High School vs. Club Coaches: Who Wins?

Nov 30, 2007
High School vs. Club Coaches:  Who Wins?

I've received several emails this month concerning conflicts between high school and club coaches. The funny thing is, the emails have come from BOTH sides of the issue. I thought maybe it's a good time to explore this just a bit and invite some sharing of ideas.


I'll try to approach it from several angles, based on my own experience.

First, my own high school swimming experience was a bit different, but no less important than so many others. My first two years in HS, I was a member of a team near Cleveland, OH. I swam everything from the 500 free and 100 fly, to my usual 200 IM and 100 breast. I was actually the flyer on our state-qualifying medley relay because we had another really good breaststroker. It was fun to be a part of a team, to swim the dual meets, and to train with friends.

During my first two years in HS, my HS team trained once a day right after school. We all knew this wasn't enough training, so during sophomore year my schedule became:
AM practice with the club team: 1hour
PM practice with the HS team: 1 hour
Drive to weight training at a private club: 1 hour
Drive to club practice at another pool: 1 to 2 hours depending on the day.


If you think I'm making this up, I'll have my Mom log on and confirm it's true. :) She did most of the driving (and prepared the meals I ate in the car between afternoon training sessions). The overall amount of training wasn't crazy, but the schedule was. As an athlete with very high ambitions, however, it was what needed to be done. I learned this from my older brother who was a state champion, a national-level finalist, and a full-scholarship athlete. I already saw what it took... so it wasn't rocket science.

After sophomore year, I moved to Cincinnati to train for Olympic Trials, but wanted to continue swimming HS. I moved into a school system that didn't have a team, knowing I'd still be able to swim as an individual, but not have to worry about the time I'd spend getting ready for dual meets. The other good thing: I would not have any conflicts with my training.

As a senior, I swam as an independent at the Ohio State Championships, and swam what was probably the most important race of my life. I'd not trade the experience of high school swimming for anything, and have always encouraged swimmers to take part. I think it's important, though, to understand that my coach, Denny Pursley, had to watch me swim, and coach me at the State meet from the stands. It was a bit different, but necessary. Also, my school was understanding of the situation and, as required by the state, sent the wrestling coach as my school representative. After the meet he joked that he could now retire from swim coaching -- with a record of 2 state championships, 2 state records, and a national record. He was a great guy, and spent his personal time to benefit an athlete in a sport he knew nothing about. Without him, I wouldn't have been allowed to swim.

When I retired from swimming and started coaching, I had a club team in Cleveland, and our focus was to qualify swimmers for Junior and Senior nationals, as well as to get them to the state high school championships. In Ohio, the formula for success was simple. If you wanted to qualify for the state meet, you needed to make the Junior National time standard. If you wanted to WIN the state meet, you needed to at LEAST qualify for Senior Nationals just to have a chance.

I can't remember if it was during the 1st or 3rd season of the team, but I do remember that my club team had a large contingent of swimmers from one private high school in the area, and the coach required that his athletes swim ONLY for him during the high school season. We offered 11 practices per week; he offered 5. There were fights over pool time, training regimens, what meets the swimmers would rest for, and how long their season would last. It was so frustrating that we ended up having meetings with all the parents and all the coaches, arguing over who would have final say. At the time, I didn't like the other coach, and I had a feeling he didn't like me either. It was incredibly stressful, but we both did one important thing... we talked. Forced or otherwise, we at least started to communicate. While I never saw it as a compromise at the time, we allowed him to use our pool time to add sessions for the high school swimmers, and we tried to understand his needs as a HS coach. I always felt I had sacrificed MY season to get the kids ready to swim at the state high school meet, and then their club season would effectively be over because they didn't desire to swim Junior or Senior nationals afterward. Again, at the time, I was incredibly frustrated as a coach. But ultimately, the swimmers were happy and got out of the sport what they wanted. (PS... the HS coach and I are now very good friends. In other words, I've grown up.)


Fast-forward to the present. I now work with a very talented high school athlete. He swims on a high school team but doesn't train with the high school team. When he told me he was going to attend this particular school, and swim on the team, I was VERY excited. I loved that he was going to have people other than me to swim with. When I talked to the coach about what I'd be doing with him in the practices when he wouldn't be with the team, the coach stopped me and said, "He's not going to work out with us, he's going to work out with YOU and swim with us at the meets."

I was taken aback, and almost saddened. I wanted a team for this swimmer, but the coach (and the swimmer) didn't want to change the progression we had been on for a few years. Again, what I wanted wasn't what the swimmer and, in this case, the other coach wanted.

My own experience was that to belong to the HS team, I had to train with the HS team. If my horizons were wider than winning a high school championship, I had to do extra work on my own. If I was forced to make a decision between high-school swimming and club swimming (a decision MANY athletes are forced to make because of rules or coaches' egos), I would have chosen club. My primary goal was to make the Olympic team... the secondary goal was to win the state meet.

