Coaching Ethics

[This originally was at the end of Smart Speed Part 1 but I felt it needed it’s own essay- and to shorten that one].

When considering the strategy for pursuing our potential as swimmers- whether young or old, it brings us to an ethical point for coaches and for swimmers: We need to consider the performance expectations we are setting for ourselves and for our athletes. Are they appropriate to the swimmer’s physiological realities, to their developmental stage, and is the cost reasonable in the long-term vision for swimming and life? For what we hope to gain now, is the athlete aware of the long-term costs involved and willing to pay them? Are there those in the athletes life with longer-term vision who are ready to lend some perspective?

The pursuit of absolute speed is thrilling yet dangerous because it involves the confrontation between our physiology and the laws of physics. Passing such extreme forces through the body require absolute precision and control in order to reach that peak and avoid injury at the same time. The kind of training required in ‘power-programs’ is notorious for burning out the minds and hearts of swimmers- however good they were. Going for peak performance is certainly the realm for elite swimmers and for highly skilled (and attentive) coaches, for those with carefully-laid plans to achieve it.

This raises concerns for training swimmers on both ends of the development spectrum- children/youth and aging adults. Power must be carefully conducted through the body and mind in both. If you want to find out what a coach really understands, don’t look at his 18 year old swimmers who are currently winning races- give a coach a group of kids and anyone can hammer them so that only the toughest survive and thrive. Instead, look at his/her former swimmers- how many still enjoy swimming after those years in their program? How many still want to compete, now that they are adults with full lives? How well was he/she able to conduct ALL of the club swimmers to potential without injury to body, mind, or heart?

For those of us who have real lives, limited time, and aging bodies, we must consider the cost that absolute speed will extract from us. Our bodies pay a price to transfer those kind of forces and we need more time, in practice AND in recovery to maintain the necessary muscular strength. At some point we will recognize the increasing cost of embracing such extreme forces and consider alternative forms of reward from our swimming, or tragically, just stop swimming. We all will gradually lose our ability to generate and transfer higher forces through our body, yet we have the opportunity to improve precision and balance indefinitely, if we train with different values and a broarder range of metrics to measure our skill with.

No, speed gets you acclaim for a certain season, but it pays poorly. It is certainly not the only thing that matters in life. We can either work with that truth or have it crush the body and spirit one day. This is a hard lesson that children and parents don’t realize until it’s too late- and too many swim programs bank on this ignorance. I hope you will consider your (children’s) training program and coach carefully.

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One response to “Coaching Ethics

  1. “We need to consider the performance expectations we are setting for ourselves and for our athletes.”

    Agreed. You want to push your athlete into becoming the very best they can be, but you can’t push them too hard, too fast and for too long or they will burn out. Setting sky high expectations is fine as long as their are attainable goals they can use as stepping stones along the way.

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