Are You Coachable? Lessons From Dara Torres

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by David Wendkos

I once took a course in which the seminar leader, Larry, asked each person present to make a commitment to be coachable. Most of us immediately responded that we would do so. Larry then asked, “Before agreeing, don’t you think you should understand what I mean by ‘coachable’?” That seemed silly to me. Being coachable is listening to a ‘coach’, thinking about what he or she says, and then incorporating it into what we already know. At least,that was how I would have described being coachable. Larry didn’t.

Dara Torres had only swum two laps on her first day of training after a seven-year layoff when Stanford coach Richard Quick lowered a kickboard into the water to stop her. “We don’t swim like that any more,” he said. Since then, Dara Torres has made herself into a household name, or certainly more so than she ever was before her layoff. But when you go to the Olympics and bring home multiple medals in swimming, at the stereotypically “over the hill age” of41, people do tend to notice. Remember though, we aren’t talking about someone without success prior to the layoff. She had won multiple Olympic medals before her time away from swimming. It wouldn’t have been stunning for her to think, or even say, “I know how to swim, and have the resume to prove it. Just give me the sets and intervals.” But that is not what she said, and likely not what she thought. She had a coach she believed in, and she allowed herself to be coachable. So let’s get back to how Larry defines being coachable.

Being coachable is agreeing to follow the guidance of another, without questioning it, without needing to first understand why, without needing to analyze it, and without trying to adapt it. It is putting full faith in the person teaching you to show you a new way of doing something, and being open to learning it exactly that way. Trying their way, without question, for long enough to properly determine its merit. That does not mean you don’t use your brain. It simply means that for an appropriate period of time, you allow yourself to be fully guided to experience a new way of doing something. By the way, this can be really, really difficult. As people, we naturally want to understand. We want to ‘get it’. But sometimes, the best way to reach our goals is by finding a teacher we can believe in, and then following their instructions without an explanation. Understanding will come . . .later. Now, what does all of this have to do with your triathlon swim?
Swimming correctly is a surprisingly intricate process, with critical fine details.

Most of the swimming lessons that we all grew up with did not teach us these details in the proper manner, as they are understood and known today. What’s more, open water and multi-sport bring in various other complexities and details to address. At first, it may be hard for you to understand some of the things recommended to you. Drills may seem counter-intuitive. Distances and intensities may seem illogical. But in the end, you will either be open to new ways of doing things, or you will be limited to the degree your training allows you to perform given your existing technique.. . or lack thereof. Dara Torres was coachable. Dara Torres was on the podium at the Olympics when she was 41 years old. Give yourself an opportunity to be coachable this winter, and see what happens next spring.

David Wendkos lives in Annapolis, MD and has over 30 years of competitive swimming, coaching swimmers for the pool, open water, and triathlons. He can be followed on twitter at