By Kelsey Reese//USA Swimming Communications Intern
Editor’s Note: Every Friday, usaswimming.org will publish “Coaches You Should Know” featuring some of the best age group and grassroots coaches in the nation. This week, we bring you ASCA’s North Texas 2012 Age Group Coach of the Year, Heather Maher.
Heather Maher learned how to swim at an early age. She began swimming on a summer league team and then progressed to club. Maher continued her swimming career to college where she swam two years at Nevada and then two more years at University of Houston.
Maher is currently the Head Age Group coach at Lakeside Aquatic Club in North Texas, where she lives with her husband and two children.
How did you first get into swimming?
My parents got me started at a young age, about 3 years old, in Pennsylvania, and then we moved to Texas when I was seven. In Houston almost everyone has an outdoor pool. I grew up in a pool, and I did summer league. When I was 8, the coach from the team in that area came over and watched our end meet, an invitational where participants had to have certain times to qualify. He came over to my parents and said, “She’s got some talent. Have you ever thought about year-round?” I was an athlete, so I played softball, soccer and I swam. Then in high school I dropped soccer but I continued with softball. I just could no longer play on the select team. So I did club softball and then swam as well.
From there I was doing club and then I swam in college. I love the sport. I still swim now and do some triathlons. I’ll jump in the pool if I need to explain a drill to the kids a specific way. Sometimes it’s easier for me to get in the water. It would be hard to coach if you didn’t love the sport.
When did you begin coaching?
When I was 16 and 17, I was guarding at my summer league pool and helping out with lessons. At that age I was still swimming club and didn’t have a lot of time. When I was 18, I became the assistant coach for that summer league team. I liked it and thought this might be something I want to do. Then I went and swam in college, and I knew that I liked the different coaching style that I was getting from my new college coach. So that summer after my freshman year, I worked again and just kept doing it. I was coaching mostly as a side job until I was at University of Houston, and I could tell after that last summer that I really enjoyed it. I wanted to change my degree from Nutrition to Education but it was too late. I got into club coaching for Cy-Fair Swim Club in Houston, which is the Fleet. Then my family and I moved to Dallas, and I’ve been here ever since.
Does your nutrition degree help you with coaching?
I don’t go around and give talks, but all the parents know they can email or call me with questions. It is important to remind the kids to be careful when they go to a smoothie place to be careful of the extra additives. It’s easy to get something in your system that is not legal. Basically, watch what you put in your body. You are not in control unless you make your own food.
Who has been most influential on your swimming experience?
Clayton Cagle mostly because he is the one that gave me a start in club coaching. My role model, though, is my dad. He was a Marine, so I have that kind of dedication and commitment to doing things the best I can. Once I got into the sport, as a coach I wanted to be the best coach I could be. Clayton gave me that start, but then I was kind of on my own. Throughout my coaching career I never really had a mentor the whole time. I should have—the intention was there—but three people quit right after I was hired. At least I was on deck with Clayton and got to see how he worked. The head age group coach at the time was David Harbach. He had some insight on how to do a lot of stroke mechanics. From him I learned how to break strokes apart, and from Clayton I learned about the energy systems.
Also my college coach, Mike Anderson, taught me that there was a different way to coach, including core work and plyometrics. I knew that I wanted to be more like him and make people better with less work if it was possible. If I could make somebody fast off 5,000 yards and doing core work, that would be better. I want the kids to be disciplined, to work hard, but if they’re not doing the stroke right, it doesn’t matter. I always start off with proper stroke mechanics as the key piece.
How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
I say what I mean. I’m tough, but fair. I’m always up front with the kids about how stroke mechanics are going to override everything. They need to come in the door every day and work on fixing the problem that I want them to fix because that’s where they are going to see the time drop. They know I do a lot of drill work, specific drill work. I have probably five or six drills for each stroke that I do on a weekly basis that I target for the group and then I will start specializing for the kids. My biggest thing is technique, but the specific way I teach it is more specialized. It’s an art of trying to figure out what the cause is not what the outcome is.
What is it like being at the pool with your own children?
Well my husband is Nicaraguan, so my kids have dual citizenship. I get to travel with them and my husband, and my daughter is just now starting to represent Nicaragua since she turned 12. They go down there on a yearly, sometimes multi-yearly basis to represent Nicaragua. My son is on the path to where he would go to Rio in 2016. It’s very neat to have that aspect as both a parent and as a coach. I did coach him, but not anymore. I still coach my daughter. It’s a challenge to play both roles, but it’s worked out OK. I do know that in high school they will have someone else, and then I can step away and be mom but it’s really exciting. They get to do the major meets that lead up to the Games. As of right now they seem to be enjoying the international experience.