Put A Sock In It

Over a number of years I have been fortunate enough to meet and watch a number of good coaches. Arch Jelley, Ross Anderson, Lincoln Hurring, Gary Hurring, Arthur Lydiard and Mark Schubert are all very different people; different personalities; from the larger than life Lincoln Hurring to the quieter more thoughtful Arch Jelley, from the  home-spun, self-educated wisdom of Arthur Lydiard, to the University of Hawaii educated skills of Gary Hurring. They are different people employing different coaching methods.

But they do have skills in common. There are some characteristics that are constants in them all. One that stands out is the quiet way they go about their coaching business. I was reminded of this common trait when I read an article recently about the hugely successful University of Texas swimming coach, Eddie Reese. This is what the 2018 report said.

Seemingly speaking in code and heading into the fourth dual meet of the season, he doesn’t look or sound worried. He’s possibly the only college coach in the country, in any sport, sitting at 0–3 who isn’t yelling, screaming, and tearing his short-cropped gray hair out. He doesn’t need to. In the last 39 seasons, Reese’s teams have taken home 13 national titles, on average exactly once every three years. The Longhorns have, since 1980, won either the Southwest or Big 12 Conference title every single year. Yelling also just isn’t his style, the only exception being — according to multiple swimmers across three generations, plus his assistant of 33 years, Kris Kubik — if he’s loudly singing one of his men’s praises. He can’t train his swimmers to win, so when they don’t he doesn’t sweat it — he trains them simply to go faster. They can only control what they can control.

As I read the report I was struck by the lines “who isn’t yelling, screaming, and tearing his short-cropped gray hair out” and “yelling also just isn’t his style”. I thought back to the occasions when I had watched Lydiard and Jelley coaching track or Schubert and Gary Hurring coaching swimming. I hadn’t heard any of them yell either. In fact I knew of one occasion when Schubert was so annoyed he ordered a swimmer out of the pool. But there was no yelling or dramatics. Schubert quietly told the swimmer it wasn’t working today. She should go home now and try again tomorrow. Gary Hurring was the same. In the three years we worked together I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice in anger. That is not to say he didn’t get angry. He just didn’t yell about it.

Come to think of it I never yell either. Most of the time I sit quietly beside the pool. Over the years many have accused me of not walking around enough, of not talking as much as I should. The nasty ones say, “He just sits at his table, not doing anything. That’s not proper coaching.” I’m pretty sure they would say the same thing about Jelley, Lydiard and Hurring. What these self-appointed critics would know about coaching you could write on the back of a postage stamp. They say it anyway.

And then you get the opposite of the Jelleys and the Lydiards and the Schuberts and Hurrings. Yesterday I parked my car beside the Millennium Pool and walked towards the main entrance. From outside the building I could already hear the yelling of coaching instructions. The din was louder than an A380 leaving Auckland airport.

By the time I got inside you couldn’t hear yourself think. There they were, two Head Coaches with four multi-lap stopwatches screaming times and coaching instructions the length and breadth of the Millennium Pool. If coaching volume won swimming races these two would already have Phelps and Ledecky pupils. If, by some chance, you think I might be exaggerating, call into the Millennium Pool next Saturday morning. I promise you a coaching sight hard to match anywhere in the world. But bring a good pair of ear protectors.

The problem with the show these guys put on, besides being bad coaching, is that it leads the public into thinking that’s the way good coaching works. Just imagine, if you knew nothing about swimming or running, and watched two coaches at work. One was an ex-national coach with two stopwatches working overtime as he paced around the pool with his finger permanently stuck in some electric coaching light socket, yelling a constant stream of coaching advice. The other was Arch Jelley quietly timing a set without saying anything apart from the odd sentence of encouragement. There is a huge temptation to believe that activity equals results – and it doesn’t. The appearance of busy does not mean successful. Noise does not win gold medals.

In my experience the quiet approach works best. Which is not hard because the yelling and screaming doesn’t work at all. One other example demonstrates the point. Jon Winter is probably the best coach in New Zealand for running a fun training program. He brilliantly incorporates games and fun into the serious business of swimming fast. The problem with that is that poolside critics see all the fun Jon brings to his work and cannot believe it is the right thing to do. Because they know no better they want the screaming electric light socket treatment – after all that’s “real” training.

But from what I’ve seen around the world the Arch Jelley and Jon Winter approaches work best. At least that’s what the record seems to prove.

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