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Lessons from Legends: Jim Montrella, Part 2

5/7/2013

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.

Here is part 2 of what I learned:

 

Jim exhibits the quality of anticipation in successfully coaching swimming, as well in boating and in his day-to-day life. He is not a “multi-tasker.” He likes each step to be well thought-out and performed with exactness. In his guidance of those on his boat, he didn’t just explain what he wanted done; he also described precisely how he wanted it done so there would be no accidents.

“Step under the blue rope holding the dingy on the swim platform, walk toward the starboard side, pull on the dock line so the boat moves within an easy step for you to get off on the dock,” he patiently instructed. Just like a great coach, he had anticipated each step, had prepared a sequence of words and was dedicated to the care and safety of each person on his boat.

Once we arrived in Catalina he explained to me his STP or Specialty Training Preparation. The concept has similarities to the 3S System successfully used by several coaches today. Coach Montrella started using STPs more than 30 years ago.

Montrella’s STP test set is 16x25s. It is a race rehearsal in which he demands exact stroke count, precise timing at the walls, with intervals that start at 1 minute and decrease by 5 seconds each week. The goal is to swim exact times based upon the individual’s mathematical equation of their lifetime best times. The formula is best 200 time divided by 2, plus best 100 time, minus 7 seconds for the absence of turns.

His STPs are conducted with precise detail. Before each STP, he assigns the same warm-up and only coaches’ one swimmer at a time. He starts his watch when the athlete’s feet leave the wall. He walks each 25 at the athlete’s shoulder so his angle of stroke evaluation and timing will always be the same. He has successfully used these tests to measure progress with swimmers at all ages and levels and help them achieve great improvement.

The career of Coach Montrella has taken him from California across the country and back home again. Shortly after the 1976 Montreal Olympics he became the Athletic Director and Head Swimming Coach at Indian River Junior College in Florida, followed by a seventeen-year stint as Head Coach for Women at The Ohio State University, and then was an assistant coach at USC under Coach Mark Schubert.

In every position he has brought excellence to his work, even recently as an age-group coach. After he left USC he worked for his childhood friend Bill Rose on the Mission Viejo Nadadores (MVN) staff. When asked what group of swimmers he wanted to work with he said, “The weakest one.”

Jim took over coaching the 11-12 year olds. He was especially interested in helping the weak group of boys improve their performances in championship competition. Coach Montrella studied the meet results of the local Junior Olympics and saw how many points the MVN boys were missing out on scoring by not having strong A and B relays—only two could score. He copied the Texas A&M football tradition of using their term “the 12th man” to recognize the role of the crowd. He increased the boy’s sense of team by selling them on the value of the “12th man” on their squad. He pointed out that at their championships undoubtedly one of the top eight boys would become sick, injured or have a family conflict. He motivated 12 boys to prepare for fast relays instead of 4 or 8. He increased camaraderie amongst the girls and boys, by twice per week coaching them separately.

Jim created a method of objectively evaluating the 11-12 year olds annually on the basis of what he described as three “behavioral traits:” 

  • Attendance percentage. Jim never required a practice, but he posted percentages each week. Therefore, he made the swimmers aware that there was a difference in one’s behavior that got them to practice and behavior that didn’t. 
  • The second behavioral criteria were their performance test sets. Jim tested pulling and kicking of all four strokes. He also used his STP tests. The total of the tests were compiled to produce a single training performance number. He reasoned that if your behavior got you to practice, you were a listener and gave a good effort; your test sets would improve. 
  • Meet performance, best times or competition behavior was the measure for his third criteria. 

In his second year with MVN, to swim in Coach Montrella’s group you had to be one of the top 24 swimmers on his accumulative scale of behavioral traits. This “Montrella Modern Swimming Concept,” created in the aggregate, a target for the swimmers to strive for and an objective formula for him to utilize, which advanced the group. The 11-12 year old boys quickly moved from being one of the weakest groups in the program to one of the top few squads in Southern California.

Jim Montrella’s coaching method is a series of decisions based upon his ability to anticipate what is to come, thorough preparation and being dedicated to success. If what you’ve read so far doesn’t underscore his dedication, consider one more example:

When he was at Lakewood Aquatic Club the city decided that he would have to cancel some of his morning practices so the pool staff could spend two hours or so, vacuuming the pool. Coach Montrella volunteered to get to the pool at 3:45 am to do the vacuuming before practice began.

All these concepts aren’t particularly modern, but the way he synthesized them creates his own art of coaching.

There is a fourth tenant in Coach Montrella’s formula for excellence:

  • Love

 

I watched with admiration as he exuded this quality to a stranger on the street, a fisherman in the harbor, a waiter in a restaurant, a city street worker in a man-hole, a business leader and even to the grey whales we watched off of Dana Point.

You hear the word each time he talks about, or to, his wife of 38 years, Bev. You feel it when he talks about his life, his experiences, his children and especially his daughter Kristi who passed away two years ago.

Every mentor has a mentor. Kristi became one for her father. Kristi had an accident that left her a quadriplegic. Because of her condition every thing she did took longer. Getting out of bed, dressing, moving from place to place could have all been time strained activities but instead they became lessons to Jim. More patience was needed to live this way. Enjoying each experience became her way of life and influenced her father to do the same.

Many of us move through our daily life with little amplitude in the use of our senses. Kristi lost the ability to walk, but embraced and heightened her awareness in nearly every other area of her life. Through observation and love, these qualities have grown in her dad.

The word love isn’t used often in sports or in coaching. Jim Montrella doesn’t throw it around much either. He embodies it. His swimmers and friends feel it oozing from his soul. And I write this story because people in the sport of swimming should know how much he adores it and them.

His coaching excellence is expressed in age-groupers, Olympians, Masters and everyone in between. He seems motivated not out of the relatively weak quality of pride, but from the strength of love.

These are some of Jim Montrella’s “Modern Swimming Concepts.” Just likAnd Then They Won Gold (Small)e his hand paddles, they are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. If you’d like to learn more about either feel free to call 949-212-8811. 

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.