“Oh my god! Coach Jeff! How are you?” Or the more common smile and hide behind the parent’s leg, but still want to tell me a story in too many random details like children tell stories. That is what I most often hear and see when I run into swimmer families around the community. I saw a boy recently in a cheeseburger place and excitedly waved to him, and, in the moment it took him to recognize me out of context, I panicked with all those old middle and high school social anxieties surfacing. Then he smiled, and let out an enthusiastic “Hi coach Jeff!”
I realized the other day while I was on deck talking to the 6, 7, and 8 year olds on the swim team that they told me stories. They were excited about sharing their lives and experiences with me. We do a question of the day that is based on swimming or on the coaches. Questions range from “how many yards are in a 500-yard freestyle,” to “What is coach Jeff’s middle name?” I do this so they get an idea of who I am with inane details. Sometimes if the question is “what is coach Jeff’s favorite color?” a sub-questions, or bonus, is “what is your favorite color? If they match do 50 CH if they don’t do a 50 BK K”. I deliberately create a trusting connection. It is a subtle piece of being the teacher/coach/leader/mentor for the kids that I’m teaching how to swim on the competitive team. It creates a connection. We have a shared respect for each other; I’m there to teach them swimming, and they’re there to learn, and underneath it all is a bond of friendship and trust.
I’m not saying that I’m going to hang out with these kids outside of the pool setting. When I run into them and their families outside the pool though it is natural for me to sit and talk to them and celebrate their lives in whatever they’re doing. Even when I see people that aren’t on the team anymore, I can honestly say that I’m genuinely happy for whatever they’re doing with their lives.
What underlies this all is that there is a fundamental feeling, or attitude that I think is important to note because there are some coaches and swim instructors that are not as celebratory for their swimmers. There are some people that will comment with scorn that they saw a kid that doesn’t come to practice and that they ran away when they saw the coach. I ask, do you want to be the coach that your swimmers don’t want to say hi to? Do you want to be the coach that swimmers dislike?
But coach Jeff, what about the times that you need to be mean, or that you need to push someone or draw a line in the sand for poor behavior? Sometimes I feel like I’m harder on my swimmers than other coaches because I demand excellence. I nitpick on minor (for me big things) like streamline, effort, and perfection. My goal is for every swimmer to execute every stroke of every yard as well as possible maintaining total focus (or habit so ingrained that there is no need for thought). I raise my voice as a tool to whip kids into good behavior, or give them a thumbs down when they blatantly fail to put effort into doing things well. Underlying everything though is a general deliberate impression that I have their best swimming interest at heart. I want to be fair and friendly, but still demand high quality performance.
Some swimmers will just not like me, and that is okay, but I don’t revel in their dislike, or poke the badger to irritate them. Instead I treat them with the same interest, respect, and demand for improvement in swimming that I treat everyone else. When I have problematic kids that splash when I’m talking, or jump in front of other kids in their lane they are annoying and difficult to manage, but I can’t think of being angry at the child. They’re children to be approached with care and understanding. Instead of the brow-beating yelling at approach I cycle through a series of responses; ignoring, removal from the water, threaten to talk to parents, conspiratorial (“look I know you know this activity, but you have to remain quiet so others can hear me”), and then separating them from instigators.
How you can create trust and enthusiasm for your swimmers
Build in time to socialize, and be patient.
At the beginning of every practice we wait for the majority of people to arrive and stand behind their lanes. We review the ways you hold the kickboard for 100 IM kick. While we wait, I talk to the kids about random topics. My favorite question is “when was the last cheeseburger you had, and how awesome was it?” You know, because cheeseburgers are my favorite food because I eat them so rarely now. The kids know this because I talk about it often, and they joke and talk about their favorite foods. Remember, I’m not using my love of cheeseburgers to talk about myself and just self-aggrandize. No. I’m using it as a lever to get them to open up and talk about their favorite foods. It is a launching point where I’m providing a safe topic to talk about and then listening to them tell their stories about what their favorite food is. This is where the patience comes in.
Open with a fun, interesting topic. It can be anything. “How’s life?” It is such an odd random question to ask children that it catches them off guard. It opens the door to conversation. “What is your favorite color? Mine is green.” Again, it is a harmless question that lets them share a piece of themselves.
After you open the door to conversation, be patient. Most beginner coaches I work with will emulate the questions, and will tell stuff about themselves, but they lack the patience to hear the story in full when the kids struggle to tell it. Most children will tell stories in weird disjointed images or thoughts with lots of ‘uhms,’ ‘ands,; and seemingly unrelated facts. Let them speak. Give them your full attention and let them complete there thought. Acknowledge them, repeat a part of their story back to show you understood, and move on. They’ll feel validated and that you listened to them. When it comes time for them to listen to you, they will because you’ve demonstrated what it should be like first in a benign conversation. Ever action and word you say in the presence of your kids on deck is a reflection of you and your program. Every little phrase and comment sets the tone for how your class/practice will be conducted.
Topics that you engage in with your swimmers should be mundane and safe. Keep your words professional and respectful. Use the G rating as a guide. Speak as if their parents are standing next to you and as if you’re on stage and everyone is looking at you. I’ll often say, “everyone come close so I don’t have to yell,” and inevitably someone will come very close physically, and I have to say, “too close, back up a little.” Remember to keep a safe distance physically as well as socially. We’re establishing trust and respect through honesty and genuine interest in our swimmers so as to teach them swimming better.
A coach asked me why we did the same format for our warmup every day. She asked why we don’t spend a whole practice on just breaststroke if it was important. She wanted to know why we “waste 15 minutes of practice time doing the same activities every day.” There are so many reasons. SO MANY! Here are a few right away: repetition builds trust and clear expectations. Repetition allows for deliberate practice. Repetition at the start is a clear marker for “practice time” apart from “social outside not-swimming-time.”
