Jul 26

The Coach Becomes the Athlete–Role Reversal!

Thanks for Helen Williams for this blog.

About three years ago, I decided to learn how to swim. As a child, I did not have access to a pool and was somewhat fearful of the water. I had taken lessons before but never followed through.

Like most people, as I get older my body does not like exercises that require pounding. I was looking for a challenge, but not something that would make me ache when I woke up the next morning. So when I started working at MIT I knew that with their great aquatics center I really had no excuse not to commit. I enlisted the help of a coach and began weekly lessons. My first coach did a good job teaching me the basics. I worked hard and tried to make my body execute what I intellectually understood was the correct way to swim. But after the first few lessons, I decided to try a new coach. The second coach had an entirely different style. She was positive and encouraging with everything I did. When I was fearful of doing a forward roll to learn flip turns or jumping into the deep water where my feet would not touch the bottom, it was her patience and support that gave me the confidence to try and eventually succeed at both.

When I could barely swim a few yards, my coach told me that I should do a triathlon. “A triathlon? I can’t even swim 25 yards without gasping for air!” I said. “No problem. You will be fine” she said. In my head, I am thinking “this woman has lost her mind.” But my coach saw my potential before I did and she was going to make sure I eventually achieved it. I had not been coached in over 20 years and this entire process made me think about my own coaching style. Was I as positive and encouraging with my players as I should have been? Did I focus on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative? As I watch events like the Olympics and World Cup Soccer, I wonder about the relationship those athletes have with their coaches. I’m sure there has to be a lot of positive reinforcement in order for them to perform to the best of their ability and win medals.

It’s not that we coaches should never correct our players. If we don’t, we do them a great disservice. But I realized from my own experience that it really feels good when someone believes in you (sometimes more than you believe in yourself). Coaches need a healthy balance that works for them and their athletes. Figure out ways to critique a player’s performance while helping them maintain belief in their abilities. I encourage you to find an activity you like and be coached so you can view things from the perspective of your players without focusing on the win/loss aspect of the profession.

In 2013 I finally fulfilled my coach’s prediction and finished my first mini triathlon. And it was all made possible from that small seed of belief she planted.

You can learn more about Helen and her coaching journey at:



@coachlikamother (Twitter)

1 comment

  1. Mary Wesson

    I could actually hear your voice throughout this blog—-keep in touch.

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