I wrote out my first practice on a Starbucks napkin. My voice shook as I tried to project over the noise of the whole swim club practicing at one time. The swimmers in my group looked up at me, equally eager and exasperated. I watched my 11 preteen swimmers do what I had told them to do and all I could think about was how I wasn’t good enough. I sat on the block hugging my knees almost the whole time. I’d get up and stand for a slightly different vantage point, but it didn’t matter. I was scared out of my mind. I’m not a coach– what the hell did I get myself into?
I will be the first to tell you that my first three weeks coaching my own group were not good. I was out of my league. I started hearing legends and stories about my predecessor and how my practices were “easier” (we did a lot of drill). My swimmers and the other coaches feasted on my insecurity. Every time I walked on deck or talked to either of the head coaches, I got the feeling they thought I was some special kind of idiot–they may have even been regretting hiring me! However, I had still no idea what I was doing wrong despite being talked down to and around.
I started catching on to the way this club trained after about two months. I had my group going harder and faster, but I still wanted to coach them smarter than just yardage– that’s boring for everyone. I wrote intricate practices that I copied onto a whiteboard and the kids loved not having their memory tested and I loved not having to remind them of what to do next. Their strokes looked great, they were making the intervals, they were doing what I had written for them the way I imagined it! I was starting to feel my confidence and inspiration growing! Maybe I could actually do this coaching thing…
After four months of coaching, I was positive my job was on the line. My kids were improving, a lot in fact, just not the way they were “supposed” to in the vein of the rest of the club. At a monthly coaches meeting I was told I wasn’t allowed to use the whiteboard anymore, “Give them multiple rounds of something and they just remember it.” This was more of a test of my swimmers than me. I didn’t touch that whiteboard for at least another 4 months after that, but my swimmers rose to the challenge and recognized and remembered the patterns of my sets and practices. During this time, I learned more about training through research, observation, and my graduate school work. My practices grew in depth and engagement– whether it’s because they had to or wanted to remains a mystery, but not one that needs solving.
As my training learning curve was ramping up, there was one thing I didn’t need teaching– connecting to each of the swimmers. I took time before practice to talk to my preteen girls who just wanted someone to hear their pointless stories. I listened to the boys try to get a one-liner in on one another and got them back with a few of my own. I wanted to know who they were off the pool deck because it was easy for me to see who they were in the pool. This wasn’t any extra effort by any means, it seemed and was natural to me, and it paid off (and continues to pay off). One of my 11 year old swimmers later told me that they appreciated how I “talked to them like normal people”. I was shocked that they would be talked to in a way that was anything but “normal”… then I remembered my own circumstances and vowed to continue to be someone they can be “normal” with, speaking to them with respect and reason rather than from a place of condescension or impatience.
From this, you may think I’m still an idiot. Maybe, I know I’m still relatively inexperienced as a coach. Going into my fourth year as a coach, I have not “seen and done it all”. I haven’t developed any international superstars, but I have had a hand in developing some pretty awesome kids. I’ve been lucky enough to contribute to the success of some truly talented top age group swimmers in the nation. Those swimmers’ practices are just as much for training me as they are for them. And as with every set we give them, we’ve all gotta start somewhere. And after explaining all that… Any questions? No? Alright, let’s go on the top.