So Tell Me, What Makes A Good Coach?

This post is not about a coach’s technical knowledge. Any one of a dozen national coaching education courses around the world instructs and tests a coach’s knowledge of swimming. The American Swim Coaches Association Levels One to Five, that I took, certainly made sure that members graduated with a sound knowledge of stroke mechanics and training principles.

No, this post is about things not included in even very good coaching education programs; qualities that distinguish good coaches from bad; qualities that should point a swimmer or runner in a beneficial direction or cause them to flee in fear of their sporting lives.

Quality One – Beware of Club Boycott Rules

Early on in my coaching career I noticed how often the very best coaches were prepared to coach anyone from anywhere. Swimmers and runners could belong to any club, arrive from any country and the good coaches stood ready to help. There were no rules that said athletes had to belong to a nominated club in order to receive their coaching advice. Duncan Laing coached swimmers from a dozen clubs around New Zealand. Bob Bowman coaches swimmers from clubs all over the world. Arthur Lydiard’s best runners came from Lynndale, Owairaka and Three Kings and Arch Jelley coached John Walker from Manurewa, my wife, Alison, from Lynndale and Dennis Norris from Calliope. For men and women whose hearts are in the right place, what singlet you pull on, what cap you wear, is of little importance. Helping an athlete in their struggle to success is the only membership badge these coaches required.

I got into huge problems in the club that became the Capital Club in Wellington. One of our swimmers wanted to train with us but compete for the Tawa Club. I said of course, no problem. The Committee went crazy. All the prejudices of ownership, bigotry, selfishness and discrimination were on blatant display. I ended up winning the fight. I suspect the bigots have had the last laugh. Some of them remained on the Committee long after I left. I bet one of the things they changed was the club’s boycott rule.

A considerably more important example is Rowing New Zealand’s decision to get rid of master coach, Dick Tonks. Tonks said he wanted to help a crew from China. Rowing New Zealand’s response was to tell Tonks that if he had anything to do with the Chinese he could not coach New Zealand rowers. Tonks gave the New Zealand authorities his middle finger salute and left. All power to Tonks. Sport is more important that the administration zealots who frequent the halls of sporting power.

And so if you are looking for a new club check out the club rules first. If you find anything that requires you to exclusively train with one club then go somewhere else. Clubs that insist on that rule value money and power more than they value you. That is not the way to become a champion. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Laing, Jelley, Lydiard, Bowman, Schubert and Tonks.

Quality Two – Money is a Terrible Master

For over thirty years I have consulted the best brains I know for their advice on how to coach a long line of very good swimmers. Helping my coaching the most have been Jelley, Lydiard, Laing and Schubert. Several others, such as Judith Wright, have provided valuable assistance but those four have been most important. Mind you it is not a bad four; between them they helped coach in excess of thirty Olympic medallists.

I have spent hours on the phone asking questions; seeking knowledge. I have lived in their homes asking even more questions. For five years I rang Arch Jelley every week to discuss Alison’s training. That’s 260 phone calls averaging 30 minutes each call, or almost 4 working weeks of advice. And that’s just the phone calls. There have been hours of face to face meetings. My most recent request was a week ago when I asked Arch how I should handle an Eyad training problem.

My interrogation of Arthur Lydiard and Duncan Laing was about the same. For hours I have sat in the upstairs living room at Arthur’s Beachland’s home asking what he would do in the event of some problem or another. For three years I called Arthur or Duncan twice a week. That’s another four weeks of full time advice.

And the four master coaches had one quality in common. They gave my swimmers there advice, their help and their knowledge without asking for a penny in return. I have relied on the assistance of these great coaches to help swimmers win international medals, 36 NZ Open Championships and set 19 NZ Open Records. And all their help cost nothing. Their assistance was given willingly and for free,

And so if the first thing your new club asks is for a cheque, look for another coach. Good coaches do not have the almighty dollar as their first priority.

Quality Two – Are you talking to the Chief Engineer of the Oily Rag?

The traditional swimming club structure in New Zealand is a committee who employ a coach and manage the affairs of the club. Beware of any club with that structure. The problem is that the person who is going to affect the swimmer’s career the most is not the boss. The committee is in charge. At the end of the day the coach has to do what he or she is told. And that is a disaster waiting to happen. What the average club committee knows about swimming could be written on the back of a very small postage stamp. The coach may be hugely knowledgeable but if he is overruled by a car mechanic, an office assistant, a youth worker, an accountant and a mother with a five year old in the learn-to-swim program, the coach’s knowledge counts for nothing.

I have suffered at the hands of this malaise. The problems at West Auckland Aquatics are proof enough. The answer is find a club where the person dealing with the swimmers is the BOSS. Lydiard was the boss of his coaching business, so is Jelley, so was Laing, so are Judith Wright and Gwen Ryan. Talk to them and their yes or no will be what happens. They are in charge. That is the sort of decision-making you should look for in selecting a club to join.

So there we have three qualities that should be taken into account when choosing a coach and club. Take them into account – your swimming career will depend on it.

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