View Full Version : New Masters Coach

December 15th, 2011, 12:10 PM
I am seeking any advice about building a masters group and coaching. I have been a coach for a competitive childrens team ages 5-13 and have subbed as a masters coach, but I am taking over the masters program at our local YMCA and looking for ideas and ways in which I can make this program better. Right now I have 3 masters swimmers and really want to grow the program and become a great coach. Any ideas, thoughts, recommendations are welcome and helpful.


Coach Tina

December 23rd, 2011, 01:29 PM
Tina, Here is a useful manual for building a masters program.
Good luck!

December 25th, 2011, 06:29 AM
Hi Tina,

Firstly, I want to say how envious I am of you! I started a masters club here in England several years ago, and within three years we were the top club nationally with several world, European and British champions on board. The years spent building the club were the happiest of my swim/coaching life. I’ve thought about this a lot recently - I’d love to start my own club all over again.

I started with six swimmers but I was fortunate because I had a terrific catchment area to recruit swimmers from. Many masters were disillusioned, mainly because they were training as part of an age group club elsewhere. They just had one lane in a pool full of youngsters. When we had 12 swimmers in the group, which was very soon after word got around, we took the plunge and hired our own pool. Pool hire over here was cheap, and pool availability was relatively easy to come by.

I fully understand that you are right at the beginning of this project, with only three masters swimmers involved, but I hope I can give you something to think about for the future. The methods and ideas we developed together as a successful unit will come in handy if I go through this journey again.

Make no doubt about it, the diversity of typical masters groups the world over, in age, ability, experience and motivation, guarantees that the coach's resourcefulness will be stretched to the limit. One point you (and the rest of us, as coaches) should always be aware of, is that these swimmers have chosen to join your club. They had a choice. They also have the choice to leave at any time. The head coach must rise to the challenge of meeting their diverse needs. You will be rewarded with a constant show of appreciation. I’ve found that masters swimmers of all abilities are grateful when someone takes an interest in them. Furthermore, they are thrilled when the coach goes the extra mile in terms of finding the time, over and above of what is expected, to make them feel that their contribution to the club is valuable. Coaching masters can be the most rewarding challenge a coach can undertake.

Adults are generally hungry for information, and although they will keep you on your toes with questions about anything that doesn’t make sense, or isn’t applicable to their needs, they generally understand the reasons behind what is being asked of them. I’ve also found that the beauty of masters swimmers is that they don’t expect the coach to know everything!

All adult swimmers in the squad, from novice masters to the experienced, are always very keen to learn how to improve and I have found that they listen intently to advice and instruction.

As your club membership grows, don’t expect 100 per cent of them to take part in competition. 50 per cent is about average for masters clubs in the UK. Competition will always be an exciting option, but unlike most age-group programmes, it is not always the major focus in masters swimming. There’s nothing wrong in this. All masters swimmers arrive at the pool with their bag full of kit, but their goals and ambitions differ greatly. Some are there purely to keep fit as they grow older, others are interested in skill development, others go along for the social aspects, some aim for their first taste of competition, while some are highly competitive and the sky’s their limit.

The programme has got to be challenging for those who want to be challenged, or they will quickly become disillusioned and will eventually leave, and nobody should blame them for doing so. Whether they are aware of it or not, the top swimmers in the squad are setting an example to many others who aspire one day to be as good as they are. If the top swimmers are inspired then the trickle down effect will certainly motivate the rest of the club. Even the novice older swimmers may have at the back of their mind the thought that perhaps one day they will be good enough to enter a masters meet. All swimmers, at whatever level, have got to understand that they are part of the club. Everyone is important and it’s up to the coach to make them feel valued.

Club activities need to be all-inclusive for all members. A good club spirit, especially regarding out-of-water activities, is worth nurturing. Nobody should come to training and leave anonymously. I believe this is the key to running a successful masters club. If people get on well together away from the pool it is relatively easy for the coach to motivate them in the pool, even though they will all be at different levels and have differing ambitions.

