Back to the Beginning

May 13, 2005
Back to the Beginning

Coaching summer league for the first time[/url]. Summer league swimming is a great starting point for anyone who wants to get involved in the sport of swimming. After all, summer is bathing suit season, and why not put that suit to work. Summer season isn't just a great starting point for swimmers, it can also be the launching pad for aspiring coaches.

My first coaching job was at Hickory Hill Swim and Tennis Club in Orchard Park, NY. I was an assistant at a summer country club league in the next town over. I had just stopped swimming competitively in college but still longed to be near a pool. I thought this would be a great way to make some money to go back to school. What I discovered is that coaching swimming is the most rewarding way I could spend my days.

That first season of summer league was possibly the best learning experience I've had as a coach. I was responsible for coaching forty kids, age 9 and 10. My first mission as a coach was to figure out what is the most important goal to accomplish for the season. The answer seemed pretty easy: HAVE FUN. The majority of the kids swam only in the summer. The facility was an outdoor pool where families came to relax. So it seemed natural that the kids on the team would want to be at an outdoor pool over the summer to have fun.

After establishing that having fun with my group was the #1 priority, my next hurdle was figuring out how to do that. I believe wholeheartedly in having fun, but there are different kinds of fun. There is the reckless, unproductive fun that I like to engage in from time to time. And then there is the purposeful fun that can be had while tackling the task at hand. When I was a kid I had chores to do -- the same as most kids. I had to wash the dishes, mow the lawn, clean the barn, that kind of stuff. All of these tasks are fairly monotonous and labor intensive, but they don't have to be boring. My dad always taught me that the trick to making short work of tedious tasks is to make a game out of them.

So I set out to make a game out of everything that there was to be learned in swimming. Having 9- and 10-year olds in the summer makes that task easy. For all but three months in the summer these kids are tied down to their desks in school. In Buffalo, those 9 months also coincide with the grey season. So during the three summer months, or, in Buffalo, the not-so-grey season, kids want to run, play, mess around, and be kids. Why fight it, is my theory. Let's play SWIMMING.

Another upside of working with 9- and 10-year olds in the summer is that they are sponges for information. The downside is that they usually don't have a high threshold for repeating activities over and over. So as a coach it is important to keep challenging the way that you know swimming or that you THINK about swimming. The key for me was to try and explain things the way a 9- or 10-year-old would understand it. Most likely they aren't going to be into poolside discussions of laminar flow and vectors (not that I know what those are, anyway). They need to hear things in their terms. Don't be afraid of seeming unprofessional to a 9-year old. They don't know what a professional is. But they do know what fun is.

I felt that in order for our group to have purposeful fun, I would have to turn our swimming into a series of simple activities. The most important and useful thing to teach these kids would be technically sound and legal strokes. Most of them were not year-round swimmers; their season was ten weeks long. If they could start the season as beginners and end the season being able to do all four strokes -- legally -- that would be a huge accomplishment.

The thing that helped us the most when we worked on the four competitive strokes was breaking them apart and practicing huge ranges. One of the things we did for freestyle was chicken-wing swimming. Every kid in Buffalo knows what a chicken wing is. Most kids start out eating mashed carrots and peas. But, in Buffalo, after breast milk comes chicken wings. The kids had to swim a length of freestyle pretending they had chicken wings for arms - the wing kind, not the drumsticks. The point was to get their elbows high in the air and moving forward. On the return length they were allowed to use their hands again while keeping their elbows high. This is just one example, and not doctrine as to the most technically perfect freestyle. The kids enjoyed not having to swim a 50 freestyle. Calling a stroke something other than what it is helps kids use their imaginations and get in touch with what their bodies are doing.

Another thing that helped me was to reward kids by allowing them to demonstrate for the rest of the group. The demonstrations were helpful in two ways. First, young kids with minimal swimming experience have little awareness of what their arms and legs are actually doing. Having a visual of the action was a very helpful learning tool. Second, if you look hard enough and have some imagination, you can find something that even the least accomplished kid in your group is doing right. If you can find a way to bring that kid to the fore, in front of his or her peers, you give a huge confidence boost to the kid, and you can inspire the entire group. Everybody benefits.

In addition to being competitive, we worked every day on the parts of swimming that are the most productive fun. We practiced starts, breakouts, turns, and finishes every day. A lot of the time we would work on these things outside of the pool. We did stuff like reaction drills, and jumps to help break up the pool work. By the end of the season, each kid had a pre-start routine that they would do before every race. For some of them, this included shaking hands with the swimmers on either side of them. For others, it included a thumbs-up to their parents. Working on the little things was a lot of fun for them. It gave them the chance to practice without letting the task get too repetitive.

Those are just some of things I remember from my first summer of coaching. It was, in a way, a life-changing experience because I discovered the way I want to make my living. I think that the kids I worked with achieved the goal of HAVING FUN. Along the way, they won all of their dual meets and the league championship.

It's funny how things come full circle. This summer I am back where I started, assisting the head coach at a local club here in Maryland. The season will be too short to do any really intense training, but long enough to have productive fun. I will keep everyone posted on how it goes.

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