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Doc Counsilman and Self-Study

Apr 5, 2013  - Chuck Warner

Guest writer Chuck Warner offers another lesson from a legend: "spending time with Coach Counsilman was an experience that swimmers came back to day after day and year after year - in part because he was a man of self-study and one of the very best at studying the sport"

As the winter season turns to spring, thoughtful swimmers and coaches traditionally begin a self-study of the competitive season that has taken place with a look toward the summer championships to improve one’s preparation and the corresponding results. 

Self-study is a part of any growing human experience when there is an intention of becoming a dynamitic entity and finding one’s potential. One of the sports great examples of self-study is the life of Jim Counsilman. 

Counsilman grew up as the son of a “circus barker” and learned to swim in a fish hatchery. He went through a process in which he became an accomplished high school swimmer, then a world record holder and eventually he became one of the most famous swim coaches in the world. He was not only an exceptional coach, but his production of books that began with The Science of Swimming published in 1968, helped him become one of the most well known people any where in the world involved in the sport of swimming.

Who better to consider as an example of self-study in the sport of swimming? 

To study oneself it is important to have at least three key ingredients:

  1. The capacity to step back and self-observe. 
  2. The ability to analyze one's self objectively or honestly. (Not an easy task!)
  3. Have a sense of humor. 

According to his wife Marge, Jim Counsilman had a prolific education in leadership through his experience in the military. What better way to honestly evaluate the effectiveness of your leadership with your life, and that of the people your responsible for, on the line? 

Counsilman entered the Fifteenth Airforce during World War II. It is said that he was such a great pilot that he could bring the wing of his plane within four feet of another and hold it in that position. When his B-24 bomber crashed landed in Yugoslavia he safely returned all ten members of his crew to their base.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.

When Jim returned to the US he finished school at Ohio State, then began graduate work, eventually earning his doctoral degree in physiology from the University of Iowa. With his PHD in hand, his nickname became “Doc.” He utilized underwater filming frequently as he began to coach and found it a great tool for self-study. Many of his previously held theories on proper technique were disproved through closer, objective analysis. He quickly changed his instructions to swimmers. 

Doc Counsilman studied the sport and published his findings like no one had ever done before. He took complex ideas and put them into language swimmers and coaches around the world could understand. Through his research he enabled the world of swimming to become more adept at self-study, and consequently, helped advance the sport immeasurably. 

Doc loved to laugh and in one respect he had the last one. He believed that swimming the English Channel was something that could be done at an older age. To make the point, he set out to be the oldest person in history to achieve the feat at 58 years old. He achieved his goal, even after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. 

The best laughs for Doc were saved for the time spent between he and his swimmers. He adored the sport, but even more so, the people he coached. Doc clearly understood that people liked to repeat enjoyable experiences and accentuated the joy of productive work at practice with the reward of jellybeans.

Spending time with Coach Counsilman was an experience that swimmers came back to day after day and year after year “ in part because he was a man of self-study and one of the very best at studying the sport.