Learning From The Best: My Development As A Swimming Coach

Written By: Joe Plane

I’ve been very fortunate in my swimming/coaching career to have been exposed to the very best our sport has to offer. I wouldn’t have developed my love of the sport without the exposure, support and challenges from my club and high school coach John Hamlin in the small town of Marshall, Michigan (6,000 people when I lived there). I was also blessed to have Kelly Kremer (Head Swimming Coach at University of Minnesota) as my Head Coach during my junior year in college at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR.

Kelly was a young coach being only four years older than me when he was my coach. Despite the closeness of our ages, Kelly always presented himself professionally, and the entire team respected him, and we were very happy to have him as our coach. He had very high expectations for all of us, not just the best on the team who would score at Nationals. I was never a great swimmer, but I was always a hard worker, and Kelly saw that, and he helped me develop in races that I never expected to focus on. I came to college as a breaststroker and IM’er. Kelly believed in my ability to swim distance, and through patience and hard work, I improved drastically, and my favorite personal race of all time is my 1650 at our conference championships my junior year where I placed 7th, which was the highest place I would earn in college. From those experiences, I have always tried to get my swimmers to be open to being a “swimmer” versus being a “flyer” or “breaststroker” etc. We train IM and all distances of freestyle, so that my swimmers can develop completely in all aspects of their swimming. Oftentimes my swimmers become successful in races they never planned on, and this philosophy stems from my time with Coach Kremer.

In 1997, Coach Hamlin called me at my internship and asked if I wanted to coach the new year round team in Marshall. I said, “I’m not sure, but I’ll come talk to you about it”. I met with him and some parents, and on April 28 I began my coaching journey. I was finishing my bachelors degree and working full time as a mechanical engineering intern. I was hooked. I loved getting back to my beloved sport, and I loved helping motivated young people to work hard, set goals and swim fast.

I continued to do all those things while my love for coaching swimming was increasing, and in November 2000, I was offered my first full time coaching job as the Head Coach of Wolverine Aquatics in Ann Arbor, MI. In 2002, I sent an email to many successful swim coaches across all levels. I wanted to create a swimming practice sharing platform. One of the coaches who responded quickly with a team practice was Jim Richardson of the University of Michigan Women’s Swimming team. I was so excited that a coach of Coach Richardson’s stature would take the time to reply to little ole me. (I had attended the U of M swimming camps after my freshman and sophomore years of high school). I was starting to think that I would enjoy coaching at the college level, and I reached out to Coach Richardson in 2003 to see if there was a chance I could volunteer with his team. Shocking to me, Jim responded shortly and said “come on in and talk with me.” I came in and he said, sure thing, you can be a volunteer assistant, which meant I could hold a stopwatch and yell out times. Lucky for me, the position of volunteer coach opened up in 2004, and Coach Richardson offered that to me. I of course accepted which meant that I could provide stroke technique correction and even guide specific workouts. While “coaching elite level athletes” was extremely rewarding and educational, being on that deck every day was an education that was beyond any I could ever pay for. I was able to talk with Coach Richardson and his assistant Stephanie Kerska daily, learning about the purpose of each workout, set, and maybe even more importantly for a college coach, how recruiting worked.

Of course I learned a lot about the structure of workouts, and most specifically the use of the Michigan color charts. However, I would say that one of the most important things that stuck with me from Coach Richardson was regarding team chemistry. If you’ve never been to Canham Natatorium, you should go. The swimming history there, as well as that from before the pool existed, is amazing. One of the coolest things is all the Big Ten Championship banners hanging from the ceiling. One day Jim and I were chatting, and we were looking at the banners. He said, “you know what Joe? There are gaps up there, where there are no banners, and I remember those years as being amazing years with amazing women who came together as a team, and we just weren’t the best team athletically that year. At the same time, there are banners up there where there was so much drama and conflict within the team, that, in some ways, I wish I could forget them.” My take away there was to do your best to build your team with people who are like minded both athletically, personally, and socially. I have always done my best as a college swimming recruiter to be fully honest about what the team is, what I want the team to be, and how I expect the team to behave/function in and out of the pool. In my four plus years here at Iowa Central, that has been one of my most important goals. To make sure that incoming freshmen know what I expect out of them, not only in the pool and weight room, but in the classroom and the dorm rooms.

