Is a mobile phone a distraction or a useful tool?

Bill Sweetenham, Director of Performance of the 2004 British Olympic swim team, banned mobile phones from poolside.  In principle I supported this rule because I have seen too many coaches just looking at their phone and not coaching.  When Jonty Skinner pointed out in comments to a blog discussion about coaching etiquette, that a mobile phone is no longer ‘just a phone’ it made me re-consider.    Have things moved on since 2004?  Is a mobile phone a distraction or a tool?


Long gone are the days of these phones, which used to be the lifeline to the outside world at a pool.

I quite often use a phone’s camera to video to instruct a swimmer who is not ‘getting it’ in some technique change.  It is useful for the swimmer to see themselves rather than interpret your explanation of what you saw.  Before mobile phones became ubiquitous there were no phones on poolside.  If it was necessary to phone someone a coach would have had to walk down the hall to his office or use the phone in the lifeguard office.  To video someone you had to bring along a great deal of equipment to make that happen.  It was cumbersome and time consuming.  Watching the video took even longer because you would have to take out the tape or CD out of the video camera and then play it on the VHS or CD player connected to the TV.

Should a mobile phone be on deck now?  I think this is a good question.


Mobile phones are a way of life now. But should they be banned from poolside or embraced?

A phone is no longer simply a phone.  It is a computer.  The latest version of the iPhone and the competing android versions of a similar ilk have thousands of apps.  All of the various notes that coaches previously did on paper during a training session can now be put onto a spread sheet and accessed by your phone.  Many coaches, if permitted, use the camera on their phone for all their videoing.  I use a swimmer’s parent’s mobile to video so that the image is not on my phone but on their phone to cover myself in case of any question relating to child protection.  I have a great deal of scheduling on my phone and hundreds of contacts, so accessing information for competitions & training are all easily included in a phone’s memory.

The days of thinking of a mobile as a ‘phone’ are over.  With the number of applications available, a mobile phone is more of a multi-tool like a Swiss Army Knife.  You can easily use it as a heart rate monitor and graph, a video analysis tool like the one Nick Gillingham has developed called SwimOptimum, or even quickly making entries into a competition or checking results.  Maybe even to Skype another coach to discuss a relevant swim issue to show them a swimmer swimming.  The variety of uses are almost endless now.

So a phone is no longer a phone, it is a tool for a coach to use.  Even the simple act of taking a still photo of a white board is a great way to record a training session’s work-out and descriptions or drawings.


Many apps are being developed specifically for swimming.

Conversely a coach does not need distractions.  That was Sweetenham’s point. A coach needs to be concentrating on their group to alter the plan that they have made.  They have to be involved to make the changes that may be required ‘on the fly’.  They need to watch their swimmers’ skills and swim times.  Swimmers often forget how many intervals they have done in a set so a coach needs to know where the group is in relation to the set.  Is everyone on task or are there some swimmers who are needing some encouragement?  Will a tool like a phone simply be too distracting to be useful?  I am sure many people have done what I have done, gone to look something up in a search engine and simply got lost in something more interesting.  Maybe even forgetting the original reason for using the computer. Even texting a reply to a message will take a coach away from their job.


A coach on deck, focused and engaged, is a beautiful thing.

I think another good point to ban the phone is that the image of a coach is tarnished when they are looking at their phone and not the pool.  The task on the phone might be completely necessary but it doesn’t look good.  Coaches are on-show in many parent-run programmes.

Where will this lead us?  I am sure that very soon more apps will come available to assist coaches even more.  Is it necessary?

And then there are the coaches playing candy crush during the training session…which is almost as annoying to me as a parent ignoring their children.


So is it a distraction or useful tool?






[your comments are valuable to me because it provides a glimpse into why you read this]

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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2 Responses to Is a mobile phone a distraction or a useful tool?

  1. Rick Madge says:

    Nice post Gary. I like the ensuring discussions on the various forums.

    I don’t think the phone itself is inherently bad or good on deck. It all depends on how it’s used. As like other coaches I have my practices, meet schedules, PBs for swimmers and a host of reference material in my phone. In addition, I can use it for video. To me the key is whether we’re using it to be a better coach to the swimmers in the water, or using it to escape or do something that doesn’t help the swimmers.

    However, some parent education may be in order. Because they see their kids doing essentially frivolous activities on their phones, they may assume that we are as well. And that type of reaction certainly can’t help us. Letting them know what we use it for, and letting them see us interact with our swimmers using the phone as a tool can only help.

    On the other extreme, I have rarely seen swimmers using their phones during a meet for anything other than listening to music or playing games, i.e. sitting absolutely still for as long as they can get away with. And then wondering why they didn’t feel ready for their races. I limit their phone usage to 15 minutes every hour.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rod barratt says:

    Phone also has my emergency contacts in it, I have checked PBs on deck, recorded anthropometric measures,
    taken entries, booked extra hotel rooms and sent videos to other swimmers at home while on a camp. Now it is likely possible to do many of those things off deck as well but some must be done in the moment. There did not used to be computers or phones on doctoris offices either. Now they can check medications, surgeries etc.

    I think times have changed in terms of the “phone” on deck. But clearly it is a potential distraction, as are many other items and issues on deck. Coaches need to decide on strategies that work and communicate them to their clients.

    Liked by 1 person

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