THE ART OF MAKING MISTAKES by Coach Dave Ling
I was asked to contribute a notion of coaching wisdom to this blog, my first thought was to laugh because the one thing those who know me will say is that I’m never at a loss for things to say. The catch 22 of the situation is that I hardly consider myself the smartest guy in the room but how I deal with that situation is likely a key starting point for introductory article.
I have been coaching for 9 years, this is my first season as a Head Coach, running a 200+ swimmer club in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. In a city with a prominent fishing industry, when it comes to this town I’m a fish out of water. I’m coming off a successful 8 year run with the Toronto Swim Club where I moved my way up the coaching ladder to earn the opportunity to come Head Coach. The road to working my way up to earning the right to take on a Head Coaching opportunity would probably be best represented by the following diagram…
I was asked the question by my friend, the SwimNerd himself, Nate Tschohl… so what do you do best?
Me… “Admit mistakes”
Through the self-scout evaluation process, I find that attention to errors and being good at admitting when I have made a mistake (or multiple mistakes), when something is not working despite any and all supporting “evidence” that would lead me to believe it “should work” is critical to implementing impactful change. I do not double-down because something has worked previously. I keep a log of mistakes I have made and I look at it (and add to it) frequently and use that log to help myself evolve as a coach.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to work under a head coach whose accomplishments could fill out a pretty resume. I was fired up when he came to the club, I thought I could observe, contribute, and learn to be a better coach. Sadly, the coach was a bust, a few years and out… but I did learn a lot because the root of his failures was in his unwillingness to evolve. He had his ways and they worked (big time) in one specific situation, at one point in time, in one of conditions producing a number of Canadian National team members… but his process was not repeatable and his style did not evolve and it did not work in a new place. It was during those years that I started keeping a log of coaching mistakes and it was at that point that I thought my coaching really started to improve and with it the results of my swimmers.
I find that by being quick to admit mistakes, I don’t rely on the S.O.S. (same old… you get it). If something is not working, I love the process of brainstorming and finding a new way. Scouring my network of coaches and former swimmers. Looking at other coaches in the club, seeing what they are doing, looking for ways to scale and implement with my own swimmers. Hitting the Interwebs, blogs, YouTube, whatever dark corner might have a kernel of knowledge that can be adapted to fit my program.
The desired result is clear, when swimmers experience their inevitable plateaus, I want to lead a team that is driven to solve situation. Be creative, look at both the basics and the specifics, the individual and the team, and if the current way is not working then evolve quickly, move on, try something different, and be fearless in the process. The result, when swimmers come out of their plateaus as a result of teamwork and creativity, trust is built, respect is earned, and next-level excellence is ready to occur. This to me is the art of coaching driven from the art of admitting mistakes.
So where does this all lead? Honestly, I don’t know. Most of you smart enough to read this are clearly already reaching out, scouring for information, coaching in the year 2017. You already know the coaches around you still coaching like yesterday was 2008, 2001, 1995, 1984 or worse. You are the kinds of coaches I want to network with, evolve alongside, and help lead this sport into an exciting era of our sport. With the retirement of Michael Phelps we enter an era of second-wave professional swimmers that will lead the improvement of understanding of swimming that when evaluated properly can improve our sport from the top of the mountain all the way down through the grassroots.