Forgotten Architects

by Casey Barrett

The Coach and the Credit…

Breakthroughs are coming. Lifetime performances on that one-fine-day when it all comes together… At Olympic Trials throughout the world over the next few months, certain swimmers will stand up and do the things they’ve always dreamed of doing. They will be the chosen few. The ones who peak at just the right moment, who swim best times beyond their wildest goals, and earn their place on the Team. When this happens, they will weep and throw pumpers and thank the many fine folks who helped them get there. They will likely start with their coach. But which one?

There has long been considerable complaint from the club coaching ranks about this sensitive issue of credit. You know the story: After coaching a kid through years and years of growth, bringing him to the cusp of greatness at 18, the swimmer goes off to college, a prized recruit for some lucky coach. A year or two later, after weights and maturity and a great new training group, this swimmer takes the next step into the big time. Trials roll around and there he is, racing for a spot on the Team. In recognition of his swimmer’s achievement, guess who gets named to the Olympic coaching staff?

Yeah, one can see how that might lead to some bitterness…

Problem is, that club coach, the one who leads his senior elite squad of high school kids? There might be someone else thinking the same thing about him. The swimmer’s age group coach – the one who taught this kid the right way to swim from the beginning, who put that whole foundation in place.

Sure, it takes a village, we get it. And yes, there’s always going to be an element of trickle-down ego bruising. Everyone wants to be recognized for their contribution. It’s human nature. But is this also an example of backwards priorities in the coaching ranks?

Last week, I wrote a story about the “myth” of Michael Phelps’ talent. The basic point, supported by a growing body of books disproving the primacy of talent, was that Phelps’ greatness has a whole lot more to do with his perfectly designed “deliberate practice” when he was a kid than it does with his daunting natural abilities. Specifically, it can be attributed to the work he did with Bob Bowman between the ages of 10 and 15. The time when he never missed a day, when he set the foundation for the ultimate Olympic career.

If that’s true, and there’s a lot of evidence to support it, then the most important thing to observe should be exactly what Michael was doing in those pre-teen and early teenage years. And just as importantly – who was teaching him back then? The answer, of course, was Bob Bowman. The same man who’s teaching him today. (NOTE: “teaching” and “coaching” are synonyms…) In this, Phelps is immensely lucky and so is his coach. The athlete never had to interrupt his progress learning a new system and the coach never had to consider sharing an ounce of credit.

The great majority of swimmers are not so lucky. They usually have three coaches, minimum. The age group coach, the head club coach, and the college coach. You can guess the order of prestige. But if we can admit that the root of Phelps’ greatness can be found in those early years, shouldn’t we question that pecking order of the traditional coaching ranks? Because what that age group coach is doing might set up the swimmer for future greatness in ways that his ‘elders’ simply cannot.

This should not come across as a criticism of the head club coach or the college coach. They earned their positions of authority for a reason – and they came up through the ranks, probably spent a few years themselves as overlooked age group coaches. Nor should it belittle the work they do with the swimmers they receive along this path. It’s all a progression, and in plenty of cases, the work of a coach involves getting a swimmer back on track – because the coach before him badly screwed up.

Yet, when viewed from afar, how can the age group coach not be viewed as the cornerstone of all future excellence? How can this essential piece of the puzzle receive so little credit at the moment of truth?

Here’s one swimmer who doesn’t seem to have that problem dishing out the credit to his all-important age group coach. As it happens, he’s the second greatest swimmer ever, and the one guy who’s ever been able to dethrone the mighty Phelps. Ryan Lochte followed that three-coach formula growing up. He also happens to follow the perfect model of development for those in the “talent myth” camp. See, Lochte was groomed since birth for swimming greatness. His dad, Steve, is a lifelong coach who made sure his son was put on that path early. But who was Ryan’s age group coach growing up? That would be his mom, Ileana.

At the Golden Goggles Awards last November, a slightly swaying Lochte stood behind the podium after being named the Athlete of the Year for the third year in a row. He dutifully thanked Coach Troy, the man who’s guided him since he arrived in Gainesville nine years ago, he thanked his teammates, thanked Michael for always pushing him to more, but then he saved his biggest thanks for his mom. Maybe it was just for being, you know, his mom.

But maybe it was also for being the not-so-forgotten architect of all that success to come…