Successful coaching encompasses two interconnected parts. First, there is the technical know-how. The importance of proper form and technique can hardly be overstated. It is not a coincidence that the best athletes tend to have the best technique. That is why coaches with solid technical knowledge of the sport are so valuable. By teaching their swimmers proper technique, they help them achieve good results in the long run. On the other hand, coaches and swimmers alike are social beings. Their interaction presupposes a relationship. Some coaches have a lot of technical knowledge, but their inability to establish a working relationship with their athletes renders their expertise irrelevant. Technical knowledge is useless if it is not shared. In fact, the longer I coach the more convinced I am that personal characteristics of a coach are more important than the technical knowledge itself. Generally, there are three pillars of success that accomplished coaches build on:
Reputation–We all know that your reputation precedes you, but the question is whether your reputation will be good or bad. Good reputation is difficult to establish, and it takes a long time. However, having a good reputation helps tremendously. If you have it, you will never have to start from scratch again. Moreover your swimmers, their parents, and other coaches will know about you even before you arrive. Thus reputation is like an endowment, it does much of the work for you. Your reputation works even when you sleep. Coaches known for running hard, well-organized practices will be able to expect that of their swimmers precisely because that is their reputation. Swimmers know what their coaches care about so they will adjust their behavior accordingly. Conversely, they also known what they can get away with and they will exploit that relentlessly, if in fact your reputation allows it. Establishing a positive reputation takes time, but its essence is simple. Take your job seriously, demand of yourself before you demand of others, and be professional; soon enough your reputation will be preceding you.
Relationship–Good reputation is a pre-condition to successful coaching but more ingredients are needed. It is essential that coaches and swimmers develop a true relationship that grows organically. Such a relationship needs to be built on truth and honesty over an extended period. At times it requires telling swimmers things that they perhaps do not want to hear, such as, “you need to be better” or “this is unacceptable.” Athletes, just like other people, do not like to hear criticism, but they respect a coach who is honest enough to deliver such a message. Coaches who never challenge their athletes are failing them. They are establishing a pattern of a relationship that sooner or later is bound to fall apart, especially when disappointments become more acute: “you told me I am training great, but I failed to break my best time…what happened?” Some coaches are so used to saying “good job” that the phrase becomes meaningless. Unconditional praising hampers development because it promotes a false image of a swimmer that never makes a mistake. Such athletes (people) simply do not exist. Coaches can be many things, but above all else they need to be truth tellers.
Trust–Good reputation when combined with an honest relationship can lead to a lasting trust. Trust is more important than your training plan. Trust implies that your swimmers believe you and in you, and therefore in your program. The best way to cement trust is to expect the most of your best swimmers. This simple advice is virtually impossible for most coaches to follow. Why? Because most coaches are afraid of their best athletes. We are afraid that our demands will alienate them, we are afraid that they will leave our teams. The best swimmers validate our credentials. In some sense we are only as good as our fastest swimmer. However, coaches who get over the fear of loosing their best athletes become better at their jobs. If you demand the most of your best athletes, others will have no choice but to follow suit. Those who are meant to leave will probably do so anyway, so stop worrying about it and start being a better coach.