Musings on Coaching and Advising

As I wrote the other day, Eldest spends a lot of time swimming and the team he is on is very serious and successful. When compared to the best swimmers, he definitely has considerably less experience and his technique needs work. What I know is that he started swimming seriously in September, he’s a little above average for his age but below average for his very strong team. The good thing is that there are many things that he could still fix to become better.

However, I have no idea how talented he is, i.e. where the limits of his potential may be. I don’t think we are looking at the next Michael Phelps, but my impression, based on where he was when he started and where he is now, is that he could definitely make a solid, middle-of-the-pack team member throughout  high school. That is, provided that he has some good coaching, i.e. that his club coach and/or his high school coach spend some time working with him.

The problem is that all coaches seem to want to work with talented kids whom they see as potential stars, especially the kids who have shown very early promise. When you see someone who’s just starting and they are older than the common beginner, that someone might a priori be disregarded as not worth the investment because they have a nontraditional age-to-skill relationship. We have that in academia, don’t we?

I played volleyball for a local club when I was growing up (also for my high school when needed) from about 12-13 to maybe 19 or 20. On a semi-pro team that we sometimes played against (they kicked our butts every time) there was a woman who was in her late 20’s or early 30’s and she was very good.  I remember she had streaks of grey hair, although she wasn’t old at all.  What I also remember about her is that we heard stories about how she hadn’t started to play volleyball until she was 18, considerably older than average. But I remember someone saying that when you start as an older teen/young adult, you have the ability to improve much faster than you do as a teen. I don’t know if this is true or if it holds for only select sports, but it stayed with me.

Which brings me to advising graduate students. Many professors, regardless of how good their institution is, lament the quality of PhD applicants and think they’d do amazing things if only they had better students. The most important thing about being a professor in a STEM field that requires working with graduate students is learning how to effectively advise the students you have rather than the students you wish you had. Perhaps equally important is realizing that there is no such thing as a perfect student, that every student has a lot to learn, and that many (most?) students have something good to offer. Presumably similar to what coaches of a team do, you as advisor need to learn what  your student’s strengths and weaknesses are and work with them accordingly: pick a project that employs their strengths but also forces them to grow in the directions where they need help. A talented student could do many projects well, for a less talented one you might have to eliminate certain options. There are projects that could be done by many different students, then there are those that await someone with a very special skill set or affinity.

Sometimes a student who had shown great promise proved to be uncoachable, improving very little outside of the initial areas of strength,  because they they didn’t want to listen to me and didn’t think what I said was actually important. On the other hand, I was surprised several times by what some students could pull off within a year or two, after they’ve gained some experience and confidence. More than once, a student who had started out quite wobbly subsequently found his or her legs, and was then able to metaphorically outrun those who initially looked much stronger.

In academia, there are many students who are talented enough. If they want to listen, and they work with an invested advisor, they can improve and grow to become very good.

Eldest works hard in practice, so I hear. I think he realizes that he might not be very prominent on the coaches’ radars and might have to be proactive about getting feedback. I’m hoping he gets some quality coaching despite the lack of preparation.


  1. I do nurture my imperfect students. I give them projects that make use of their strengths and encourage them to improve their weaknesses. I give them pep talks when needed, listen to their rants when they are frustrated, scold them if they do something stupid, praise them when they do a good job. A lot like parenting. But I would really like to have some perfect students. Just every once in a while. If it’s not too much to ask. Because nobody will value all that effort that I am putting in.

  2. The most important thing about being a professor in a STEM field that requires working with graduate students is learning how to effectively advise the students you have rather than the students you wish you had.

    Words of wisdom.

  3. Have you read Mindset, by Carol Dweck? She does research on how having what you might call a “coachable” mindset is important for success, and how you can put yourself (or help put others) in that mindset. Like most books of this type, I thought it was about twice as long as it really needed to be, but the core information is really good.

  4. Sometimes I actually prefer the students who need a little more coaching. Because you can actually make a difference for them, where the difference YOU make in someone who comes ready to the plate (so to speak) is negligible, at best.

  5. Have you considered the possibility of getting private lessons for your son in swimming? It is not at all uncommon to pay for private lessons when the kids are just a little younger, often from one of the assistant swim coaches. If he were to do a few lessons (on turns or something specific) then the coach would likely pay more attention to him in practice as well because they would “feel” more connection and care more about his results. These particular coaches might not give private lessons but you could approach one of them and ask for recommendations for someone to get a little extra help from and hope they volunteer themselves. Eldest would have to feel comfortable with the idea but it is something to think about. A little extra coaching can go a long way even if it isn’t from one of the coaches.

  6. First, as the analogy to STEM training, I appreciate the insights and agree with most of your conclusions.

    However, as a former swimmer who started competition at 11, I will say this…
    *Swimming requires an enormous amount of time for someone who *doesn’t* have to play catch up. At least 2-3 hours of training 6 days a week, is what Eldest should be doing if he wants to swim in high school.
    *Almost nobody starts water polo seriously before high school. You can pick that up later without it being quite so unusual.
    *His growth this year will be exceptional if he simply puts the time in- coaching has little to do with it. Once he can only shave fractions of a second off his times, then he will need coaching.
    *Swimming is worth the time, even if you aren’t very fast and will never be. It’s a lifelong sport in the way many things harder on the joints are not, and it allows you to train in anything and keep your cardio conditioning up even if you get injured.

  7. Thanks, becca! They trained very seriously during HS season (8 practices per week for freshmen, 9 for upperclassmen) and he loves his HS coach. Now that the HS season is winding down, he’ll go back to his club that offers 5 weekly practices 2.5 hrs each; he likes that coach as well. I try to make sure he makes the Saturday practice, where many kids don’t show up because it’s very early, so he can get a lot attention from the coach. There is a team at this club that’s one level up, but he says he’s not really ready for that, as the people are quite intense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s