By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor
So you read past the headline of this article. Perhaps that is because you’re old enough to remember Jim Montrella’s company called “Modern Swimming Concepts,” which he started in the 1960s?
Jim’s unique design of hand paddles with removable wrist straps, and varying color-coded sizes, became standard equipment in many successful programs around the world. His creation of indestructible, recyclable, polyurethane paddles made them an extraordinary economical investment, since their durability and design make the same paddles purchased 50 years ago, still effective today.
The same is true of many of the other Montrella swimming concepts.
My chance to learn about this patient and precise Olympic swimming coach came last Saturday. At 1:41 pm Captain Jim and I left the Dana Point Harbor for Catalina Island in his 31-foot cruiser. We returned at 10:55 am on Sunday. During our trip, I mainly listened and learned how he climbed to the top of the world of swimming and was struck by how current his theories are valid for all of us today.
“Most coaches today start out coaching age-groupers without a lot of training in applied physiology, psychology, biomechanics or kinesiology, “ Coach Montrella told me with a smile. “Therefore, very often a coach’s measure of whether they’re highly effective is not in applying a science-based developmental program and seeing how fast they can help a swimmer become, but it’s whether the swimmers they’re coaching are improving. What most young, inexperienced swim coaches don’t realize is nearly everyone get’s faster as an age-grouper.”
Jim went on to explain that when a coach has the experience of trying to help an older athlete improve after they reach puberty, they often become humbled. At an older age, improvement doesn’t come nearly as easily. In his opinion, most coaches experience with a physically mature swimmer is what ignites them to look in earnest for information to become the most effective coach they can be.
If Coach Montrella is right, one reason you could be reading this story is because you want to find a more effective way to coach, swim or parent.
The three basic tenants of excellence are the degree of our qualities of:
Jim Montrella’s ride to the Olympics encompassed all three qualities and a fourth we will get to in a moment.
In the late 1950s, Jim was a high school student in the city of Lakewood, California. The Lakewood recreation department needed someone to supervise an aquatics program at their summer camp. The seventeen year old took the job. Within two years he was the aquatics director and he became interested in training swimmers.
Jim couldn’t afford to go away to college so he went to a community college and then enrolled in another local school, Cal State University Long Beach (CSULB). While he was a student at CSULB he became the swim coach for the City of Lakewood. Their pool didn’t have any markings to safely conduct a swim practice, so he built them himself. He put bolts in wooden 2 x 4s, lodged them into the gutters, strung buoys on ropes and fastened them to the bolts to create lane lines. Three years after he started with Lakewood, the pool was drained for maintenance. The young coach crawled along the bottom of the pool, measured and taped off an area for a painter to paint lines and also crosses on the pool walls.
As crude as it might be, Coach Montrella had a pool to train swimmers. But he wanted more from his fledgling team. He thought that if he forced the swimmers into a commitment to attend swim practice, he would be trying to externally motivate his group, rather than help them build an internal drive to improve. But Jim reasoned that if his swimmers came to a 6 a.m. practice, in addition to their evening session, they would make dramatic improvements and be more competitive in Southern California swimming.
He explained to his squad the value of swimming twice a day and then told them, “I’ll be here at 6 am. If anyone of you come in you’ll train and I’ll coach you.”
The kids asked, “Well what if nobody comes to practice in the morning?”
“I’ll be here,” the dedicated young coach responded. “If I’m by myself I’ll do my homework.”
For about a year, from Monday through Friday at 6 a.m., Coach Montrella sat alone at the city pool doing his homework.
Finally, a girl named Sheryl Bargas began to attend morning practice. Sheryl helped change the future of her coach and of the Lakewood Aquatic Club.
Weeks later, in front of the entire team at afternoon practice, Coach Montrella reinforced to Sheryl how much the extra morning training was helping her. The kids sought more attention from their coach and from improving, so more and more swimmers asked their parents to help them get to practice before school. The Lakewood Aquatic Club began to make huge improvements.
By 1968, two of the swimmers from the group, Susie Atwood and Kim Brecht, were on the U.S. Olympic team. In 1972, Susie broke the world record in the 200-meter backstroke and won two medals at the Munich Olympic Games. Jim Montrella was named a U.S. Olympic Coach for the 1976 team.
For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter@chuckwarner1.