Coaching Outside Your Comfort Zone

comfortzoneWhen presented with the idea of working with Paralympic hopefuls, I’ve heard many coaches say, “I want to help, but I don’t know what to do. Where can I learn?”

Here’s where I learned: On the job.

At least, that’s how I learned how to coach a swimmer with traumatic brain injury.

Okay, it was kind of terrifying at first because of the various challenges presented by his TBI. But I’m glad I took on the challenge because it’s the most rewarding coaching experience of my career thus far.

Here are the three biggest lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order.

Coordination and propriopreception are “multi-tasking.”

When this swimmer’s therapists told me, “he has a hard time with multi-tasking,” I immediately thought of the classic example: walking and chewing gum. Or checking email and texting at the same time.

But I quickly learned that the vast majority of our basic functioning as human beings is multi-tasking to our brains – knowing where you are in space and how, say, to get your body to float on top of the water, requires the human brain to run many programs worth of code all at once. Duh.

It didn’t take too many tries before I suggested a work-around, which we called rotating focus. Check-in with your legs, check-in with your hips, check-in with your head, and then repeat. It worked!

I was so excited at this discovery that I tried it that very afternoon with a couple of the kids on my year-round team. The one who had the attention span and focus of a sleep-deprived gnat swam amazingly well for a 25, and pretty well for another. It was a HUGE win.

Many of the adults who have taken lessons with me use this “rotating focus” with great success.

Patience………………………………worth it.

The therapists also told me that this swimmer with TBI had “significant latency.” Meaning, it took his brain a long time to process information or questions. Open-ended questions were difficult. Better to stick to simple concepts, and use leading yes/no questions. That was the message, anyway.

At first, I followed this direction. And then, I just couldn’t. I wanted to get to know my client. I was in the habit of asking swimmers open-ended questions. I needed to understand the athlete’s perception of a drill, so I could provide a more helpful cue.

So I had to adjust my conversational habits. I had to ask a question and WAIT. No follow-up questions when the beat of silence got uncomfortable. Just wait. The answer was coming. It just took longer than most of my other clients for the thought to come out.

A lot of the time, the answer was, “I don’t know.” (Which makes sense…if you’re brain is trying to DO a drill, then collecting information about the experience is a “multi” task.) As the years have gone on, this athelte’s answers come more quickly and there are fewer “I don’t know”s.

Do I even need to say that these skills have come in handy in ALL my coaching relationships? Yeah…..they have. Patience. Hard as heck. Totally worth it.

Brains use energy!

The brain can heal itself. Neuroplasticity! But just like any other kind of recovery, healing takes energy.

Some of the days when this athlete seemed most exhausted were the ones where we were learning a new skill or movement pattern.

I also started to notice that when this athlete was tired from life – say, coming from singing lessons or working on learning a new transportation routine – learning a new swimming skill would be next to impossible. On those days, fatigue would become apparent earlier in the workout than on weeks when he was not having to use as much brain energy.


There are dozens more lessons I’ve learned working with this athlete. I’ve invented dozens of creative uses for buoys, kkckboards, paddles, and more. I’ve seen that expectations – mine, society’s, an athlete’s – can be meaningless or set-ups for failure. Better to let go of expectations and just live in the moment.

Coaching outside my comfort zone has made me a much better coach inside my comfort zone, and vastly extended my range.

I really encourage you to try it.

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