“You want me to coach swimming?” That was the question I had for my new principal. I had just been hired as a high school teacher and they needed someone to coach the swim team. Since I was low man on the totem pole, that job fell to me.
The fact that I had never swum competitively didn’t seem to matter. The expectations for the swim team at the inner-city high school where I worked in Tampa, Florida, were not very high. That was good, because it meant I couldn’t screw things up too badly. We didn’t win too many swim meets that year (none, as a matter of fact), and the next year I ended up switching schools, where I was able to take over the golf and tennis teams, sports of which I am far more proficient. But, what I found is that no matter the sport, there are several characteristics you must have if you want be a successful coach.
There is a considerable amount of information to keep track of as a coach. On the swim team, it was important to keep track of my swimmers’ times. It served as a way of seeing whether or not they were improving throughout the season. If you watched the London Olympics recently, you could see just how many different races there were. With over 20 people on the team, it can end up being a lot of information! The same is true on the golf course. I always have my players keep track of not only their daily scores, but also things like how many putts they take. Just writing it down isn’t enough, though. For the more tech-savvy out there, there are now apps available for all kinds of devices which can keep track of things like this for you. With this kind of information, you can then tailor your practices to target key problem areas for your players.
Coaching can oftentimes be a frustrating thing. If you have a player who continues to make the same mistakes again and again, even after addressing them at practice, it can be easy to take it out on the player. Staying positive even in the face of this kind of adversity is key to being a successful coach. At every practice and every match you are going to find problems and mistakes that you want your players to be aware of. But, if the only kind of feedback you ever give is negative, your players are going to end up just tuning you out.
I have found one of the best techniques for giving criticism is something called the compliment sandwich. It is a very simple idea. When you must draw attention to a fault a player is having, start out by addressing something they are doing well. Then, address the problem the player is having. After that, another compliment. So, it would go something like this:
“You’re making great contact with the ball!”
“Try to keep your head down all the way through contact, though.” “But, you’re tempo is wonderful, keep that the same.”
It might seem overly simple, but, especially when you’re dealing with a teenager or someone who might be just starting out in the game, this can keep you from becoming overly negative. Keeping a player feeling confident about their game is always more important than fixing whatever minor technical issue they may be having.
Dealing with the Team
The swim team that year was pretty awful. Not everyone is Michael Phelps, and a lot of that season was spent teaching the extreme basics of swimming. Literally, I ended up teaching one teenager HOW TO SWIM, as in, not drown when in the water. But, we did have one standout swimmer on the team. She was our one competitor that swimmers on other teams knew by name. The same has been true every year I’ve coached golf. On the first day of practice, I never know what to expect in terms of the ability levels of players. No matter the sport, coaches will always have to deal with a wide range of not only abilities, but also of attitudes, aptitudes, and drives to improve.
One extremely effective method for dealing with a situation like this is to develop “player- coaches.” Inevitably, the players on the team with less ability and less talent will come to look up to those on the team with more ability
and more talent. Getting those high-performing players to serve as role models can do wonders for the team. For example, you may want to choose a team captain and have that player give input in terms of how practice is run. Or, you can have them work with an individual player who is having trouble, which allows you to focus on the rest of the team. For high schoolers, this can be a tremendously useful tactic, as teenagers tend to listen to their peers more than adults.
Develop a Reward System
After every golf match, I like to take a few minutes to recognize a player who had the best performance that day. It might not be the player with the lowest score, but maybe someone who had a personal best, or had a tough up- and-down out of a bunker to save par, or maybe a player who broke 50 for the first time on nine holes. That player is declared “Raven of the Day” (raven being our school mascot). It’s a purely symbolic reward, but my players always vie to be the one chosen. It means a lot to them and they work hard to try to earn it.
This kind of reward system can bring out the best in your players. Just ensure that the reward is symbolic and not something of actual value. No giving out cash for birdies!
Be Able to Teach and Know When to Ask for Help
Luckily, even though I had never swum competitively , I knew more about swimming from growing up near the beach than did many members of the swim team. I was able to teach the basics of each stroke, and, of course, I did quite a lot of reading to learn what I didn’t know. For golf, I know quite a bit more and am far more in my comfort zone. But, occasionally coaches encounter an issue that they just can’t fix on their own. A player is still slicing the ball after all the fixes you can think of. Or, maybe you’re just not sure why a player keeps topping the ball. Or, maybe a player wants to know how to hit a flop shot and you’ve just never taught it before. Not knowing is okay. Not asking for help when you need it or teaching the wrong thing because you’re embarrassed is not okay.
Being a great coach doesn’t mean you will have the answer all the time. It also doesn’t mean that you have the best golfer in the world. I’ve often had players who can outplay me. It should be noted that some of the greatest coaches in the world just weren’t that great at playing the sport they coached. But, I would be willing to wager that those coaches knew when to ask for help.
Spending a few minutes to think about your coaching can be a great way to improve. After each practice or match, take a minute to examine what could have been done differently. Ask yourself, what situations could have been handled better? How did those drills go and what can I do to make them more effective next time?
This can also be a useful tool for your players. Have them stop to think about the round they just played. Ask them to think about the highs and lows of the round. If they had one shot to make again, what would they do differently? What was the best decision they made on the golf course today? These debriefing periods get players thinking about their game while you think about your coaching.
I will probably never coach another swim team again, but the experience taught me a lot of things about being a coach that are pretty universal. The tactics I’ve outlined above are by no means a comprehensive list. However, they can serve as a starting point in the discussion for what makes a great coach.
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