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How to coach swimming...
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Thursday 10th July 2014


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Dan Bullock is the highly regarded Head Coach of Swim for Tri (www.swimfortri.co.uk), and has been coaching triathletes at swimming for well over a decade, winning many accolades and awards along the way.

As well as a lot of experience as both a swimmer and a coach, Dan has spent many years developing his own coaching style as well as acting as a mentor and trainer for the coaches within his business and beyond.

In this extended piece, Dan pulls together many of his thoughts and approaches on HOW to coach swimming. If you are a coach, or have aspirations to add coaching skills to your portfolio then this is an absolute must for you, and is sure to give you many ideas and tips to develop your own style and approach. And this is NOT about swim techniques...

Read on and enjoy 10 specific pointers to include within your own coaching.


I was disappointed to learn that it was not in fact Steve Jobs who first came up with a simple coaching mantra I keep at heart. It would have been the kind of cool thing he would have pioneered but I did in fact trace it back to the BBC:

"Inform, educate and entertain"

I now know others also said that, but Steve Jobs was very good at the three of them if you have ever watched his keynote speeches. With 20+ people in the water during a fitness session, I know how dull they can be so to entertain is essential. To educate through good communication i.e. inform, is essential. If you can also motivate as well then you are well on your way.

Swim technique knowledge is essential but you can learn that. If you want me to be your mentor then I cannot teach you some of the key skills you will need. Let me explain...

Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps' coach), said anyone could come and coach with him at his swim club if they bring enthusiasm and motivation, as he can't teach those. He can teach you all the technique and theory you need, but you need to want to get up early, fire up your sessions with enthusiasm and motivate in perhaps one of the most uninspiring environments going for many sports people.

Jimmy D Shea and his use of simple language means people understand him. He motivates, as he is passionate about his subject. He is describing what he does, personally as a swimmer, in simple language terms. He is good because he is not a trained coach showing off his swimming knowledge. I would consider him a potential great swim teacher (although he is probably is not looking to be!).

On this area do not be afraid to be a great swim teacher. This is quite different to coaching, and I would say it is probably harder then coaching due to the patience and empathy needed. If you are looking to help at your child's swim club, perhaps it is a shame the head coach gets a lot of the glory when really some of the best work is done by the swim teachers with the younger children.

Teaching swimming is hard!. Dealing with the frustrations of your swimmer as they struggle is hard, especially with adults not used to being given tasks they cannot do. As adults - for most - we don’t remember the frustration of tying shoelaces, riding a bike etc. Swimming will be quite humbling so preparing an adult for that takes great skill.

Do something regularly that you are not good at to humble yourself and remind yourself how hard it is for the swimmer in front of you.

The only real compliment I look for when coaching is the hope that people feel "the time flew by" and they can’t believe the session is over. If I have informed, educated, entertained and perhaps also challenged then I feel I have succeeded with a good fitness session. Obviously there are longer-term rewards, the thanks and satisfaction when someone makes a cut off that was previously questionable. When someone achieves a new distance previously thought of as unattainable. But as an immediate response to a good session, this feedback can be quite rewarding.

Dan Bullock coaching

Here are ten specific pointers I use in many of the fitness sessions we offer. I like all of our coaches to coach with these pointers in mind to offer a great session. One of the hardest challenges for a Tri Swim Coach is to include so many swimmers of differing abilities. Here is how to avoid anyone feeling left behind or excluded, challenge all, keep everyone safe, employs a degree of swim technique yet delivers a good fitness challenge..

  1. Announce session aims and objectives during some dry land arm swinging within the few minutes before getting in the water. Write them out on a white board if it helps or you are not so confident talking poolside to a large group. People like to know what they have to do and why. I don’t put all the session up in one go on a white board, as I want swimmers to focus on a particular part of a set, one set at a time.

  2. Keep the groups moving within the session. No group wants to hang around for ages while you are involved with a lengthy dialogue to a separate lane.  The fast lane should have the subset available so try to keep differing lane abilities finishing warm-ups and subsets at different times or adjust distances so all finish together and you can announce the main set to all.

