Historically, some of the greatest coaches in the sport of swimming were also the most inquisitive. They never stopped questioning. Understanding that they were far from having all of the answers to get swimmers faster, they constantly challenged the hierarchy, the establishment. Often they would try out new ideas, whether on technique or training, experimenting, or trying to find a better way. Usually, they turned to be right, but not always. It was their willingness to change, to push the envelope, whether right or wrong, that forged our sport ahead.
I have been blessed to have known or swam under some of the pioneer coaches. Some were very science-based, like Doc Counsilman. Others, like Mike Bottom, were more artistic and creative. Doc never stopped thinking or questioning or reading or learning. I never knew a man who knew so much about so many different subjects. While his doctorate was in physiology, he knew a great deal about physics, kinesiology, psychology, art, opera, music, and just about any other subject you could bring up. Yet he never spoke with a ‘know it all’ attitude. He could speak to anyone on a level that she or he could readily understand and relate to; a rare gift.
Mike is more of a creative, artistic coach. Every day at workout, he will shoot from the hip, changing up a planned workout, experimenting with a new set or drill that might get his swimmers faster. Part of his strategy was to prevent boredom, keeping his workouts unpredictable, and part was to figure out a better way to swim faster. He always welcomed new ideas coming from his swimmers or staff and implemented them well.
Nort Thornton, the great coach from Cal, was another inquisitive coach. He never stopped reading and learning, trying out new ideas every season. Nort was a deep thinker, very intelligent, always questioning the establishment.
Flip Darr, coach of myself, Shirley Babashoff, the Furniss brothers, and many other Olympians, was an unconventional, out-of-the box coach. It seemed like every season, Flip would show up to practice with a new toy he had developed for training; homemade hand paddles, surgical tubing for resistance training or whatever he could think of to torture us in a different way.
Don Gambril (Pasadena, Long Beach, Harvard, Alabama), Peter Daland (USC), Eddie Reese (Texas), Dick Jochums (Long Beach, Arizona, Santa Clara), Skip Kenney (Stanford), and David Marsh (Auburn, Swim Mac, UCSD) were/are also very deep thinking coaches. All have or had inquisitive minds that never stopped questioning how we do things.
We are fortunate to be in a sport where coaches share information willingly. There are no secrets, just undiscovered information. It is acceptable and advisable to copy the best coaches, but never assume that they have all of the answers. They don’t. They never will.
To be a great coach, learn from the best and copy others, but keep questioning.
Yours in swimming,