My career as a swimmer began, as so many peoples’ do, through summer league swimming. My mom signed my twin brother and I up for our country club swim team because she said we had a natural affinity for the pool, but I think it was because two 5-year-old twins were too much to handle all day and swimming was the perfect way to ensure we had a little less energy to spend around her. Little did she know I would still be swimming 17 years later, but now for a NCAA Division I program.
The days and nights I spent at summer league meets and practices were some of the most memorable times of my childhood. Pasta parties, donut-Fridays, spirit weeks, and game days were some of the simplest, yet most cherished times of my young life. So, when I was given the opportunity to coach a summer league after my freshman year of college, there was no hesitation for me to jump right back into that environment that helped build my love for swimming in the first place.
I spent two summers working as an assistant coach for the Meredith Townes Mudpuppies swim team in Raleigh, North Carolina. I probably would have continued to work there, had the real world not tapped me on the shoulder to remind me I had better find an internship if I ever wanted to graduate from college. Those two years were filled with plenty of laughs, hundreds of smiles, and admittedly a few tears (kids can be stressful, okay?). Most days were easy, but I learned a few tricks to help me survive the not-so-easy days. So, to all the present and future summer league coaches out there…
Here are five tips for the summer league coaches:
1. Don’t be afraid to wing it
On my first day of coaching, I was fortunate to be handed a pre- written workout by our head coach. But slowly, he started letting the assistant coaches write the workouts. Although I have been swimming for almost two decades, I had almost never written a practice, especially for young kids. I learned, however, that it’s okay to not know exactly what you’re doing. If you write a set that is too challenging for your kids, make adjustments. If you write a set that is too short, do it twice. And if you are just simply out of ideas for workouts, let the kids write the practice. It makes your life a little easier, and they’re excited to be coach for the day.
2. Get to know the parents
I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from friends about the parents on their summer league teams. Parents that think they can coach better than you can, or parents that constantly ask why their child wasn’t in the fastest heat. I was lucky enough to coach for a team with parents who were relatively hands-off. They trusted us to coach their kids, they stayed off the deck during practice, and we rarely received complaints from. Though I had it fairly easy with the parents, it’s still important to introduce yourself to them! The better they know you, the more they will trust you with their kids and, in turn, sit back and let you do your job. More importantly, they might even bring you food. Coaching requires late nights: practices don’t end until 8pm, and by then you’re probably starving. Nothing was better than having parents bring you a meal, or even a snack. The better they know you, the more likely they are to take care of you like you are one of their own.
3. If all else fails, bribe your swimmers
Sure, it might not be the most ethical thing to do, but desperate times call for desperate measures, right? Kids have a lot of energy, sometimes too much. Nothing’s harder than trying to make 50 kids listen to you when all they want to do is play around and talk with their friends. But trust me, throw out the word “games,” or better yet “candy,” and they’ll be all ears. Your kids don’t want to do the set? Tell them you’ll play games afterward. They keep doing one-arm butterfly? Tell them you’ll bring them candy tomorrow if they keep their stroke legal. Need proof that bribes work? We once made a deal with our oldest group: swim a 400 meter butterfly straight and we’ll do relays the rest of practice. We didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to accept the challenge, but 16 laps of (mostly) legal butterfly later, our kids had just earned the team a night full of relay-fun. Kids can do amazing things with a little incentive.
4. Don’t bring expensive things to the pool
Your swimmers admire you. They are excited to see you every day and really want to be your friend. They also like to push your buttons – they will hang on you when you’re in the water, they’ll steal your hats (likely even throw them in the pool), and they will undoubtedly splash you and try to push you in the pool. With this in mind, I advise you not to bring your prized possessions to practice. Buy a cheap pair of sunglasses. That way when they want to pretend they’re the swim coach and they carelessly grab your sunglasses off your face, it’s not the end of the world if they break (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience). Bottom line: if you can’t live without it, leave it in your car. Also, leave a spare change of clothes in your car, just in case.
5. Build friendships with your fellow coaches
Coaching can be exhausting. Some days all the patience in the world won’t be enough to keep you calm during practice. But the other coaches can certainly help keep you sane! Don’t be afraid to rely on them when things get tough. I was fortunate enough to quickly bond with my fellow coaches. In fact, we still keep in touch today. The stress of 50 kids is handled more easily when you have friends by your side! Everyone needs to vent every now and then, and no will understand better than the other coaches. The team as a whole will become your family for the summer—it’s hard not to grow close when you spend 20 hours a week together.
My time at Meredith Townes is something I will treasure, always. Coaching a summer league team will bring you some great memories. You will inevitably face challenges but, with these tips, hopefully the bad days will be kept to a minimum. And don’t forget, swimming is fun, and coaching should be too! – Mariah