Swim coaches are always looking for ways to make their athletes better by studying videos of the best swimmers in the world, reading books by star coaches and trying to improve their knowledge about swimming in every direction. Sometimes the way to grow as a coach is right infront of their eyes.

“You don’t always have look far to find answers“, tells us the international well-known swimming expert and college head coach at Virginia Tech, Sergio Lopez. “As a coach, you can learn from the athletes that you are working with.” Solutions for certain questions in swimming technique or training can be as individual as each athlete themselves. “Not always when we want to change something about an athlete’s technique it will actually make them better, which is why we have to be very open especially when we are working with young kids.”

Learning certain movements and getting a feeling for the water is often easier for younger athletes than it is for experienced swimmers. The focus in swim training should always be on teaching them a broad variety of techniques. During their physical development young swimmers constantly have to adapt their style and it’s a time of trial and error.

“If we change something and it doesn’t work, we can just change it back. The athlete still improves the inventory of techniques they learned and we as coaches can grow because of the experiences we made with the athlete”, Sergio explains.

"If we change something
and it doesn’t work,
we can just change it back.

But this also means: As a coach you have to be able to understand your athletes and see if something isn’t working. “Very often coaches ask me, which book they should read and I always tell them: You don’t need to read something about swimming. You know about that stuff. Read a book about behavioral psychology.” Sergio highlights how important the mental component of swimming is with an anecdote about one of his former athletes: Olympic Champion Joseph Schooling. Before he won the 100m butterfly at the Rio Olympics in 2016 against the famous trio, Michael Phelps, Laszlo Cseh and Chad le Clos, he already gained some Olympic experience 2012 in London. Months before the Summer Olympics in London, Schooling hit the headlines as a 16-year-old who is swimming the 200m butterfly in 1:56 at the Southeast Asian Games. In London his best time would have gained him a spot in the semifinals. “He was very excited and in great shape”, Sergio remembers. But then something unexpected shook the young athlete.

His equipment supplier forgot to sign a paper, so Schoolings swim cap and goggles were not approved by FINA. The Singapore national swimmer didn’t know about that until moments before his prelim start. An official told him: “Hey, you can’t swim with that equipment.” So Schooling had to grab some random cap and goggles from a box of approved swimwear. “When I saw him with the different cap and walking without confidence, I knew there was something wrong”, Sergio says. His protégé ended up in 26th place, swimming two and a half seconds slower than his personal best. “Of course, he was devastated. But you know the funny thing about that story: When I met Joseph after the race at the warm down pool and he showed me the cap… it was exactly the same kind of cap as the model by his regular brand.”

"I wouldn’t be able to do
what I do without the swimmers
I have trained, and I am training now.

This clearly points out that the mental component is very often more important than the physical side. Of course, you have to be in shape and trained well but on the top level everyone is. It often comes down to the question, who is mentally better prepared. If you want your athletes to be the best version of themselves, it’s not enough to only teach them how to swim but also how to act as an athlete. Leading by example is a key why we want to encourage you to be open-minded and try to learn from every experience you make with your athletes. The way Sergio puts it: “I’ve been lucky. Through the path I had, I have been working with very talented kids from day one. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the swimmers I have trained, and I am training now.”

picture: (c) Virginia Tech