Scott Fowler

Olympic swim coach David Marsh says secret he learned long ago helped US women to gold

David Marsh thought the banner was a good idea at the time, although in hindsight he believes it was one of the dumbest coaching decisions he ever made.

This hard lesson in how to best coach women came more than 15 years ago, long before Charlotte's Marsh ascended to his current high-profile summer job as the head coach of the extremely successful 2016 U.S. Olympic women's swim team. That team has grabbed multiple medals almost every night so far in Brazil at these Olympics, helping push Team USA to the top of the overall medal standings.

Marsh still lived in Alabama 15 years ago when he found out what not to do when you coach women. He was the head coach of both the men's and women's swim teams at Auburn. His women had just finished the first day of a three-day meet that would decide the national championship. They had never won a national title before, but they were in the lead and flying high.

Let's really motivate them for the final two days, Marsh and his staff decided. So they had a mock banner designed for the team meeting that night proclaiming the Auburn women's team as national champions and then unveiled it to the women.

"And we couldn't have swum worse the next day," Marsh said. "There were tears all over the pool deck. We had projected an outcome, making it more about results than relationships. It was ridiculous."

In his regular job, Marsh coaches some of the best male and female swimmers in the world for SwimMAC Carolina's Team Elite in Charlotte. But he doesn't coach them the same way. He has learned a number of things over the years. The most important one, he said, comes down to the fact that most female swimmers value relationships over results.

"The magic happens when they all get along," Marsh said. "And they also want to hear from people they trust. With the men, they often want to hear from just anybody who will jack them up a little bit. With the women, if they don't trust you, you can't motivate them."

‘Athlete-centered’ coaching

The U.S. women's Olympic swim team includes three swimmers who lived and trained in Charlotte during this Olympic cycle – Kathleen Baker, Katie Meili and Cammile Adams. All have added substantially to the Olympic team. Adams was elected a team captain. Baker and Meili, both first-time Olympians, became surprise medalists.

When Meili first arrived in Charlotte, she was flummoxed by Marsh's coaching style. She had been used to her Ivy League college coach at Columbia, who told her exactly what to do at every workout. Meili didn't think about what she was doing that much in practices. She just followed orders.

"In college, in my experience, your coach is very much in control of you," Meili said. "In Charlotte, it's a lot more of a relationship between you and the coaches. You have to be your own advocate sometimes. When I would come to practice at first, I'd say, 'What am I going to do work on today?' And David would say, 'I don't know. What do you think you need to work on?' At first I didn't get it. I'd say, 'Well, you're the coach! Tell me.' But then I realized it was a smart way to do things and allowed me to be my own advocate."

Marsh likes to call his coaching "athlete-centered," and that goes for both his male and female swimmers. He doesn't make the athlete conform to his training; he shapes his training around the athlete.

Baker, 19, is a relentlessly competitive swimmer who has fought a battle with Crohn's disease for years. She needed to be told to back off occasionally in the pool and forced to skip a practice now and then. Baker had a far different training program from Ryan Lochte, who had a far different program from Meili, and so on.

The process doesn't always work perfectly. Marsh doesn't win medals with all his swimmers, including those who do every single thing he asks. And sometimes he's not sure how much compromise is too much. Marsh and one of his female swimmers in Charlotte, Madison Kennedy, have butted heads a number of times through the years. Marsh eventually ceded more control to Kennedy over the past few years than he really felt comfortable with and wonders now if that was a mistake.

"Madison didn't want to do the whole thing I was doing, and we had an agreement that she would do things more her way and would be living with the outcome,' Marsh said. "The reality was she missed the Olympics for the second time in a row by one spot, and I'm still devastated by that."

The competitive cauldron

Marsh certainly isn't the only male coach who has done well directing high-profile women's athletes. North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance and Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, for instance, have won bushels of national championships and have also both coached U.S. national teams to great success.

There have also been a number of coaches from North Carolina who have had a significant impact on the Olympics. To name just three: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is in his third straight Olympics as head coach of the men's basketball team and will likely guide his cast of NBA players to a third straight gold medal. Dean Smith, the late UNC basketball coach, directed a team of U.S. college players to the gold medal in 1976. Also in 1976, LeRoy Walker of N.C. Central became the first-ever African American head coach of a U.S. Olympic team when he coached the American track and field team.

Coaching women at the highest level doesn't mean coddling them. The best of the best are always ferocious competitors, and that instinct must be nurtured as well. At Chapel Hill, Dorrance is legendary for his blunt assessments of his players' performances. He also likes to create what he has called a "competitive cauldron" in practice - an idea he freely admits he stole from Smith.

As Dorrance told me once: "At all of our practices, everything is recorded. Then you’re ranked. So practice is a sprint. Every day. We basically soccer-ized as much of Dean Smith’s basketball practice as we could…. That gives the women permission to compete hard against their friends in practice, because nobody wants to be on the bottom of that list."

The sheet icebreaker

Marsh and his coaching staff for the Olympic women's team have had their swimmers together for close to a month now. They had training camps in San Antonio and Atlanta before flying to Rio. While many of the U.S. swimmers knew each other at least vaguely from other swim meets, they came from all over the country and had to bond as a team.

Marsh decided to use some icebreakers to speed that process along during his nightly meetings.

The most popular game involved the swimmers splitting into two teams on opposite sides of the room. A sheet would be held up in the middle of the room to block each group from viewing the other, then each team would pick one swimmer to stand up on either side of the sheet.

Then the sheet was dropped.

The contest, once the swimmers saw each other, was simple: Which of the two could more quickly blurt out the other swimmer's primary event in the Olympics? The winner got to "steal" the loser for her team.

"It was supposed to be a five-minute game," Marsh said, "and they ended up doing it for 30-40 minutes. They just kept wanting to play it, over and over again. We had a lot of laughter, and that's really what you want. The indication of a women's team doing really well is that there has to be a great element of laughter and a great element of harmony."

Of course, for a team to do this well in the Olympics, it also helps to be extremely talented. While the women's swim team has piled up medals in Rio, Marsh doesn't pretend to be responsible for the multiple gold medals of someone like Katie Ledecky. By the time she got to Rio, Ledecky was so far above her competition that she was going to win those medals if she had coached herself.

But Marsh does believe the American success in the women's relays, for instance, has been in part because the U.S. team simply gets along and the swimmers don't want to let each other down.

"We've come into this kind of hostile environment, with all the stuff going on about drugs and the elements of Brazil," Marsh said. "And it's amazing, with some of the leadership of Cammile Adams and Elizabeth Beisel and some of the others, how far they have come. It all spawned out of relationships. And I think you're seeing the results."

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