Keeping Athletes Engaged at Every Level
by Ashley Gangloff
February 24, 2009
Coach David Marsh, Olympic Coach and former collegiate coach with 12 NCAA titles under his belt, shares his secrets about how to run a successful practice and cater to athletes of every skill level. David now works closely with SwimMAC Masters in Charlotte, NC and his wife, Kristin, is also a Masters coach. He explained that it is possible to help each and every swimmer accomplish his or her goals. Whether a goal is to swim from one end of the pool to the other without stopping or to swim from one end of the pool to the other in under 30 seconds Masters coaches can design a workout to fit the needs of a broad range of athletes. The following elements are keys to success for any coach of any athlete.
"First you have to decide what the primary focus of the workout is going to be," said David. "You can divide the group based on skill level or goals, however, do not divide into more than four different groups. Each group can have a slightly different workout based on skill level and goals," continued David. "As a coach, try to be ‘present' for the main purpose of each group's workout. If one workout is designed to end on 4 x 50 all out at the end of the set, be there for these swims, call out times, and provide feedback."
David emphasized the importance of proper lane organization when asked what to do with 50 athletes ranging in skill level. "Arrange athletes in lanes based on their goals," David said. He also provided a tip, "Print out a picture that represents the various goals of your athletes, maybe use a picture of a fitness swimmer, a U.S. Masters Swimming logo, and a picture of a triathlete. Paste each picture on a card to place at the end of each lane. This way when your swimmers arrive for practice, rather than referring to one lane as a ‘slow lane' or a ‘fast lane', swimmers can place themselves in the lane that is most appropriate for his or her own goals."
Recruit Volunteer Assistants
By having numerous "coaches" on deck, swimmers at each level and in every lane will receive feedback, an important element in gaining confidence and improving. "An assistant coach doesn't need technical knowledge to be helpful," said David. "A coach's child, a high school swimmer, or even other Masters swimmers can volunteer to take times, explain the meaning of terminology, or read the workout off of the white board for the athletes in the water," David explained. "Masters swimmers tend to crave feedback. Give it to them. You may need help to do so, but make it a priority to provide times, explanations, and feedback. "
Bring a Bag of Toys
Bring a bag of toys to create a fun atmosphere and an atmosphere in which beginning swimmers will want to return and evolve as a swimmer. "Fins are fun," said David. "If newer swimmers are getting lapped or feeling overwhelmed because they are swimming next to more experiences athletes, let them use fins. By compensating elements that are not yet strengths, a swimmer will feel more confident and a coach may be able to continue to assign the same workout to a variety of skill levels," he explained. David went on to describe other "toys" to use in a workout. "Throw a tennis ball into the workout to work on head alignment or challenge new swimmers with a snorkel, have your athletes swim with a stretch cord either for resistance or excelled speed," shared David. "It is a Masters coach's responsibility to make the environment fun and inviting."
Provide a Picture
"Allow for the more experienced swimmers to get out and coach the beginners. This will not only allow new swimmers to benefit from their peers' experiences, but will also give the opportunity for the more elite athletes a chance to see commonly made mistakes. Teaching is the best way to learn," according to David. "Do the same with the less experienced athletes. Have the beginner swimmers or triathletes get out and watch the competitive swimmers train. Point out various technique elements such as streamline positions or flip turns. Your beginner swimmers will enjoy and be motivated by watching their peers."
Walk and Talk
"Simple: walk up and down the pool deck and talk to your athletes, no matter what skill level they are at, what lane they are in, or what their goals may be," said David. "Masters swimmers choose to be at practice so it is important to respect their desire for coaching and feedback. Actively coach each athlete no matter what lane, skill level, competitiveness or goals."