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The Catch 22 of Swimming

Who is responsible, ultimately, for fast swims — the swimmer or the coach?  Could this be the eternal question in swimming?  

The athletes that I’ve coached know my answer to this one.  If the swimmer swims great, then credit is due to the swimmer.  If the swimmer swims slow, then I’m at fault as the coach.  Catch 22.  As a coach, my job and my responsibility is to make that swimmer fast.  If I have not done my job, then it’s my own fault.  If the swimmer does indeed swim fast, I did nothing more than my job, and the swimmer deserves the credit for putting in the work.

I came to this belief through a series of evaluations of my own swimming and coaching career.  When I performed well, it was always because I followed the guidance of the coach, and worked incredibly hard.  Hence, I deserved the credit for doing what I was told, to the utmost of my ability.  The way I saw it, the coach was supposed to challenge me, and it was up to me to rise to that challenge.  If I listened to everything the coach said, and swam poorly, did I blame the coach?  No.   I would examine ALL that I did to perform but, more important, I would reflect upon what I didn’t listen to, and how I didn’t apply myself.   I had great coaches, and if I didn’t perform well, it was always my fault.

As a coach of many levels, I’ve always thought it was my responsibility to find a way to allow for a swimmer to perform well.   When coaching newer swimmers in high school, there was a mix of learning and training that had to be struck.  If I had a swimmer who wasn’t inspired to work, what was I doing wrong that didn’t inspire them?  Was it the athlete’s responsibility to come into practice inspired, or did I have to learn what it took to inspire them, and play on that?  That is, after all, the job of the coach.  Listening, applying advice, and completing tasks is the job of the athlete.

Depending on the age of the swimmer, this equation will shift, vary, and change.  For age-group swimmers, the responsibility for fast swims falls onto the coach.  There is so much teaching that has to take place, which means so much room for advancement and improvement. There is also an extra level of responsibility that falls onto an age-group coach — that of preparing the athlete for FUTURE fast swims.  While sometimes it’s easy to make someone faster sooner, care has to be taken to pace out improvement over a longer period of time.

When the swimmer has made it through the age-group ranks and has started to mature physically, mentally, emotionally, and intellectually, the equation shifts again.  The older the athlete, the more responsible he or she becomes for their own success.  There is more to balance in and outside of the pool.  Studies, career, family, training, and social obligations .  Each of these begins to tug at the athlete and, in order to guarantee fast swims at the end of the season, something has to give.  Studies can’t be sacrificed.  If you do have a job, then there are a few options (work less; ask your employer for a different shift or responsibilities; ask your employer to sponsor you).  Family is generally very understanding about your achieving balance in your life and will, more often then not, support you in your quest for performance. Training can NOT be sacrificed either.  If it is, then you’ve made a decision for which only you can take responsibility. Remember, we’re talking FAST swims here, and the relative nature of fast means:  Are you happy at the end of the season?  The REAL option most overlooked by athletes is the social aspect of their life.  While NOT going to parties is generally considered "sacrifice," it should not be viewed by you as a sacrifice.  If you feel so strongly that you’re missing out on life, or on another experience by limiting your social calendar, then you should look inside yourself to find your true desires.  If you’re unhappy that you’ve missed out on something, and feel spite toward your training, then you probably won’t get in the work necessary for achieving "fast swims."

Far too often, at the end of the season, swimmers blame coaches, coaches blame swimmers, parents blame coaches and move to another team, and far too many people end up with an unhappy experience.

If you really want to avoid the blame game, there is only one place to look: yourself.  If you’re a coach with a swimmer who performed poorly, ask yourself what you didn’t do to inspire or motivate that swimmer to achieve more.  If you’re a swimmer who performed poorly, don’t blame your coach.  Ask yourself what you didn’t do during the season — or during taper — that could have impacted your performance (especially if teammates performed well).  If you’re a parent unhappy with the performance of your young swimmer, make sure you watch their face when they get out of the pool.  If they’re smiling, and laughing with their friends, they’ve won no matter what the time.  If you greet them with a disappointed face, you’ve set the stage.  If they simply didn’t know the rules, or weren’t applying techniques properly, ask the coach what YOU need to do to make sure your swimmer has the proper understanding.  This might mean private lessons with the coach, or it might mean suggesting special technique days when the coach can focus on nothing BUT technique.  Pay the coach a bonus for coming in extra for these.  They have families, too, remember, and… this IS their job that you’ve hired them for.  (Side note:  if you send your swimmer to a summer camp or clinic, consider paying your own coach extra to provide consistent extra sessions with your team.  I mean… still go to the summer camps and clinics, but think how much improved your own team would be if that kind of intense focus happened every week!)

The real Catch 22 in all of this is… If you succeed, give yourself credit.  If you fail, be brave and take the blame.