This is a classic speech given by the great “Doc” Counsilman. If you haven’t come across this yet during your swimming journey it’s a must read. And from time to time it’s a great piece to come back to. Enjoy!The X Factor
From a talk given by Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman at Montreal, 1971
Condensed and Edited by Bob Ousley
Is there any one factor or trait that determines a successful swimming coach?
If there is, could we educate a coach to have this particular trait? The business world has long wondered what makes a good executive, a good administrator, or a good salesman. Research into this ingredient of success has led to the use of multi-million dollar testing bureaus. For example, the executives of U.S. Steel are given personality tests, intelligence tests, leadership ability tests, and others in every possible measurable area. So far they have had very little success in identifying any single trait that their subjects have in common. For instance, they sometimes find the lowest paid filing clerk to have more basic intelligence than the highest paid executive. They have determined that once a person reaches a level of intelligence somewhere above average, that higher intelligence by itself is not necessarily a determinant. So, we cannot give all coaches intelligence tests and determine that the most intelligent will be the best coach. If this were true, then all we would have to do to select a good coach is hire the man with the highest I.Q. It might be just the opposite, a man with a high I.Q. might be too smart to get involved in coaching.
Let’s get back to the business world. I personally feel that intelligence has a lot to do with success in coaching, in business, in almost any field of endeavor. However, the type of intelligence I am speaking of is not the type that can be measured by academic testing; it could better be called a type of “perception.” The business school at Indiana University has found their search for a common denominator from which to predict success to be rather fruitless. They have, however, isolated an unidentifiable factor which they have named the “X” factor. They can’t sharply define this factor, but they talk about, and they feel they are closing in on a definition.
I would like to apply this “X” factor to swimming coaches. They know a little about this factor in business, and I would like to mention a few of the dangers encountered by business in attempting to build a perfect administrator. Business has sent its top administrator to training courses — very much as you have come to this clinic — they send them to universities and sometimes to the Menninger Foundation in Kansas. The most outstanding business training course is given in Kansas at the Menninger Psychiatric Clinic. Here, three times year, a course is offered to top executives at a fee of $1200. Entrance is limited to 20 per group in three groups, and is called “Understanding Man.” Business sends its top executives to this clinic, the theory being that with this type of training they will return and do a better job of managing.
Unfortunately, business has found that many of its executives go back from such a clinic and do worse. Likewise many of our coaches go home from these clinics and do a worse job of coaching than before. I can see some of your kids now saying, “Oh my God, Coach has been to one of those screwy clinics again. Now we get all of those screwy workouts and those crazy ideas on stroke mechanics.” I believe that we must continue to experiment, to continually change our programs and our methods. Therefore, I do not recommend that we stop attending clinics such as this, but I would caution you about one thing.
There are examples of men who have trained themselves to be coaches, devoted their entire lives to that end, and failed miserably. Some of these men have been warned before they start that they will fail, just as I now warn some of my graduate students that they too will fail. Why do they fail? Let us take a partially true case and synthesize an individual, give him a false name — call him Frank Zilch.
Frank Zilch came to me some years ago and said, “I want to study under you, learn all that you know, take all the scientific courses available, so that I can become the greatest swimming coach in the world.” Of course, his approach was wrong, this was not the thing he should have said.
As his graduate advisor, I set out to plan his education. Theoretically, he had everything going for him; he was good looking, he had desire, he had lots of energy, he was intelligent, and with good planning, we should be able to make a great coach out of him. But, as it turned out, it was an impossible task, because he lacked the “X” factor, which we will discuss later.
Frank Zilch read all the research on swimming he could find; he read the “Research Quarterly,” “Swimming Technique,” “The Journal of Applied Physiology,” and many, many others. He attended all the coaching clinics he could find, he did research, he lived swimming, he ate swimming, his every thought and every waking minute was applied to swimming. We designed his courses to cover every area of knowledge possible that could contribute toward making him a great swimming coach. He knew more facts about swimming than any person in the world, his brain was crammed with swimming knowledge. In setting up his course of study we tried to give him a full education in the areas necessary to make him a great swimming coach.
He had to be a great physiologist to understand the process of conditioning; what happens to the swimmer’s body when he trains. The perfect coach should know that the swimmer’s body changes as he trains, he should understand these physiological changes that occur. In preparing the perfect coach for this area of knowledge, he should certainly read Dr. Selye’s book on Stress and Adaptation. Frank Zilch studied all of this.
The thought must occur to you, “does all of this really seem necessary?” We all wonder if we should not concentrate on just training the swimmers and let Dr. Selye and others do this type of research. Maybe we should learn by trial and error, by either overworking or underworking our swimmers. Most of the U.S. progress in training technique has occurred through trial and error. The Europeans, in particular those from the Iron Curtain countries, are usually surprised and disappointed when they visit training sites in the United States and fail to see the American coaches taking pulse rates and electrocardiograms. They expect American coaches to be more scientific, they expect us to take pulse rates, they expect us to take electrocardiograms, and to measure all physiological changes in our swimmers. During a recent trip to Russia, I gave an hour lecture at the Russian Institute for Physical Education in Minsk. During the question and answer period the questions were entirely on minute details such as, “did the swimmers take vitamins,” “how many milligrams of Vitamin C did they take,” “do you measure their electrocardiograms.” They asked no questions on training, on swimmers, on repeats, etc.
Later we had a special conference with officials of the Russian sports field. There were about six or eight sitting about the table; they had a nutritionist, an expert on fluid mechanics, a physiologist, the only thing missing was a swimming coach. Again, the questions were on, in my opinion, irrelevant subjects. Their favorite question is on the “T” wave. Then they asked the sixty-four ruble question. They wanted to know why they were not getting better swimmers in spite of spending millions of rubles. They asked if they were behind the times, they asked what we in the U.S. were doing that they were not. I told them that they were actually far ahead of our country in scientific methods, but they did not understand. I think the Russians are missing the “X” factor.
We have had similar experiences with the East Germans. They too are going about their swimming on a very scientific basis. They select their future athletes on a scientific basis, as they are also doing for their future scientists, mathematicians, physicists. When an East German child shows promise in any area, math, science, sport, etc., he and his family are often moved so the child can be enrolled in a special school or institute that is designed to nurture this skill. The East Germans, like the Russians, wonder why they are not having greater success in these areas. The answer is again, I believe the “X” factor.
In the United States we throw our 500,000 age group swimmers into the pool and let the best survive. The ones that come out on top have the physical ability and have fought their way to the top through hard, merciless work. We do not coddle our swimmers; our swimmers, also the Canadian and Australian swimmers, are not pampered. We throw them all in the pool and let the best survive. I favor this system over the scientific approach of the Russians and East Germans. They approach things too scientifically and forget that it is dog-eat-dog competition. The Americans, the Australians, the Canadians, and a few others, produce the toughest swimmers because of the system that forces them to fight their way to the top. This is why these swimmers are the toughest in the Olympics and other international meets.
In business they have a saying, “You never see a good-looking salesman.” I don’t know how really true this is, but possibly he doesn’t sell much because he is too busy with the farmer’s daughter. The point is, I believe, you want to stay away from people who have everything going for them. I’ve yet to have a good swimmer who was talented physically and also well-adjusted. A person can have all the physical and mental attributes and not do well, because the person with everything going for him does not have a strong ego drive. Perhaps this ego drive is part of the “X” factor we have been talking about.
Now back to Frank Zilch. He had everything going for him. We trained him to be a good physiologist, now we will train him in stroke mechanics. He studied physics, fluid mechanics, he studied underwater movies, he learned all about Bernouili’s principle, he studied every aspect of stroke mechanics. This is another area in which the Europeans seem surprised to find that American coaches are not spending more time on the deck with stroke mechanics. I do not believe any coach could teach Mark Spitz to swim the way he does; much of this he has done on his own. The better a swimmer is, the less he really has to be coached. If you have a Mark Spitz, just sit back and enjoy him and try to learn from him.
How does a swimmer learn? He learns through trial and error. Why doesn’t everybody learn the same? Because we all have varying abilities. We have photographed dogs swimming, and have learned that not all dogs swim naturally, in fact some nearly drowned. We found that at first, most dogs tried to swim with all four feet, then gradually learned to pick up the hind feet and swim only with the front feet. However, in the case of the Labrador Retriever, they learned to swim this way usually on the second time in the water, much sooner than other types of dogs. We studied the Dachshund and on the twentieth time in the water he was still trying to work all four feet and nearly drowned.
I believe the Gary Hall’s, the John Kinsella’s, the Mark Spitz’s, are the Labrador Retrievers. Unfortunately, most of you will get a lot of Dachshunds in your programs. So, many of our great swimmers swim well in spite of us lousy coaches. Those of us who work only with the Labrador Retrievers have a real advantage. So, you club coaches keep on sending us the Labrador Retrievers and keep the Dachshunds.Those of us with the top twenty college teams just go out and recruit the Labrador Retrievers from the local coaches so we don’t have to know very much about stroke mechanics. The better the swimmer, the less you have to work on stroke mechanics. I believe stroke mechanics are extremely important, but at the lower levels. The best stroke mechanics men in the U.S. are the lesser known coaches in the local programs.
We now have Frank Zilch well qualified in physiology, and in stroke mechanics. Next we go to what I feel is the most important area of all — psychology. This is one area in which the Russians and East Germans were very complimentary to the Americans. They marveled at the rapport the American coaches have with the American swimmers. They have remarked at what great psychologists the American coaches are, how they can motivate the swimmers in spite of the fact that we don’t do scientific testing, and don’t work with stroke mechanics. I believe that if you gave three different coaches — one a psychologist, one a stroke mechanics expert, and one a physiologist — identical teams that the psychologist would win every time. A good psychologist can motivate his swimmers to work hard and to dedicate themselves to the sport. They can keep the swimmers happy so they will enjoy the sport and stay with it, they can recruit the best swimmers, they can handle the city council and the parents. The good psychologist in time will become a good organizer and administrator, he will have a large team and attract the Mark Spitz’s and the Gary Hall’s to his team. So, this is the way to become a good coach.
Finally, let me tell you what I think the “X” factor is in successful coaching. The “X” factor is, to quote an old saying, “The ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Another way of expressing it is to say, “you must be able to recognize the important things and work on them; and to minimize the unimportant.” Let me give you an example: we have seen mothers and fathers, and a few coaches, walking up and down the pool deck as the swimmer is swimming with dropped elbows, overkicking like mad, and he is being yelled at, “kick, kick, kick.” In other words, they ignore the important item, the dropped elbows-and emphasize the unimportant by yelling “kick, kick.”
I feel that the present trend of doing everything for the athlete is not good. For example, I could put a timer on every swimmer in my practice, keep all their splits from them with managers, but I do not because I want them to be aware of what they are doing. Too often we do so much for them that they stop using their brains — they stop thinking about their own activities. It is important for the swimmer to know his own times so that he understands the significance of what he is doing.
Another place in which the coach fails the swimmer is when he allows parents and others to come on the pool deck and engage him in conversations during practices. The coach’s responsibility is to the swimmer not to the parent or others. The swimmer is important, the parents are not important. This is another example of where the coach must recognize the important thing, the swimmer, and ignore the unimportant, the parent.
The “X” factor is then, in other words, the ability to see what had to be done and doing it. The great coach recognizes what is needed to do the job and then does it. This applies not only in coaching, but in business, in administration, in every aspect of life. Another way of saying it is: cut through all the detail and get to the heart of the matter. The perfectionist usually does not make a very good coach; he is too busy taking care of the little details and seldom gets to the heart of the matter.
At the present stage of development in swimming, the great coach must have two basic abilities-he must be a good organizer and a good psychologist. The good organizer will have the large team, he will attract the good swimmers from other teams, he will develop the Mark Spitz’s and the Gary Hall’s of the future. The good psychologist will be able to handle the parent problems, he will get along with the city council, he will be able to communicate and get along with the swimmers, he will have the “super” team.
The good coach today need have only an elementary knowledge of the areas of conditioning physiology and stroke mechanics. He does not need these to get the job done today. However, nothing remains static, and in the future these last two areas will become more and more important. As more superior athletes come out for swimming, as more talented people go into coaching, as more and better facilities become available, all of the aspects of knowledge that we have discussed will become important.
I frankly feel that we are on the verge of a tremendous knowledge explosion in the area of competitive swimming which will make the more technical areas of knowledge more important to good coaching. These meetings we are attending here should help us to separate the important from the unimportant and make us better coaches. I would like to attend this clinic a hundred years from now to see what is being discussed. By that time they should have simple electronic devices that can be put in the swimmer’s ear to monitor pulse rates, blood lactate, and other such physiological data. We are not ready for this sort of thing today, but even a hundred years from today, the inherent behavioral patterns of the swimmers will be the same as today, good coaching psychology today will be good coaching psychology then.
In closing, I wish all of the speakers the best of luck in communicating some of their “X” factor so that many of us can gain from this conference.
Finally, if Frank Zilch is here, I apologize to him.