Coaches don’t coach

Too many times I’ve seen a swimming Coach standing at the side of the pool, looking over a pool full of swimmers, doing nothing and talking to no one.  Or staring at their phone.  Or sitting drinking a coffee chatting with another coach or a parent.  Or even reading the paper.  This is the conundrum of coaching: coaches don’t coach.

The noun ‘coach’ is a person but the verb ‘to coach’ means to be ‘teaching’.  If ‘to coach’ is ‘to teach’, then it should follow that to be a coach should mean to be a teacher.  Doing nothing however will reap no education and repetitively doing the same thing, according to Einstein, will reap you the same thing, even if you are expecting something new.

I propose that coaches no longer coach at all.  They should teach.  Somewhere along the way, a group of coaches must have decided that teaching is hard work so they would just write-up a workout and shout motivational lurid tidbits at the entire squad.  True coaching is engaging and active, it is not in-action.

Bill Sweetenham, the National Performance Director of British Swimming, when I was part of his coaching staff at the preparation camp prior to Athens in 2004, made a series of rules for the coaches.  His Moses-like statutes were:

  • You could not turn your back to the pool.
  • You could not use your phone or a laptop while on poolside.
  • Any conversations you had must be brief and concise and if the conversation was important then it should be conducted before or after the pool session.
  • You could not drink coffee while on poolside.

I thought he was crazy.  And if you knew Bill you would know he was a bit crazy, however there was logic to his madness; he wanted the coaches to teach.

With Bill at the helm, if you were not engaged in your pool session and you simply wrote your training session on a white board and then stared blankly at endless repetitions, you were going to be found out.  After the swim sessions all the coaches got together in a small room, normally very hot, and Bill, with a devious look that can only be perfected by growing up in rural Australia, would pick out one of the coaches and ask them to tell the group about their session.


Bill chats with Dave Calleja and Sean Kelly. Great British coaches.

Every aspect was picked apart, every interval queried and you were ‘on show’.  The green coaches faltered under the spotlight but it became obvious to me that this was a tremendous learning tool for everyone.  Even by faltering, the coaches learned. Painful to watch sometimes, as he picked apart a training session that was obviously designed either by someone else or slapped together without any basis, (or even worse; copied out of a Sweetenham book) but through this process everyone learned.  So the crazy guy was a genius. (Except about the coffee).

The late great swim coach Dr James E Councilman wrote in his book: Competitive Manual for Coaches and Swimmers, 1977, p259:

Some head coaches like to take care of the details and leave the actual coaching of the swimmers to their assistant, while others just put up the workout and let the swimmers do it ‘on their own’.  This type of coach has certainly misplaced his emphasis, for few of his swimmers’ needs can be fulfilled unless the coach is on the deck.  There may be a few exceptions, but I have found that if you show me an office coach, I’ll show you a loser.

For a long time the teachings of ‘Doc’ have been available to the swimming world.  They are still relevant today.

Teaching is an action, it is not standing still.  A coach must challenge their swimmers and must be intimately aware of the experience that the swimmer is having so that they can react to the situation and adapt the training plan if necessary.  For example; if a swimmer was starting to falter on a training set that required target times, like a race pace set, and nothing was done about it, then the swimmer would begin to adapt to the wrong pace and begin to undo the work done prior to that point.  Or if a swimmer began to alter the way they powered their way through the water, because they were beginning to get overly fatigued, then the coach must intervene to either change back to the good form, or have them stop, or even have them do something else.  Without an awareness of these things happening a coach would not be coaching, they would be standing on the side being as useful as a sleeping lifeguard, letting mal-adaptations take place.


Coaches must understand that they are the leaders, so they must lead by example.

So if you are going to call yourself a coach, you should not coach; but teach.  Then you would truly be a coach.


About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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8 Responses to Coaches don’t coach

  1. Pingback: Is a mobile phone a distraction or a useful tool? | swimcoachingblog

  2. Pingback: Coaches don’t coach | Crawl, Walk, SWIM

  3. Hi Gary, I agree with what you are saying. I think coaches can forget that they are always being observed by their swimmers, I know from personal experience that I could tell exactly what mood the coach was in the second the entered pool-side.

