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Advice To A Young or New Head Swim Coach

Written By: Don Spellman


Given the duration and time frame of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unstable conditions that many of us have had to deal with in the club swimming profession we have a large percentage of coaches taking on the tasks of being a head coach. Looking back on my own 27 plus years on the pool deck as an assistant and head coach along with my bi-weekly drives on Interstate 80 across the state of Iowa last year (to coach in the Des Moines area) I had a lot of time to think about what I would tell those starting their full time journey in our sport. Here are a few key points I see during this time period in our sport.


1. Figure out your club’s goals and your club’s needs. My advice would be to organize both into two to four year plans. The best clubs who achieve competitive success at the national levels for decades figure out their financial and competitive planning around Olympic time frames. Coach owned clubs, non-profit clubs, and institution owned teams can have radically different needs which will lead to a different set of goals for each different style of programs.


2. Figure out your club’s coaching structure by the start of your second full season. How many full-time & part-time staff are needed? Who is in charge of writing and conducting workouts for each training group? Which groups need more of your attention & time at certain points of the season. Many head coaches end up just working with the top group everyday of the week and this is a mistake. Effective head coaches know a bit about each group (and most athletes) on their teams. I make an effort to work weekly with at least 2 groups other than the top 2 groups in my programs even when I have salaried assistant coaches on my staff. The athletes are more successful at the senior level if they are familiar with you as an age-grouper.


Oftentimes you might feel like a lead singer or lead guitarist of a band tying to keep the rest of the bunch making music. Remember that you might not be able to be U2 or Rolling Stones and your staff might be more like being in The Replacements or the Ramones on tour some seasons. Just know that both The Replacements and The Ramones, with all their internal issues and faults, still made some outrageously brilliant music and played some epic live sets during their existence.


I always valued trying to have coaches from different backgrounds on my staff as well. In the last two decades I have been fortunate enough to work with people that swam for club programs in California, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, and multiple states along the East Coast. I had the good luck to have many former college swimmers (from D3 to D1 institutions) and as of this year I have had two former Mexican national team members work with me (who also happen to be brothers). A few of my former coaches came through triathlon and Masters swimming programs but competed in high levels during high school in college at sports ranging from road cycling, rowing, to speed skating.


3. Stay on top of all administrative & “dry-side” issues. Budgeting and policy issues can sidetrack membership but also coaching careers. While a head coach doesn’t need to control or dominate these areas a head coach cannot allow administrators (on institution owned teams) or a few board members (on 501c.3 / non-profit clubs) to manipulate areas of a club in ways that could cause cracks and fissures in the foundations you are looking to put in place or fortify. I saw rampant negative issues at the board level play out on a past club I directed for a period of over nine years. Had I not been married to a spouse with a decent job and had two kids in grade school I would have proceeded with legal actions against some past BOD members and moved on from that situation earlier. On the other hand, I am proud I was mentally strong enough and smart enough to fight for the club I loved and keep my staff employed and our swimmers racing at all levels.


4. Keep your health in mind each season. Stress can creep up on you and have a negative impact on your well-being. Use most of your vacation days and plan time frames to enjoy friends and family. Some things are unavoidable (like genetic issues or accidents) but some health problems, especially related to working on pool decks, can creep up on you. I have had some friends in the coaching profession deal with various forms of skin cancer from working years on outdoor pool decks. I have problems with my esophagus from years of working at indoor pools with substandard or outdated ventilation. A few years ago I had an unexpected problem with my ear (related to consistent ear infections during my own club and college swimming career) which lead to a few surgeries (along with some moderately long recovery periods). I had to lean on my staff and board members a bit more than I liked but we still managed to race well during taper phases. Get your healthcare plans in order and take measures to protect yourself because you will have medical problems pop up along your path forward if you plan to be coaching past your thirties.


5. Value collaboration and working with others as much as you do competition. I want my athletes to achieve their goals but when a friend from a club that I have good relationships with (and who attends meets my team hosts) needs help, I try to pitch in if I can. When I had access to the only indoor 50 meter pool in Iowa and a friend from another team had an athlete (or athletes) getting ready for Sectional or National level competitions I would allow them to come train with us. I set up mini training camps in the winter and spring oftentimes with one or more teams to utilize the 50 m format for training. Those workouts also helped make my kids more competitive and forged lifelong friendships with athletes from other teams for many of those involved. If you can set up situations where you improve the competitiveness of your athletes and help out another team in the process it can be very rewarding on a few levels.


6.Keep your principles intact and develop a code of ethics. Ethics training is one area that I feel both USA-Swimming and our coaching associations need to focus on more as our sport expands and becomes more diverse. I was shocked how often swim coaches would try to undermine other rival full-time coaches and teams when I first started coaching. Through my years engaging in governance efforts both at the national and LSC level there were often times when I realized some guidance was needed with those common leadership roles in our sport.


If you feel that you are not ready to take on being a head coach you might not be but you're also not alone. A lot of us get our first crack at full time coaching when it is not ideal timing. Opportunity doesn’t always work on planned or standard schedules or the same clocks. Dive in, swim forward, and reach out to those you trust for advice. I hope these 6 points will help you out a bit.


Coach Spellman is the former Head Coach of the Iowa City Eels Swim Club (Sept. 1998 to Aug. 2020) and the Des Moines Swimming Federation (Sept. 2020 to Aug. 2021). Don is a four time Iowa Swimming Inc. Age-Group Coach of the Year and four time Senior Coach of the Year award winner. Don has served on Team Iowa Coaching staffs at Midwest All-Stars and Central Zones Championship meets 11 times and helped over 45 athletes go on to swim in college (at NAIA and NCAA affiliated institutions). Coach Don has worked with 59 Iowa High School State Meet Qualifiers, 7 IGHSAU / IHSAA State Champions (who earned 16 state championships titles), 9 NISCA High School All-Americans, and trained 11 athletes who went on to compete at the USA Olympic Swimming Trials (2000, 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2021). Don is a former University of Nevada Las Vegas, WDM Dowling Catholic (IA) High School, Perry (IA) High School, DMSF, and Iowa City Eels - Masters swimmer. Coach Don has served as IASI Technical Planning Chairperson, IASI Senior Vice-Chairperson, President of the Iowa Swimming Coaches Association, currently serves as the IASI Diversity and Inclusion Chairperson. and is a multi year delegate to USA-S Conventions and coaching staff member for Central Zone Diversity camps. In 2020 Coach Don was awarded the USA-Swimming / Phillips 66 Service Award by Iowa Swimming Inc. for his dedication with helping on the governance side of the sport. Coach Don lives in the Iowa City area with his wife Emily. Don & Emily's twin daughters (Anna & Grace) are currently undergraduate students at the University of Iowa.


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