Dear Coach

CalTriCoachesTraining“I am not sure what you think coaches should be,” read one of the going away notes I received from a swimmer. It gave me pause.

I don’t often talk about this with them directly – how I view my job, my role in their life. But I definitely have strong opinions on what I think a coach should (and should not) be. And I was pretty sure I had mentioned two main things at the season-kick-off meeting.

For one, I wanted to help them be better human beings via swimming. Probably there would be a lot of best times, I said, but that was kind of the window-dressing so far as I was concerned. And two, I liked to have a captive – if not rapt – audience for my punny jokes. (What do you call a cow with no legs? Ground beef. I didn’t write that one, but I frequently cite it as my favorite.)

Besides saying this at the start of the year, I had put a gargantuan amount of effort into trying to live out those words through my actions. Was I so totally missing the target?! Before I could go on with reading the letter, I started to wonder what, exactly, I was hoping to read in the paragraphs that followed.

What DO I think coaches should be, in the end? Nice, kind, gentle? Tough? Presenters of challenge? Flexible? Demanding? Funny? Serious? Competitive? More concerned with skill development than winning?

In reality, coaches have to be all of the above, and more. Depending on the circumstances of the day and the individual athletes and team….

That’s what makes coaching more of an art than a prescriptive do-this-get-that kind of job. In my experience of it, there are more questions than answers. Often, successful coaching hinges on timing – saying the right thing at the right time. The opposite side of that coin: there are so many wrong things to say, and so many wrong times.


“That kid. Over there. He called me an old lady.” “Stop tattling. Go swim down.”

As an athlete, I have experienced the full range of coaching styles. All of them were “successful” in the sense that I found motivation and, to at least some extent, skill-development and fitness. Some of the teams won state championships. Sometimes we were competing for last-place in the division.

Regardless of the placing or the results, all of my coaches, in one way or another, lodged their voices in my head. Many of these voices were helpful and empowering. Some were not. All of them, however, are present in my mental rolodex, which, now that I am a coach, goes whirling for information whenever a new teachable moment arises.

Knowing this, I work very hard to be present when I coach, to consciously and carefully CHOOSE the things I say. And not just the words themselves, but how I say them, when I say them, and whether my non-verbals match the words coming out of my mouth.

The question I try to keep in the front of my mind (and this is so much harder than I ever imagined): What does this athlete need to hear so that this sport helps them become an understanding, empathetic, successful human being in the long-run? Because, after the end of a competitive career, that’s the only thing that matters.

There is so much pressure to cave into the win-at-all costs, winning-is-all-that-matters culture surrounding youth sports these days. But the rewards for bucking this trend are so sweet.

As I went on reading the good-bye note from this swimmer, I was floored. I could cut and paste the names of my cycling coach (Jim Lehman) and my swimming coach (Andy Clifford) and sign the note and pass it off as my own thank you note to them. (Jim would be scratching his head over the references to the 100 Fly.)

While I never asked Andy or Jim what they thought coaches should be, it’s their voices I most routinely pluck from my memory bank to give to the athletes I coach.

Dear Andy, Dear Jim,

“You took me in and helped me achieved goals I never thought possible….And more importantly, goals such as striving to be the best person I can outside of the pool….I am not sure what you think coaches should be, but now I know what they are supposed to be….They are supposed to be hard on you but they are also supposed to know your limits. They are supposed to be funny but not too laid back. They are supposed to be your advocate for life and that is exactly how I see you….I know you have been in my corner since day one and there are no words to describe how much that means to me.”


Thanks Andy. Thanks Jim. And thanks to this swimmer, for giving me a chance to challenge my limits as a coach (you may not believe it, but you did exactly that) and for letting me know that, at least once, I got it more or less right. Which as I tell the kids, is probably the kind of outcome you can be proud of.


“What better thanks than this?! Also….do you have any cash for donuts?”

What’s in the letter to your coach?

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