If swimmers of vastly differing abilities are training in the pool together, this shouldn’t pose a problem. The vast majority of masters clubs are run along similar lines. The workout for the experienced swimmers and for the ‘learners’ will of course be different, but it will be challenging for each group, at their own particular level. If the facility was available where the social swimmers and those new to masters swimming could have their own session then this would be beneficial. But this is an option for the future when the club grows.

The best advice I can offer you, is that nobody should leave the pool without having the coach’s attention and everyone should get out having enjoyed the session immensely.

The challenge for a masters coach is that they need to provide more complete explanations of techniques and training methods than might be given to age-group swimmers. It would be a mistake to assume that they understand the principles of training and preparation for competition. If masters are provided with a rationale for what they are being asked to do it will make them feel personally involved in their development and much more receptive. Some adults may benefit from reassurance that they can indeed still learn a new skill. Some will lack confidence in their ability to learn new skills because of their age. It is helpful to make them aware of the outstanding accomplishments of many older athletes. A friend of mine in the UK, and a swimmer I coached, learned to swim at the age of 55 and when in the 80-84 age group he went to the world championships in Australia and won the 400m Individual Medley event.

Not so much a challenge for the coach - more like coming to terms with the situation, and adapting to it: The reasons for participation in the sport vary greatly. You must keep in mind that these athletes are adults with many other demands on their time and energy, with family commitments and work being at the forefront. But at the end of the day the swimmers are there by choice, so the motivation is there to a large extent. It is essential, and will prove very effective, if the coach has a coaching style that is predominantly democratic rather than autocratic. Constant encouragement is essential and will prove to be very productive.

I always give out a goal-setting form at the start of the season. It is invaluable in assisting the swimmers to develop a focus, but most of all, to maintain motivation. It also enables me to develop a programme aimed specifically at the their needs and desires. I have found that the whole goal-setting process increases the likelihood of swimmers remaining in the programme.

A challenge for any Masters coach is to be aware of the aims and desires of the inexperienced master swimmer. I have found that generally (not in all cases), due to their lack of experience and lack of confidence in their ability, they tend to vastly underestimate their capabilities. Given encouragement and guidance from the poolside, they can usually achieve much more than they thought was possible.

The ex-competitive swimmers will often pose a greater challenge. They (again, not all ex-swimmers) may need some diplomatic counselling in the setting of realistic goals. These swimmers who have achieved earlier in life and have come back into masters swimming, often forget there is likely to be a vast age-related decrease in performance, reduced tolerance when coping with heavy training workouts, and the limited hours that may now be available for training due to family, work and other commitments. Even so, the challenge posed by these two groups at different levels of the swimming spectrum can be so rewarding for the coach when everything comes together.

Something to keep in mind for the future is injuries. The injuries that we see in masters are usually confined to the ‘overuse’ category. While impact-related injuries certainly do occur, they are by far in the minority. In general it is found that a swimmer over the age of 40 or 45 sees a much higher incidence of overuse syndromes than do age-groupers. These changes occur based on the physiology of the joint and lubrication as well as on the introduction of degenerative processes through long-term wear and tear.

The potential for injury increases with age. Usually due to lack of proper preparation in areas such as flexibility and strength. Flexibility tends to decline with age, but this is primarily a result of disuse rather than ageing. Too many of us use the car instead of walking. I am as guilty of this as anyone!

At the start of every workout we used to run through a programme of simple basic stretching exercises. This took about ten minutes. It’s not only valuable to move the joints a little after driving to the pool, and before swimming, but it also gives swimmers the chance to be together as a team on poolside. It is ‘team-bonding’ right at the start of the workout and it also gave me the chance to make any announcements while everyone was present. All my swimmers knew this stretching routine off by heart and we ran through it as a team when on poolside at a meet. No other club did this. Again, it is ‘team-bonding’ at a meet and we certainly got noticed by other clubs for doing so.

I’ve found that the best way to avoid injury in workouts is to gradually introduce swimmers to higher levels of stress in training. I’ve also found that the majority of masters swimmers are as impatient as the age-groupers. I often wonder if they will ever grow up! Many just cannot wait to start pounding away in the pool, and this is when the ageing body picks up injuries. The best advice is to "listen to your body". Impatient masters swimmers often need reminding that they have the rest of their life when they can achieve in the pool. The beauty of masters swimming is that there is always a new age group to look forward to. There’s no hurry to get fit in the next four weeks. They will need to slow things down, enjoy the build-up, along with the camaraderie in the club, and be patient.

