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Changing Canada's Coaching Landscape

Feb 28, 2013  - Mike Thompson

Guest writer and coach Mike Thompson considers the impact of a forum called The Coaching Excellence Series, introduced by Ben Titley, the Brit coach at the helm of the Ontario excellence centre in Canada

In an apartment building in Downtown Toronto on February 5, some of the best coaches in Ontario were socializing, sipping on sodas and sharing submarine sandwiches while waiting to participate in a coach’s forum called “The Coaching Excellence Series”. One of the most respected coaches in the world and one of Swimming Canada’s newest hires, Ben Titley, had invited them there.

The Coaching Excellence series is the brainchild of Titley, who coached at one of Britain's Intensive Training Centres, at Loughborough, before crossing the Pond. It is an idea that he came up with to bring coaches together to share ideas in a comfortable environment (in this case, his apartment in Toronto). To introduce the initiative, Titley started the meeting by setting the tone. “I know the best learning experience I have ever had was learning from other coaches,” he said as he lead the participating coaches through some of the ideas he had been working on since he arrived in October.

Coach Titley came to Toronto with the vision of making Canadian Swimming better. Ever since his first meetings with Ontario club coaches, his focus has been working towards coach education and collaboration. “I think a big part of my success down the line is helping the GTA coaches try to learn from each other and maybe learn from me,” he said in an interview with Swimming Canada in November. “Get together, chat, share and understand that the centre is not a ‘big bad monster’ trying to take swimmers away, it’s here to help. For the most part people seem pretty keen and want that performance leadership.”

Coach Titley referred many times to a drill that Bill Sweetenham used to run British Coaches through, called the “Coaches Challenge”. In the coach’s challenge, coaches were asked to present a training set on a white board. Coaching peers would then ask questions about the set's intention and set up and the author would be tasked to defend his or her idea. One of the reasons coaches loved this drill was that it helped get feedback and enhanced their sets. One of the reasons it was feared was because of the vulnerable position the defending coach was in. For the first meeting, Ben stopped short of making coaches defend their training sets. Instead, he took a different approach.

Coach Titley wrote several of his own sets on the white board, explained the origin of the set what he was trying to achieve and invited questions and criticism from the room. The primary theme that Titley preached was purpose and examining the worth of a set. “I want coaches to ask, why am I doing what I’m doing and is there a better way to do it?” he said.

“Ben talked about training sets with true purpose,” said Ontario Provincial Coach Dean Boles. “What Ben does really well is that he makes everymeter count.”

A short example of Ben’s thought process was to figure out how to keep good stroke technique in breaststroke while working the body’s aerobic system. “I feel like over time, very few breaststrokers can practice great body position; they resort to poor technique and can’t train great technique long enough to get aerobic gain,” he explained. Ben described his solution to this problem; He removed the swimmer from the regular pool and had them swim in a short, 12m pool which was designed for swimming lessons. This regulated the number of good strokes they could do while getting (only just enough) rest to recover and maintain the best technique. He then kept them working over longer period of time repeating the number of quality strokes and work towards some aerobic gain. “Is that giving my athlete the aerobic gain he needs?” Titley asked the crowd. “I’m not completely sure. My sport science staff and I had a discussion about it. I want to know what you guys think.”

Ben’s mission when he arrived was to open doors and allow for discussion between coaches to make coaching better. Provincial Coach, Dean Boles, thinks step one of enhancing coaching in Ontario was to allow for honest discussions about what all coaches are doing. “Ben has done that,” he says.“Now we need to start asking the important questions about our programs like how many quality starts we are [incorporating into practices] each week. How often are we enforcing perfection in turns during main training sets?”

Ontario coaches received the first Coaching Excellence Series meeting very positively. Titley has considered this a success and plans to continue these meetings on a semi-regular basis in the hopes of improving the quality of coaching in Ontario, and eventually, across Canada. “I really expected this to start quite small but I was overwhelmed by the interest and the attendance. It is quite encouraging... this seems like something that will be embraced in the Ontario coaching culture.”

When asked to articulate the importance of the Coaching Excellence Series, the young, chipper coach adjusted his glasses and smiled slightly. “I guess that a big part of my coaching philosophy came from [meetings like this in Great Britain]. If I can’t stand up and explain to an athlete or to the coach of a visiting swimmer or to sport science support why I am doing something, I tend of ask myself if I’m just wasting my time? There has to be a reason to everything that we’re all doing. Sharing WHY we’re doing something, helps change the thought process behind WHAT we’re doing. That’s going to make a difference.”

Follow coach Mike Thompson @coachmikeswim, watch his podcast and read his blog. You can also watch an "Off The Deck" episode featuring clips from Ben Titley's first meeting.