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Teaching & Coaching - is there a difference?


Dawn Hunter examines the differences between teaching and coaching as applied to adults and swimming.

The focus of this article is almost exclusively based on the teaching and coaching of adults, but I believe it could apply to the learning and coaching of children.

The terms teaching and coaching are often used interchangeably to imply the transference of knowledge of a subject from one person (the 'teacher' or 'coach') to another (the 'student', 'pupil', or 'athlete'). However, the two terms are not strictly interchangeable and, in my view, have very different meanings, which I intend to illustrate using swimming as the discipline in focus.

Swimming is the most technique-heavy section of the triathlon. Many people can cycle or run with little or no teaching. The ability to swim, similar to the ability to cycle, is not automatically natural, unlike running. Movement in the water can be established at an early age; however, it is the ability to remain near the water's surface sufficiently to allow breathing while moving through the water which differentiates the 'swimmer' from 'non-swimmer'.

To acquire the skill of swimming, it is necessary to be 'taught' the technique. TThis involves the teacher communicating the formalised movement of swimming to allow the pupil not only to understand but also replicate. There are many reasons for formalising the movements of swimming. The ASA has laws of swimming that any potential swimming competitor needs to be aware of. This formalises certain movements, which, if not followed to the letter, will lead to disqualification; for example, in breaststroke, it is not permitted to roll onto the back at any time. For the recreational swimmer, the precise movement may not be as important. It is worth bearing in mind that the most efficient method of travel through water has been developed (and is indeed still developing) over time, so it is worth the beginner persevering in the acquisition of skills.

One of the main differences between teaching and coaching becomes blurred with the teaching of adults. Teaching tends to be a mainly one-way process. The teacher transfers their knowledge to the pupil. The pupil may question to clarify; however, the knowledge transfer is one-way. With the teaching of adults, the process is much more two way. The teacher imparts the knowledge, the adult pupil questions to clarify and may also add comments based on their experience, therefore transferring some of their knowledge to the teacher. The teacher may then adapt the information based on the pupil's contribution. The pupil questions to clarify and then provides feedback; the learning process has become much more two-way.

Sometimes verbal communication and pool-side demonstration are not adequate in the teaching of swimming, and the teacher or their assistant must get into the water. In my experience, coaches only get into the water when pushed in.

Coaching is a two-way process. The coach provides the athlete with the benefit of their knowledge and experience. The athlete then takes as much or as little of that information to use in their training. There are different levels of coaching from group coaching, where the general aim is consistent with one-to-one coaching, where the goal is specific to that individual.

Another difference between teaching and coaching is that with coaching, there is often less focus on the acquisition of skills than on the improvement of existing skills and also fitness. It is about getting the full potential from the athlete in their chosen sport through the application of knowledge and a two-way communication process.


Group coaching is frequently done with a much larger group than group teaching. A session is set and is administered by the coach who monitors that set times for swim and rest are being adhered to and that drills are being replicated accurately. It is frequently the case that 30 athletes can be swimming across three mixed ability lanes allowing the coach little time to give individual attention to the swim technique of every swimmer.

Group teaching is usually done with 12 swimmers to each teacher. This allows much more focus on each swimmer. The Teaching sessions I have undertaken are almost solely focused on acquiring technique and skill, not fitness. So, for example, drills will be introduced to the swimmer and time is given to them to learn the drills with accuracy. Then, the opportunity will be given to allow the lessons for each drill to be carried into the swim stroke without putting any speed pressure on the individual.

For example, the doggy paddle might be taught as a drill. The explanation for the drill may be to increase the completion of the stroke (push back past the hips). The swimmer will attempt the doggy paddle, be asked for feedback and remember how that movement through the water felt. Once the teacher is satisfied that the swimmer has grasped the concept and practice of the drill, they may be asked to do half a length doggy paddle straight into half a length full stroke - the idea being to carry that push back past the hips into their normal stroke. This and other drills will be practiced and applied until the stroke technique is considered robust enough to withstand the effect of speed work.

