The Truth of The Matter: Coaching Is Coaching

Written By: Tom Hazelett

There are so many angles to write about within the topic of age group to senior coaching, and if you know me, you know that I have an opinion on all of them. One question I know many people have is “how do you even get the opportunity to be a senior level coach after spending most of your career in the age group coaching ranks?” It seems you have a better chance to get a senior coaching opportunity coming straight out of a college-swimming career (with no coaching experience) than if you have being successfully coaching age group athletes for 12 years. Let’s tell it like it is, it is hard to get a senior coaching job coming from the age group side of swimming and many argue that coaching age groupers could end up being detrimental to your chances. Most of the coaches that have taken the leap were most likely passed up multiple times before getting that opportunity. Age group coaches do not get the same level of respect in the sport of swimming and the general perception of them is often borderline insulting. It tip-toes more on how good they are with kids (virtual babysitting) rather than on their coaching ability or swimming knowledge. Overcoming that perception will likely be the overwhelming thing they have to deal with when they make the switch, whether from parents, swimmers, or other coaches. I bet there are several age group coaches that say they want to be senior coaches when all they really need is the same level of credit, recognition, or even pay that senior level coaches receive (but that is a topic for another time). To be honest, I do not have those answers or the magic formulas that led to the opportunity for me at the senior level. I am 100% willing to acknowledge that I am blessed to be a part of a team and organization that is very forward thinking and I am indebted to the people that took a chance on me. I do feel very confident about the guidelines to a successful transition between age group and senior coaching. Does that mean that I do not have my share of adversity and failure? No, of course I do, but I want to share a roadmap that worked for me to create a solid foundation for what I believe will be a bright future. In addition, don’t think of your senior coaching opportunity as “starting fresh” and in fact what you may see is remarkable similarities between the two, not the overwhelming contrast that we are all made to think. Why? Because there is now no doubt in my mind that my experiences as an age group coach have been the key to any success I have had and will continue to have as a senior coach.

“I will prepare and someday my chance will come” -- Abraham Lincoln

I never considered myself an age group coach, I have simply always thought of myself as a coach who is constantly trying to learn about swimming and apply it appropriately to whatever level I was teaching. Every skill taught in the sport of swimming has a place at every level. Regardless the level of athlete, I have always tried to have a “top down” approach to my thinking. “What are they doing at the next level? How can I alter it for whoever I am coaching to help them progress to that? And most importantly, “do I have ideas to do it better?” For example, when I started with YOTA I was an assistant coach with the national group and the lead coach for the high school development group. I had a journal where I kept my workouts and on one side of the book I would write down what the national group was doing and on the other side of the book I would write what my group was doing. In many cases, they were essentially the same practice except altered appropriately for the skill of my group. If it was a skill that was too advanced for my developmental group, I altered that too (it was not just about intervals and distances). When I became in charge of my own age group site I did the exact same thing. It was a knowledge of swimming (not of age group swimming) that I felt was the best way to prepare age groupers. I felt my job was to observe what the senior group was doing all the time and then strip it down, sometimes ALLLLL the way down to the 8 and under. At the time I was confident about 3 things: my knowledge about swimming technique and how to teach it, my work ethic and consistency, and how much I care about my athletes and their families. I took these things with me and I was very aware of what I was going to try to do at the senior level (my plan).

“Whatever you are, be a good one” – Abraham Lincoln

My Plan -Focus 1, It Starts With the Coach

To me it always starts the same way, it starts with culture and environment, and that starts with the coach. Groups take on the personality of their coach so you must establish who you are early and have high expectations for the group that you are not willing to compromise. For me, these high expectations started with character. I demanded things from them as a person and most importantly, I wanted to be the first to set the example for them to follow. Make it hard for anyone to be more committed than you. Show up on time or early EVERY time, be prepared EVERY time, be consistent in your demeanor, and above all else ALWAYS be a person of your word. I am of the opinion that the coach needs to show the level excellence they want. I challenged my athletes to care more than I did because I knew if they actually did that they would reach their full potential as BOTH a swimmer and person. I think to transition successfully you have to be willing to follow through on this focus.

