Written By: Chad Onken
Last week, I celebrated another birthday. This special day provided me with a great reminder of how blessed I am to take another trip around the sun; but more importantly, it was a day of reflection on the impact that special relationships throughout the sport of swimming have provided in my life. I am fortunate to have several deep, meaningful, and impactful relationships with a ton of coaches, mentors, parents, officials, teammates, and staff throughout the world of swimming. However, the relationships that I treasure the most are the coach-athlete relationships that have developed over my 20 years on a pool deck.
World class coaches throughout the athletic world, whether it be Doc Counsilman, Mike Krzyzewski, or Steve Kerr, stress the importance of the positive coach-athlete relationship. Effective coaching runs deeper than achieving best times and winning gold medals, it also includes reaching athletes on an individual level. Coaches who focus on positive, personal relationships with their athletes are ensuring success beyond their athletes’ best times in the pool. Genuine relationships between athletes and coaches generate more trust, better communication, and a winning positive attitude.
While I may never claim to be a technical wizard or season-planning genius, the positive relationship and mutual respect developed with athletes I have coached has brought about success at the highest levels of our sport, including the NCAA, national, and international level. (Additionally, these young men and women have grown outside the pool into positive, ethical, and excellent parents, professionals, and people after their athletic career concluded.)
My 6 tips for building a strong coach-athlete relationship are as follows:
Be demanding without being demeaning
Demanding leadership involves setting an uncompromising standard that you expect athletes to strive towards.
Demeaning leadership involves bullying, sarcasm, blaming the athletes for poor results, and giving preferential treatment to better or more talented athletes. It’s simple – be demanding, not demeaning.
With clear communication, coaches can lead, direct, and manage their teams more effectively. In return, the team and individual athletes can both freely express ideas and concerns to the benefit of everyone. Talk “with” athletes not “at” athletes. An open line of communication helps everyone be more honest with one another, which leads to stronger training, athletic progress, and personal growth.
Show you care
For a coach to gain the respect of his/her athletes, they must give respect in return. To create stronger coach-athlete relationships, coaches should show a genuine interest in things that go above and beyond team or sport related issues. Teenagers especially, respond well when coaches remember things that they are passionate about outside of the pool. But DON’T FAKE IT – be sincere and show that you care. Remember, they don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
As I have become a husband and father, this one has remained one of my biggest challenges. Although we coach in a sport filled with morning and evening workouts, weekend swim meets, and very little “vacation time” – we have to make ourselves available to our athletes. By being available and engaged, coaches have an opportunity to positively influence their athletes. Coaches who make themselves available to their athletes are paving the way toward establishing and nurturing strong relationships.
Build them up
Coaches who help their teams visualize a positive outcome can increase the athlete’s/team’s chances of achieving success. While it’s important to challenge swimmers to be better with specific skills, don’t forget to tell athlete’s what they are doing well. Coaches may find that with this type of reinforcement, their players will find their own inner-motivation and continue to improve individually. A team that is self-motivated can rise above challenges and find success. One of the coach’s responsibilities is to help their players grow as athletes, as well as help them gain confidence in their skills both in and out of the pool. This is much more easily attainable by building athletes up, rather than knocking them down.
Develop mutual trust
Trust is the cornerstone of a strong bond and it is formed when a coach provides clear instructions, delivers positive reinforcement, and shows genuine interest. Once trust is established, athletes usually listen more closely, follow instructions more readily, and generally enjoy the entire team experience more intently. Mutual trust is beneficial to the team, to how athletes play their sports, and it often leads to positive results.
The ability to create coach-athlete relationships is a unique skill that coaches must develop. It takes problem-solving, patience, understanding, and mutual trust—and it is the coach who must lead the way in creating intra-team bonds. Best of luck to you in your coaching journey. I look forward to seeing you on the pool deck soon.
Chad Onken is the Co-Head Coach of the Quest Swimming program in his hometown of Midlothian, Virginia. He started with Quest on January 1st, 2019. Primarily known for the discovery and development of world record holder, NCAA Champion, and 2008/2012 US Olympic Gold Medalist Cullen Jones, Chad has 20 years of successful championship coaching experience throughout age group, high school, YMCA, and NCAA championship swimming. In addition to being a Level 5 certified coach by the American Swimming Coaches Association, Chad is also a six-time recipient of the ASCA "Award for Coaching Excellence." Most recently Chad has been voted to the ASCA (American Swimming Coaches Association) Board of Directors., where he serves as the Treasurer. Additionally, Onken has been an active member of various committees and governance organizations within the YMCA of the USA, NC Swimming, VA swimming and USA Swimming. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Virginia Swimming, and is also a member of the VSI Senior Committee and Governance Committee. Before Quest, Chad served as the Head Coach/Senior Director of Competitive Swimming at the YMCA of the Triangle Area (YOTA) Swim Team in Raleigh, NC from 2006-2018. During his time with the YOTA Swim Team, Chad oversaw the "Golden Age" of the program; breaking several North Carolina state records, coaching a USA Swimming Junior National champion, recording numerous USA Swimming Junior and Senior National time standards, breaking 100+ YOTA team records, winning dozens of YMCA National individual and relay titles, setting a number of YMCA National records, and breaking 3 National Age Group records. Chad led a group of six YOTA athletes to Olympic Trials in 2012 and seven YOTA athletes to Omaha in 2016. YOTA also had success on the international level as well, having multiple athletes qualify to represent the United States in a variety of international competitions. The YMCA of the Triangle Area Swim Team had athletes qualify for the 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012, and 2014-2015 USA National Junior Teams. Additionally, the YOTA Swim Team was crowned the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Men's YMCA National Champions and 2014 Women’s YMCA National Champions under Coach Onken's leadership. Chad's success has been recognized by USA Swimming, as he was selected to be on the coaching staff for a variety of national teams and select camps. Chad has also been nominated for several Coach of the Year awards, both within NC and throughout the country - winning the 2012 NC Swimming "Coach of the Year" award. Chad graduated from Florida State University in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice; while helping the swimming team achieve top twelve finishes at the NCAA Championships. Given a choice to attend law school or coach swimming, Chad decided to give back to a sport that gave him so much. Chad moved to Raleigh in 2000 as the Head Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator at NC State University. In addition to his regular on-deck duties for the Wolfpack, Onken played an instrumental role in the strength and conditioning, team building, mental training, nutritional education and academic development of the swimmers at N.C. State. While at N.C. State, Chad was the primary coach responsible for developing one USA Swimming National “B” Team Member, six US Olympic Trial qualifiers, six NCAA All-Americans, six ACC Champions, 10 school record holders, and five top 100 FINA World Ranked athletes. Furthermore, Onken served as the Head Coach for the N.C. State Aquatics Team during the summertime, where two of his athletes represented the United States in international competition. Chad was also very involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Athletes In Action program. After five years at N.C. State, Coach Onken became the Assistant Swimming Coach at national powerhouse Auburn University. During his stint with the Tigers, Onken helped the team capture both the men’s and women’s 2006 NCAA team championship titles. In addition to various administrative and recruiting duties, Chad helped coach seven NCAA Champions, 34 NCAA All-Americans, 13 SEC Champions and 13 Auburn school record-holders.Having coached alongside some of the best coaches in the business, Chad considers both David Marsh and Dudley Duncan to be his two primary mentors. Chad is very happily married to the former Lauren Romano, also of Midlothian, Virginia. They have an adorable schnoodle puppy named Bowden and are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Marilyn and Charlotte.