Olympic Coach David Marsh on Motivating Women Athletes

When David Marsh was the head coach of 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.”

Marsh recently coached the US Women’s Olympic team. He doesn’t coach men and women the same way. The most important one lesson 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 alittle bit. With the women, if they don’t trust you, you can’t motivate them.”

According to Olympian Katie Meili: “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.

For the Olympic team, Marsh decided to use some icebreakers to speed the team building process during 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.”

Excerpted from the Championship Performance Coaches Journal. New and returning team members get the new two volume Championship Coaching series free.