Two important questions that spring to mind in the coach – swimmer relationship are:
- Who should exercise control?
- Whose needs should come first?
Ultimately, the relationship between a swimmer and their coach should be a partnership, but this will vary according to the development of both the swimmer and the coach, and the environment in which the relationship exists.
In this article, we’ll focus on the control dimension in the coach-swimmer relationship.
Who should be in control, swimmer or coach?
The notion of a partnership suggests equality of control, and that both swimmer and coach have as much say in the approach to both training and competition.
A changing relationship
Clearly, however, this will vary. Over time, both the coach and the swimmer will develop. For the swimmer, this will be more dramatic, as they progress from age-group swimming as a child to elite competition as an adult. A swimmer will develop physically, of course, and become more of an ‘expert’ with increasing technical ability and knowledge, but also emotional and intellectual development, and ‘self-awareness’.
Likewise the coach should be constantly developing, though depending on their own stage of life it is likely to be less obvious. However, the coach will also be developing emotionally, developing self-awareness and gaining technical knowledge and experience.
Although I can’t claim any special insight into their relationship, when I think of both parties developing in tandem, and the nature of the relationship changing over time I think of Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps, who have been working together since Michael was a child. If that relationship hadn’t changed over time, they simply wouldn’t be together now.
So what’s the right level of control for the coach to exercise? This is something that will vary at different stages of the swimmer’s development. I’ve put this into three categories, though research would suggest that a swimmer is likely to go through more career transitions if they progress into senior elite competition.
The early years – dependency
Ultimately, for the young age group swimmer in a large group, it is appropriate for the coach to exercise most control over the swimmer’s programme. It is unlikely that the young age-grouper will have the knowledge or maturity to significantly input into their own programme. It is also probably the greatest priority to establish routines and habits, such as attending practice regularly, and learning the basics. In this sense the young swimmer is dependent on their coach. However, the coach can start to sew the seeds of independence by educating their young swimmers, making the training goal clear and providing a rationale for a particular set.
Managing a developing swimmer – encouraging independence
As they progress, however, the combination of intellect and personality may well lead to the swimmer wanting to have more input, or at least having more of an opinion on, their programme. I can remember joining National squads at 14, learning a great deal and becoming frustrated by what I saw as limitations in my club programme. This led to real conflict between my coach and I. At that age, it is still very difficult for a coach to give real control to a swimmer that is part of a busy programme. It also may be true that while, as in my case, I was developing some knowledge of the sport this was incomplete and I probably lacked the maturity to exercise real control.
Challenging teenage years
I suspect that this is period is significantly challenging for many coaches of teenage swimmers, as they start to make the long transition to becoming capable of directing their own training and becoming more independent.
The challenge for the coach is to allow the swimmer to have enough influence over their programme to encourage them to learn more about their performance and stay motivated, while managing a number of swimmers at the same time, each of which will be at different stages of development. Simply dealing with the behaviour of an increasingly ‘rebellious’ age group will be challenging too, especially as it may be tempting to lay down the lay when in face giving swimmers a little more freedom at the right time might reduce conflict and encourage development.
Managing the mature swimmer – an interdependent relationship
At some point the swimmer is likely to make the transition to the point of intellectual and emotional maturity to be able to have significant input into their own programme. This should be encouraged if possible, by giving access to the knowledge that they require in order to be successful and by having open dialogue with them about their programme. Planning should be a collaborative process, and swimmer and coach become interdependent.
A changing role
This requires a commitment of time from the coach that in a club programme may not be possible. The coach may simply lack the maturity to become more of a facilitator of the process than directing it. In either case, the swimmer might simply outgrow the coach and have to move on.
At some point the coach’s role might shift from educating and directing, to supporting and challenging the swimmer as they take full responsibility for their own performance. This might be done as part of, or as facilitator of, a wide group of experts that the elite swimmer draws upon.
Rather than the swimmer learning from the coach, the process is more likely to be one of mutual learning as both swimmer and coach enter new territory.
Does the pendulum shift completely?
At some point, a mature and experienced elite swimmer might even develop their self-awareness and technical understanding of their performance to the point where input from the coach is fairly limited, and their role is sounding board as much as anything else. However, it is unlikely that any swimmer, no matter how experienced will not benefit from working with a coach to some degree, not least to keep a sense of perspective and to provide a reality check, and not forgetting the social and emotional support that everyone needs from time to time.
Should the coach become dependent on the swimmer, however, this is clearly an unhealthy and unsustainable position.
Conclusion – No hard and fast rules
There’s no hard and fast rule that dictates how much control a coach should take over their swimmers’ programmes. This depends upon a number of developmental variables and, indeed, simple preference. No matter how experience and mature a swimmer becomes, they simply prefer that their coach takes the lead – and if both are aware of the pros and cons of such a choice, then why not? However, the degree of control should, ideally, be determined by the needs of the swimmer and not by the limitations of the coach.