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Coaching Compass: Sharing My North, South, East & West

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Written By: Nico Messer

I have been fortunate to be a full time swim coach at various levels and in quite a few different environments for over a decade. One would argue that during these past 10+ years, I must have learned a few things. Nonetheless, I felt somehow unfit providing advice in the form of an article for the "Teachable Tuesday" segment on Streamline Teams. Therefore, it's important to let you know that although I will share some of the exceptional advice I have received from great leaders, mentors, and friends over the years, all reflects my own interpretation and understand of these principles. And please do use the comments section to challenge my beliefs and help me evolve into the next decade of coaching.

Do you know where you're going or where you want to go in the coaching profession? No matter where you are in your coaching career, you should always trust your gut feelings and follow your internal compass!

"A compass is a device that shows the cardinal directions used for navigation and geographic orientation" - Wikipedia

Yes, in order to be successful, it's important for us coaches to know our "why", define our (coaching) values, our own vision (goals) and mission (career roadmap). And there are plenty of resources on these things floating in the global pool that we call the "Internet". However, in finding your "True North" you will decide what you value most in coaching (maybe even in life) and put your purpose and beliefs at the forefront of your doing (coaching) to discover your authentic self. And despite many similarities, no two people will have the same "True North". These things represent you as a person (coach) on the deepest level and will help you become the best person (coach & leader) you can be!

North for New Ways – Lead don't Push

All the way back in 2012 while attending the first World Aquatic Development Conference in Lund (SWE) this three word "blurb" by Coach Chris Martin really changed things for me.

Coaching is a complicated task. In most environments you will come up with the (season) plan, "dictate" how you want things done, and (occasionally) push your athletes to their limits. The athletes don't have to do much thinking in this process unless you actively and purposely empower them with opportunities for growth through accountability, responsibility and self-reliance. Today, I'm fully convinced that leading rather than pushing your athletes is the right way to help them in developing their full potential (as an athlete and a person).

East for Evolution not Revolution – Coach the Person not the Athlete

It must have been at an ASCA World Clinic where legendary University of Texas Men's Head Coach Eddie Reese mentioned that some days he almost doesn't get to see any of what's going on in the pool at UT because he's trying to talk to each young men on their team at least once during their practices - even for as little as complementing them on a new swim suit or haircut.

I'd challenge all of you to give this one a try - it sounds fun and easy but really is hard (coaching) work!

The bond between athlete and coach, especially the building trust part, is vital for success at all levels. It is what we call soft skills that probably separate the good from the great in coaching. Personality and charisma are a big part of this, however, we often forget that these skills can be learned and improved!

Clearly "good coaching" isn't only about what you do but probably just as much about how you do it! And remember, it's not always all about swimming!

South for Standards not Rules – Raise the Bar

I don't know exactly when this became "a thing" for me. It must have been in the later years of my own swimming in Florida while swimming under and later working under coaches Mark Hill, Jon Olsen, Andy Deichert, and Dr. Gary Hall Sr. - and really became a "reality" while being in the Head Coach position for the first time in my professional career. I was discussing some of the rules I wanted to implement to face the challenges of this new job and eventually was told the following:

"You don't need rules. But you do need standards of excellence that inspire, empower, and challenge those you lead to higher levels of achievement. Rules require punishments and thus can be labeled forceful and demeaning. With standards everybody gets to contribute to and own how things are done and thus you ultimately increase the likelihood of success."

Take a moment to reflect upon this statement - are you abiding by "the rules" just because it’s what you are supposed to do instead of running your team with "reasoning"? Better ask yourself what standards you want to set in order to raise your (own, athletes, and teams) level of excellence!

West for Wellness – Health and Well-Being of Swimming Coaches

This last one might seem trendy these days but really has been around in the coaching profession for ever. We spend so much time looking after other people that we most often forget to take care of ourselves. Coaching for many is a lifestyle and I would argue that the often debated work-life balance doesn't exist in our work. However, we need to remember that in order to be there and able to give a 100% for those people, we need to be fit & healthy ourselves!

University of California Berkley Women's Head Coach Teri McKeever said at the same clinic in Sweden that she has "learned" to block times for her to work out (or do other things to take care of herself) and now tells people that she's busy when asked for "appointments" during this time. Former University of Florida Head Coach Gregg Troy at an ASCA World Clinic once explained that their staff was taking turns in mandatory three day weekends to completely disconnect from coaching and swimming in order to recharge batteries.

Whatever it is for you - make these important personal things priorities in your daily routine by marking them in your calendar!

This is a "snapshot" of where I'm right now in my own coaching path and hopefully these things will continue to provide me with good guidance in the future. You will find many other (better) articles taking a different angle and going into more depth on some of the "N-E-S-W"s above - the wealth of knowledge already available on Streamline Teams is simply amazing!

Nicolas Messer is in his second season as the Head Coach of the Swim Regio Solothurn in Switzerland and the founder of the ProSwimWorkouts platform. Previous coaching stops included working with the High Performance Program of the Swiss Armed Forces and other club teams in Switzerland. Nico has also spent time living and coaching in Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway) as well as in the US.

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