  3. As a coach, getting a feel for how fast a lane moves takes some experience. Keeping different abilities finishing at the same time is not easy. An easy way to do this is to make use of time based 'distance' main sets i.e. swim for 8mins, 6mins, 4mins, 2mins with 1min rest etc so that all finish at the same time irrespective of ability. I like this style of swim set since you are not constantly reminding the slowest person they are the slowest.

  4. No one likes a session to end abruptly when a coach does not 'juggle' the differing ability lanes and amend the session. Imagine how you would feel in lane one, not to get your 20x100m swum due to starting too late into the session. If you want the slowest lane to swim 2k, then they need time to start earlier. Do the maths, with 40mins of the session remaining and a warm down recommended and no one in the lane with the ability to break 2mins per 100m then your lane will run out of time. Start this lane earlier or if you don’t feel you can abbreviate the warm-up/subset then shorten the main set for this lane.

    I would always encourage a 90min session over a 60min session so Warm-ups and Subsets do not need to be abbreviated. As the name implies a warm-up has a specific role and it needs time to perform its job. Your main set will suffer if you do not warm-up.

  5. Be confident. We don't know all the answers but you will probably know more then the swimmer in front of you. If something does stump you, go and do some research. Find out and get back to the swimmer. Swimmers love that you care and take the time to find out or speak to others and get feedback and guidance. Coaching should leave you constantly striving to learn more. The moment you feel you know all the answers to swimming then look to another discipline. You probably don’t know all the answers but might just be getting a little jaded. A new area will be of use to inspire again and learn more. For me that was spending more time with swimmers with disabilities.

  6. Make sure all your swimmers can see all of your on land demos from multiple angles. Make your demos accurate. I once witnessed a coach show a lane a strong leg kick and he flapped his arms with a two-way pivot at the knee. Yes they all kicked from the knee as they pushed away from the wall. Ask if your swimmers understand, pick on the joker of the lane (always one that wants singling out!), to repeat or explain to the others.

  7. Make use of your assistants if you have them. Bring them in, delegate tasks to stop swimmers from standing around waiting or getting cold. Observe and analyse and always engage. No point watching and noting how a particular swimmer swims without telling them. Not easy with so many in a fitness session but each person needs to feel special. Needs to feel you noticed something about their stroke and cared. Ideally something positive, but then pick up on something that is holding them back (I prefer this rather then to highlight a 'negative' with no solution). How else do you improve? Use technical explanations between blocks of swimming to ‘enforce’ a rest period if you notice your lane working too hard and perhaps not taking the recommended amount of rest they should be taking.

  8. Make use of technology but practice to the nth degree that it works smoothly before you unleash it onto your clients. No one likes to hang around while you fiddle with cables etc. I run complete workshops with friends before inviting paying clients to ensure this goes smoothly.

  9. Use your lane space well and creatively; no one said you had to use the lanes up and down, clockwise and anticlockwise. If you have lanes booked away from public swimmers then keep your swimmers safe but challenge and be creative. Do something they cannot recreate in a public swim session and you will be a coaching legend to them!



  10. Know your races and know the intricacies of the swim aspect even if you have not raced them. Ask other swimmers for information about them. Each open water race is different and you cannot overlook this as a pure swim coach would be able to i.e. the pool is 50m long and you need to swim there and back fast. It is all pretty standardised and that aspect can be relied on. Your swimmers will want to know a certain route through a certain course or which side to start on when it comes to a large mass start.

Good luck if you are embarking on a career of coaching. It will be hard, enjoyable, challenging yet rewarding and I highly recommend it.

You don’t have to be a fast athlete to be a great coach. Many great swim coaches have been average competitors themselves. Sometimes you need the analytical eye that as a competitor hinders as you question and investigate aspects of your own training, but could leave you performing to a higher level as a coach.


For more information on open water sessions, swim coaching, workshops and overseas camps visit www.swimfortri.co.uk

Swim for Tri


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