Talking to Your Athletes about Races

By John Leonard, ASCA Executive Director

In the early 1970s, I remember hearing Coach Peter Daland of USC tell stories about his careful listening to former Yale Coach Robert J. Kiputh talk to his athletes during meets. Coach Daland says that much of what he learned about coaching he learned from those eavesdropping sessions.

In the late 70s and ever since then, I hear Coach Mark Schubert of USA telling how he would sneak up behind great coaches like Daland, Haines, Gambril and Doc Counsilman at meets to hear what they had to say to their athletes.

Now I hear a legion of young coaches talking to each other about the things they have heard Coach Schubert, or Coach Quick, or Coach Ed Reese, or Coach Skip Kenney or others, say to their athletes during competitions.

Why all this interest in coach-athlete communications?

Because many coaches recognize that the time just before a swim and just after a swim are prime moments for effective teaching. The athlete’s attention can be focused on the task at hand and the learning moment is right.

Another famous coach and swimming observer relates; "There are practice coaches and there are meet coaches…and the meet coaches have something special that they bring to their athletes on the day of competition. That something special gives them confidence, strength, and determination. If we could bottle it, we could retire!"

So what are some of the elements of the great meet coach?

#1. Confidence. If you know you "belong" you are comfortable. If you’re comfortable, your athletes will be comfortable. If you’re not comfortable, neither will your athletes be.

#2. The ability to communicate simply and clearly. Every swim should have a single, solitary purpose. "We want you to swim this in a negative split fashion, that is, swim the back half of the race faster than the first half. Do that by picking up your arm tempo and your kick to change gears."

The example above is a good one. A clear, concise, measurable, objective look at what to do in the swim.

Second, it tells the athlete the PROCESS to use to accomplish the task. "Pick up arm tempo and your kick." It asks the athlete to focus on process rather than just result.

Third, it is entirely in the ability of the athlete, not depending on his competition doing anything in particular or not doing anything.

This purpose is set up the week before the meet (for younger people; further out for older swimmers), and explained in detail to the athlete.

Then the athlete "stops by" the coach on the way to the blocks for the last minute reminder. Sometimes a question "OK, now what did we say you wanted to do on this one?" is the best way to handle this.

This step is crucial at all ages from 6 years of age through very capable seniors. It teaches the child to be focused on process rather than results, and it helps focus the swimmer.

The coach’s manner during this brief conversation is critical as well, though it may be very different based on coaching and personality styles.

#3. Evaluation. Immediately after the swim, the athlete should return to the coach first, and do a "show and tell" session. The coach may ask "how was that?" (an open ended invitation to speak or vent). The coach may ask specific questions…"how did you feel on that last 25, and did you know why you felt that way?"

The athlete needs clean, concise feedback of a technical nature, not emotion laden messages.

"You set out to negative split that 400, and you went 1:12, 1:16, 1:15 and 1:14. Not bad. But, with just a little effort, you could have evened out those middle two and swum very close to a totally even split. The next time you swim this, let’s get out a bit more aggressively and look to have more energy coming home."

Critical points: Be positive in feedback.

Be specific…use your language carefully.

Specific praise is meaningful. 
Non-specific praise is not meaningful. 
       "Good swim!" is not meaningful communication.

Finally, the smart coach will finish with: "Ok, that’s over, what’s the next event?" This establishes the fact that one "experiment" is now concluded, and it’s time to focus on the next one.

Remember that modern athletes hear criticism in a 5:1 ratio to positive talk. This means that if you praise 5 times and criticize once, you are a "neutral" coach. Anything less than this is insufficient praise to them. It’s HARD to tell young athletes many things they are doing right, because they don’t do that much right. Measuring the impact of praise and constructive criticism is an art form and requires skillful executing on the part of the coach. Expect to make mistakes.

Finally, a post meet review session a day or two after the meet can relate the training in the past and coming up, to the race strengths and weaknesses explored.

Athletes should talk to parents AFTER they speak with their coach. We want parents to ask questions, but we want them to ask them at the proper time. Parents may be unable to resist a question to their child…a good one is, "What did your coach say?" Hopefully, if the parent is getting incoherent answers, they will also double check with the coach.

Every great coach in USA History has had fine deck coaching skills. If you aspire to be a great coach, better learn to listen to those around you talk to their athletes.