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” -- Abraham Lincoln

Focus 2- Changing the Narrative

There is no doubt the number one most annoying piece of adversity an age group turned senior coach will face is the doubt that comes along with you getting the job. The stigma and the stereotypes are predictable and range anywhere from parents and coaches thinking “they don’t know how to train anyone but age groupers” to swimmers thinking, “they are going to treat me like I am a little kid.” Although developing relationships with parents is important and necessary, the first step to changing that narrative is with the athletes. My goals was to create a family of people that actually cared about each other because I know that if I do that then literally anything is possible. If you want to change the narrative for real, then make your group about the group and not you. You begin making them literally work for each other and when one fails so does their teammate, nothing is individual at this point. Show them that they are in charge of their goals, each other’s success depends on one another, and the power that love and respect have. You MUST create a group that is bigger that any one athlete and they must know that they are part of something special. I think to transition successfully you have to be willing to put in the work and endure this stage.

“I'm a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn't have the heart to let him down.” – Abraham Lincoln

Focus 3- The Technique and Training

Despite the immense amount of pressure that is put on a senior coach for the athletes to succeed (especially coming from age group coaching), the nuts and bolts of swimming is THE LAST piece to this roadmap. When I first began with my seniors, my philosophy was simple. They are faster and bigger…the faster the more drag, the bigger the more drag. I felt my strengths as a technique focused age group coach helped me tremendously when I arrived on the scene as a senior coach. Just as I spent much of my coaching career to that point figuring out how to modify a skill for age group athletes, this transition asked, “How do I integrate the technique focus I had at the age group level into the training that was needed at the senior level?” Although there were plenty of people telling me, I was already aware of what I knew and what I did not know as a swim coach. I built my entire coaching career on the philosophy that I do not have to be good at everything to be a good coach, I just need to surround myself with people that know the things I don’t, take what they teach me, and apply them appropriately (and at the right time) to my athletes. I listen to others and read books the same way I thought when I was in age group swimming, “what are they saying and how can I make it better”. I have a belief that everything you do has to be your own in some way. I want to be the one that creates innovation, the new way, and the better way of doing something. BUT almost everything I do has the fingerprints of another coach; both age group and senior. I think to transition successfully, you must show your gratitude and appreciation for those coaches.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it” – Abraham Lincoln

Coach Tom Hazelett has been with YOTA since 2006. Tom is originally from Danville, Indiana where he was a successful swimming instructor and high school/summer coach for the town of Danville. Tom has a history of growing successful programs both in Indiana and with YOTA, starting the Downtown Durham Site. Tom is the Lead Senior 1 Coach for the West groups (Durham/Chapel Hill) as well as a Paralympic coach for Team USA. In his 14 years with YOTA, Tom has been both age group coach (12 years) and senior coach (2 years). Tom has been blessed to coach many very talented athletes including several YOTA team record holders, multiple NC State champions and state record holders, and Junior National qualifiers. He has been a US Paralympic Trip Coach since 2012 and had the great honors of representing YOTA on the Paralympic stage serving on the coaching staff for Can-Am in Montreal and Toronto Canada as well as the Head Coach of the 2017 Can-Am in Charlotte. In addition, Tom served as Head Coach for the US Coaching Staff at multiple World Para Series events. With YOTA, he coached Lucas McCrory (S7) from 2012-2016 where he became a Can-AM Champion in multiple events and a YMCA National Qualifier. He also had the honor of working closely with YOTA swimmer and Paralympian Hannah Aspden (S9) from 2012-2016 where she broke multiple American records, earned several International medals, and became part of the US National teams. Hannah earned a 2 Bronze Medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio as the youngest American medalist in swimming at both the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. His time with US Paralympic swimming along with the success of the athletes that he has coached forwarded him the honors of receiving USA Swimming's Jimi Flowers Disability Coach of the Year Award in 2016 as well as a membership into the Olympic Committee’s Order of Ikkos (given to him by Hannah). Although he does not currently have para athletes that he coaches directly, he still works with US Paralympics as a lead coach in their developmental process with clinics and meets throughout the year. In addition to coaching, he continues to be an integral part of the very successful WBP Annual Campaign and has led individual teams with YOTA that have raised more than $500,000 for the community between 2008-2020. When not coaching, Tom loves to be with his family. Once an avid golfer, enjoys playing anytime he can. He is a loyal Purdue Boilermaker, Indiana Pacers, and Indianapolis Colts fan. Tom has a bachelor's degree in History from Purdue University. Tom is a 2-palm Eagle Scout, an ASCA Level 3 certified coach and recipient of the ASCA (American Swim Coaches Association) 2010 Doc Counsilman Creative Coaching Award. Tom lives in Mebane with his wife of 11 years, Nicole, his daughter Emily (6 years old) and his 14 year old cat Zoey.

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