Control the Controllable


Is training young swimmers to get bigger, faster, stronger and more skillful a science or an art form?

Over the years I have spent countless hours on the bank of a swimming pool teaching and coaching young athletes (with varied success it must be said) and there is no way around it a good coach must have a grasp of the science. He/she must fully understand motor development, anatomy, strength, conditioning, mobility, flexibility, power, speed, agility and so on. There is no denying it, you must fully understand the science of sport and athletic skill development or you are just randomly writing sets in the hope of getting results.

However , having all the knowledge in the world is useless unless you know how to convey that information to the athlete you are working with in a way that resonates with them and inspires them. Not just so the swimmers understands what they are doing in a given session but in a way that ignites them to be the best athlete and person they can be. No two athletes are the same, this is where the science of coaching becomes a little fuzzy, this is where, in my opinion, the art comes in.

The best coaches in the world understand that coaching is both and art and a science, they understand the science behind the method to their madness and at the same time find a way to move an athlete from simple compliance to commitment.

There is a wealth of data available through scientific research to support the coach. Information is available on all areas of training and development including nutrition, biomechanics, psychology, physiology and medicine. There are any number of scientific methods to measure and analyse athletic performance but…….

Unless the coach is able to look at all the data, relate it to the individual athlete and convert it into coaching and training programs that help develop the athlete, all the science in the world won’t produce great athletes. This analysis of the data rely on the coaches knowledge and experience of both the sort and the athlete concerned.

By understanding the science, which is always the foundation to training, a well designed program can be developed that will help every athlete reach their full potential.

So, is coaching the art of understanding the science and then applying it?

In my opinion there are (broadly) 2 types of coaches

1. The artistic scientist
2. The scientific artist

I have struggled for years to try to nail down what I believe, I look on with a certain amount of jealousy at coaches who seem to be able to walk onto a poolside and run an awesome set apparently off the cuff. I just can’t do that. If asked to write a session it could take me hours and numerous re writes to get it just how I want it. I want to know ‘what happens when I do this’, ‘what if I change that? Will this be better.’ I simply cannot walk onto a poolside and come up with something off the top of my head.

I am very much a ‘Science’ coach.

But, that’s okay, in fact, I think it’s a strength! I plan meticulously, every session, every week, every cycle. I start next seasons plan 8 months early because I know I will rewrite it at least 5 times.

This kinda fits nicely with my philosophy on, well…….. everything.

In the Nature/Nurture debate I am very much in the nurture camp. I firmly believe that everything about us is a product of our experiences from birth. I don’t subscribe to the ‘natural talent’ myth (The talent code is a great read on this).

We are that which we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act but a habit


I think if we start telling our athletes they are ‘talented’ it negates the need for work, and even if you believe in talent, hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work. I think that to call Ronnie O Sullivan, for example, the most talented snooker player we have seen, negates the exceptionally hard work he has put in. If talent exists, there would be no need for the ‘rule of 10’, sadly there are no short cuts (if there where I’d use them), 3 hours a day, 7 days a week, 50 weeks a year for 10 years, that’s what it takes to ‘have talent’.

Anyway, while this is my firm belief, it is also the source of my frustration. The scientist in me wants to be in control of it all, to know that if I press ‘button A’ ‘lever B’ will move. But there is so much more that I cannot control, I can’t control anything at all before a swimmers arrives in the squad, that’s potentially 12 years of no control, I can’t control how much sleep or homework they get before they arrive at the pool. The frustrating thing is I can never fully test my belief that we are a product of what we do because I only ‘control’ at most 16% of the swimmers day.

So what do I do?
All I can do
Control the Controllable
Measure the measurable
Record everything.

The truth is that the athlete controls 100% of their day, the athlete is the 1 who must want to succeed and must be committed to that end.

As a coach my job is to find the balance between the science part of my brain that wants to control and the need for the artistic that motivates the athlete to sieze control.

I still can’t write a session off the top of my head btw so how does the ‘artist’ come through?

I let you into a secret, I pretend, I cheat, I lie, I act the artist, I fake it. It exhausts me but I put on a show every time I step on poolside (meticulously prepared) I have learnt to engage in a way that I hope motivates and inspires (I’m Def still learning this one)

I hope I come across as calm and relaxed, but, I’m always fighting that internal scientist who needs a kick in the ass to stop planning and start moving.

Is it working? Only time will tell I guess.

till next time


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PS I have huge plans that I hope will change the landscape of swimming in ulster so please subscribe to this blog to stay tuned to what I’m trying to do.


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