The coach to athlete relationship can be a strong bond, and an important avenue to achieving a swimmer's goals. But how long should that influence and guidance last? There are many factors to consider such as the power balance, athlete development, as well as personal loyalty to the coach. We must keep in mind that such emotional attachments can leave swimmers vying for coach's favor and attention, thus expose them to potential abuse. Maybe you don't think that can happen with your coach, but is it ever healthy in the development of young athletes to have only one solitary figure guiding them?
Yes, stability to some athletes is important. But as swimmers have longer and longer careers, how effective can a prolonged coaching relationship be, and when does that working relationship turn from positive to negative. Even if a coach is really good across multiple age groups, I think the evidence shows that, a long-term relationship, especially amongst athletes that the coach began working with at a young age, is exceedingly difficult to maintain.
As Sean McCann, United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychologist wrote, "It takes a skillful coach to be able to be tough enough, patient enough, and supportive enough, to shepherd an athlete through adolescence while still pushing the steep improvement curve of an adolescent athlete. The intensity needed in this effort tends to tire both coach and athlete enough so that separation can seem like a good idea, even if results continue to be good."
I saw first-hand what happens to a team when the same coach works with athletes from 6 to 18 and then also becomes those swimmer's high school coach. The program was awash with unhealthy relationships and unfulfilled potential. Parents tripping over themselves out of fear they might offend the coach and their swimmer be retaliated against, or worse, missing out of opportunities and relay spots. Instead of airing concerns to the school or switching programs the parents paid for additional private coaching, too afraid of rocking the boat. The dysfunction continues.
Long term coaching relationships can have a powerful impact on athletes and should only be entrusted to coaches with exceptional skill and integrity. "One key to longevity seems to be a certain amount of realism about the nature of coach athlete interactions. This seems to be easier for older coaches who have worked through a variety of relationships, both good and bad. Younger coaches tend to believe they can be both friend and mentor, prodder and supporter, good cop/bad cop, with every athlete. Older coaches know that there are limits to this," said Sean McCann,