The term "team building" is perhaps the most widely used phrase in all of college swimming during the month of September, and for good reason. Behind the lip service that many pay to the concept is immense value when action is taken; there is a benefit to starting the year on a positive note and for ideal social bonds to form. Specifically, it is certainly important for freshmen to acclimate to the team, and for said freshmen to learn and embrace program culture. And so it is, team building activities are well under way on college campuses across the country and for all student groups, not just athletics. From the band room to the boardroom, teams are built through the sharing of ideology and action, and I do believe it is important for coaches to "get it right" early and often in this regard.
Here at Liberty, one of our favorite forms of early season team building is that of peer coaching. I was introduced to peer coaching in the summer of 2007 while a volunteer assistant at the University of Arizona under current National Team Director Frank Busch. Frank was and is still a firm believer in the power peer coaching, and the Wildcats engaged in this form of team building throughout the entire season, not just at the beginning of the year. Said Frank of peer coaching:
"Roland Schoeman has a great start. When he takes someone over to the diving well to work on starts, he says things I don't even think of. It's a different voice. He hits the water at 35 MPH and I might do it at 5."
Thinking back, it was indeed quite the learning experience to watch Roland work with the team on their starts. From running dives to resisted starts, to traditional start work, Roland did, in fact, have a different voice when it came to teaching, and no doubt was instrumental in helping the Wildcats off the blocks over the years.
Of note, I prefer in-water team building activities over the more traditional "ropes courses" and what have you, and for several reasons:
1. Two birds and one stone, etc.. The time commitment of student-athletes is the next big thing in college athletics, and I strive to be ahead of the curve in this regard. Rather than add a team building activity to our schedule, why not include a team building activity as part of a workout?
2. We are learning/growing/building in specific ways to the demands of our sport. Our women can bond in the general sense in their dorms, at the dining hall, and on weekends.
3. Our coaching staff can observe and learn along with the team, and again in ways that are specific to fast swimming.
While our peer coaching takes many forms throughout the year, for the remainder of this article I will speak directly to early season, September team building, and why I agree with Frank's belief that it is extremely beneficial for overall program development and success. Our peer coaching is simple: Returners teach, freshmen soak up as much as they possibly can. Every program has their nuances, and we are no different here at LU; we believe in a certain way to push off the wall, an ideal head and body position for sculling and drilling, a preferred way to exit the pool, and so on and so forth. There is much to learn, and again I believe having the returners teach the newcomers through peer coaching is one of the best ways to practice early season team building.
Some general thoughts and why I believe in peer coaching:
1. A sense of purpose and having autonomy contribute heavily to job satisfaction.
The research is clear - autonomy and a sense of purpose are two primary drivers of motivation and workplace happiness. While the literature deals mainly with the "real world," my guess is collegiate athletics is no different. By giving our returners a sense of purpose/mission (teach!) and autonomy (they choose what and how to teach), my expectation is that they will enjoy the process a bit more than had our coaching staff taught the freshmen the drills and the returners simply followed along.
2. "If you want to learn it, learn how to teach it."
Another benefit for our returners is that by teaching a skill, we believe they are reinforcing their own expert habits or developing a better skill set in the process. If they can teach great head/body positions for sculling and so forth, we believe they are more likely to focus on it themselves.
3. Newcomers learn a sense of humility and humbleness.
We have some superstar freshmen this year, and they were among the best in their high school and club programs. Some were among the best in the entire country, from all programs. I believe it is a great thing for the development of team culture when a superstar newcomer, in a humble and gracious spirit, is taking teaching points from a walk-on junior. The newcomer might be a future NCAA scorer, and the junior may never make the conference scoring roster...but if the freshman is willing to take body position correction from said junior, I know we are on our way to developing a sound culture in our program.
4. The coaching staff learns as well.
Who are our best teachers? Who of the newcomers is coachable? Who is not? If not, to what degree? What are the challenges? What teaching style works best? What does not? How is the team interacting? Who is not interacting? And if not, why? And so on and so forth. Teri McKeever talked once of not saying much during the first week or two of the season and just watching, just learning, and we take a similar approach here at Liberty. No amount of recruiting can prepare a coach for having a freshmen class in the pool, and I agree with Teri here; we find that a less is more approach works best the first two weeks of each new season. Peer coaching then allows for our newcomers to learn while the coaching staff observes - there is much to take in and much to process those first two weeks!
5. In-water leadership development.
Peer coaching is where leaders emerge naturally, and this is a fun process to watch from the deck. Who are our leaders? Who are our teachers? Do the newcomers listen to Jane but not Suzy? And if so, why not?
6. And much more.
Below is an actual workout featuring peer coaching from last Friday, September 2nd. A few notes:
* For 5 x 100 on the warmup, SNIFF = Snorkel if freestyle
* L/R/W = 25 left arm, 25 right arm, 50 whole stroke
* For the peer coaching, I gave the team some quick focus points: body position flat/level, drag reduction, propulsion, etc. The returners knew that this was our focus point for the day and could go about formulating how to teach it.
* For the 8x50...the odd 50's: drill most on a returner is an example of the autonomy I mentioned above. The returners know "drill most" to mean "the drill that you think helps you the most" or in this case, the drill that you think will help the newcomers the most.
* K fast = Kick fast
* R1/R2 = Round 1 / Round 2
* COFIA = Choice of fins if any
* R/R = Rest between rounds
* N.B. = No breath
* 3 x R = Rest, relaxation, recovery
* Tornado under the 3 x R = My attempt at emphasizing the importance of the three. As you know, coaches talk ad nauseam about recovery and so forth...but who amongst our teams will make it a focus point?
This was a great workout and quite productive indeed. The peer coaching was a treat to watch, and it hit many of the aforementioned points and then some. I highly recommend this form of team building and encourage you to give it a try!