each other; instead, make them play ‘catch-up’ in front of you.”

Triathletes especially need drill sets, which they hate because they just want to swim hard. Coaching them to understand that they'll end up going faster later, if they improve their stroke, is key.

And for the former age group and college competitive swimmers (many of whom don't think they need stroke correction or don't want to hear it), I focus on their shoulders and proper hand entry, which can make all the difference, I tell them, in keeping their shoulder muscles and rotator cuffs from injury. That is one bit of instruction they'll always listen to, how to avoid an injury.