The masters coach needs to get the message across that this is fitness for life, with some very exciting competitions thrown in along the way just to keep things interesting. I’ve found that for the majority of masters, learning about flexibility is more important than strength training. Also, I’ve run sessions where we’ve used a cyclical programme with built-in recovery periods to allow adaptation after the weeks of hard work. I also use recovery swims often in the same workout.

When I coached at one masters club which was situated on the University Campus we attracted several swimmers who also studied at the Medical School as physicians and physiotherapists. These members were a Masters Coach’s dream when the inevitable injury occurred!

As a guide, I tend to go down this route... My basic philosophy for masters swimming is quite simple. masters swimming isn’t about coming into the sport for a few months, winning a few medals, and then getting out. I embrace the “swim for life” ethos. It’s a long and enjoyable journey where friendships are built upon while sharing a passion for swimming.

I truly believe that masters swimmers of all levels and abilities are "winners" getting in and improving their health and well-being in spite of all the demands, concerns and difficulties of everyday life placed on each individual.

We can set goals, work on technique and include high-intensity workouts, but if we don’t enjoy being together then we have failed miserably. I'm convinced that this special swimming community, with its quirky characters, both on the poolside and in the water, will enrich the lives of everyone who takes part in Masters.

As a coach, I am always aware that the swimmer does not have to come to the club. They have a choice of where they can spend their time. If they enjoy swimming and also have fun in and out of the pool with like-minded friends then the club will never lose them.

Masters swimmers expect knowledgeable guidance from the coach. They will always show appreciation when the effort is made to help them. But along with the guidance and help they also expect fun, and there’s no reason why swimming shouldn’t be an enjoyable experience. To this end, the head coach should not only encourage, inform and be patient, but display a sense of humour.

During the early years, I had learners who could swim little more than 30 or so metres non-stop. You will get these swimmers too. These swimmers are naturally time-consuming for the coach on poolside, but they are by far the most rewarding group to coach, simply because their improvement is dramatic. As with the experienced masters swimmer, fun, humour, and clear instruction are the keys.

Even those new to masters can do small sets. They will normally require longer rest until their aerobic capacity builds up, but what’s the rush? The sets should not be so simple as to bore the swimmers, but they do not need to be needlessly complex.

The coach should develop a rapport with them which allows the learner to relax and enjoy the time spent at the pool. I’ve found that in developing an atmosphere of mutual respect it greatly enhances my coaching effectiveness. For the raw beginner there’s no need to over-coach - sets need to be varied but not complicated. There’s only so much the new swimmer can take in at once. They will be busy listening to, and trying out the advice given, regarding stroke correction to worry about keeping to start-off times.

Remember, masters at all levels generally appreciate being given some rationale behind any instructions that they are given.

If there are many new members in the club it is a good idea to plan at least monthly stroke-technique-only sessions so that there is guaranteed stroke correction built into their programme. They will expect a very knowledgeable approach to their techniques, and will respect a coach who is innovative and willing to take the time to help them.

I used to run a stroke clinic every Tuesday. This was for novice swimmers who could swim 40 metres (We used a 20 metre pool) on three strokes. Their butterfly was not good and they could just manage to swim 20 metres comfortably on this stroke. We swam one length at a time and I corrected and gave tips after every length. I often used the better swimmers to demonstrate how it’s done. I talked a lot throughout this session and the swimmers enjoyed the banter. It was the most enjoyable session for me and certainly the most rewarding. Adults seldom need to be pushed, but rather to be encouraged and cajoled. It is always possible to learn new skills although it may be difficult to reach a mastery level quickly, but then again, we are in it for the long haul. There’s no hurry.

Also remember, masters swimmers do not all learn at the same rate or even in the same way. Again, patience is the key. However, older swimmers may have less flexibility in the shoulder and ankle so compromise must be part of the coaching plan. Text-book techniques often need to be modified to accommodate these anatomical limitations.

