Mike's Mailbag: Communicating with your Coach


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Sometimes I’m emailed questions from swimmers asking for advice. While I’m not a doctor nor swim coach, I’ve been an NCAA swimmer, coach, and writer for most of my entire life. If you have any questions, please send them my way at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Hi Mike,

I was really excited to see that you have this forum to help out swimmers with their problems because I could relate to the last swimmers story. I wanted to ask for advice on being treated unfairly through the sport of swimming. I'm presently on a club team as well as a school varsity team. Last year at our school championships, I was not chosen for a relay which ended up making the state cut. While I was clearly the fastest breaststroker, (I beat my teammate in every duel meet in the 100 and every split in the relay), I was still not chosen. I ended up beating her in the 100 by 2.5 seconds. I never got an explanation from my coach as to why I wasn't chosen. My teammate is also on my club team and is rarely found trying hard. If I'm working hard during a set, she is in the back drowning... every time. My coach sees that and it frustrates me that she doesn't reward me for working hard. Whenever my teammate sees the coach around, she makes it seem like she’s trying. Nothing has ever happened between my coach and I and I used to think she really liked me. This year, I’m afraid it may happen again because I can already see the signs. I’ve already asked my club team coaches' opinions, but talking to my school coach may only make it worse. My friends and their parents see it the same way I do and are confused. The situation gets in my head and affects my swimming. But I've also lost a good friend. What should I do?

A frustrated swimmer

Dear Frustrated Swimmer:

Thank you for your note. I’ve been getting mostly positive reviews about this forum. I hope it continues.

Relay selections are one of the muddy aspects of swimming – not only at the high school or club level, but at all levels, even the Olympic level. Many times, there seems to be (some) controversy based on who gets selected and who does not. Know that you’re not alone out there, Frustrated Swimmer. Many other athletes feel slighted about relay selections, even Olympians.

What’s important is communication between yourself and your coach. I have been on teams that have made relay selections very clear before the championship swim meet: In the 100 freestyle, for example, the guys with the four best times in the championship meet made the relay. Didn’t matter who was the coaches favorite, didn’t matter who worked harder in practice. The only thing that mattered was one day of racing. Four fastest times made it. Sometimes though, coaches believe that relay decision is not so simple. Sometimes there are other factors that go into their relay selections. I don’t make the rules. This is just how it goes. Relay selection can be subjective, and the selection procedure varies from coach-to-coach.

That’s when you need to talk about it.

Talk to your coach after practice about this upcoming season, and also about relay selections. If you can, bring a parent or an adult you trust with you, so the parent can further understand this, too. For some strange reason, sometimes in sports, communication is just not as embraced as other aspects of life. The way I see it, relay selections are like promotions in jobs. If someone else gets picked over you, a healthy and natural thing to do is to speak to your boss about why you were not selected for the promotion and what you can do to be selected next time. As a coach, I would be more disheartened if a swimmer didn’t come talk to be about not getting on a relay. She may not even know what you’re feeling right now. Talk to your coach. Honest, genuine, and respectful communication in swimming – and any aspect of life – is important.

Conversely, a coach’s job, in addition to making swimmers faster, is to make individuals grow – emotionally, physically, and mentally. His or her job is not only to train swimmers to win races, but also to turn kids into mature adults. To win in life outside of the pool. To help kids learn valuable life skills, like being part of a team, trying their best, overcoming obstacles, and learning how to effectively communicate.

Coaches, this part is for you: Effective communication goes both ways. When coaches don’t communicate with your own team, they’re not coaching. There are coaches who refuse to explain themselves to swimmers and their parents. This is not being an effective coach. Some coaches think that they are above communication and above explanation to 15-year-olds. I see it all the time:

“Coach, why are we doing this set?”

“Because I said so.”

“Coach, who will be on the relay?”

“Whoever I say.”

In that situation, if a swimmer who genuinely wants to know why he or she is doing a particular set (as long as it’s not asked in a whining, sarcastic way), there should be more information presented to the swimmer. Effective communication goes both ways.

I cannot state this with more emphasis: It’s horrendously hypocritical to demand swimmers to devote their entire lives to swimming and then refuse to clearly and articulately communicate major decisions in the sport, such as relay selections. A coach can’t demand his or her 15-year-old swimmers to give up the majority of their free time as high school students then refuse to explain to them important decisions, practices, and/or the overall trajectory of the season’s training.

So “effective communication” goes two ways:

Swimmers: Talk to your coaches in a genuine and respectful way.

Coaches: Talk to your swimmers in a genuine and respectful way.

Frustrated Swimmer, talk to your coach. Bring an adult you trust with you to the meeting. If your coach reacts defensively, or refuses to explain herself, learn from that. Learn what not to do as an adult when you one day are in charge of a group, a team, or employees. Use it as a learning experience.

Lastly, I noticed you closed your email with “I’ve also lost a good friend.” Friendships should always override what happens in the pool. Competitive swimming is a very short time in your life. Friendships are much longer. Don’t take it out on your friend that she was picked over you. She can’t control that. Your coach controls that. Your friend might not even realize that you feel slighted by the decision. I know that it bothers you that she doesn’t work as hard in practice as you do, but every swimmer trains differently. Sometimes, people perceived me as “not working hard” when in actuality I was seriously struggling and drowning through the practice. Some days are just bad days. Some weeks are just bad training weeks. You never know: She may even perceive you as the one who doesn’t work hard in practice.

Please, try not to judge how hard someone else works in practice. You never know what’s happening with a swimmer’s day, week, or month. You never know what they’re going through outside-of-the-pool. What if you found out one of her parents was diagnosed with an illness? Or she just got rejected from a college she’d been dreaming about since a kid? Or she’s dealing with some other outside-the-pool issue she doesn’t talk about? Would you then feel bad about judging how hard she works in the pool? You can motivate her to work harder, but beyond that, don’t let it affect your friendship or bother you personally.

The important thing is to stop comparing yourself to others, and never let what another person is doing in the pool affect your outside-the-pool friendship. You might not like that you perceive her as only trying when your coach is around, but this should not be the foundation for losing “a good friend.” Nor is her selection above you in a relay. Unless you find out that she has been bribing your coach to get onto relays, try not to let this decision affect your friendship. Swimming is temporary. Friendship can last forever.

Talk to your coach. Bring an adult. Go over that decision. Be honest and respectful, and I think you’ll get an honest and respectful response. And don’t lose a friendship over a relay selection.

I hope this helps.

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