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Be Part of Your Personal Coaching Team

Revised from an article that first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1999.

As a coach, I think part of my job is to, over time, give you enough information and help you develop sufficient analytical skills so that you can take an active role in your own coaching — enough so that you can be your own technique coach when necessary or desirable. From a business standpoint (and make no mistake about it, H2Ouston Swims is, and has to be, a business, at least until I win the lottery) this might seem about as bright as Exxon teaching you how to make your own gasoline dirt-cheap or free. But, hey, I'm a benevolent guy and it just seems like the right thing to do.

So, how do we accomplish this?

First, through a combination of me actively teaching and you actively learning the physical skills of highly effective swimming.

You see this every day in the pool. Teaching sessions, skill drills (and their feedback cues), drill progressions, drill/swim sets and focused, thoughtful swimming are all part of the ever-cycling progression of learning/refining, integrating and monitoring swimming skills. Through these activities excellent, efficient and enduring swim strokes can and do evolve.

Second, by both of us committing to long-term two-way communication about your stroke and its evolution.

It is my responsibility to lay out the terminology we'll use in our conceptual exchange. It is your responsibility to, with my help, develop an understanding of that terminology and how it reflects the concepts that we want to employ in building effective swimming strokes. Some coaches prefer to keep coach-swimmer communication one sided, pontificating and berating from the deck while encouraging (sometimes even allowing) no question or feedback. My goal is to engage you in a continuous two-way exchange over time. You ask questions, I give answers - or, often, I'll ask questions that, hopefully, help lead you toward answering your own questions. Often your answers to my questions will show me the gaps or inaccuracies in your conceptual understanding (or show the shortfalls in my attempts to communicate those concepts). The more and better questions you ask, the more and better communication we'll have — especially if it is obvious that you are trying to capitalize on that communication.

Third, through video feedback, which has several valuable aspects to consider.

Seeing what you really look like when swimming helps accurize your mental image of your aquatic endeavor. If you rarely or never see yourself swim but regularly watch other, better swimmers (either in the pool or on video), the tendency is to associate your own swimming, and the related feelings, with your mental image of the better swimmer. You might be swimming 25 strokes per length, angled decidedly uphill, flat on your stomach and working hard with your arms and legs. Yet, all the while, you're seeing the mental image of Alexandre Popov (8-10 SPL, perfectly balanced, on his side, cruising easily at a faster pace than you've ever gone) and saying to yourself, “It looks pretty good - so now all I gotta do is hammer and I'll get better!” But if, instead of seeing Popov in your mind's eye, you saw real-time footage of yourself as you swam, you'd likely shift your thinking toward fixing that novice looking, highly resistive uphill swimming position - at the very least. Though we don't yet have real-time capability, the next best thing, regularly seeing yourself on video, can give you all the information necessary to accurize your mental images.

During analysis sessions, having images to point at makes it much easier for me to convey concepts and show their interrelationships than does playing “Swim Coach Charades” where I can only hope you are able to accurately translate my on-deck stroke pantomimes. For instance, in slow motion or frame-by-frame viewing it becomes instantly and inarguably obvious that the primary controller of hip position is head position — something not always so obvious at full speed or while slogging it out in the pool. This feedback helps you prioritize and make correct technique choices in the pool. When you watch video of other swimmers (whether more or less accomplished than yourself) and try to analyze what they are doing, right or wrong, and how that differs from what you are doing, you are honing your analytical skills and learning a lot that is directly applicable to your own swimming.

Fourth, through peer coaching and teaching, which may be the most underrated learning tool there is.

When you try to teach or describe something you think you know, you will quickly figure out where your knowledge gaps are. Verbalizing a formerly unuttered concept helps you figure out what the next questions are for your own swimming. Whether trying to teach something to a less skilled swimmer or trying to accurately describe some aspect of a more skilled swimmer's stroke, you are forcing yourself to manipulate your current understanding of swimming in ways that often shed new light on the subject. It's a bit like turning that cereal box around to read the fine print. If you didn't, you'd likely go on thinking that those Multi Grain'n'Fruit Health Crunchies were actually good for you when, in fact, the primary ingredients listed on the side panel read: “refined sugar, re-textured possum lard, tri-sodium phosphate” with “grain” and “fruit” coming somewhere after “salt.”

And when you invest your time and enthusiasm with your teammates it can only add to the sense of unity and common purpose. As a kid I was a member of a marksmanship club where the learning paradigm was a bit like we see on the television show ER regularly - watch it, do it, teach it. Every member of our club was expected to, and did, share their knowledge with other members. I think that it is no coincidence that this club was perennially the #1 junior shooting team in the country.

Fifth, but not finally, through you keeping a training diary.

OK, let's see the hands — how many of you actually keep a personal training diary or practice journal? I don't mean a little notebook where you write down your workout yardage and the occasional PR. I mean a full size notebook where, after every practice session you write in complete sentences about aquatic skills you worked on, what you learned, questions that arose, answers to those questions (or blank spaces to be filled with answers later), etc. That's what I thought — not many hands. I challenge those of you with your hands still firmly in your laps to do the following:


  1. Acquire a notebook and large ZipLock freezer bag.

  2. Commit to sitting down with your notebook and an implement of inscription for a minimum of 5 minutes after every practice you attend in the next month.

  3. Write continuously, in complete sentences, about your practice experiences for the entire 5+ minutes.

  4. Before each practice reread the notes from at least the two most recent practices.

Why take these extra few minutes? It shortens the learning/refining curve. If you know you will be writing afterwards you will naturally be a bit more aware and attentive during the practice. As with peer coaching, when you try to express something you think you know in complete sentences it gets easier to spot the potholes in your road to aquatic nirvana. Writing from different perspectives (one day writing in first person, another day in third person) also allows you to examine your performance in ways not possible in real-time. Finally, rereading what you've already given great thought to guarantees you'll be better prepared for and more focused on whatever you undertake during your upcoming water session.

So, to wrap this up, why would your coach want to help you gather the tools needed for self coaching?

  1. Your learning curve will be much shorter if you are part of your own personal coaching team.

  2. When you are away from our pool you will be able to continue the learning process on your own.

  3. By encouraging every member of the group to become an active self-coach we leverage the resources available.

  4. Coach enjoys his job more when the athletes are actively involved in the learning and coaching process — and a happy coach means no 1000s Fly — truly a Win-Win arrangement!

PS — the ZipLock freezer bag is to keep your notebook dry between journal sessions. v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2005

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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