Success through Improvement, Part 2: Rising Tide

Several years ago at a local summer league coaching clinic, the presenter told a story about the first season with an assistant coach (who happened to be the presenter's brother). He noticed the assistant spending all his time and attention with the absolute fastest kids in the group, and gently reminded him a coach is responsible for all the swimmers. (Since then the assistant has had enormous success in summer league swimming, so I assume he took the message to heart.)

As USAS coaches, we are trained and certified professionals and we take our responsibilities seriously. During my years on deck, however, I've observed so many coaches catch "star fever" and fall prey to focusing only on their fastest kids*. This sends a bad message, leaving many others feeling neglected. It must be a human reflex, because I don't believe coaches intend to send such an unfair message. Nevertheless, the tendency occurs frequently.

We apply a counterintuitive "Rising Tide" approach with our coaching attention and feedback- we pay more attention to the swimmers who are not first in the lane, not the fastest, not the "best" in the group or on the team. No I'm not kidding, and no I'm not pretending we're pure-hearted saints. We take this approach because we know in the long term it delivers more improvement, better mental and emotional maturity, and higher achievement.

Consider three hypothetical swimmers: Frankie Fast, Sammy Slow, and Mikey Middle. If we focus more time and attention on Sammy, then we know from long experience he'll start to catch up to and keep up with Mikey. Mikey, being a competitive person, notices this and feels pressure to improve. In response Mikey pays close(r) attention to coaching feedback (even if it's directed at someone else!), attends more practices, and puts forth more effort. Pretty soon Mikey will start to catch up to and keep up with Frankie. You can guess how Frankie will react.

Everyone is lifted in the Rising Tide. I don't just believe this as an article of faith, I lived it. My very first season in year round swimming, I was a puny 13 year old boy thrown into the senior group with a dozen girls. I was terrible compared to them. I would literally get lapped multiple times in every set in every practice. Early in that season the coach would briefly pull me out during main sets to talk about my technique and habits.

Regardless of how painful and humbling those early practices were, because of my coach's attention (or pity!) I never felt neglected and always felt supported. That made all the difference. Soon I was only getting lapped once during a set. Then I wasn't getting lapped at all. Then I wasn't the last in the lane. And on and on.

The result over the long term? Our whole senior group- every single one- went on to swim in college, mostly Division I. Some of us earned scholarships, some of us were conference champions, some of us were All-Americans, two of us went on to Olympic Trials, and one ultimately ended up an Olympian (in triathlon, but still he was third at Trials in the 400 IM). Not bad for a team of ~100 swimmers and a senior group of less than a dozen.

We know focusing on kids in the back of the lane will create an up-swell of pressure on the front. Everyone improves, everyone learns to effectively deal with competitive pressure, and the more talented swimmers feel challenged to achieve their potential. A Rising Tide lifts all swimmers.

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* Next time you're at a swim meet, watch a coach and what s/he does with swimmers. Does the coach watch the early heat swimmers (with slower seed times) with just as much attention as the later heats? Does the coach give just as much (if not more) guidance before the race and feedback after the race to those early heat swimmers? Is the coach excited with significant improvements or breakthroughs, regardless of how "fast" the swim was? If the answer is yes to those and similar questions, then you've spotted a quality coach with a promising future, because s/he instinctively buys in to the Rising Tide philosophy.

Courtney Faller