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Learning From Other Coaches: Beyond Workouts & Sets

Written By: Lucas Curotto Ferreira

In 2019-2020 I took a one-year sabbatical, and spent a good chunk of that time traveling across the country and visiting club and college teams. I wrote in more detail, and had a short-lived (but very long length) podcast that you can check out in my bio. But here I’ll write a quick summary of what was, to me, perhaps the most important lesson I took from that whole experience.

Swim coaches are always eager to learn from each other, and that is a great trait to have in the profession. Most often, that comes in the form of “stealing” each other’s workouts or sets. Now, don’t get me wrong, whenever I see a set or a workout posted anywhere my first instinct is also to look for what I like, steal without apology, and eventually switch things around to make it my own. There’s no shame there.

After spending a few months watching coaches in different programs across many different levels go about their craft, I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to try to go beyond workouts and sets in their quest to learn from other coaches. In one of his most famous talks back in 1971, James “Doc” Counsilman spoke about the “X” factor in coaching. While his conclusion in that talk is that the “X” factor is “the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff” (recognize and focus on the important things and minimize the unimportant), I’d offer that nowadays the “X” factor is actually on building relationships with your athletes.

In that same talk, Doc postulated that “if you gave three different coaches – one a psychologist, one a stroke mechanics expert, and one a physiologist – identical teams, that the psychologist would win every time”. Here I agree with Doc - this is a broad generalization, but the point is that coaches who recognize and work on building their athletes’ confidence will very likely set them up for success better than if all they focus on is the stroke mechanics or the work. I’d like to add that, from what I’ve seen, establishing relationships with your athletes is the best way to build their confidence.

Being on deck and watching different coaches, it is also clear that there is not one set way to do this, but the most successful programs I was lucky enough to be on deck with, it was clear that it was being done, one way or another. A common thread was constant communication, more often one-on-one than in large groups. Coaches were always engaging with their athletes at different times of the workout (or before and after the workout), often giving direct feedback but just as often simply engaging in conversation. While some coaches moved around on deck a lot, others moved less (sometimes constricted by the pool layout), but they were always engaged. The main reason I would call this the real “X” factor, is because it is very hard to describe, but it is clear once you see it.

So, while I don’t think a lot of people can set up to travel and not work for as long as I did (though the economics of that are also not as bad as it may sound), I’d like to encourage coaches to try and spend a week here or there visiting clubs every year or two. It helps if you have any sort of connections (a friend who know a coach, a swimmer you sent to a college program you want to visit, etc.), but in many cases I simply sent a cold email to a coach or program I wanted to visit, offering some possible dates, and more often than not heard back within a couple days that it would be fine (for large programs and especially large college programs, if you don’t have any connection with the head coach you are more likely to hear back from an assistant coach; don’t take that personally, head coaches from those programs get 100s, sometimes thousands of emails every day).

Visiting another program, preferably for 3-4 days at least, is likely the best professional development opportunity you can have, and if you sell it right you might even be able to convince your club or program to not only support you but help cover expenses while doing it – you will, after all, return a better coach and better asset for them, guaranteed.

Lucas has been the Head Coach of Gwinnett Aquatics – just outside Atlanta, GA – since August 2020. Prior to taking over this position, he spent 8 years as the team’s Head Age Group Coach between 2011 and 2019, and took a one-year sabbatical between August 2019 and May 2020. During that time, Lucas travelled across the US and abroad and visited a number of programs, which he turned into a blog and a podcast ( Prior to his move to Georgia, Lucas was Head Age Group Coach of the Ames Cyclone Aquatics Club in Ames, IA for two years. He went to Iowa after earning his Master’s degree in Health and Human Performance at the University of Memphis.Lucas was born and grew up in Brazil, where he also got his BS in Physical Education/Teaching Education. He’s got experience as a school PE teacher, athletics director and activities coordinator, and has got both a teaching certification and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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