Olympic Swimmers Share How Coach Behavior Affected Their Development

Olympic Swimmers Share How Coach Behavior Affected Their Development

By USA Swimming  | Wednesday, February 19, 2020


Elizabeth Beisel

As an athlete who now has perspective on what worked and what didn’t work for me, I think coach behavior played a critical role in my development and success as an athlete. As an age grouper growing up in the sport, my coaches from age 5-12 were extremely positive and reassuring to me with any goals I had. I would often vocalize my dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete, and whether they believed in me or not, they always guaranteed me it would happen if I kept working hard and having fun. At a vulnerable age, positive reinforcement is crucial because it truly made me believe I would be an Olympian one day.


As I became older and a teenage athlete, I became harder to work with. I was stubborn and oftentimes thought I was smarter than my coaches. Chuck Batchelor, my club coach from ages 13-18, was extremely positive and made every practice fun, but he also wasn’t afraid to get on me if I wasn’t putting the effort in. This became a very important part of my success, because had Chuck not yelled at me for behaving a certain way, there would have never been growth or the realization that I needed to listen to him because he knew best. This is when I really started to respond well to constructive criticism and coaches being positive, but also assertive when I wasn’t doing the work.

As a college and professional athlete, the coach/athlete role changes dramatically. You are now an athlete who more-or-less knows what you need, and the coach is there to support and guide you to how far you’re willing to go. Gregg Troy at Florida was exactly what I needed – he was always there for me to bounce ideas off of, and he kept me honest at practice, but never overstepped his boundaries. He was not afraid to criticize, but offered praise when praise was earned. Towards the end of my career, I was an athlete who responded much better to a coach pushing me to my limit and holding me accountable, rather than constant praise.

miller1192600371Cody Miller  

I think one of the most important qualities in a good coach is a confident presence. Sometimes I describe this as Jedi mentality. I think subconscious non-verbal cues coaches produce often get overlooked. Having a person who exudes reassurance and conviction in their presence and body language can make or break athletes on a subconscious level. I think whether an athlete is at a big meet or about to start a really hard set, the vibe and energy a coach emits makes just as much of an impact on performance as spoken words. Great coaches channel the right kind of feelings and energy to their athletes through non-verbal exchanges. Lots of people call that ability different things, but I like to think of it as Jedi mentality because like a master Jedi, a great coach provides belief and balance. 

hardy483400596 Jessica Hardy

I think it’s imperative for a coach to instill confidence and empowerment into their athletes. They spend the whole season dishing out killer workouts, test sets, etc., to prepare their athletes physically, but it is all for naught if the athletes can’t go out there on their own and deliver when it matters. Nobody can do that except the athlete themselves. The coach can’t control a thing from the deck during an Olympic Trials final, for example. It’s ultimately the athlete who feels the support and confidence from their support team that make it happen. Coaches often overlook that aspect, as there are so many resources for technique, how to structure their season with aerobic work, etc., but it all comes down to making sure the athlete is ready to GO.

jones543376088 Cullen Jones

David Marsh is a stickler for technique. I call him the mad professor. He will always find new ways to work on technique. He would stop me if I did something sloppy and tell me to do something else. If I did a sloppy turn, he would tell me to just do open turns. His logic was, don’t practice a bad habit because you will inevitably do it at race time. Solid Advice. The lesson I learned and still keep with me today is, if you’re going to do something, DO IT RIGHT! 

sandeno81485878 Kaitlin Sandeno

The atmosphere on the deck starts from the top. The moment I walked on the pool deck and read my coach’s energy, I knew what to expect. It is a night and day difference to have a coach that is positive, upbeat, happy from the moment you get to practice compared to a cranky coach. A cranky coach produces cranky swimmers who don’t want to be there. 

I responded best to coaches who could keep things light but also expressed the work that needed to be done and how we were going to accomplish it. They were someone I looked up to and didn’t want to let down. A “practice-what-you-preach” type attitude is what our group thrived on. If we knew coach was pushing herself/himself to chase their dreams and goals, it’s was easier for us to stay focused on ours.

As we would build momentum throughout the season, coach ended up being more of the guardrails than grabbing the steering wheel or complaining about the speed. I feel that is why it is so important for a coach to establish effort expectations and stay consistent. The more tired we got, the more valuable a reminder talk on those expectations in workout became. When you’re grinding, it’s very easy to lose sight of that. As I mentioned, guardrails!



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