Youth Swimming: Communication

The way a coach communicates to a swimmer is the single most important element of swimming. Regardless of how much a coach thinks he or she knows, swimmers will not succeed unless they have a coach who is an effective communicator.

Communication: the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium. The successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.

Breaking up the above definition of communication, we can see that it involves various “mediums” to communicate messages or instructions and involves “successful” strategies to deliver them.

The most obvious form of communication is verbal. The key elements of successful verbal communication can be memorised through the use of the acronym RSVP:

Rhythm – Develop a natural rhythm, which is broken down to emphasise key points. Take a pause at the end of each important point you make, and before making one;

Speed & Clarity – Your voice can be as loud as a Drill Sergeants but without a suitable speed and clear voice it won’t be understood by anyone. Take the time to think about the sentence you’re next about to say; this will slow your sentence down. Aim to speak a little slower than your normal conversation pace. You should take the time to pronounce each word correctly, don’t rush. Programme time into the set to allow for discussion and instruction, this will stop you from trying to cram everything in, as quickly as you can;

Volume – In a group environment, your voice must be projected to all swimmers. The key is to speak at a volume that can be heard beyond the furthest athlete from you. Imagine you have an extra line of swimmers at the other end of the pool from you and attempt to have your voice reach them.

Project from your stomach rather than your throat. Using your abdominal muscles will prevent you from losing your voice by the end of the session. A good practice, often adopted in the military, is to lie on the floor and place a book on your stomach. Attempt to project your voice using your stomach muscles, while keeping the book flat i.e. it is not allowed to move up and down;

Pitch – Increasing the pitch of your voice can often help your listeners make you out clearer. Increase your pitch slightly if your voice tends to be deep; however, there is no need for any Sopranos!

To grab your swimmer’s attention or to emphasise particular points, you can vary the above in different ways. A conspiratorial whisper can draw your swimmers in; a loudly spoken exclamation can make them sit up and listen. Changing the rhythm can add tone to your instructions. A slightly faster section might convey enthusiasm; slightly slower may add emphasis or caution. You may also, raise the pitch of your voice when asking a question and lower it when you want to increase the severity of a point.

An excellent example of playing with the volume of your voice is when highlighting a particular word. For example, when taking swimmers through the steps on how to take-off from the starting block, you can explain the position they should take on to the block in a normal voice, lower it when you’re getting closer to explaining the ‘take your marks’ position and, finally, loudly express the word “EXPLODE” as you explain how they should leave the block.

Remember your voice is a flexible and powerful tool, use it!

However, using your voice is not the only way to convey a message in swimming. Non-verbal communication is an umbrella term which includes, hand gestures, demonstrations and also, your body language. Sound verbal and effective non-verbal communication, when used together, create a highly successful communicator.

Hand gestures – These can be used in a variety of ways, many are often not consciously noticed by the person receiving them, nor the user. For example, a coach congratulating a swimmer on a swim well done may give them the thumbs-up. Think of the difference if he/she had said “well done” without the gesture…adding the thumbs up created a much greater message than without.

Demonstrations – These can hugely influence a swimmer’s movements, and therefore, they must be conducted in the correct manner. Swimmers have gone years, hearing about what they are meant to do but are never actually shown. Suddenly, it is demonstrated to them, and they get it – “a picture paints a thousand words”, as they say.

Demonstrations can come in different forms. The primary source, tends to be, the coach. These can be conducted either on land or in the water. An important point to raise for dry land demonstrations is that water is much denser than air, this must be compensated for when conducting movements in the air! A great way of making a movement look more like it is in the water is for the coach to imagine custard surrounds them and show the swimmers their muscles straining through the “custard” – as if in the water. Take a butterfly pull demonstration, many coaches make the desired shape to the swimmers; however, their arms are at their sides in a flash of the time that it would actually take in the water. This will create a skewed image for the swimmer, and you are unlikely to get swimmers to achieve the ideal movement.

Bringing in high level/ elite swimmers is a great way to give younger, less experienced, swimmers a role model and is a highly effective way of introducing and reinforcing movements. It is important to note that ‘copying’ the elite athlete is not what the goal is.

