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,