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by Terry Heggy

June 26, 2017

Ideas for engaging swimmers to elicit their best workout effort

In an earlier article, we discussed what swimmers want from their coach. Here we’ll discuss some additional tips on how to provide a personal touch to make the athletes on your team feel that you’re investing effort to help them achieve their individual goals.

Communication is the key to gaining an emotional commitment from your swimmers. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Fortunately, there are some easy ways to establish these motivational connections.

At Least One Word

Try to say something to each person at each practice. It can be a greeting by name when they arrive, a feedback tip during a drill, an encouraging word during a rest break in a difficult set, or even “Thanks for coming” as they exit the pool at the end of practice. But don’t let anyone go through an entire practice without some sort of personal acknowledgement.

Eye Contact

Walk the deck and look directly at swimmers when they take a breath. You’ll notice that strokes suddenly improve when athletes see you watching them. The best part is that you only need to hold the eye contact for one or two breaths before moving on to the next swimmer, so you can establish a personal connection with several individuals on one length of the pool.

Enhance your eye contact with other gestures, as appropriate:

  • Point and nod (deck-coach shorthand for “You da man!” or “Attagirl!”)
  • Clap and nod (shorthand for “That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!”)
  • Do what I’m doing (miming a correction, such as a hand in front of your nose to indicate keeping one goggle in the water or lifting your elbow to indicate cutting the hand in for the catch or waving both hands in the “kick harder” motion)

The main point you’re trying to make is “I’m watching you!”, which is another way of saying “I care!”

Be the Clock

Call out times and sendoff intervals. Challenge swimmers to aim high, and don’t hesitate to give individual time targets to encourage personal responsibility. In other words, if Chuck has been swimming 100s in 1:20, look him in the eye and say, “I want you to give me a 1:18 on this one.”

In large groups where different lanes have different sendoffs, you can focus on times by assigning rolling sets where just a few lanes are on the clock at once. Here’s an example:

  • Lanes 1 and 2 do 5 x 100 on 2:00, and the coach calls out sendoffs and finish times for each wave.
  • Lanes 3 and 4 do a straight 10-minute kick set, while lanes 5 and 6 do a straight 10-minute pull set.
  • For the next set, lanes 3 and 4 do the 100s, lanes 5 and 6 do the kick set, and lanes 1 and 2 do the pull. Then change again.

Prediction sets also provide a great opportunity for personal contact with each swimmer. Ask each athlete to tell you how fast they intend to go for the assigned distance, then time the swim. An alternative is for the coach to establish a target time for each swimmer. Folks become surprisingly motivated when told they’ll have to repeat the swim until everyone hits their target time.

Demos and Discussions

Always look for opportunities to acknowledge people for doing something well. During technique sets, establish connections by asking swimmers who have mastered the subject technique to perform a demo.

Remember the Prime Directive of Feedback: Praise publicly. Criticize privately.

When you see an opportunity for improvement, provide immediate positive correction to the swimmer. Always phrase your feedback constructively; instead of saying “This is wrong,” say “I’d like you to try this,” or “I think you could gain speed by changing this.”

Asking for feedback also creates a personal connection. Questions such as “How did that feel?” or “What is your heart rate?” encourage the swimmer to invest attention in their own performance. “What can you do to go faster on this next repeat?” elicits a self-generated commitment to improvement.

Establishing these personal contacts also makes your coaching job much more fulfilling than simply writing a workout on a board and then sipping coffee until the workout ends. Engaging your athletes creates a partnership and lets you fully share the joy in their accomplishments.


  • Coaches Only


  • Coaching
  • Communication