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by Terry Heggy

January 6, 2021

A swimmer’s role in two-way communication

Most swimmers think of their coaches as people who stand on the pool deck and loudly tell them what to do and how fast to do it. Because coaches like to hear themselves talk, you may have the impression that they prefer communicating in one direction only. For most coaches, this is not at all the case. Here are some suggestions regarding information your coach would like to hear from you!

Your Unique Perspective

Most swim coaches are not trained in medicine, psychology, family counseling, pet grooming, or computer repair. Nor will I suggest inundating your coach with questions about politics, financial planning, or theories regarding alien involvement in Stonehenge. And although a surprising number of coaches are quite knowledgeable about Star Trek, Monty Python, and the Three Stooges, what most coaches are trained to discuss and would like you to share include:

  • Athletic goals. Tell your coach about the races you’d like to do and your target performance for those events. Include your swimming strokes and distances, as well as any other sports you’re targeting (triathlon, skiing, CrossFit, etc.).
  • Limitations. Share any history of health concerns, injuries, or scheduling challenges that impact the way you’re able to train and compete.
  • Insights. If you’ve discovered what works for you in terms of training, tapering, or motivation, let your coach know.
  • Favorites. Give your coach feedback on which drills and sets bring you joy and happiness, and which do not. Keep in mind that there isn’t necessarily a link between your enjoyment of a set and its training effectiveness (in fact, it’s likely to be the opposite), but it’s good for your coach to know your preferences.

It may not be possible for your coach to modify workouts specifically to target your individual needs if they conflict with the general goals established for the entire team, but the discussion will maximize your knowledge of how to use the resources you have to best achieve your goals. And if your coach suggests an approach that’s different than what you’ve done in the past, consider giving it a try. Your coach may know of recent research supporting that new approach.

Discussions of your unique perspectives are best done in private. Schedule a time to talk with your coach one on one. If you disagree with a suggested technique or training approach, use an individual conversation to explain your perspective and the evidence that supports your opinion. Because the sport evolves so rapidly, most coaches are delighted to learn of advancements in technique and philosophy and will appreciate and incorporate your insights as appropriate. On the other hand, your coach may have access to information you didn’t, and will be happy to share the data that justifies his or her position.

General Questions

Although there are a few coaches out there who have refined their communication skills to a point of reliable crystal clarity, I suspect that many are more like me. I’m constantly reminded that what I think are easily understandable instructions are instead a hodgepodge of incomprehensible words that leave swimmers baffled as to what I’m trying to say.

  • Ask for clarification. If you don’t understand what the coach wants, ask for a restatement. You’re almost certainly not alone in your confusion, and the responsibility belongs to your coach. These requests may include further explanation of distances, strokes, or intervals, or specifics of the technique being described. To avoid habituating poor technique, don’t swim a set if you don’t understand it. Your coach may elect to explain it to you individually or restate the concept for the benefit of the entire group. By asking for clarification, you’re helping your fellow swimmers achieve the intended purpose while also helping your coach become a better communicator.
  • Resolve inconsistencies. If your coach says something that appears to conflict with other instructions, ask for an explanation. This often happens when you have multiple coaches who use different terminology to describe the same correction, or when a swimmer has interpreted an instruction in an unintended way. One comment may talk about your entry and another mentions your catch, yet it could be correcting the exact same issue. Eliminate confusion by explaining where you perceive a conflict and ask your coach to resolve it.

Again, I’d recommend discretion in how you approach these conversations. If you think your comment will result in clarification for the entire team, then by all means ask it in public. If you think it’s more of an individual issue to be resolved between you and the coach, discuss it privately.

Pleas for Mercy

As an over-caffeinated results-driven coach, I get a perverse pleasure from complaints that the workout is too hard or that I’m asking the impossible. I suspect I’m not alone in this respect. Many coaches I know respond to whining and moaning with maniacal laughter worthy of Vincent Price. In fact, I often judge the quality of my workouts by the number of complaints I get.

That said, even the most cruel and heartless coaches want their workouts to be safe and productive rather than harmful. As mentioned in the “Limitations” bullet above, let your coach know when there are reasons to exercise caution with strokes and effort levels, especially as you age. Your coach should always support a deviation from a set rather than risk an injury or health issue. Safety is the number one priority, and your participation in the communication process is a vital element in ensuring that everyone goes home healthy and happy after practice. Being tired is more than OK; being hurt is not.

Masters swim coaches are just like swimmers in that they’re lifelong learners. They understand that more information leads to more knowledge, which leads to better coaching. You’re a vital part of that information and knowledge chain and communicating with your coach contributes to everyone’s success.


  • Technique and Training


  • Coaches
  • Coaching
  • Communication