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We Need To Make A Change: How We Educate Our Coaches

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

Written By: Gordy Westerberg, Sharks Swim Club

**edited to reflect Coach Westerberg's new job!

Over the last 20 years, I’ve noticed a shift in the topics that are presented at clinics. Currently, the overwhelming majority of talks are soft skill based and have moved away from the more technical aspects or what I term as the “nuts and bolts” of our sport. Clinic talks can be labeled as one of 3 categories:

1. SOFT SKILLS – Communication, Goal Setting, Culture, Mental Health discussions, Program overviews, Blueprint for developing athletes, Anecdotal talks, Product sales pitches, etc.

2. TECHNIQUE – Pool sessions with demonstrations, drills, ways to fix stroke errors, etc.

3. NUTS AND BOLTS – Season Planning, Weekly Cycles, Set Design, Implementing Drills within a practice session, etc.

All 3 categories are important areas for coaches. The FB Group Swim Coaches Idea Exchange currently has over 20K+ members and you see tons of posts where a coach will have a video of an athlete and they are asking for help fixing an error; or a post where a coach is asking for help planning for a season because they are new and just took over a team. Anyone that has coached for ANY LENGTH of time knows that…WE HAVE ALL GONE THROUGH THIS STAGE!

When I came into coaching in the mid-80s, Ernie Maglischo had just published his book “Swimming FAST” and shortly after that “Swimming FASTER”. What was incredible about these textbooks was that they were devoted to addressing the strokes and training/planning concepts in GREAT DETAIL. A few years after these books were published, Jon Urbancek shared his Color Training System with everyone. United States Swimming (USS) was running a Coaches College up in Colorado Springs. My point is that there was a big push to get this info into the coaches hands to use…and we need to get back to that train of thought.

Just think about what young coaches need (and this isn’t an exhaustive list):

  • How do you build a stroke within a group setting?

  • How do you keep kids attention within a practice?

  • How do you design sets for Age Groupers that are appropriate for their skill level?

  • How do you manage kids at a meet?

  • How do you manage kids during a WU at a meet?

  • How do you appropriately communicate with parents? Especially when an issue arises?

  • How do you handle the scenario where you need to step in and take over for a Head Coach that is no longer with the program?

This is VERY different from what experienced coaches need…and this can be debated…but what are 1-3 things that need to be incorporated into the program that will improve upon what is currently being done? For MOST experienced coaches…these are technical items and not soft skills. If you have been around for any length of time, you probably have good communication skills; you most likely already have a good culture in place. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in that position.

I think swimming clinics should adopt the model that I see the NCTM (National Teachers of Mathematics) use for their yearly convention. What they do is that they have a MAJOR Headliner for the opening talk…someone that attracts the attention of teachers and gets them interested in signing up for the convention; and then, they use classroom teachers from all over the country that teach HOW they use various methods to teach the various topics within their classroom. Due to the fact that they have this “Nuts and Bolts” approach to their convention, they have never struggled with the number of attendees at their convention.

All you have to do is look at the schedule of talks that are presented at any of the clinics to see which categories the talks fit into. Our clinics need to have a balance of talks that cover the needs that I listed above for BOTH younger and experienced coaches. I have spoken to multiple organizations about this very topic and they believe they are currently providing what coaches need educationally; but the attendance numbers would say otherwise.

Just think about how many talks you went into expecting one thing and all you hear is a bunch of stories and leave with nothing of substance. Our coaching community deserves better.

Gordy Westerberg

  • Has been a coach at all levels from Summer League through Olympic Trials qualifiers since January, 1987 (All in NM)

  • Has been a HS Math teacher for 29 years (and there won’t be a 30th)

  • Grew up swimming in Minnesota

  • Swam at the University of NM and was an NCAA qualifier in the 400 IM

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