Q&A with Varsity Swim Coach Matt Walker


Q&A with Varsity Swim Coach Matt Walker

Can you tell us a bit about your background in swimming and coaching? What led you to become a swim coach?

I’m originally from Southington, Conn. and swam competitively in high school. My events were the 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke, and I did some freestyle as well. I started coaching as a part time job/hobby, and have really enjoyed it for the last 10 years. I’ve coached club teams at the Southington YMCA, the Chelsea Piers Athletic Club in Stamford, and I currently am also a senior coach for the West Hartford Aquatic Team in addition to my work with AOF. This is my first time coaching a school team, but I’m really enjoying it so far.

What is your coaching philosophy when it comes to developing swimmers both athletically and personally?

I have a very holistic approach to building a program. I like to have athletes train for all the strokes so we have more opportunities as a team. I also like to ensure my swimmers have a variety of aerobic and anaerobic exercises to build their strength and endurance, and have the ability to compete in a wide spectrum of events. My goal is not to produce good swimmers, but strong, well-rounded athletes.

How do you approach creating a positive and supportive team culture?

Before the school year began, I had an opportunity to meet with the team, introduce myself, and talk about the upcoming season as well as my goals for the program. I wanted the team to get to know me and share my vision with them early so when the time came to get in the water, we had already started to work toward the same goals.

On a personal level, I meet the athletes in their space and try to relate to them. I like to learn who they are, where they're from, and what is going on in their lives outside of the pool. I want to know about how school is going, what else they’re interested in, etc. I think building a relationship is important work that will allow a coach to get the most out of each athlete. Spending time talking with the swimmers on bus rides to and from practice, to and from meets, and during meets between events helps in building bonds as well. 

The other side to that is ensuring that each member of the team knows that they are contributing to a group goal: again, I like to get the swimmers used to racing all the strokes and all of the distances, not only so they can become the best swimmers but also so they understand each event and can relate to one another. We also do a lot of dry-land work together in the weightroom, which helps build camaraderie as well as more well-rounded athletes. 

What does a typical training week look like for your varsity swim team?

We stick to a five-day-a-week practice schedule, with a two hour practice slot each afternoon. Occasionally throughout the season we get some extra pool time on Saturdays if we don’t have a meet. Because we utilize the pool at Miss Porter’s School, we also train with the athletes at Porter’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

This year we have 15 swimmers and one diver on the team, and we have a wide variety of abilities represented within those participants. This year, my first priority has been to show the team how I like to train and set standards for how we’d like to perform, so we’ve stuck to a strong schedule.

How do you prepare the team mentally and physically for important competitions?

The swim program at Avon Old Farms doesn’t have as strong of a history as some of the other varsity sports, and we typically are competing against schools that have larger and stronger teams, so it’s a little bit of an underdog mentality. 

It’s hard for a D3 program like Avon Old Farms to compete on the same level as the D2 and D1 schools in the Founder’s League, so I have led with the mentality that we’re here to improve: get faster, get stronger, win more meets than we did last year, get more swimmers qualified for New Englands than last year, and ultimately win more points at New Englands than last year. If we take a slow and steady approach to improving over our past, we’ll continue to improve. 

To get there, we need to be mentally tough. We need to be supportive of each other, and cheer for each other. No one leaves the pool until all events are complete. We need to have strong team morale, which our captains have really helped establish with a team cheer at the start and end of every meet. We also shake hands with all of our opponents, because having good sportsmanship regardless of if we win or lose is an important part of competing.

In all, I think we’ve been successful so far, as we’re faster now than we were at New Englands last year. The kids have done a really great job at putting their stamp on the program, and they’re seeing the results of their hard work, which makes them hungry when it comes time to compete.

How do you balance individual achievements with the overall success of the team?

We take a lot of pride in our relay events: these events are the best scoring opportunities at meets, and we put our best groups together for the relays to allow us to score the highest points. In these events, it’s easy to highlight how doing well individually will lead to a cumulative team performance. 

When it comes to individual events, I like to make sure that our athletes are in the pool with backup; I always plan to have two teammates in the pool when someone is competing so that we have two or three good scoring options in play. 

What are some common challenges you face as a swim coach, and how do you address them?

One of the bigger challenges of course is that we don’t have a pool on campus, which meant I needed to set clear standards from the first week of the season: we have a set schedule of when the bus leaves campus to head to practice. Honoring that timing so we can get our two hours at the pool is important to team success.

The second biggest challenge comes with the territory of being a winter season sport: the schedule is hard due to several starts and stops that come with Thanksgiving break, winter break, and long winter weekend in January. It’s also a challenge to ensure the team stays healthy throughout the winter term: the week before winter break we all got pretty sick and had to compete against one of the best teams in the Founders League, but we stuck it out and pushed through together. We now have a few weeks left in the season, so we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Can you share some strategies you use to motivate and inspire your athletes during tough times?

It’s important to always fall back on our training. We’ve spent weeks pushing hard to improve our yardage and hold certain intervals, and each swimmer knows what he is capable of. It’s been a great motivator to see times improving over last year, so each person believes in himself because he’s seeing the product of his work. I also provide a lot of encouragement, telling my swimmers that I believe in them.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the varsity swim program in the coming years?

This year, I’m committed to creating a strong performance base so we can come back to campus and generate more excitement for the program. We have an up & coming team that is capable of being competitive at the New England level. I am hopeful that by the end of the season, we’ll have some strong showings that will illustrate our potential. 

In the future, I would love to have a team of 20-plus athletes, including multiple divers who can compete for us. I want to work with our athletic directors and the admission department to begin to showcase our program, but I believe that will happen naturally when we begin to show our potential. This year was trying to generate excitement for the program.