    Try telling a swimmer they have to go a 50 all out in a dull monotone manor, sitting down drinking a coffee and grab a time. Then repeat this by standing up, engage the swimmer, use encouraging reinforcement of what is required i.e give a damn and then compare the effort. I can’t begin to tell you how many coaches I have swam for who let me down and the rest of my team mates by appearing not to care, showing absolutely no enthusiasm for the sport.

    Don’t get me wrong, coaches are not immune from having a bad day but if I can quote Melanie Marshall who was good enough to come and chat to the Hamilton Aquatics coaching staff, ‘when the coach steps onto pool-side they must put on their superman/women cloak’. Basically you need to drop your baggage at the door and deliver your session in a manor worthy of everyone’s time and effort.

    I only discovered how I should have been coached later on in my career with coaches like yourself Gary, Gary Anderson at California Aquatics and Chris Jones at Edinburgh University. These coaches showed enthusiasm by the bucket loads and also knew how to get the best of swimmers individually. These experience working with these guys have hopefully helped me to improve my own coaching philosophy and actions.

    Coaches should be challenged and should always be able to justify a set and why it’s necessary. We too are always learning and we do not get it right 100% of the time.

    Not sure I can go without coffee, going too far there! lol

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For Bill’s health we need him to adopt a no cookies no coke rule, but I am his biggest fan! He epitomizes the mentor coach — living what he teaches (as a coach). He paid me a great honor by sending coaches and swimmers to learn from me and in using my books, The One and Only Cool Workbook For Advanced Swimmers and Cool Coaching. He agrees with my mantra — “never leave a wall without a goal.” Of course he has taught me more than I will ever be able to repay. He is the consummate teacher himself and his dedication to this art and craft while I most often treated coaching as a part time passion which I pursued my dream of writing world changing novels will keep him ahead of me as long as I live and coach. He teaches us to “leave no stone unturned” in adapting practice to suit each individual swimmer to his or her fullest potential. He has studied the mental, stroke, and fitness parts of coaching and success in swimming extensively and has shared all he has learned. This should be our way too. It’s a fun road. It’s how I invent with passion for — always adjusting just as I did as a coach — aways looking toward improvement and celebrating each time someone learns faster and more deeply. This is a life with purpose and a life that is followed by a profound and important legacy. I so agree with your wisdom — great coaches are great teachers.


    • garyalison50 says:

      Steve, I changed the bit about Bill’s eating habits as it was a joke at his expense, it was true but I felt it was a bit mean, and wasn’t meant to be mean, just a bit of funny nostalgia to make it real. Thanks for the comment, I am a big fan of Bill as well, he allowed me to pursue our sprinting dream even though we didn’t follow is high mileage philosophy.


      • Thanks Gary. Fully agreed. Bill makes me and others laugh too, which is a rarity among those who are seriously at the top of our game. I meant the comment in good humor. He’d laugh at me too. 🙂 But you’re right. Long live my mentor!


  5. Just saw this on Facebook Gary and then noticed it was you that had written it. Really good piece, not just relevant to swimming.

    I remember well our chats about training and how much I learnt from you.



  6. Rick Madge says:

    Another fantastic post, Gary. Your comments about how some coaches don’t coach (and don’t teach) is so true. I had a few of them when I was swimming, and they are the most forgettable coaches. Put the practice on the board, sit down with the newspaper, and relax.
    I was talking to one of Canada’s top wrestling coaches (I have a son who is a top level wrestler) and we discussed a few coaching concepts. Interestingly, while we have the “Coach the individual, not the pool” saying, they have a “Coach the wrestler, not the room” saying. Both are so true. if we engage each athlete in the process of improvement, then we will see results. And we will certainly have no time to sit down or ignore the swimmers.
    I had to laugh about Sweetenham’s rules. I like the third one, but the others not so much. I often use a tablet to video strokes and then do side-by-side comparisons with expert swimmers. I often bring swimmers out of the water to demonstrate something, and probably turn my back to the pool for a short time. And I definitely need my coffee to make it through those morning practices. But I certainly understand the intent.
    Great job,.

    Liked by 1 person

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