During my first year as the volunteer assistant, Coach Jon Urbancek was in his last year as the Head Coach of the Michigan Men’s Swimming team. I was so fortunate to be able to interact with Jon daily even though I wasn’t working with the men’s team. He was always so positive and open to discuss what the team was doing that day. I’d say the most impactful thing I learned (while not always easy to apply) was his ability to stay positive regardless of what was going on. I’d say that Jon mastered the art of sarcasm as a way to express his feelings that were less than excited. He constantly found ways to get the best out of his athletes, and they almost always responded positively. I personally never had any interaction with Coach Urbancek that was anything less than positive.

After the 2004 Olympics, Coach Bob Bowman was named Head Coach of the Michigan Men’s Swimming Team. Again, I never had an affiliation with the men’s program, but we shared the pool deck, and I was again lucky to be in a situation where I was able to learn from one of the best swimming minds of our time. One of my most memorable situations with Coach Bowman

was a day where the men’s team was not performing up to par during practice. One of the things that he said to the team has always stuck with me. He said “You can’t just put the M on and expect to be great.” Swimmers must be focussed on continuous improvement in order to achieve their highest potential.

In 2006 Greg Meehan hired me to be his assistant at University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. This was Greg’s second year as the Head Coach at UOP. He trusted me with coordinating recruiting and coaching the sprinters and breaststrokers. Prior to Greg being hired, UOP had a head coach for 3 years, then another head coach for just 2 years, so when I was hired we had swimmers who had been recruited by 3 different head coaches. Our main goal during our time together was to develop one consistent message/philosophy within all the swimmers. This was a difficult task as swimmers often decide to swim for coaches based on how their personalities match up. I have used my time with Greg in the way I recruit now, which is to be extremely open and honest with each recruit about who I am as a coach and person, and what my expectations are for each member of this team. My ultimate goal is to bring in swimmers who have similar work ethics in and out of the pool and who have a desire to function as a single family unit. After a trying first two years, working with swimmers who were recruited by a different coach, I feel I’ve done a better job of getting that message across to recruits, and our teams have had more success because of that.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with and observe so many great coaches at different times in my life who have had a very positive impact on how I coach today. Each coach taught me something different. I would say the one thing that I have learned from each of these coaches is to never stop learning. I hope I’m a better coach today than I was yesterday, and I hope that I will be a better coach tomorrow than I am today.

Coach Joe has been the Head Men’s and Women’s Swimming Coach for the Iowa Central Tritons since April 2016. Since that time he has led the women’s team to three consecutive third place finishes at the NJCAA Nationals, 2017-2019. The Men’s team recorded their first ever runner up finish at Nationals in 2019, and the men have earned 6 National Championships, 4 individuals and 2 relays. Coach Joe has been coaching swimming since 1997. He has coached all levels of swimming; from learn-to-swim up to Olympic Trial qualifiers. Coach Joe has worked with and around some of the greatest coaches in the United States. He swam for Kelly Kremer at John Brown University, who is now the Head Coach of the University of Minnesota Men’s and Women’s swimming and diving teams. Coach Joe also worked with Jim Richardson from the University of Michigan Women’s swimming team from 2003 to 2006. While at Michigan, he had the opportunity to observe Head Men’s Coach Jon Urbanchek and Head Men’s Coach Bob Bowman, as well as the greatest Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps. He also worked alongside Greg Meehan (current Women's Head Swimming and Diving Coach at Stanford University), while working at University of the Pacific as the recruiting coordinator and sprint and breaststroke coach. Coach Joe attended John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas where he swam at the collegiate level and majored in Mechanical Engineering, and he has a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics with a minor in Physics from Western Michigan University, and will earn his Masters Degree in Mathematics from University of Northern Iowa in May, 2021. Joe lives in Fort Dodge with his wife Jaime and their youngest son Aiden.

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