Qualification The focus of the qualification to be a teacher or coach is also different. The focus of the ASA level 2 Certificate for Teaching Swimming is on the acquisition of swimming skills from non-swimmer through to pre-competition. The areas covered include the physics of swimming as a form of movement through the water in respect of the four strokes. Other skills, such as sculling, the different turns and starts for each stroke, are also covered in-depth in terms of the dynamics of how to do them and how to explain them. There is also a heavy focus on analysing swimmers undertaking particular strokes or skills in terms of exactly how the swimmer is positioned in the water and what they are doing. Although there are 'ideal' techniques for swimming, as all bodies are different, there are variations in the technique. The teacher needs to see which movements are hindering a swimmer and need to be corrected and which do not detract from what they are doing.

Only in unit 4 of the Level 2 Certificate for Teaching Swimming, which takes you up to pre-competition level swimmers, the session plans change. The focus is much more on the pace clock, using DIRT (distance, interval, repetition, target/time) as a foundation of the session plan, with acquisitions of skill being focused on starts and turns. Once you get to this stage, the swimmer can swim, and the focus is on faster swimming and improvements to stroke technique.

The ASA Club Coach Certificate (Swimming) NVQ III focuses on developing personal performance and those wishing to compete at the club level. The syllabus covers physiology in much greater depth than the Level 2 Certificate and includes nutrition and sports psychology, neither of which is covered at Level 2.

Coaching can be achieved remotely (for example, by telephone or e-mail). Teaching a skill such as swimming is possible (for example, the Total Immersion books and videos), but in my view, much more difficult. What the swimmer is doing in the water is frequently very different from what they think they are doing. Coaching plans for swimming can be based entirely on increases in speed/reduction of time (and stroke length) per length, based on the times supplied by a swimmer to a coach. A swimmer with poor technique can become a fast swimmer based solely on the scientific principle of overland and adaptation. A coach can design such swim programs which incorporate repeats over certain distances on particular swim times (e.g. 100m in 1:40) or off particular swim times (e.g. 100 off 2:00 - if time achieved in 1:40 there is 20 seconds rest) based on the swimmers previous times for a given distance, in the same way that Runners World coaches write running programs to support the needs of a circulation of over 63,000 without having met anywhere near that number of their readers.

In swimming, there is a difference in level between teaching and coaching. The teacher's certificate has to be done before the coach's certificate, and this is reflected in pay where coaches are almost always paid more than teachers. In triathlon coach education, there is no 'teacher' option. Having already achieved level 1 and attended the level 2 weekend, I would say that the focus is much more on 'improving' athletes' technique and increasing their fitness - i.e. a coaching function rather than a teaching function. Regarding the swimming part of the triathlon coaching qualifications, the assumption is made that any would-be triathlete can already swim (which is fair enough considering the sport).

Planning is an essential part of both teaching and coaching. In a long-term plan, the teacher or coach needs to be more flexible to accommodate faster or slower progress than had been planned for.

Good communication skills are also crucial in teaching and Coaching, and the ability to use different methods of communication (such as visual demonstrations) accurately is essential.


In summary, the differences between teaching and coaching occur mainly in the depth of knowledge transfer and the focus of that transfer. There are also differences between the level of qualification and the focus of those qualifications between teaching and coaching, as well as the financial reward for each.

However, the main similarities lie in the fact that teaching and coaching are both essentially athlete-centred and excellent communication and planning skills are a need for both. Teaching and coaching are, in my view, both worthwhile and rewarding, and I am proud to do both.

Page Reference

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  • HUNTER, D. (2006) Teaching & Coaching - is there a difference? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dawn Hunter, a British Triathlon Level 3 Coach, has coached individual triathletes and in a triathlon club for over five years. She also competes in triathlons up to Ironman distance. This article has been produced here with her kind permission.