Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Veterinarians occasionally describe medical doctors as those who take care of only one species.

Cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz in her TED Talk (see here) reminds us of a similar analogy between pool swimming coaches and open water swimming coaches.

While physicians focus on homo sapiens, veterinarians operate on a species-spanning approach to health care. While human health requires a wide scope of knowledge and experience, imagine trying to provide the same health care to mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians of all sizes and shapes – none of which can talk or describe their feelings or illnesses.

Pool swimming coaches focus on stroke technique, breathing, pacing, starts, and turns in a controlled, chlorinated environment that last seconds or at most several minutes. They need to understand nutrition, tapering, and developing a competitive mental edge. Their job is certainly not easy, but often quite rewarding.

Open water swimming coaches also need to focus on stroke technique, breathing, pacing, onshore starts, and buoy turns but in a dynamic, uncontrollable environment that can last from several minutes to several hours.

In addition, open water swimming coaches tool kit must also address positioning, drafting, sighting, physicality, navigational IQ, and feeding; they need to understand and react to marine life, and the impact of currents, winds, waves and weather conditions. They need to deal with acclimatization to the cold, warm, dark, harsh and dynamic conditions. While pool coaches walk up and down a pool deck and spend time in a fitness gym, open water coaches often find themselves on diesel-powered boats, kayaks, and paddle boards. They can be positioned everywhere from standing helplessly on feeding stations to walking tirelessly on soft sand along a jagged coastline.

While pool swimming coaches often use stopwatches and pace clocks, open water swimming coaches use binoculars, whistles, glow sticks, lanolin, rubber gloves, GPS devices, mobile communication devices, whiteboards, and homemade feeding apparatus.

While pool swimming coaches have reams of hard data and plenty of analytical tools to review their athletes’ splits, reaction times, and breakout distances, open water swimming coaches need to make assumptions based on stroke counts and visual clues.

While pool swimming coaches often must get up early for morning workout before the sun rises, open water swimming coaches often miss an entire night’s sleep during a channel swim.

While pool swimming coaches often have their daily cup of coffee on the way to workout, open water swimming coaches often mix and experiment with their swimmer’s preferred hydration and nutrition on a marathon swim.

While pool swimming coaches face fatigue and soreness among their swimmers, open water swimming coaches can face hypothermia, hyperthermia, afterdrop, hallucinations, bacterial infections, nausea, jellyfish stings, cuts and bruises.

While pool swimming coaches delve into the known where everything at a swim meet is scripted and scheduled down to the minute, open water swimming coaches learn to be composed and comfortable in dealing with the unknown where things can change from moment to moment in the dark, fog, rain, cold, and far from shore.

While coaching butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle well is not an easy task, a comprehensive understanding of the tactics and techniques of competitive ocean racing, solo swimming, ice swimming, night swimming, and channel swimming, as well as planning for unprecedented swims also takes years of practical experience.

So while coaching and perfecting a pool swimmer’s competitive edge are noble activities that rely on decades of experience and analyses, trying to keep athletes motivated, safe and improving in the open water is a responsibility that spans a wide variety of activities, equipment and comprehensive understanding of the dynamic marine environment.

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association