The Team Philosophy / Coaching Mismatch

team philosophy

If you haven’t been on many swim teams, it may be hard to imagine that every swim team is fundamentally different. And this largely comes from two aspects of the team: team philosophy, and the coaches. Ideally, the team philosophy guides everything that the team does, how its members interact with each other, and it sets the expectations for each person involved with the team, including the coaches.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of swim clubs:

  • Community teams typically serve the widest range of swimmers, and include developing swimmers, those interested only in fitness or the social aspect, and right up to the most serious swimmers who can compete at the highest levels. Team philosophies usually include something along the line of providing swim teaching, training and competition opportunities for all.
  • Serious Swim Clubs are more competition oriented, and include from developing swimmers to the most serious swimmers. Team philosophies usually include a goal to let every swimmer reach their competitive potential.
  • University type teams typically expect their swimmers to already have good strokes and a solid base. These teams expect that their swimmers will do whatever it takes to reach the top. Team philosophies are usually pretty sparse, and generally limit themselves to a drive for excellence as a person and as a swimmer

Team philosophies always sound great. Swimming must be an incredible sport where young kids are nurtured and they all eventually reach their potential as older swimmers……

Obviously, that’s not happening. But why?

Let’s look at a typical Serious Swim Club as an example. If the club is really serious about allowing each swimmer to reach their potential, then the younger swimmers should be nurtured, given the fundamentals, and developed carefully in order to ensure that they are still improving, and still passionate about swimming when they are 20 and older. In other words, the club’s job is to deliver eager, skilled and disciplined swimmers to the next level where they can reach their potential.

So why is it that so many serious swim clubs have such a huge fall out of swimmers in the early teens? Why do so many quit well before an age when they can reach their potential? Keep in mind that a US swimming study found that only 11% of the top 100 ten-year olds become top100 17-18 year olds. And that a US National Alliance for Youth Sports study found that 70% of children quite playing sports by age 13 because it isn’t fun anymore. Clearly pushing young swimmers hard is not a good long term decision. So, why does this happen? (I explore this question of how hard we should train young swimmers here.)

Much of the answer lies with the coaches and their relationship with the team. Coaches are often graded on how their team does with respect to other teams in their area, and not in how happy their swimmers are, or how good their technique is. All that really matters is how many points their team can get, or how many stars it can produce. And 10-year olds can get as many points as seniors. In other words, having fast 10 & under swimmers is great for job security. And the easiest way to get fast 10 & under swimmers is to train them harder than their competitors.

But even more than that, some coaches WANT to train young kids hard. I’ve seen young kids with overuse injuries, or get burnt out by 13. I’ve heard coaches yell at 10-year olds (“my grandma can swim faster than that”) and call them names. I once heard a head coach tell an assistant coach to publicly punish a 10-year old with pushups for doing a bad turn. Another coach loves the idea of training 12 & unders 365 days a year. It’s clear that a huge number of coaches have attitudes that clearly go against their team’s philosophies, and yet nothing is done about it.

The problem is ultimately that these attitudes produce great results, and people have a hard time getting upset with short term gains. They would rather blindly take those gains, than worry about the inevitable long term problems that come later. When a coach’s livelihood is on the line, that’s not a tough choice.

A lot of things will have to change for us to consistently and properly nurture our young swimmers. But maybe the easiest way to begin is to start believing our own team philosophies.



Parents can be a huge problem as well. A few years ago a team not too far from us had an incredibly abusive coach whose kids would start crying uncontrollably BEFORE the post-race chat. Because they knew that in that post-race analysis, he would berate and belittle them mercilessly. The team took about 3 years to get rid of him, and he promptly landed a job nearby. Unbelievably, at least a dozen parents followed him to the new team because they liked his style of coaching.


8 thoughts on “The Team Philosophy / Coaching Mismatch

  1. Hey Rick. I’ve swum for the Serious and the University although my university team (in Canada) was more a community club.

    I’ve seen all you mentioned and been on the receiving end. Yet, I swam for 23 years and am now just volunteering at a local serious club.

    The challenge is to develop the team through the individuals which means you must understand the gifts, talents, abilities and motivations for each and all. Our club does some of it, but not very well. As I also coach executives and business leaders, the focus is to develop the individual and help them find their place int he team in a way that aligns with the philosophy. In business, if people don’t line up we recommend they find a place that does (knowing that my clients focus on people).

    When you look at the league tables for the top 100 companies to work for they make that list because their people vote them there (because they are all people-centric companies).

    I wonder what value there would be if you let the swimmers and parent vote / provide regular feedback to ensure the team stays on course in the best way for the team, the individual, the coach etc. A coach assessment with 360 degree feedback may be an eye-opener in some clubs.

    FYI I’ve done the push-up stuff. Did it just the other day in a set. We made it a game with the kids. They loved it. If they caught the person in front that person did the push-ups (10) and the person who caught them got an extra 10 seconds rest. You could see the kids who were swithed on work out a strategy … a lot of negative splits. Whenever I’ve done it the kids have loved it and so have the parents.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Richard. You’ve raised some excellent points in comparing it to business. I spent much of my working life in business, and I can’t argue with your analysis. I think what I find most bothersome in the team philosophy / coaching mismatch is that the team philosophy is irrelevant. You can’t say you’re striving to allow each swimmer to reach their potential if you’re grinding up the young ones in order to find a potential star who can secure your job for you.

      Just for fun, I looked up Bernie Madoff’s company mission statement. Here it is.
      “In an era of faceless organizations owned by other equally faceless organizations, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: The owner’s name is on the door. Clients know that Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark.”

      I have to tell you that a 360 degree review sounds fraught with problems. The parents, our ultimate customers, want vastly different things and many of them are counter-productive. I’ve had talks with parents who ask whether their beginning swimmer has Olympic potential. I’ve had a parent yell at me for having a fun practice. I’ve seen parents stick with an abusive coach because it “toughens the kids up”. I’ll have to think on this further.

      One other aspect you mentioned in actually fascinating. Pushups themselves are not evil. As you pointed out, they can be incorporated into a fun aspect of a practice. In fact, you can ask kids to do incredibly difficult things if you phrase it the right way, and put it in context. My issue with the bad turn = public pushups was that it was designed for public humiliation. As a tool to improve a young swimmer. That seems like the fastest way I know of to get a swimmer to hate swimming.

  2. Yes, I can fathom the 360 degree feedback could be fraught with problems, however, you can separate the wheat from the chaff. In all feedback there are nuggets that are useful. The key is to manage expectations. Reality checks for all concerned can only be helpful.

    Public humiliation will only backfire. You are so right. The key is that whatever we do as coaches as a helpful purpose to improve the individual, the team and the club.

    The chronic challenge is the deluded parent who wants to live vicariously through their kids. However, where we focus we get more off. As I often quote, “What other people think of you is none of your business,” when you know you are doing the right thing.

  3. So, I suppose this poses a question I’ve been pondering for a while. Should a team philosophy always remain the same? On a parent-board team, I see that the team philosophy could change after each board election, as the personalities of board members change. How should a team realize when it’s time for its culture/philosophy to change?

    1. That’s an excellent question, Michael. I was thinking about that as well. My thinking is that a parent-board team should never be swayed by a parent or two, mainly because of the impact on the coaching staff. If you change the Team Philosophy, then the coaches better change as well, and that is not a trivial matter. It may in fact, result in a wholesale change in coaches. The only time when it may work is if the Coaching staff had gradually adopted a different philosophy out of sync with the Team Philosophy, and the matter was aired with the board. They would then need to decide which direction to go, and they may decide to just change the Team Philosophy to align themselves with the coaches.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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