Keeping an open mind when teaching is a skill that’s learned. It’s not something that most people are born with, but something that people must understand as they season in their coaching careers.
When I was a young coach, I realized quickly that I had a very limited skill set when it came to teaching swimmers how to be better swimmers. My skill set was really geared to teach them how to be better workers. The bad part about that is, it’s a tough way for everyone to become a better swimmer.
Swimming is a skill, something we’re not really meant to do as humans. Expecting swimmers to learn how to go faster on their own is expecting too much. Our job as coaches / teachers, is to help the swimmers discover the techniques, feelings, instincts, that will help them continue on a path of discovery that will get them to a place where there isn’t anyone that can tell them something about their stroke that they didn’t already know.
Finding that perfect spot for that swimmer, sometimes takes a rogue approach.
With the thousands of drills, videos, pictures we’ve created over the past decade+ time we’ve been doing this, there have been techniques that seemed perfect at the time, that we don’t use much anymore. The key point there is “much”. While there will be very specific situations where something we rarely use, is the perfect answer for a specific person.
Working with young swimmers may require techniques that you don’t use with adolescents. Working with triathletes may require techniques that you don’t use with your senior group. Working with masters swimmers may require techniques you don’t use with your high schoolers. The question is, do you already have the answers for each specific group? Do you have the answer in your rolodex of answers for the specific swimmer in front of you at the specific time it’s needed?
Teaching systems, progressions, beliefs, are incredibly important in taking someone forward. A 10 step progression allows you to take someone in a logical sequence of learning, which gives a goal to look forward to, and a check list of skills that are required to get there.
Teaching progressions also make it easy for someone to teach someone… how to teach. Swim schools all over the world have their progressions. They teach their instructors the steps to follow, so they can easily provide the proper, empathetic people, with the skills necessary to teach someone how to swim. This is a perfect business model.
If you’re a coach, you can not limit yourself to a single, progression. There are over 7 billion people on the planet, incredibly, with no two exactly alike. Without teaching progressions, there is no way to teach the masses how to swim to a certain level of competency. However, competitive swimming isn’t about the masses… it’s about the few.
Teaching someone how to go FAST in the water, means specificity of instruction to THAT person. How are they different than the person in the same lane with them during training? Are they taller, stronger, fitter, have a better feel, have less balance, can’t swim without goggles, have poor lung capacity, have trouble putting on their cap on their own, etc. etc. etc…?
The “answer” you provide to the problem of how to make that swimmer faster, has to be individualized to that person. Sweeping instruction across the platform of swimmers is absolutely necessary, but the job of coaching fast swimmers doesn’t end at the instruction to the group. The job of coaching swimmers to be faster means your skill set as a coach needs to include vast knowledge, vast drills and techniques, and the ability to know which athlete needs which answer at which time.
When I see techniques, pictures, drills created by other coaches, my first instinct is to try to understand why that is valid to that coach. If they took the time to publish it, or write about it, it probably worked for someone. Who am I to say something isn’t valid for that specific coach / swimmer at that specific time?
Being open minded in the approach to technique allows the flow of information coming in to be great, which can allow for more content to be culled through for one to determine their own progression, or technique philosophy. There will be some information coming in that you like, and some that you don’t, but not liking something in your own technique philosophy doesn’t make it wrong for everyone, just wrong for you.
I’ve met coaches who are vehement about their like or dislike for specific techniques. I applaud anyone with commitment and always have. If you’re absolutely committed to teaching ONLY a specific progression, and NEVER vary from that commitment, then you’ll inspire and teach 95% of your athletes to be better swimmers. Anyone that’s committed to something with passion, will be better than someone who isn’t committed or passionate.
The problem comes in with the remaining 5%. The people that don’t fit into that mold, that progression or technique philosophy. Janet Evans, Amanda Beard, Jason Lezak may have been “fixed” out of greatness by a coach who was passionate about a specific progression or philosophy. Aaron Peirsol would rotate like Jeff Rouse rather than sway from side to side… to the point that none of us would ever know the name Aaron Peirsol.
Be passionate about your technique philosophy. Be open minded with those who need the variations. Experiment, and understand that there is no one system, one drill, or one set of instructions that will work for all.