We coach a sport that is often referred to as an individual sport. Competitive swimming is very much a team sport as well. The USA swim team at the Olympic Games is very much a team effort. NCAA Championships are team accomplishments. I always considered my high school team would swim at the highest levels when we competed as a team. This was also true on my club senior national team. How does the building of a true team feeling, team pride, and great team successes happen? Is there a formula to follow?
I’ve often stated that we coaches need to continue to learn from other sources to stay motivated and innovative in our coaching. This has always held true for me. I just completed reading “The Gold Standard” by Mike Krzyzewski. It is the story of building a world class team in basketball. He was named the head coach of the 2008 USA Olympic Basketball Team. His team was made up of NBA basketball all stars. Mike was the college coach of Duke University and his job was to build a USA team concept with professional athletes. Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Dwyane Wade were all members of that team. Would these pro athletes listen and set aside their personal egos and develop a team attitude? I will try to build on the main building steps of the book and relate each to my own swimming coaching experience. Every coach should be able to adapt, relate to, and use many of these steps. Whenever quotations surround any following statement, then it is a quotation from “The Gold Standard”.
“Any team when first assembled is just a group of individuals with a variety of talent. The coach has the task of molding these individuals into a team. A true team doesn’t just happen. It takes time to evolve -time to develop relationships, time to establish standards, time to get motivated. There are certain things for which there is no time. No time for excuses and no time for inner turmoil. Leaders are responsible for spending the necessary time to get the job done, and no time is wasted. Every team needs and ultimate goal, a purpose for which it unites and prepares.”
In our first team meeting of a new season, we would go over our schedule and circle the state championship meet as our target. This would be the competition that we would be at our best. All of our practice sessions and all of our dual meets would be used to prepare for that state championship. We would also determine what our team standards would be. I stated that rules would not be established as rules are something to be broken in too many instances. We would agree on standards. Standards were something to live up to and if someone failed to do just that, then there would be consequences. These were established at the outset and team members understood and agreed. There was team purpose from the first meeting and that was to swim our best at the state championship.
“Take the time to choose your people.” This doesn’t apply to the high school coach in most cases, unless the coach is fortunate enough to have an excess of swimmers turning out for the team. However, some of the other points made do apply. “Take the time to conduct personal interviews, face to face. Be forthright about what is expected and why you believe in the team cause.” As soon as it could be worked into the team meetings, I would discuss how every swimmer was important to our team success. It didn’t start at the top, it started at the bottom of our swimming talent. I would emphasize that the slower swimmers that got faster and swam faster in training were pushing the faster swimmers to improve and swim faster. This was true all the way up the talent ladder. Everyone would have to improve when we believed in this concept. Our teams did believe and frequently at the end of the season, they voted one of the lower level swimmers who displayed great training effort and improvement as the season Inspirational Award winner.
“Take the time to understand context. It provides the mental and motivational backdrop for our team’s purpose. By learning how we got where we were, we also learned how to get where we wanted to be.” In my high school coaching experience, we had been winning state championships on a regular basis, as well as continuing an unbeaten streak of consecutive high school meets. Our swimmers were aware of this record.. It became a matter of team pride for each new team and new season to contribute to add to that record. We came to view that streak without pressure to continue, but to stay focused and work hard to present us with the best opportunity to continue it. Our team purpose was up front every season.
“Take the time to gain perspective. Let perspective operate alongside of your understanding of context. Context should serve as your guide in what you do in your training and competition. It brings about the feeling that what you are doing is of great consequence. When you are not training and competing, you have to realize it is not. A sense of perspective should guide your team’s behavior and the way you relate to those around you. Ego and humility are not mutually exclusive, you should have both. You have to realize how big and how small you are and internalize both.” My perspective that I always tried to convey to our teams was that we would swim hard, study well, and be good citizens at school and home. I asked teachers for their input if any swimmer was falling down in their studies. If that happened, that swimmer would be out of a swim meet until the class situation improved. In team meetings after a competition, I would recognize every swimmer’s improvement and not just the best swimmer’s accomplishment. Occasionally, I would remind the team to appreciate the efforts of their parents in providing and caring for them.
“Take the time to form relationships. In giving your team time to bond, you establish a foundation of communication, trust, and respect in the way you deal with each other.” High school teams often form friendships that last a lifetime. This has been true on both my high school and club teams. Every outing and group activity becomes a lasting memory. We have used team parties, dinners, fishing trips, group runs, and even international exchanges that have all led to team bonding. Individual swimmer meetings with the coach were good opportunities for coach/swimmer bonding on my teams. I got to hear from the swimmer what there goals were both in the pool and out of the pool, and how I could help them attain goals.
“Take the time to develop a support system. Take the time to emphasize the importance of individual support systems to your team.” Our high school swim team support program was amazing. Our principal attended every state championship and many dual meets. Many of our faculty served as timers and judges for the meets. Our school pep band played at both state meets and dual meets frequently. Our Ram Relays meet was the homecoming event. Our team got the most coverage in the school newspaper of all sports, and the yearly Annual provided some of the most sport pages for our swim teams. This all had to be cultivated to some degree by myself as coach. The local newspaper sports department became great supporters and devoted much coverage of our teams. We had pep buses for our state meets when we became winners. I always had a parents meeting for our team every season. I would hand out schedules, and inform everyone what we would expect from our swimmers in training through thanksgiving and Christmas vacation periods. They were informed of our team goals and how they could best provide the home environment for their swimmer. I believe that this helped us firm up great parent support for our teams not just their one swimmer.
“Take the time to establish standards. These standards will define the character of your team. Standards are the things you do all the time and the things for which you hold one another accountable. Leaders should remember that not all good ideas have to come from the top, and they should be secure enough to change plans based on the input of the team”. I commented on team standards previously in this article. Swimmers should feel that they have ownership in the program. This leads to commitment. I often used questionnaires to sound out the swimmers. What needs were being met? What areas would you want to receive more attention in your preparation? Their feedback was useful and incorporated wherever necessary to strengthen swimmer commitment. I would often have the swimmers pick their events for a meet, and sometimes at the state meet when there were several best opportunities.
“Take the time to practice. Don’t send your team into battle unprepared”. This isn’t usually a problem for swim coaches. Practice is what we do for the most part. However effective practice is another thing. Make certain that you are organized and recognize the need to have effective practices that build toward your final goal at the championship meet.
“Take the time for self assessment. I’ve always believed that failure can be an integral part of success. When you attempt something in which failure is possible, you test your limits. Failure requires you to reevaluate”. After every state championship, I would evaluate our season. This also happens at times thru the season. I had coined a phrase early on in my coaching. It was that there were no failures, only Temporary Non Successes. Every swimmer was to never recognize any endeavor as failure. It was only a temporary non success. You would learn from it, adjust and go back to work to make it a success.
“Take the time to get motivated. Remember that motivation is not something that you simply hope occurs. It is something that a team leader must do, must actively work for, on a daily basis. Use your imagination, and creativity to motivate. Motivation comes back to you”. Motivated swimmers motivate the coach. I always asked my team about motivation. Which came first the chicken or the egg? The motivation that inspired them didn’t come from me, the coach. It was the result of their effort, their enthusiasm for the task, their great efforts in competition that made the coach motivated. I have always been motivated by fast swimming in practice and competition. I always asked for the swimmer to motivate the coach, so that I could be inspired to better motivate them. When I was a college swimmer after a race, I asked my coach what would help me in my next race. He answered, “swim faster’ with little enthusiasm. I had to wait until my own coaching to realize that maybe he was right.