All coaches have different skills and strong points. While some coaches are more effective teachers, others may be more effective motivators, communicators or technicians. In general, three qualities determine the effectiveness of a coach. A swimming coach is or should be:
Swimming coaches should be knowledgeable in three areas. First, they should be knowledgeable in a variety of academic areas including physiology, principles of physical training, psychology, teaching methods and communication. Second, they should be knowledgeable in the sport of swimming. This knowledge includes stroke mechanics, the strategies and tactics of each swimming event, water safety and training methods for swimming. Third, a coach should have good interpersonal skills in order to work effectively with parents, officials, and administrators.
Swimming coaches should be organized and well prepared. Swimming is a sport that depends upon developing a base and following a purposeful progression throughout a season and career. A swimming coach should develop general seasonal plans and specific practice plans for each practice. Swimming is also a sport in which many individuals constitute a team. These individuals may have diverse skill levels and varying personal goals. Unless a coach is well organized, the coach could easily lose the team concept by focusing on a few individuals or lose sight of the importance of each team member by focusing exclusively on the team.
Swimming coaches should be sympathetic to their athletes. To be sympathetic means to understand and share what others are feeling and to respond to them appropriately. For example, a sympathetic coach feels success with those who swim personal best times and feels loss for those who run out of gas midway through a race. The sympathetic coach understands that swimmers have various experiences during the day, at home, at school or with friends that will affect their behavior and performance in practice.
Personal Qualities the Coach Possesses
The coach’s personal qualities help to determine coaching effectiveness. Coaches possess some qualities while others develop over time. You personally possess many qualities that you may take for granted or may not recognize as positive qualities. Here are a few:
• Knowledge. This includes knowledge of swimming skills, rules and strategies as well as knowledge of the sport sciences.
• Physical abilities. The ability to swim or to demonstrate skills enhances effectiveness.
• Experience. Coaching swimmers requires both experience in swimming and experience in working with young people.
• Patience. A coach needs patience in working with young people over the long term.
• Emotional control. Keep both accomplishments and frustrations in perspective. This quality includes the ability to laugh at oneself and to remain pleasant through frustrating circumstances.
• Vocabulary of swimming terms and phrases. Command of this vocabulary is a quality that communicates knowledge and experience.
• Speaking ability. This is the ability to speak clearly and hold the swimmers’ attention.
• Organization. A coach should have organization in daily and long term preparation and planning.
• Empathy. Athletes need to feel that they can communicate with their coach and be understood.
• A sense of humor. This quality goes a long way when working with young people and their parents.
A coach can learn, develop and enhance these qualities. Some of these skills may already be well developed; others may need improvement.
Qualities Attributed to the Coach
Michael Josephson, a well known business ethics advisor, has said that we tend to think of ourselves in terms of our best intentions, but others tend to look at us based on our last worst act.
The coach does not automatically possess personal qualities such as credibility, respect or trust in the same way he or she possess knowledge, experience and physical abilities. These qualities are attributed to the coach by the swimmers, other coaches, employers, parents and others, based upon coaching style, communication, teaching style and motivational style. In other words, actions gain credibility, respect and trust for you. These personal qualities attributed to the coach influence coaching and organizational effectiveness. The more the swimmers, other coaches, parents, and employers respect and trust the coach, the more they will be willing to cooperate. These are qualities that are earned over time through actions and good works. There are many keys to developing credibility, respect and trust, but there are three keys that deserve special mention:
• Being accountable
• Using excellent listening skills
• Being professional
Being accountable means several things. First, it means to be able to measure, in objective terms, the progress of the team towards goals and then to report on this progress in a written monthly report to the employer. A coach can report on team numbers (members) broken down by sex and age group; team improvements in terms of numbers of swimmers making time standards; swim meet performance in terms of best time percentages. An assistant coach should report these statistics to the head coach. Second, being accountable means being honest. If, for example progress towards goals is going slower that hoped for, the coach should report honestly rather than trying to cover things up. This honesty tends to generate trust and short term support. (However, constantly falling short on goals, no matter how honestly reported, probably calls for a major reevaluation!) Third, being accountable means following through on promises so that people see the coach as dependable. It means “doing what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.”
Using Excellent Listening Skills
Good listening means learning to understand the other person. It does not mean agreeing with the other person. Others will be more likely to come to a coach with problems and solutions when the coach develops a reputation for good listening skills. Good listening skills include the following:
• Making eye contact
• Facing the person with an open body posture
• Rephrasing from time to time to let the other person know there is understanding
• Lowering emotional levels by not interrupting and not raising the voice
• Asking “What if” questions and using “I” statements rather than “you” statements
Wear appropriate clothing, use good writing skills, speak clearly, be early, and pursue coaching education and certification. These and other attributes mentioned throughout this manual will help the coach present him or herself as a professional.
How much time does it take to earn trust, credibility and respect? Certainly a coach cannot demand these attributes but simply must be patient. The younger the coach is, the more difficult it is. With athletes, a good axiom to live by is this: “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” (Attributed to Don Swartz, a world class coach in the 70’s.)