A Tale of Two Coaches, One Great and One Horrible – with Lessons for What Makes a Great Coach

Coaching athletes is different than coaching leaders, executives, managers, and other professionals in a business setting. However, recently I had the opportunity to see two athletic coaches in action – one terrific and one horrific – and the comparison offers some lessons about what makes a great coach in any environment.

My 13-year old son swims and this past week he got the opportunity to go to a clinic run by a former Olympic swimmer and medalist (one who is only 5’2” and still managed to earn medals for the USA despite her smaller height!). The comparison between her approach to coaching and his usual swim team coach was like night and day.

The Olympic Coach:

  • Has a proven methodology, with books, videos, and step-by-step process to help swimmers master mechanics.

  • Took extra care to get to know each and every swimmer and adapt to his or her unique style, aspirations, and abilities.

  • Reached out to check in with the young athletes throughout the week-long clinic and constantly showed that she really cares about their success.

  • Knew when to apply pressure and push, and yet also took plenty of time to acknowledge and celebrate victories.

  • Measured improvements in time and stroke technique throughout.

The impact on my son is that he feels motivated, excited, and willing to work hard. It is amazing what happens when someone with substance also cares about your success!

In contrast, his regular coach:

  • Is more like a drill sergeant, announcing the swimming sets and yelling at swimmers to get them done.

  • Treats the majority of swimmers on the team more like a number than an individual.

  • Doesn’t check in with athletes at all. In fact, he didn’t even know that my son wasn’t there for a week – and then yelled at him (not the parents) for not showing up once he finally figured out that he was absent. When we told the Olympic Coach about this behavior she said, “I email my swimmers’ parents whenever kids are not there to make sure everything is okay.”

  • Has two settings – ignore or yell. He calls this a philosophy of being honest, but we don’t see much honesty when it comes to the good things that teammates are doing.

  • Doesn’t measure improvements during practice.

  • Plays favorites with a very few kids, particularly when a swimmer has a growth spurt and starts swimming faster merely because he is taller and stronger as a result of nature (not his coaching).

  • Seems bored and gives kids long sets to swim so he can stand around and not do much.

The impact this coach has on my son is demoralizing. I think the reasons he stays with the program are that he has made great friends on the team, and has a true love of the sport.

I don’t want to talk more about this second coach, because it is depressing that he is the coach for the only swim team in town near us. I am hopeful that enough parents come together to demand better coaching on this team.

Meanwhile, the first coach is a great model for what all coaches should bring to the table:

  • Caring.

  • Ability to adapt to our client’s style and where they are.

  • The proper balance of pushing and celebrating.

  • A proven approach that gets results.

  • Measurability baked into the process. Yes, even in executive coaching there is always a way to measure results!

  • Goes the extra mile to make sure her swimmers have success.

  • Is absolutely passionate about what she does, about having impact, and about her “clients.”

There are more coaches entering the market every day. The ones that succeed will need to be 100% sure that they emulate the qualities of the first coach described above. They are great for our profession and make the world a better place. I hope you are like her in your coaching practice, or will be when you get into the field, and that this article puts into words some of the attributes of the best of the best.


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