Coaching and Character: Coaching is Teaching

As our swimming championship season moves into March, and we overlap with basketball, we know it is the National Championship season for both sports. Hail to thee, March Madness!

One of the things that strikes me as I watch (too much) basketball this month is listening to tv commentators refer to a coach who is talking to a player, usually one who has just come out of the game, as someone who is “always teaching.”  Of course the coach is “always teaching.”  That is what coaching is.  Coaching is Teaching.

In swimming and diving, we have similar “always teaching” moments too, even though we may not always think of them that way.  As our swimmers head to the blocks before a race, don’t they often stop by their coaches for a “word” before the race?  And after the race, don’t the same swimmers usually stop by their coaches for another “word or two?”  Of course they do. Those coaches are “always teaching.”  Probably no coaches are more consistent about “always teaching” than diving coaches.   Every dive, every day is analyzed for what happened and what can be done better next time. Always teaching.  Even when diving coaches can’t talk to their divers, we often see them sending hand signals back and forth: over, short, twisted, etc... Always teaching.

As I think about those “built in” teaching moments in our sport, I think I probably should have made better use of them. I can imaginemyselfnow planning ahead about what to say to each swimmer before each race: something short, simple, positive, direct.  In what sounds it could be a Nike sentence, I would want that pre-race teaching moment to be a “just do this” moment. And then following the race, I can imagine myself now wanting to be disciplined about making sure I followed up on that pre-race instruction, looking wherever I could for a chance to notice even a little bit of improvement.  Psychologist Daniel Pink reminds us to pay attention to little victories and little bits of improvement. Making progress towards a larger goal, he says, is one of the things that keeps us motivated, focused, and working hard every day.

So, Coaches are Teachers; athletes are students – students of the game, to be sure, but also, they are students of much more than the game.  What they learn, in addition to the skills and movements and strategies of their sport, goes far beyond the dry erase board and video world of X’s and O’s.  Students not only learn about their own game with a small “g,” they also, and at the same time, learn about the big “G” Game of Life. No wonder then that they often look to their coaches as teachers, guides, role models, and mentors. 

Dr. Kevin White, Athletics Director and Vice President at Duke University, reminds us that all college athletes, in his words, “double major.”  Their academic major is one major; their athletic major is the other. In addition to this “double major,” college athletes are also young people growing up, entering adulthood, and trying to figure out just who they are, and why they are here, and what they are supposed to do with their lives.  And this doesn’t even begin to count the pressures and expectations associated with living on a college campus, or the cultural complexities of having a social media life, or even the joys and the trials of falling in love, etc., etc., etc.  Did I mention looking for a job, or an internship, or admission into graduate or professional school? All of that is in there too. And when they are swimmers and divers, they do a lot of it on very little sleep.    Whenever I think seriously about it, I wonder how they do it. But they do do it. We all know that.

College athletes are also young people growing up, entering adulthood, and trying to figure out just who they are, why they are here, and what they are supposed to do with their lives.  And when they are swimmers and divers, they do a lot of it on very little sleep.    Whenever I think seriously about it, I wonder how they do it. But they do do it.

Having a coach they can trust helps them to do it. Their coach is often their one constant figure throughout all four of their college years.  Their coach is there every semester, every week, and is often there during summers and vacation periods too. In the course of their four years, they will almost certainly spend more time with their coach than they will with any other teacher on campus, and probably more time than they spend with their parents and families also.

It is inescapable, isn’t it. Coaches are teachers. Coaches teach not only by what they say, but also, and often more powerfully, by what they do.  Coaches are representatives and role models of the adult world. This is not optional.  Being such a role model for college students is a large part of what it means to be a college coach.  What a major, beautiful, and special responsibility it is to be a college coach!    

Coaching, seen in this light, is an extremely high form of teaching.  When we coach, we coach a whole person.  It is the whole person, after all, who stands up to race or to dive. When something is “not right” with this whole person, their performance shows it. We’ve all seen it; we all know it.  All of life is relevant to the students we coach; therefore, all of life is relevant to our coaching. They need our respect, and our trust, and our good example. In our sport, they also need to know how to race, and train, and start, and turn, and improve their technique. They need to be resilient; they need to be good teammates; they need to develop their time management skills, learn to listen and communicate, and to care about and help people who need help.  All of these things we teach and model when we coach.  And we do them because we care about and love the students who are on our teams.   Thank you, Coaches, for what you do for our students.

Coaching is Caring; Coaching is Teaching.

Tim Welsh

One of the most respected coaches in the nation, Tim Welsh brought the Notre Dame men's swimming and diving program to unprecedented levels and the verge of becoming a national force when it entered the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013.

Under his guidance, the Fighting Irish captured the program's first BIG EAST title in 2005 and repeated the feat in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013.

Welsh was not unaccustomed to success, as student-athletes and teams under his care have exceeded expectations and broken barriers throughout his 36-year career as a head coach. Welsh's squads experienced great team success over the years. In 1978 and 1979, he helped Johns Hopkins to back-to-back Division III national championships, while being named National Coach of the Year on the latter occasion. In all, Welsh has coached 33 teams that have claimed conference championships and 21 that have won nine or more dual meets in a season.

A published writer and master motivator, Welsh and his wife, Jacqueline (who served as curator of education in the Notre Dame Snite Museum of Art prior to her retirement), are the parents of two sons. Tim, a 2002 Notre Dame graduate, participated in the University's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program before completing his English Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. John is a 2005 Notre Dame graduate.