Stop Watching the Stopwatch!

Recently, a coach put out a request on a Facebook Swim Coaches Forum for the top features coaches want from a stopwatch application, presumably on a smart phone or tablet. Which got me thinking about how I learned to properly use a stopwatch.

Now, experienced coaches will already know all of this stuff below. But basically, our role as a coach is to watch our swimmers. This isn’t to say that race or practice timing is unimportant. Timing is very important. It’s just that we have other means to time a swimmer, and we only have our eyes to watch a swimmer.

I first learned of this concept early in my coaching career when my head coach started asking me uncomfortable questions during races. How was her turn? How far did he go underwater? How was the breakout? Of course, I had no idea because during those moments I was staring at my watch and writing down a split. That’s when he explained what became obvious. I needed to use my watch without looking at it, record the splits and final time after the race was over. And spend the race watching the swimmer!

This applies to practice also. We have big pace clocks on deck, and it’s much easier to check the pace clock than to check my stop watch, especially those big, circular, analog pace clocks. I only need a quick glance to see where the red hand is at. In fact, it’s so convenient that I rarely use a stop watch to time swimmers at practices. And for a similar reason, I really don’t like digital pace clocks as a quick glance tells me nothing unless I actually read the digits. (Yes, I’m old school on this!)

I must admit I do have one exception to this ‘Watch, don’t time’ rule. And that is monitoring stroke rate. For most races I want to know the stroke rate simply because that’s part of our race strategies, and part of our practice goals. I’ve been taught  to measure the stroke rate in the middle of the pool, where the stroke isn’t likely to suddenly change. And that gives me time to glance at the stroke rate result well before the swimmer gets to the wall.

So in answer to the FB forum question, I agree with many of the coaches that it is very difficult to use smart phones or tablets for timing, as most applications require pressing a virtual button on a small portion of the screen. And if I’m looking at the screen to find the right spot to press, I’m not looking at the swimmer. In other words, a stop watch app would only be a poor imitation of a real stop watch.


One more thing. I’ve tried, but I just cannot video a swim and watch the swim at the same time. I see many people appearing to do both. I remember trying to video my son’s wrestling matches. Every time the action got intense I got excited and ended up getting very good images of the ceiling. Maybe it’s a generational thing.


6 thoughts on “Stop Watching the Stopwatch!

  1. The watch I love and use, AutoCoach, has audio capability via built in speaker or else an AUX jack to an ear bud. Volume control of course. Then as splits and stroke rates are taken, they are announced.

    Furthermore, all the button presses can be piped straight to a ISB Hub and written to PC file.

    And, memory too, of course.

    That utility over comes the objections you raised.

    1. Hi Mark, welcome back from my blog’s Spamland. The AutoCoach sounds excellent. As long as I don’t have to stop watching the swimmer, or concentrate on recording a split, I’m most likely happy. If it could announce stroke rate as well that would be ideal.

  2. Coach Rick, this is coach Steve. I so agree with your wise council not to be looking at the watch and instead focus on the swimmer. I have even talked about this at conventions where I’ve been a speaker. Anyone can click a stopwatch, but only an experienced coach can assess how a swimmer is doing technically and how he or she responds to race challenges, etc. You do bring up something I haven’t thought about though — what if one of those phone apps could verbally call out the split? Seems really possible I’ll and look into it. If not I’ll have the app written and posted at or

    At the end you brought up video — a pet peeve of mine. This is another thing anyone can do. You’re right — video and expert coaching at the same time is crazy. If you’re talking about video during a race — anyone can do that. Any swimmer not in the event, any parent, etc. can be deputized to capture footage. If you’re talking about practice, this is why I invented the EyeSwim. All coaches should have one of these in every lane and have the swimmer click record before a set and playback at times decided when the workout is written. At the very least the swimmer should analyze video footage every day after practice or before practice the next day. If you’re not sure they know what to look for, teach them and occasionally watch video with them. No one has time to analyze video all night and no one can consistently analyze video while coaching except for that quick glimpse you are making when you look at stroke rate (another thing the audio phone app could do for us). We need to stop seeing ourselves as the center of everything and realize that coaching is extraordinary and needs to be focussed. Part of great coaching is how we empower others to do other necessary and important tasks. And putting the swimmer at the center of what we do — not ourselves and not technology. Great post and than you.

    1. Hi Coach Steve. Thanks for the excellent comments. I’ve actually had swimmers call out splits so that I can concentrate on the swim, and I find even that distracting. My problem is that I’m either paying attention to the split, or I’m paying attention to the turn, underwater, breakout. And in all reality, I don’t need to know the split at that time. I can easily click the watch and look at the split later. So at least as I’m concerned, the phone calling out the split doesn’t address my issue. And it still leaves the problem of finding and clicking a screen button.

      As for race videos, I’ll analyze if it’s a higher level meet and fewer swimmers, or I’ll just rely on my observations. You guessed correctly that I’m not going to do detailed race analyses of 100+ swims per session when I should be sleeping.

      Now, for practices, I’m a huge fan of using video. I’ve just finished looking at EyeSwim and it looks intriguing. We do something similar with a video system that I can have looking underwater or overwater with an adjustable delay. And then during warmup and key sets they can watch themselves on a large screen. But this isn’t practical during tough sets as they’ll be busy recovering. Attention spans are limited when exhausted. I’ll have more time after practice to see what EyeSwim does.

      1. Great points. I like it when coaches realize their job is to watch and interact with swimmers and that even splits can be distracting. I will say that I’ve trained my swimmers to know what two fingers means during a race. For some it means they split 1:02. For others a 1:12. In distance races well coached swimmers know exactly what they want to split and what they can hold. I also point out other swimmers, especially in the second halves of races they should simply — race! I’ve been blessed with fast distance swimmers who learn to “race” people I’m getting them to lap. Either way I like to show them what their last split was. I often take a fifty split and give them their 100 pace. So, I guess I’m saying that less distracting since we both are engaged. You could do the same thing with stroke rate or count. But you can’t do that at meets if you don’t do it in practice. Ideally swimmers would get a breakout time or a 15 meter time, distance per stroke, etc. in heads up goggles. 🙂

        The great thing (to me) about having and Eyeswim in each lane is I’m out of the loop but the swimmers are in the stroke improvement loop. Without feedback it isn’t coaching and it is only randomly improving. My mantra — “never leave a wall without a goal” is lot more fully dimensional when it’s not just about time. The other thing I like about video in practice is they get to see what’s happening when they fatigue. This affects even their choice of dryland training. That’s a whole other issue but we should discuss how specific that needs to be some time. I feel really far ahead in that area and I’m not trying to be. This exchange is great! Thank you.

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

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