Coaching brilliance in Barcelona

The date was the 22nd of July, the year was 2013, the venue was the Swimming World Championships in Barcelona.

I was about to witness some of the best swimmers in the world going head-to-head. More importantly I was about to watch one of the most important presentations of my coaching life.

To give you some background I had been invited along with the British Swimming team to the swimming World Championships. British Gas were the sponsors of British Swimming at the time and I was their Head Coach. Our goal was to help take swimming to the masses in the UK.

It was a time when swimmers like Becky Adlington & Kerry-Anne Payne were at the peak of their athletic careers. It was part of a 5-year golden period in my coaching where opportunities came thick and fast for me to work with the World’s best.

The one opportunity that had the biggest impact on me was a presentation I was invited to whilst in Barcelona. 10 of the world’s best swim coaches had been invited to give 30-minute presentations to talk about their coaching philosophies, training methods and training culture. The thing they all had in common was they had all trained World Record holders & Olympic gold medallists.

I sat there glued to my seat for several hours making notes and absorbing fascinating insights into how these coaches helped make Champions. The standout presentations were from Romain Barnier of France, coach to sprinter Florent Manaudou & Todd Schmitz coach to Missy Franklin. Two of the world’s greatest swimmers.

I will never forget listening to Romain talk about how he changed Florent’s conventional bent arm underwater pull to a more unconventional straight arm pull through. This was only months before he was due to race at the 2012 London Olympics in the 50m Freestyle. At the time I remember thinking what an extraordinary call this was by a coach so close to the biggest race of Florent’s life. When asked why he did this he just said he had an instinct and saw something in it that could give him that extra edge when they were experimenting in the pool. He thought he had found a way to squeeze out a little bit more speed by getting Florent to reach down deeper in the water. Here he could engage his big powerful shoulder muscles and gain more leverage. You can’t argue with that call though because he won Olympic gold.

What made each one of these presentations so fascinating was how completely different each coach’s approach was. Some of the coaches even trained athletes who competed at the same event, but the training approach couldn’t have been more different. What abundantly clear was how each coach applied a different methodology that he or she felt suited the swimmer best to achieve the end result.

What was also clear was how experimental and evolving each program was. These coaches weren’t afraid to take risks, think outside of the box and make mistakes when looking for peak performance. The creativity and thought on show was so impressive. There was an element of never-ending curiosity that inspired these coaches to find that extra edge.

It was part-art, part-science with way more art than science. The over-riding message I took from each of these coaches was how they trusted their instinct in relation to what they thought each athlete needed. They then nurtured and developed this process over time.

Each coach also had incredibly different personalities. I remember Romain being quieter, more considered & deep thinking. Whereas Todd was this confident, self-assertive American who totally wore his heart in his sleeve. He coached with so much passion and emotion, you could hear him coming a mile off!

You could see how important was for athletes to choose their coaches wisely as the approaches and personalities on show were so completely different. Too often I see athletes getting drawn to coaches because they achieved success with another athlete then miraculously expect the same kind of result if they follow the same plan. What they don’t see is the many years of successes and failures this relationship was built on to achieve that success. It doesn’t just happen overnight.

The most important message I took away was that anyone can write a training session or program, but it is the intent behind it that drives everything. If you want commitment from your athletes, you must help them understand the ‘why’. That’s why content & intent are inextricably linked. Anyone can create content (a training session) but it’s the intent (what drives it) behind that matters most. It’s also crucial for them to understand how this session fits into the week, month and year of the season ahead. Once an athlete understands this you will have an athlete fully committed to the session or program.

In your early years as a coach, it’s so easy to get carried away with following others and their coaching methodology. Usually because that coach has achieved success. Every coach who has ever had a mentor or source of inspiration has done this, me included. But at some point, you need to break free from the chains of just repeating what that coach is saying. You need to find your own voice in the coaching world and then put your own spin on it to continue to evolve and grow. Then coaching evolves too, which is just as important. It’s so easy to be seduced others but it’s way more rewarding when you start to speak with your own voice. But it takes time, knowledge and experience to reach that point.

For me it’s so important to tailor my coaching to everyone I work with. That’s the fun part, working out each athlete from a mental, physical and technical perspective. It’s a complex jigsaw puzzle and it will always be a roller coaster journey of highs and lows. No coach or athlete is infallible, but if the relationship is right the journey can be so incredibly rewarding.

You certainly don’t need a science degree or PHD to be able to do this. Often the best coaches are just serial experimenters who work out in the field and love to look for answers. They are also not afraid to embrace methods that may seem to outsiders to be unorthodox. They frequently rip up the rule book despite the naysayers, keyboard warriors and inexperienced might think.

It was such a privilege to be in the audience to witness those presentations, they tipped me over the edge in the sense that it was time do what I truly believed in. I think I’d dipped my toe in for a few years at that point, but this was just the push I needed to do it ‘my way’, as Frank once said.

I have a lot of people thank for that opportunity (Team BG crew). It was a pivotal moment for me that I look back on with a great sense of gratitude.