Body Language

If you were to stand to speak to your swimmers with your arms folded, a somewhat negative body language, it is unlikely they will take your message as being very positive; even it is intended that way! Using ‘open’ and positive body language will help reinforce your message as more swimmers will be inclined to listen and will response more positively to your message. A great way of ensuring you have a positive image is to imagine you are in a fish bowl and the swimmer’s parents are looking in. They should, just by looking at you, tell that you are acting positive and are approachable to your swimmers.

Examples of poor body language are:

– Arms folded;
– Hands in your pockets;
– Leaning on a wall.

Examples of positive body language include:

– Open palms;
– A smile on your face;
– Good posture.

Successful communication is one of the most important aspects of coaching, without it, you’re doomed to fail your swimmers. Encourage your colleagues to develop your communication skills on the poolside for the benefit of your swimmers, and remember practice makes perfect!

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

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Youth Swimming: Coaches, Poolside helpers and Volunteers

Vital to the development of athletes, of all ages and sports, are the army of coaches – the vast majority of whom are unpaid volunteers. Attempting to run a session on your own with 20+ young children, all bursting with excitement, can be a near impossible task. The life-line for squad coaches is the ability to delegate tasks and lanes to those offering assistance.

Once you have a few willing volunteers, the first decision you need to make is what you would like them to do. You should provide each person with a role in the squad and also delegate tasks to them – this allows your assistants to feel more part of the team and provides them with motivation to attend sessions. Roles and functions can be wide ranging, of which, a few are listed and discussed below:

Lane coach – You, as the head or lead coach, should delegate one or two lanes to a ‘lane coach’ who can supervise the lane activities, time-keep, teach and maintain discipline. This allows you to focus on individual swimmers or one lane and prevents you from doing everything – freeing you up to provide technical feedback.

The lane coach does not necessarily need to be a coach, he or she could be a parent who can time-keep, etc.

Timers/ counters – As mentioned above, you can employ family and friends to time swimmers and/or count laps.

The Swimming Sergeant Major – You will have all seen the military films where the scary looking senior Solider, with the moustache, shouts and screams at the other junior soldiers on the drill square. Well, you can employ a less scary version onto the poolside to maintain lane discipline and ensure correct behaviour. Whoever is nominated to this position should, under no circumstances, shout at any swimmer. They are there simply to, as explained above, free the hands of the head coach by having a civil and calm conversation with individual swimmers if things begin to get a little wild in the pool or proper lane etiquette is not followed.

The lead/squad/head coach still has overall responsibility for ensuring the safety of all swimmers in the pool as well as maintain behaviour.

The Hawk-eye – An adult helper who is used to spot a particular (single) fault in the swimmers, which the lead coach has instructed swimmers to correct in that particular session e.g. breathing out of a turn. It allows the coach to focus on other technique elements and the kids love calling the designated adult the “hawk-eye!”

All coaches and helpers should be briefed on the aims of the session, including, what the programme will involve to meet those aims. The session’s technical points should be listed and explained; this should include explaining how you’d like the points to be taught and showing the coaches how to conduct any demonstrations, e.g. how you’d like to coaches to re-create the kicking action of breaststroke on the poolside. It is essential that all coaches “sing from the same hymn sheet”, or else, the swimmers will receive mixed messages. This is counter-productive, and opens up the possibility of providing incorrect instruction.

A coaches meeting once or twice a week ensures that the programme can be improved and any problems can be addressed. It is always nice to meet away from the pool environment to ensure everyone is relaxed and no-one feels that they are in “your territory”, which would perhaps prevent people from speaking up.

Each coach should be provided with time to air their opinions and, should consider the following:

Swimmer progress – providing a summary of how they feel the swimmers are responding to the programme, training progress, attendance and behaviour;
Self and peer evaluation – feedback to other fellow coaches on their strengths and weaknesses. Evaluate one’s own performance;
Programme evaluation – discuss how well they feel the training is going, suggesting ways to improve it and express any other points regarding the programme.