I can’t stress too strongly (and I know I’m repeating myself here) but organising regular out-of-water activities is the answer to building a successful masters club, so forming an enthusiastic social committee is vital. Again, this will come later when you have built up numbers.

Friday night after training was always ‘Curry Night’ at the local Indian restaurant. Swimmers came, often with their non-swimming partners. We regularly had about 40 swimmers attend.

‘THIRSTY THURSDAY’ - The last Thursday in the month (Again after training) was an informal gathering at the ‘Local Bar’. We met at 7.30 and again non-swimming partners turned up. Everyone stayed later for the pub quiz (I think you may know this better as a trivia contest?). We made up several teams from the swimmers. The inter-team rivalry and the banter between them was superb.

I used to hold a ‘HAT PARTY’ at my house a couple of times a year. All swimmers were invited and the afternoon garden party went on late into the night. Nobody was allowed into the party unless they wore a home-made hat. Of course the hats were judged later and prizes awarded. At our first hat party the hats were well-made and many were ingenious. At subsequent parties they became more suggestive and many were x-rated. Much better imagined than described here!

Our Christmas party was always a black-tie affair. This was a dinner dance at a city-centre hotel. We had a club video showing clips of swimmers at meets throughout the year, lots of prizes and presentations (Not always in good taste!) and many raucous party games which everyone joined in.

We held ‘skittles nights’ three times a year. Again at a local bar. All swimmers attended.

I can say without doubt, the social aspect at this club was excellent. Swimmers of all ages and abilities mixed together, which of course overspilled into the workouts. Nobody was excluded, and after a few events had been held, nobody wanted to be excluded. Team bonding was 100 per cent solid.

Once we had established a good social scene it was a delight to see more and more swimmers entering masters meets and because they had all met socially, along with their non-swimming wives and husbands, the swimmers were building a strong team relationship. The top swimmers, the world and European champions, were including the newer members in conversations and supporting them during the meet.

Regarding building an inclusive club in the pool environment, the training lanes were of very differing abilities but I always encouraged communication between the swimmers. We would often rotate the lanes so that the top lanes and the slowest lane were next to each other. When the rest periods coincided it was easy for them to talk to each other over the lane rope. A small example, yet very productive in terms of making the slower swimmers feel that they were a real part of the club.

Our club kit was paid for by a local businessman. We had his company’s logo printed on the kit and then we sold the kit to the swimmers at a fraction of the cost. For example, we sold track-suits, which cost the businessman £40 each for a nominal sum of just £4 to the swimmers. This ensured that every swimmer bought the kit and wore it. It gave us some money for club funds too.

Some Masters clubs in the UK are now holding week-long training camps in Spain and France. These camps are often well attended. It’s all part of building team morale. It allows a week in the sun where everyone trains together and enjoys each other’s company.

There are many things a coach can do to make everyone feel that they are a valuable part of the team, which in actual fact they are.

Good luck, Tina. I’m sure you will enjoy your journey immenseley.

January 7th, 2015, 06:19 AM
Fantastic info and great insights. Thanks (albeit 8 years after you posted). Much appreciated.

January 8th, 2015, 05:21 PM
I was in the same boat about 2 years ago. Our team is in a fairly small, summer/resort-type community, and we've grown quite a bit since I started.

I think communication is key with any program & holding meetings to see what people want to get out of the workouts provided. We always start & finish every workout together, but I make adjustments to sets based on abilities so that this is possible. We've just started encouraging meets as a team this year.

For each meet, we've had little bit higher of attendance, and we've tried to present meets more as an "event" rather than competition for those new to swimming in meets. I think it makes it less intimidating. Also, I've noticed the importance of myself (the coach) attending meets, because that definitely encourages the team to attend knowing that their coach will be there.

Besides away meets, we've done no-commute (virtual meets), which has really encouraged the team to have some fun in competition without the "a real meet fear factor". Also, we've encouraged some outside of the pool team functions that are unrelated to swimming, such as brunches, and get-togethers.

If your community is known for having some triathletes in the area, definitely reach out to them! They can add a lot to any program. And if you haven't attended the Level 1 & 2 masters programs, I'd recommend both for starting up coaching.