Week #6: Theory Z of Coaching

Oct 8, 2003
Week #6: Theory Z of Coaching

This week I have been reading Dave Denniston� tips on writing the perfect practice. Dave has incredibly insightful suggestions that can help to make practice more engaging to the athletes. His article got me thinking about different styles of coaching, of which I believe there are really only two. This is obviously an incredible oversimplification of the profession (Tom Robbins once said that there are two groups of people in the world -- those who fit in to one of the two groups and those who know it is stupid to think that there are only two kinds of people in the world), but when you look closely, coaches are either Trainers or Teachers. A few really great coaches manage to be both, but generally you have tendencies toward one or the other.

Whether you fall into the Teacher or Trainer category has a lot to do with how you view human nature and motivation. In business-management terms (coaches are, after all, MANAGERS of their teams), you follow either Theory X or Theory Z. These are business-management paradigms developed by Douglas McGregor. The short version is that a manager of the Theory X persuasion sees his workers (swimmers) as unmotivated. A manager of McGregor� Theory Y persuasion believes that people are creative individuals who are intrinsically motivated.

Under McGregor� paradigm, the job of the Theory X manager (coach) is to guide using strong leadership and discipline. All motivation and sets are time driven. To be X fast at the end of the season, you have to be able to repeat N amount of NNNs at N. It is a very scientific approach and works in a scientific manner. The athletes in this system have to provide their motivation strictly based on times, which is essentially the measure of our sport. As a coach, you get to see the progress through the season as athletes move from threshold to sets at increasingly lower intervals. It is satisfying to be able to measure each athlete� ability at any time during the season.

Theory X coaches (the Trainers) have achieved some of the greatest results in swimming. Trainers see the athlete as a machine that needs certain inputs to achieve certain ends. The view of humankind is that we are mechanical systems with clear and definitive neurological and muscular pathways. The muscles respond in a certain manner when stimulated by electrical impulses, or something like that. All that is needed to achieve the best result is a prescribed amount of aerobic-threshold training. This is all very true and has been held up with scientific testing. Unfortunately for me, I could never pay attention in science class so this method never really appealed to me.

One of the down sides of a strictly training-based program is that you set yourself up to watch. The burden is solely on the athletes to perform the way that they are supposed to. In order to be successful you just have to have the best athletes. The biggest problem that I see with this system is that athletes, while being very determined and motivated, are not machines. A solely training-based system doesn�t account for the mind of the swimmer. The power of the mind is sometimes greater than the power of the body that it drives.

Under McGregor� paradigm, a Theory Y manager (coach) views people as being dynamic and complex. They are capable of things not even they have thought of. The Theory Y manager (teacher) believes there is a connection between the mind and body and tries to nurture that relationship to make the body perform.

Managers in this system have to take an active role. It is the coach� job to make sure that he or she brings out the best in each athlete. This allows coaches to encourage athletes to focus on a number of different things. If the emphasis is taken off of the time and placed in other areas, such as technique, turns, starts, and under-water movement, to name a few, the athletes can experiment to see what works best for them. It gives athletes the chance to focus their energies on things they feel they need to do to improve. They have to be engaged to get something out of the workout. As a Theory Y coach, you have to take a bigger role in providing feedback to the athletes about what they are trying to accomplish. There are not definitive results like time when you are working on technique. The coach has to communicate regarding the QUALITY of motion in the water. This is not a scientific approach with black and white rules and results; you have to work completely in the grey.

Keeping athletes engaged during practice has its rewards and drawbacks. It is sometimes hard to keep athletes focused on what they need to do while they are fatigued. The teacher coach has to accept responsibility for motivating athletes and providing a workout that will challenge them and force them to be creative. It can be difficult if you are trying to make athletes creative all of the time. You have to continually find new ways of improving yourself as a coach. Also, if technique is your only focus, there can be a tendency to neglect the aerobic (training) aspect of swimming. You cannot accomplish greatness with technique alone.

That brings us to a third option, which I have learned to be the most effective and challenging for coaches. My head coach has taught me that there has to be a balance between the Xs and Ys of the world. His model is that of a Teacher Trainer -- a coach who tries to combine the best of both worlds.

This coach would fall into an alternate category of Theory Z. This is the individual who realizes that there are more then two kinds of people in the world, and that people are motivated by a number of factors. Athletes are no different. They don�t all motivate themselves with times, or technique. Some people are motivated in different ways on different days. Coaches have to build the trust of their athletes first and foremost in order for theory Z to work. You need to know each athlete and what works for him or her. This can be extremely difficult in larger programs with only one coach. If you are responsible for coaching hundreds of athletes at the same time this might seem impossible. Even with that many athletes it is still possible. It only takes showing that you care about all of them. If you can find time to say one thing to each athlete each day, they will know that you are trying.

This approach is not by any means THE RIGHT ANSWER to coaching. It comes with its share of drawbacks � just like the teacher and the trainer models. You have to know when to push and when to nurture, when to train and when to teach. It takes courage to scrap something that is not working and try it again a different way. I was talking with one of the track coaches who also brought up a valid point about this approach. He said, �Mixed training will bring you nothing but mixed results.� I find this interesting but not always the case. I think that this approach is like a chemical equation. If you add too much of one ingredient, your experiment is likely to blow up in your face and leave you with a big mess to clean up. It in the same light, it is a renaissance painting. If you use too much of one color, you can turn an impressionist masterpiece into a kitsch nightmare.

With all of that said, we decided to have a training-based practice with focus on different aspects of technique. We had the pool set up long course for the first time this season, which, of itself, provided a new stimulus for the athletes. This is the main set that we did.

6 rounds:
Rounds 1-2 FR
1 x 50 @ 1:15 Underwater Fly Kick on your back, breakout then kick nose down in balance
1 x 100 @ 1:35 Long to fast concentrate on hip snap
1 x 150 @ 3:10 Under Switch/ Balance Kick/ Touch
1 x 200 @ 3:10 Long to fast by 50 Carry speed in and out of your turns
Rest 1 minute

Rounds 3-4 FR
1 x 50 @ 1:00 Underwater Fly Kick on your back, breakout then fast kick
1 x 100 @ 1:25/ 1:20/ 1:15 Long to fast concentrate on hip snap
1 x 150 @ 3:00 Wrist swim/ Kick faster / SSsss
1 x 200 @ 2:50/2:40/2:30 Long to fast by 50 Carry speed in and out of your turns
Rest 2 minutes

Rounds 5-6 Your choice of stroke but no free
1 x 50 @ 1:05 Kick your choice. If FL or BK, work your underwater. If BR, do 2 pullouts, then Underwater Kick
1 x 100 Concentrate on hips BK/FL @ 1:40 BR @ 1:55
1 x 150 @ 3:10 SA PP Full Stroke /Kick/ 2 Kick 1 Pull LA EZ Anchors/ Kick/ 3 count
1 x 200 Swim long until your stroke breaks down then EZ free BR @ 3:50 BK and FL @ 3:20

We are at a point where we are trying to push but without losing technique. We still have option for intervals built in to the practice because we are training as a whole team. We haven�t broken in to training groups yet. I�m happy with the way the athletes have been swimming to this point in the season.

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