Repetition builds trust and expectations. That is what we want to talk about now. We literally do the same warmup for both of our beginning level groups. Exactly the same:
100 IM kick
2 x 25 Position 11.
Every day. Exactly the same without deviation. I love it! We used to do 50 FR kick first with the thought that they’d get in and jump right into it, but it wasn’t maximizing our time. Now we do 100 IM K for a bunch of different reasons, and then 2 x 25 position 11 for a bunch of other reasons. You can find more details in an upcoming book, “How to create fun and effective Swim Practices.”
Repetition for the first two activities creates trust in me because it is an easy expectation. Swimmers know that we always do the same thing at the start every day. They know that my other coaches and I are watching them as they do the activities. They know that at first they can be sloppy, but the longer they’ve been on the team, the more intense the scrutiny is on their performance. They know that over time they have to do these complex skills better and better. And 100 IM Kick is challenging! It provides an opportunity to practice and do every single stroke right away. Position 11 is one of the core essential drills of any swim team as every stroke either moves through the position or starts their stroke there (br and fly). It is incredibly difficult to do well, and we do it every day again for an opportunity to improve with ever more exacting perfection.
It builds trust because in demanding better and better performance every day we’re directly establishing a clear marker for improvement and regularity. Over time we’ll have better swimming on these important skills because we do them with such regularity. It is comforting hearing the same things. If you have kids do you ever wonder why your children like reading the same book over an over? Do you remember as a kid reading the same picture book every night? I remember that I memorized my favorite book before I could read. My parents thought I was brilliant until they learned the truth that I was just echoing the words I had heard in order back to them associated with the images on the pages and not actually reading.
But I LOVED that book. This is it!
OMG that is the book I memorized as a kid.
The kids seem to love doing the same thing every day. They enthusiastically raise their hands every day when I ask them the same question before their first 25 position 11: “who can tell me three things you need to do to do streamline?” They clamor to answer the same question every day before the second 25 position 11, “who can tell me three things you should do for position 11?”
The repetition, the regularity, the clear expectation that they KNOW what is happening next and that they KNOW the answer builds trust. It gives me an opportunity to question their learning every day. It allows me to call on people that don’t normally speak and to praise them. When they get the answer right I respond with a smile and a nod, or a thumbs up. We want it to be habit, we want it to be learned, we want to establish trust in us and this works well at doing it.
I did a Swimming Ideas Podcast on “using thumbs up as a currency for praise.” Ask yourself at your next practice, “how many times did the coach I’m working with on deck praise a swimmer for something they did well?” Ask yourself, “did I praise anyone for success today?”
Giving feedback is more than just telling someone what they did wrong. Have you ever dreaded talking to someone or performing in front of someone because you know all they’re going to say to you is how terrible you did? Do you remember getting your grades as a kid and your parents focusing on the C’s or the B’s and saying, “if you didn’t spend so much time on the playstation, or talking to your friends on your cell phone you probably would have gotten an A.” What if your parents looked at your B’s and your A’s and asked, “what did you do to succeed here. Well done! Let’s do more of that in these classes you’re struggling in.”
In swimming, I have found that much of the trust and excitement I get back from my swimmers is because I celebrate their successes. I make a point to give out thumbs ups in the middle of a 25 to show how the swimmer is doing literally what I tasked them with. Sometimes I’ll stop a swimmer in the middle of a 25 just to tell them that what they’re doing is correct and good. Why would you stop someone swimming who is doing it well? You might ask. Because positive feedback is profoundly effective. If something looks so good that you want to comment on it, stop them and do it! Just as if something is awful and wrong you need to stop them to comment on it, do it! I would guess (and I’m going to quantify it this next month) that I give out a 1.5:1 negative/corrective to positive ratio of feedback. I’m not at 1:1 yet, but that is my goal. I mean total feedback during a practice.
Remember that they’re kids, not adults.
Children are selfish, make mistakes, and often poor choices in the pursuit of pleasure. They’re also brilliant, surprising, and will physically and mentally push themselves harder than you could ever imagine on the power of pleasing someone else. I often hear coaches and swim teachers that sound resentful or angry at their 12 and under swimmers. It confuses me so much. Have you forgotten that they’re kids?
Part of running a good swim program is to allow your swimmers to fail in a safe environment; provide them a place where they can make an attempt at a new and challenging physical skill and fail spectacularly at it, but someone is going to be there and point out a way they can improve the next time.
And the kids you work with will do and say things that might not be right, or might be petty, poor choice, or selfish. Remember that as their coach, as a teacher in their lives, you hold a mighty responsibility to help shape this person to be better. Withhold your ire when they make they bring doughnuts in for their birthday at a swim meet. Don’t yell at the 8-year old who drags 50 full size doughnuts on the deck on his birthday because you think it is a bad idea at the beginning of a swim meet. Smile, remember it is a child who is excited to share his special day, and redirect him to the pool office to hand out his sweets after the meet. Give him a hearty and enthusiastic “HAPPY BIRTDAY?! And OMG you brought doughnuts, awesome! Let’s put them aside safely so no one eats them before you hand them out at the end of the meet.”
Do you think this coach remembered that the kid he was talking to was 7 yesterday? “Doughnuts? What? No. We’re not doing this. Come on. Did you say he could bring doughnuts to this meet? Who said you could bring doughnuts. No. We’re not going to do this.”
Play word games. Give challenges. Pantomime, do things you personally find entertaining and have the kids join you. If you’re amused and having fun they will too. As the coach, as the leader of the group, you set the tone for your practices. If you’re upset, surely, angry, and rude your kids will be brow-beaten, quiet, and dull in response. Meet them with cheer, excitement, and laugher and they’ll join you and be respectful as well.