Written By: Erin O'Connell
I have been coaching since I was 16 years old. During my 18 years of experience, there is one thing above all else that drives team success. You may think this is something along the lines of talent, coaching ability, set structure or even equipment/facility access. Of course all of those aforementioned things are important, but you can be missing one of those things as long as you have the most important one. FAMILY CULTURE.
In years past I have coached with teams where I always felt “something is missing” It took me a long time to put a finger on what exactly that was. Some of these teams had amazing dedicated athletes, but many of them didn’t seem very happy.
I quickly realized I personally put a much larger importance on finding joy and connections within a team than some other programs I had worked with. It has been scientifically proven that the one thing which brings people true happiness above all else is human connection. Having a lot of money, or talent, or general success is not what our souls actually crave.
Swimming is a true love/hate sport. To deny that is to deny the truth. More so than a lot of other sports, our athletes deal with the ever asked question “why am I doing this?”. The dream is to have a team full of athletes who are 100% internally motivated and wanting to do better every day without needing much of a push. Anyone who has coached swimming for even just a few months knows that this NEVER happens with the majority of our athletes. There are various ways to instill motivation externally. Some examples are: offering prizes for accomplishing difficult sets/times, threatening with a “punishment set” if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, or saying “if you don’t beat *insert athlete name here* you are repeating the set.
As an age group specialist I will never deny the power offering a candy bar as a reward can have on a time trial. However, we need to remember as coaches where all of those external motivations really come from. Bottom line is ACCEPTANCE. They don't swim fast because they really care that much about a piece of candy. It's the feeling of doing something they were challenged to do and completing that challenge. The athletes themselves may not even realize it's not the candy bar they really want. It's the attention, acknowledgment, and feeling of acceptance they get from this challenge.
These concepts apply most strongly with 12 and unders or beginner swimmers. This is the most delicate and difficult time in a swimmer's career. It is the beginning of their relationship with the sport. This is where connecting with your local community becomes of paramount importance.
As coaches we often forget the lack of understanding within our communities of how swim teams operate, and how to get onto one. We are missing many opportunities if you don’t focus on the families and people either physically closest to your practice location, or emotionally connected to the team in some way. This could mean, maybe there is a parent who goes to swim laps after your practices and watches the end of your sets before swimming themselves. They may have a child who isn’t super passionate about trying swimming but that parent wishes they would. Anyone who is a parent and tries to coach their own child, knows many struggles come along with that. It will never hit the same when a parent says it versus someone outside the family. Get familiar with your practice facility and the other people who use it. There may be hidden passion there you would never notice otherwise.
When I began coaching for Cougar Aquatics, I felt at home almost immediately. This is largely due to our head coach Steve Cusano. When I came on, I made it clear to him I wanted to be involved in the entire team, and do as much as I could. Not only did he fully accept me and my coaching style, but he gave me freedom to grow and try out new concepts. There is always a transparency between us, and he does not treat me as if I’m “below” him despite him being in the head coaching position. Even our swimmers joke and call us “Swim Dad and Swim Mom”. When we have disagreements we work through them like family would. We listen and consider each other's opinions, regardless of how we may feel at that moment. To act like a coaching staff will agree on these concepts 100% of the time is to ignore human nature. We WILL disagree as coaches, we WILL have difficulties understanding one another at times. Does any of this sound familiar yet?
I hope so because to me it is exactly like the dynamics of a close family. Within a family unit, there will never be 100% agreement on any single concept. So how do families get through these difficult times? With love. In a supportive family, mistakes are accepted yet learned from. In a supportive family, mental health issues are taken seriously, even if one or more members of the family doesn’t understand where the problems are coming from. In a supportive family, performance in a particular skill is never the ONLY means of acceptance.
There’s that word again… ACCEPTANCE. If you are lucky enough to be a part of a loving supportive family unit, that is what you get: you are accepted for who you are no matter what. As coaches I feel this is often undervalued and overlooked. Sport is voluntary, unlike school, also it's expensive (especially swimming). I've known many swimmers pushed into the sport by parents of siblings. They tend to feel pressure to live up to their parents or siblings' success within the sport. It's our job as coaches to help them build a new/unique perspective and respect for the sport outside of family pressure.
The best way to do this is to involve yourself in the community outside of your team. I began overseeing the lesson program for the Haddam Killingworth REC department. I have always been a lesson instructor as well as a team coach. I even have one swimmer who I had taught in lessons since she was 5. before I even started at CAT. I was going to have her tryout for the team I was coaching for at the time. But I explained the culture of that team to her mother, and she was far from interested. This isn’t because she was afraid her daughter couldn't handle it, it was because she didn't want to commit to something that could be toxic for her daughter. She trusted me above any accolades that team had to offer.
This family now travels over 40 minutes 4 times a week to train with CAT. I would personally love to take all the credit for this. but I can’t. The second they met Steve, and she came onto the CAT pool deck, there was an immediate connection. This is because she felt safe, loved, and accepted, before even dipping one foot in that pool.
This was a huge catalyst for me as a coach and is what caused me to want to be involved in the local swim lessons there. I thought to myself… “Ok if I can have such a positive influence to cause one family to go so far out of their way to train with me…. I wonder what I could do with the community that is right here 5 minutes away from our practice site”
The culture of family begins as early and easily as recruiting. The best way to get new athletes is to never directly seek them out in the first place. If you insert a strong enough presence within the community. you won’t NEED to ask people to join. They will come to you. If you get to the community from the very basic level, they will trust and believe in you beyond others.
An example of this is learning the name of a lesson participant's baby sister who comes to watch their big brother swim and continuing to interact with them throughout the duration of the program. This shows your focus extends beyond just teaching the skills and moving through the levels. It shows you have a genuine interest in the people who come through your program, whether they are the ones you're physically teaching or not. Doing things like this makes it evident to people that you're not focusing on their child for your own self interest. I've seen coaches in the past who only invest with athletes because they want the athlete to make THEM look good. That type of thinking doesn't lend itself to the longevity of your program. You need to offer them something they feel they can't get somewhere else.
What I began to look for within the lesson community were the kids excited to be there. When you look at the younger children who are fearful and just learning their ABCs, that isn’t the group we are seeking out. I look toward the upper couple of levels for natural passion. Notice the choice of words, I said passion, not talent. Talent is often exploited and over focused on. Unless that talent comes with passion, they may not be ready for a team. The kids who never thought they could do it in the first place, are the ones who need us the most, at least in the beginning. This is a great way to recruit, but how do we maintain that passion as they move into a team setting?
Most coaches are able to recognize and grow talent. However the BEST coaches see the person behind the strokes. The tiny human that loves unicorns and Harry Potter, cares that you complimented them on their rainbow crocs that one day. The teenagers who want to swim for a D1 program some day appreciate when you can sense they're having an off day and just need to talk. The families who never even considered their child could become an athlete, will never forget you for giving their child the confidence they never knew they needed, to do something others have told them they can't. Most of us don't get to coach Olympians every day, but all of us have the ability to make our teams feel like a family. As John Wooden said, "A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life."
Coach Erin has been teaching and coaching in aquatics for 18 years. She has taught everything from parent tot classes, to club swimmers, to elite triathletes and D1 Swimmers. She currently is the the Assistant Coach for Cheshire boys swim and dive. She specializies in technique training and age group swimmers. She prides herself on not only creating championship swimmers, but more importantly kind and respectful young people.