Coaching undermined

In my previous post, I have argued that American and Polish swimming systems are distinct (see here). One key difference, is that most of American swimming in the pre-college phase is underpinned by private swim clubs that foster inclusion and competition. The American model, although successful, has to contend with numerous challenges. Perhaps none is more pernicious than the fact the institution of coaching can, and in fact is, being undermined by the structure it builds on.

The virtue of private swim clubs is that they lead to competition between clubs and between coaches. In theory, swimmers who can choose between clubs A and B will go to the club that offers the best services. Overall, competition leads to better services and better services produce better results and a more competitive system at the macro level.

However, this analogy can only take us so far because the private system of ownership also has important drawbacks. The major limitation of this arrangement is that it undermines the institution of coaching. From an economic point of view, it is possible to reduce coach-coachee interaction to a monetary value. Economists would say swimmers are like customers who pay for expertise that coaches provide. If the offered price is too low, the service will not be available. Coaches need to get paid to make a living, but few of them go into coaching for economic reasons alone. The economic perspective misses many key elements of coaching . The best and most productive coaching happens when an organic relationship is formed over an extended period (see here). The trust needed to make this work cannot be bought.

The economic approach to coaching is most dangerous when parents enable it. Whenever you pay for something, it might be tempting to feel that you own it. The logical extension of this thinking is, “I pay you to coach my kids so in essence you work for me.” Besides being fundamentally wrong, this attitude trickles down onto young swimmers as well. It quickly becomes impossible to execute any kinds of standards. Being on time is no longer a requirement because my parents pay for swimming so it is up to me how I want to use that time. Interestingly, when coaches respond to this cold and rational way of thinking in a like-minded fashion, parents and swimmers immediately object. The statement: “I will care for your child as long as you pay me, and the more you pay me the more I will care” would disturb any parent, regardless of their business acumen. Ultimately, it is not just expertise that parents are after. They want coaches to be patient, understanding, kind, and fun.

What I am presetting here is a caricature of a market-centered model of swimming. Few of the underlining assumptions of the American model are ever made so explicit and carried out to their logical conclusionsHowever, this does not mean that these assumptions do not exist. They do, and they create real tensions.

If the monetary consideration is taken out, the level of commitment on both sides tends to increase. Why? Because the current set of incentives are undermining, even if not acted on explicitly. Consider the number swimmers with long tenures in a club A that switch to club B while being seniors in high school. Let me be clear, swimmers and their parents retain the ultimate control over where they want to swim. But coaches who have been around swimming long enough, know that many of these swimmers leave for trivial reasons at best. No sense of loyalty exists, and in many ways that is to be expected. Well, I paid my fees, so I owe no one anything. Now consider the number of times, high school swimmers switch schools. This rarely, if ever, happens. To be sure, switching high schools might be more difficult than switching swim clubs. But the fact remains that, on average, high school swimmers are much more loyal to their high school coaches, than to their club coaches. A big part of this loyalty has to be explained by the lack of money in high school swimming. The high school system in America is inclusive and based on voluntary association. This makes meaningful relationships easier to forge and makes them more durable over time.

I am not advocating here that the American model in the pre-college phase should transition to a model that mirrors high school swimming alone. In all likelihood that would be both counterproductive and impractical. But it is important to note that every model has its limitations, including the American model. Perfect solutions do not exist. The best we can do is substitute one set of outcomes for another. Fundamentally, what is at stake here is a healthy and productive coach-coachee relationship. This relationship tends to workout even in a model that is built upon market-oriented incentives, but so much depends on parents and how they approach swimming. If they see coaches as transactionsthen the institution of coaching will be undermined more that it has to be. But more importantly, young swimmers will miss an important lesson: there are things in life that money cannot buy.

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