As a young coach, I forced my goals onto the swimmers without understanding what many of them wanted. I almost forced them to make a decision between HS and club. I now know that I would have lost the majority of my team by requiring that. In the long run, compromise was the best for the team and, ultimately, for the kids.

So, after all that... what do we do?

I'll backtrack just a bit. I also coached HS for a couple years. The pool wasn't great, but I was fortunate to have ACCESS. We had morning practice, afternoon practice, night practice. We started a club team and although it was small, it allowed those swimmers who wanted to go father with the sport the luxury of training time. The swimmers didn't have to make a choice of one or the other. Today, that's not always the case.

If you're a high school coach with ample pool time, give more time to the swimmers who train year round. Allow them to train more, or create more practices for them to do so. Most high school teams have a HUGE range of abilities and skill levels. You'll already be writing 5 or 6 practice variations every day. Add a few more to the mornings or afternoons.


If you DON'T have the opportunity to give your kids more pool time, allow them to swim with their club team in the morning or afternoon after your practice. Don't forbid athletes from wanting to do more, just because you're worried you'll lose control. While the training structures and the technique advice may differ from one pool to the next, at least the kids are IN THE WATER. Look at the advice given by the other coach as an alternative... as something maybe we haven't thought of. Who knows. Maybe it's the answer that swimmer needs. I've heard some pretty crazy advice in my time, but I've tried to be mature enough never to call something crazy in front of the swimmer. The athlete will ultimately decide which technique works, so allowing them access to more ideas is a good thing, no matter HOW crazy it is.

Try to communicate with the club coach, letting him or her know when you have an important meet coming up. This communication, which is sometimes very difficult, will end up benefiting the athletes by keeping them OUT of the conflict, or confrontation. I recently got yelled at by a club coach because my swimmer used to swim for him, and I didn't call to tell him he wasn't going to be with that team anymore. While at the time I didn't feel it was my place to make that call, I now realize it would have been professional courtesy to do so. Learn from my mistakes. Communication is better than no communication.

From the club-coach perspective. I know what you're thinking. You coach year round, so who's this guy (or gal) taking your swimmers away for a few months? Well, in most cases, its someone who's fulfilling a job offered by the school. You think they're making an additional $40k a year to do this? Doubtful. Many do it initially to help the kids excel at something. Without the high school coach, the kids wouldn't have HS swimming, and I know some of you would be PLEASED with that, MANY great swimmers learned their love of the sport THROUGH HS swimming. Many HS coaches are full-time educators who have chosen to spend their lives benefiting kids. In many cases they have better teaching skills and communication skills than the club coach. They take courses in it. It's what they do.


I know how tough it is to "give up" your kids during the high school season, but if you've done a good job the other 9 months, it'll be fine. Sure, you can make the case that the swimmers will get slower because they're not getting the work they'd get with you, but what would they be missing? The chance to represent their school? The chance to pull their non-club buddies into the sport? The chance to gain the recognition of their peers and hometown? The chance to scream for the team and swim their hearts out at dual meets? These are the things that make swimming fun. There will be only a limited number of athletes who reach their ultimate potential, and those who DO reach it have one thing in common: LOVE of the sport. Without that desire, it doesn't matter how much time you put in... it'll never be a 100% effort.

I don't want to bash club coaches... I'm one of you. Club swimming DOES lead swimmers to the ultimate pinnacle of the sport, and I KNOW how driven you are. I KNOW how much you want for your swimmers to be the ABSOLUTE best they can be. It's so difficult to see them miss practice, to rest for meets prior to the BIG meets at the end of the season, or to see them swimming events you've not ever thought of them swimming... because their team needs the points.

If you have the opportunity to vary your schedule to add practices for HS swimmers whose schedules don't fit what's already in place, then do it. If you don't have extra water time, think about offering dryland time. Knowing that some of your swimmers will leave your training during the high school season, vary your season plan. How about NO BREAK after the summer season -- so that their "training break" IS the high school season (that is, of course, the extreme case).

From the swimmer's perspective. What do YOU want? What do YOU want to accomplish? Are YOU making these decisions, or are you being forced into something you ultimately don't want? It's important for you, as an athlete, to have a clear vision of your goal. Once you've settled on what you want to do, find the most logical solution... and stick to it. Yes, that may mean sacrificing the short-term goals and some of the fun aspects of the sport. While that's never a good solution, if you're truly committed to a specific goal, anything short of accomplishing that goal will come with its own disappointment. It's easier to live with yourself when you know you've done EVERYTHING you can in the direction toward that goal. Even the sacrifices become badges of honor.

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