Coach meetings can also be used to highlight upcoming competitions, and discuss who will be swimming which events, coach cover for the meet, and, strategies that will be encouraged. You may also wish to consider which meets the swimmers should target next. Debriefing after a competition is essential in improving the programme. Everyone involved should detail the positives and negatives of the meet and what actions they should take to improve on the next competition.

The one danger of coach meetings is that they become political; avoid this at all cost. The coaching meeting should be used to discuss the progress of the swimmers and the training programmes. Remember what you are there for – the swimmers.

I hope this provided a useful guide for any coaches involved in youth swimmer and indeed of any age, feed-back is always appreciated – critical and positive. Please don’t hesitate to ave any questions and I will do my upmost to answer them – either via WordPress comments or twitter.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

Youth Swimming: Environment

The Youth Swimming series will attempt to provide coaches and volunteers with a guide on how to plan, organise, implement sessions and also cover elements of training. Literature on youth swimming beyond the teaching of swimming is lacking; the coaching of young swimmers crosses both the realms of teaching and coaching. This series will focus on the coaching of youth swimmers, a definition of a youth swimmer is found below.

Youth Swimmer: 6-11 years old, majority of athletes will be 10 and under. Beginner level of swimming ability – with either no or minimal knowledge of swimming movements.

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When a session involves persons of any age, a safe environment is essential. Within every swimming establishment, a review will be conducted to ensure it is safe and a risk analysis will be carried out. Attempts to either remove or, minimise those risks will have been conducted. The head coach, and indeed all other coaches, volunteers (in whatever capacity) must ensure that the same procedures are carried out when planning and organising a session activity.

The most vital safety consideration for a coach at a swimming facility is to evaluate adequate lifeguard provisions are in place. Without a fully-trained person, who can ensure the well-being of every individual in the building, a session should not commence. Often this is goes beyond just a guideline; most facilities have a mandatory requirement for the presence of a lifeguard or appropriately trained person when anyone is in the premise.

The coach must ensure that all his/her planned activities adhere to the facilities health and safety rules and indeed their clubs. There are also many general guidelines which should be taken into account when a coach is designing and implementing a session, which may or may not be already included in the latter two.

The activities planned should be age-appropriate for the swimmers the session is intended for. The pool depth and distances are restrictive depending on the age of a swimmer; often sessions for youth swimmers are conducted using the width of the pool or swimming to half the pool length and climbing out. An effective way to increase the distance swum by young swimmers is to have them swim a number of strokes or set distance and then instruct them to kick on their backs (or another swimming movement which the find easy) for the rest of the length. This ensures they do not become fatigued to the point whereby they can no longer keep themselves above the water and, into difficulty requiring intervention.

Equipment can be both, beneficial and, act as a hazard when introduced to a session. For example, the use of fins provides swimmers with the opportunity to experience swimming speeds greater than what they usually experience – something of great joy to children! However, it also presents the risk of children receiving red faces after being kicked by a fin – therefore, the coach would consider increasing the time interval between swimmers. Regardless of what equipment is utilised, a risk assessment of the equipment should be made by the coach i.e. what risk does this pose, and to whom? What steps can I take to reduce or eliminate this risk?

Piles of equipment on the deck are a very common sight and are a very common cause of accidents of the poolside. Many coaches/parents have invested in mesh bags for their swimmer’s personal equipment which keeps the deck clearer. Whenever equipment is placed by the coach for use in a session, it should be stored so that it does not obstruct or pose a risk to any pool user. Poolsides are often shared, and a variety of demographics may be using the pool e.g. a person less mobile than you and your swimmers.

Before, during and, after, each session, a good habit to get into is to analyse the risk posed to your environment. This ensures that the pool is safe for the swimmers entering, it is safe while they are conducting activities and when leaving the pool. You should clear any obstructions or hazards that you may have created for the next users of the pool.

The safety of your swimmers, other coaches and all other pool users is YOUR responsibility; it should be your primary consideration at all points of a session.

I hope this provided a useful guide for any coaches involved in youth swimmer and indeed of any age, feedback is always appreciated – critical and positive. Please don’t hesitate to send any questions you may have and I will do my upmost to answer them – either via WordPress comments or twitter.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu