Launch Edition, Sports Elite Coaching
By: Simon Cusack
Back in Grade 11 at high school, I was a swimmer at the Indooroopilly Swimming Club and my father was the coach. We would train in the morning, then head straight to school. After school, it was straight back to the pool and to fill in time, I would help him with the Learn to Swim Program and junior squad work. My father was my coach until I broke my leg and finished swimming in Grade 12. Even though I didn’t believe I had very much talent, I worked hard and, by that time, I had been a national age finalist for a number of years.
I came from three generations of coaches with uncles, cousins and even my great uncle Arthur Cusack coached my dad to the Olympics. My father swam in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, winning a bronze medal in the 4×100-metre freestyle relay. In 1979, he got his first coaching job at the Indooroopilly Swimming Club. Back then it was an unheated pool, so he would coach six months of the year and, during winter, he would work as a handyman.
When I left school, I completed a four year carpentry trade. On its completion, I took off to North America for a year and worked on a cattle ranch in the Rocky Mountains, Montana. Then I did another year contract as part of a mustering team up in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
In October 1999, as I was just about to head back to Brisbane, my father called and said that there were a record number of bookings for the upcoming season. With his assistant coach off having a baby, he asked if I would give him a hand. Now, it was never my plan to be a coach. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But he was desperate, so I said I would give him three months, one school term. Within those three months, I was bitten by the bug and have never looked back.
Club Coaching vs High Performance Coaching
In 2001, my father handed over the senior swimming to me. I wouldn’t have call it high performance, but it was up to a national age standard.
Coaching at the club level is very different to being a high performance coach. I spent thirteen years coaching at Indooroopilly and, even at that level, I had swimmers on the Australian team for the 2008 Olympics. By the time I got to coach my high performance swimmers in the afternoon, I would have already dealt with 50 to 75 junior swimmers. You see, Junior and State Development squads generate the income at a club level. High performance is seen as a luxury: you did it because you were passionate about it.
It has always been part of the swimming culture in Queensland that the high performance coaches are willing to share. People would turn up on their pool deck and spend a week or so being mentored by them. Even now, with the Queensland Academy of Sport and Swimming Queensland, there are lectures every two months and the lecture room is filled with about 40 National Age or State Level coaches. This is one of the great things about Queensland swimming. We share our secrets rather than hiding them.
When I attended my first workshop run by a high performance coach, I was told that if your coaching life was in order then your marriage wasn’t. Back then, this was the accepted norm for high performance coaches. You were expected to spend more time with your swimmers than your own family. That has changed now with a lot more professionalism and longevity coming into coaching. When not coaching our high performance athletes, we are often at the home office where emails and technology allow a much better balance with school drop-offs, concerts and ballet. There is a lot more emphasis on coach well-being than even a few years ago.
Moving from club to purely high performance was a massive, but welcome change. Since 2013, I have been in a purely high performance setting and currently I coach six swimmers. Five of them are Olympic athletes and the other an emerging swimmer. I can put all my energy into high performance without being tired or losing focus. When it comes down to a hundredth of a second, you need to be as fresh and analytical as you can be to get the most out of your athletes. We all know that driving tired can end in tragedy. Coaching tired is basically the same – it’s unproductive and wastes both yours and your athletes’ time.
Club level coaches have to be careful as they can be less balanced. They are hungry for their first star; they are probably inclined to train their athletes harder and push themselves as well. I like to think I have been balanced throughout my career, giving me a longer span of coaching with my athletes.
As a new coach
To get started in coaching, you need to be passionate about working with young people. We all start our working with children and teenagers and that is where most people will spend their whole careers. You need to be a good communicator and passionate about educating. A coach is simply delivering a curriculum – no different to a school teacher other than it is in the training pool. Each lesson we are educating, selling a step-by-step process and getting skills engrained within the young people before moving onto more complex movements just like a maths teacher would start out simply and move through more complex problem solving.
When you start with a new swimmer, because of the class sizes, you have to pitch to the middle of the road. Then if one or two miss the point, you can work with them on the side without boring the rest of your group. If you always pitch to the lowest common denominator, then you lose the focus of your higher performers.
Personally, I think that kids learn implicitly. I speak less and have the kids do more right through to the elite level. If you explain things in too much detail, then you can risk losing your audience.
Three tips for dealing with challenging parents.
- Know more than your parents. You have to be the expert that they can trust.
- The coach needs to stay one step ahead of their athlete, and their parents, or they will move on. Make sure you are putting in as much effort as you expect from your athletes.
- You need a belief in your own skills and knowledge. If people want to challenge you, try not to take it to heart. Some parents will step over the line from time to time. The best option is to ask the parents to let you do the coaching and if they don’t operate within the guidelines, they can find another program where the water is bluer.
- As a coach, you cannot be too hard or fast when dealing with a human. You have to be a little bit flexible but not to the point where you break. Don’t get stuck blaming the parent if you are not giving as much as you would expect.
Tip to Parents
Find a coach who you trust and then back the coach. If you can’t back them, leave and find one that you can. The athlete needs to form a good trusting relationship with their coach and the worst thing for that relationship is to have parents in the background undermining the coach’s decision or planning.
When I was coming through as a coach, I was often doing things that went against the grain. There was not a lot of acceptance by my peers as my program was centred on quality and skill rather than just mindless miles in the pool. It was aimed at more productivity and I was probably the laughing stock of parents and other coaches initially.
I believe that you have to follow your instincts. We were given instincts for a reason so go with your gut feeling. If you are getting results, there is a reason you are getting them. You have to find your own style and work with it. If you try to coach how you have seen someone else coach then it may not work for you. Learn from the mentors you are operating under but don’t be afraid to develop your own style and prepare to be knocked. I have continued to learn from other coaches, but have developed my own philosophies and ideals. Coaching in Australia gets its fair share of knockers, so be prepared to stand your ground.
I still follow my gut instincts today, even when professionals come in telling me to change things. It is my result and the result of my athlete that I am responsible for and I can live with making a poor decision if it is my decision. However, I would take it to the grave if I let one of my athletes down because I was coerced into making a decision that was against my better judgement.
The challenges I have faced, from troubled parents to swimmers leaving to go to another coach in the district have made me the coach that I am today. It even gave me more satisfaction and made my first Olympic medallist all the sweeter.
Simon is the coach of Cate Campbell, Bronte Campbell and Christian Sprenger; all current or former World Champions and has been a member of the National team for the last 6 years.
Simon was born into swimming royalty, being the son of a Mexico Olympic medallist, Robert Cusack, and great nephew of the Olympic gold medallist coach, Arthur Cusack. His coaching career started in 1999 when he accepted an assistant coach role at Indooroopilly Swimming Club in Brisbane under the guidance of the head coach who also happened to be his father.
Simon’s understanding of high performance, technique and speed development has seen him progress rapidly through Australia’s coaching ranks. He has coached swimmers to gold medal performances at the Olympic Games, World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Pan-Pacific Championships.
In 2013, Simon was awarded the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Coach of the Year, the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) Coach of the Year, the Swimming Australia’s Coach of the Year, and the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association’s (ASCTA) Coach of the Year in 2014.