Uneasy Lies The Coaching Head

By David

Every now and then, coaches in every sport come in for criticism. I imagine the coach of the Dallas Cowboys is finding life a bit uncomfortable this week. Swimming is no exception. In my time as a coach I have noticed that those who are unhappy with my coaching tend to use a standard list of complaints. The list is the same the world over and is often used without regard for merit or fact. Here is a list of the most common swimming complaints every swim coach experiences at one time or another – and on some memorable occasions, all at the same time.

  1. The Coach spends all his time with the team’s senior swimmers
  2. The Coach’s methods are old hat and out of date
  3. The Coach is disrespectful to female swimmers
  4. The Coach yells too much

The balance of this article will consider each of these issues and present the philosophy I have followed in relation to the complaints.

THE COACH’S METHODS ARE OLD HAT AND OUT OF DATE – The formula for Coke is old. I doubt that means it should be changed. The race preparation I use is based on two Lydiard principles that are different from the training used in many other swim teams.

  1. Each stage of training is kept separate – what this means is that separate periods of time are set aside for aerobic training, anaerobic training and speed training. Most other plans differ in the lengths of time they allocate to developing each quality and the majority of coaches use shorter and repeated phases called micro-cycles, whereas Lydiard developed each quality separately over an extended period. Micro-cycle coaches divide their programs differently, with many including elements of build-up, anaerobic and speed training in their daily schedules.

    Micro-cycle supporters claim their programs are better; that by exercising a specific quality frequently and then leaving it alone for an equally short period before coming back to it, the quality will be better developed. At best, the argument is simplistic; at worst, it is wrong. It fails to recognise that the different physiological characteristics the swimmer is trying to develop progress at diverse speeds. For example aerobic conditioning develops differently and at a different pace to anaerobic fitness or speed. Lydiard’s single-cycle approach recognizes this and exercises each phase fully for a specific period of time before moving on to the next phase.

    Our schedule of 10, 4 and 10 weeks for the three main phases has not been arrived at by chance. Each recognizes proven physiological characteristics of the quality being developed. Working for lesser times will not develop that quality to the same extent and will not produce the same improvement.

  2. The program is based on Distance Conditioning – Since the Beijing Olympic Games it has been revealed that much of Phelps’ and Lochte’s preparation was spent swimming between 90 and 100 kilometers per week. To be included with this “out of date” group is something we can live with. Far from being “old hat” the trend world wide is towards swimming greater distances. While that idea may not have caught on yet in all local swim groups it certainly is true of the swimmers responsible for over 100 world records broken during 2008.

    In 2008 the Aqua Crest Board approved and assisted the team’s coach (me) travel to Europe twice, China once and the US National Championships twice. One of the prime objectives of these trips was to search out and determine new methods of swimming and training being used around the world. In the case of our loyalty to a Lydiard program the suggestion of “old hat” is without substance – “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

THE COACH SPENDS ALL HIS TIME WITH THE TEAM’S SENIOR SWIMMERS – This is a favourite barb of the disgruntled. That should not surprise anyone. It is one of the few things the dissatisfied can say that will always be true. Did Phelps’ coach spend more time coaching Phelps prior to Beijing than he spent coaching the Baltimore Chocolate Fish squad? Yes, of course he did. Does that mean Bob Bowman is a bad coach, guilty of neglecting his young swimmers? No of course it doesn’t.

It means Bowman and other successful senior coaches recognise the commitment required to win open events in the World and the United States. It means Bowman and other successful senior coaches respond to the commitment of their senior swimmers with an equal commitment of their own. That is only fair. Those who swim for thirty hours each week and lift weights for another three deserve no less.

It is difficult to understand what the critics want. Do they want the team’s senior swimmers coached less? Do they want senior swimmers to lose? Do they think senior swimmers don’t need as much training – because they are good, senior swimmers don’t need to practice as much? Possibly they think the juniors should practice more. If the Head Coach is spending too much time coaching senior swimmers, he must be spending not enough time on the juniors.

The critics are full of contradictions. They say seniors get too much attention but are quite happy to bask in the reflected glory of their successes. They want to see more attention paid to the juniors but are first in line to jump all over any coach who pushes the team’s juniors. They complain about the time spent coaching the team’s seniors but are quick to point to the success of other team’s seniors as a sign of a successful club.

Some people are hard to please. I think our team has the balance about right. Swimming is a notoriously over-coached sport. Senior swimmers should be able to do large potions of their training on their own. Junior swimmers do need more supervision. Everyday I take our team’s junior squad for their stroke correction drills. In a swimmer’s early career teaching good technique is very important. It is only right that juniors get fifteen or twenty minutes of the Head Coach’s attention each day for this portion of their training. With the exception of the most zealous critic this characteristic of our program should negate any suggestion of senior bias.

THE COACH IS DISRESPECTFUL TO FEMALE SWIMMERS – Playing the sex card is a sure fire way of gaining attention. The real problem is that critics making accusations of gender bias are seldom called upon to verify their claims and worse they tend to be believed. In that environment the irresponsible can roam free, instigating whatever damage they like.

Until recently most of the best athletes I have coached have been female. These women influenced my attitude to their sport. In my first book on swimming I included this description: “Athletes are capable of only what they are capable of, irrespective of their sex, which is a non-relevant variable.

The average female athlete may be capable of greater work-loads than the average male; everyone knows the stories of women who live longer than men when lost at sea in lifeboats. They have greater physiological reserves which might enable them to train longer and harder; say, 120km a week when the average international male can do 100km. But the point is that all this theorising is pointless. Each athlete has to be taken as an individual, not because they are male or female, but because they are individuals.

The moment you say, “She can’t do as much because she’s a female”, you join the ranks of coaches and administrators who used to say women could not run 800 meters without physiological damage. I have no difficulty believing that, at some future Olympics, a woman will win an open 400 meters freestyle. It will happen. How soon depends primarily on how successful coaches and athletes are in ignoring gender as a training or competition variable.”

Some may call this disrespectful. Certainly women who enjoy their “little women” status may not like it. They want their gender to be a training variable. It makes life easier. But the best female athletes do not hide behind their gender. They stand as strong, independent people and athletes. And that’s how they should be treated. [Editor’s note: Boys are lazy. – J ;) ]

THE COACH YELLS TOO MUCH – I yell at someone about something once every month or so. If that’s too much then the verdict is, “Guilty as charged.” Before passing sentence, however, the problem is a common one. Bill Parcells, and he’s a pretty bloody good coach, says, “Something goes wrong, I yell at them. You can only really yell at players you trust.”

There are a million experts who will tell you that any yell is a yell too many. They are sport’s version of the parents who never smack their children – bleeding heart liberals [Editor’s note: Oi! Um… can I be a liberal and still see nothing wrong with a slap on the wrist or a bit of coach-yelling? – J]. Used sparingly and only when justified the occasional yell does no harm at all. If it is deserved, no swimmer I’ve met holds a grudge. They know when they’ve overstepped the mark. All that’s not very PC, some may even call it “old hat” but it works.