Being a swimming coach is a demanding job in many ways. You’re working all hours of the day, teaching a sport which requires discipline, precision and flexibility. On top of this, you’re often coaching children and being observed by parents. All this considered, there are a number of attributes you need to be a great swimming coach. Here’s are a few key characteristics that separate the best from the rest…
Three aspects of communication are fundamental when it comes to teaching swimming to a range of ages and abilities. Firstly, describing techniques in a way that your students will understand.
Whether you’re demonstrating a front crawl or a freestyle stroke, there’s a lot of information to get across, especially if your students haven’t tried these moves before.
Naturally, there’s a temptation to look like the world’s biggest swimming expert and use complex phrases (especially if there’s a crowd of parents watching on!), but talking in plain English will get the best out of everyone.
There’s also body language to consider, which is arguably the most important method of communication. According to Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication, body language accounts for 55% of how we convey something, tone of voice accounts for 38% and words account for 7%.
Body language is an outward reflection of how you feel, so the non-verbal elements of your body language such as hand gestures, facial expressions and posture need to convey a sense of control, knowledge and empathy.
Another critical aspect of communication which is vital to building close relationships with your students is the ability to listen.
Make time before and after classes to talk with your students and show an interest in what they do outside of swimming. This will bring out your human side, rather than make you seem like a single-minded coach.
Being a great motivator requires taking your communicative abilities to the next level and combining them with people-skills. There’s nothing worse than being one of those “Tell and Yell” coaches you read about, who simply instruct rather than lead.
Barking out orders to a group will make them feel like nothing more than cogs in a machine and is unlikely to make them feel empowered.
Your students should feel like everything they do in the pool has a clear and distinct benefit. You can reinforce this idea by providing praise, encouragement (even when they get something wrong) and even light-hearted humour when the situation allows.
Not only this, you should encourage your students to monitor their own thoughts and feelings in order to create the self-direction they need to achieve their goals. This way, they’ll think more about the steps required to get where they want to be, rather than solely focusing on outcomes.
This ties in with the Self-Regulation Theory model pioneered by Barry Zimmerman, an educational researcher at the City University of New York.
The idea behind Self-Regulation Theory is that when students look at something on a metacognitive level – i.e. by being aware of their own thought processes, or ‘learning to learn’ – they’ll take more responsibility for their own development and will be naturally more motivated.
Creating a culture of self-regulated learning not only makes motivating your students much easier, it does part of your job for you.
This means being patient, empathetic and approachable. Whether your students are struggling to execute a move correctly and need further clarification, lacking in confidence because they feel they’re underperforming, or just want a general chat, you need to be their eyes and ears.
Providing direction and nurturing your students – as opposed to just being a coach – could be the difference between one of your students succeeding in swimming and not returning to your classes. After all, the mental advantages they’ll glean from swimming, such as overcoming pressure, working to targets, competing with others and pushing themselves, can be applied to their everyday life.
There are a number of ways you can foster a close relationship with your students and help them maximise these advantages. For instance, doing one-to-one training with them after class, offering short-term incentives and setting them long and short-term targets. These are just some examples of how you can go the extra mile for your students and keep them motivated to train with you.
Organised and meticulous
There’s a lot of ground to cover when you’re teaching swimming, especially if you’re working with multiple students of different ages and ability levels. As the saying goes, ‘prior planning prevents poor performance’.
As you’ll know, every great swimmer has their own unique characteristics, but there’s one thing these swimmers all have in common. That is, they’ve only got to where they are through practice, attention to detail and a clear goal in mind. All three things will have been drummed into them from an early age by their coach.
Therefore, a coach who turns up to a session unprepared and without a clear goal in mind themselves isn’t exactly the ideal role model. To put it bluntly, if you’re this type of coach, it looks like you don’t care, and the class is likely to follow your example.
Your students want a coach who shows up prepared and takes their development seriously. Someone who has planned not just for the immediate session but for weeks and even months ahead, and who has carefully planned a session around the allotted timeframe, pool size, equipment and more.
They also want someone who takes a tailored approach to training and focuses on the attributes, strengths and areas for improvement of each swimmer.
Knowledgeable and willing to improve
This tip should be a given, but in order to be the best your students have to learn from the best. To be the best swimming coach you can be, you need to possess an in-depth understanding of sports performance and an unbridled level of passion for your sport. Above all, you need to be determined to keep improving, and not just see swimming as a means to an end.
Just like the students you coach, you’re most likely far from the finished article. Having a Swim England Level 2 teaching qualification is the bare minimum you should have on your CV if you want to progress.
A great swimming coach, as opposed to a good one, sees this qualification at just the start of their professional journey and looks to expand their knowledge in different areas – whether it’s diving, water polo, aqua fitness or parent and child teaching.
Whatever it may be, there’s always an area of swimming you won’t have covered yet, and broadening your skillset will only gain you more clients and greater credibility in the long run.
Not afraid to fail
Ask anyone who’s ever succeeded in their profession how many times they’ve failed at a particular task and they’ll probably have a list as long as their arm. It’s how they respond to setbacks which determines how successful they are.
When you think about it, being a swimmer is no different. They’re encouraged to take risks, to attempt the difficult turns and manoeuvres, and to not let it affect them if they don’t get it right first time.
Therefore, as a coach, why not practice what you preach? Try something different, like adding some creative exercises which your students may not have tried before, or testing out different warm-up drills with them. If it gets the best out of your group, great. If it doesn’t go as planned, this is fine.
Not every routine is going to be easy to demonstrate. Not every swimmer is going to respond the same way to your methods. Not every parent is going to like you (although hopefully most of them will!).
The most liberating thing is when you realise it’s impossible to get everything right. If anything, failure is a sign that you’re pushing yourself and that you’re not ok with doing an ok job.
Venturing out of your comfort zone and leading by example is ultimately what will make you a great swimming coach.
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