The Player-Coach

By Adam King

In a typical team setting, a coach’s job is to do a range of things, which include but are not limited to: mentoring, teaching, recruiting, managing, planning, and leading. Being a coach is no easy feat; it requires the time and dedication to not only show up and run practices, but also to plan for those practices ahead of time. They have to plan warm ups, swim sets, ball work, skill training, shooting, passing, film sessions: the list goes on and on. They need to focus on when the time is right to push the team, and when to have an easier day. When looking at film, they identify the weaknesses and strengths of the other teams in addition to their own, and where a game plan comes to life in the next set of games. All of these elements, and so many more, float in a coach’s mind daily when in season and more times than not out of season as well. Always planning how to improve the team, the dynamics, the players. The role of a coach never stops.

A player, while similar in some ways, is vastly different in the roles that individual will need to fill at a high level. The player is relied upon to be the in-water presence, both in voice and in leadership. They are relied upon to execute the training set forth at the highest level, giving everything they have day in and day out to help the team reach its ultimate goal and potential. They study film, understand the opponents, execute the plan, and get the win. They keep their mind and body in peak condition, being sure to workout both in dryland and in the pool, training to execute certain movements and shots at a high level whenever needed. 

Both groups are always working to achieve the common goal that the team sets forth in the beginning of the year, whether that be a state title, a national championship, or maybe even just an above .500 season. This aspect is one of the few areas these two roles ultimately overlap, and the reason why it was so difficult being a player coach on my team.

Being a player coach not only combines all of the elements listed under each description, but it presents its own unique sets of challenges outside those faced by a coach or a player separately. The first of which is that you are ultimately going to be the same (or similar) age as those that you are leading. It is an uncomfortable task to have to tell your friends and your fellow players what they are or aren’t doing right, and critique their overall game-play. This is especially true when you are, for a fact, less experienced than many other coaches out there that went through all the years of strictly being a player and learned how to coach somewhere down the line. That was one of the biggest mental hurdles that I personally had to overcome, as I was close friends with many of my teammates. It was difficult to go from just ‘one of the guys’ to the guy that is blowing the whistle and talking to players after practice about why they missed on a particular day that week.

Many coaches will tell you (much like my parents told me) that their purpose is “not to be your friend.” That is not to say that many coaches aren’t friendly/friends with their players, but friendship is not their primary concern or objective. Yet, being a player first, that was my primary concern. I wanted to be accepted by my friends not just in my leadership role, but in my greater role as ‘one of the guys’.

The turning point for me came halfway through the first year of holding this title. I realized that I needed to let everyone know that once we leave the pool deck, the coach aspect of me leaves as well. Once we were off the deck, I was just one of the guys like all of them, but when we were on, between the hours of 6-8pm Monday through Friday and tournament weekends, I embraced the role they elected me to be.

Other challenges presented themselves down the line, mainly when dealing with the scheduling of practices and swim sets. As any current or former player knows, swim sets are simply the worst. I feel confident in saying that 95% of players just want a ball in their hand and want to get to the water polo part of water polo. That is not to diminish the role of swimming in the sport, as it is one of the most important tools we have as players. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was extremely challenging to write out a weeks’ practice, knowing full well that I would not want to do a challenging swim set after the 5 minute drills just before it. If I knew that there would be a brutal swim set coming on that Wednesday, I had to make sure not only that I completed the task to the best of my ability, but that I didn’t skimp out and call it a day after the 8th 100 out of a set of 10. For anyone going through a similar situation, that is my biggest advice to you: DO NOT let that tired, worn-out inner-player take away from the job you know you need to do and the workouts you plan. If you planned to do three 5 minute drills with a minute rest inbetween, then once you speak it into existence and write it in the plan, you have to pretend there is a coach waiting behind you to yell if you let your elbows drop. Don’t let the absence of an out-of-the-water presence detract from the game plan.

The final lesson I had to learn was time management. I was still in college at the time of all of this, and while I will by no means give you tips on how to manage your college life and your studies, the water polo aspects of being in college were equally as tough. Splitting time between workouts, pool time, studying opponents, studying your team, watching others for best practices, and trying to have a life was tough. As a coach, you will still obviously have the majority of these concerns, but you certainly don’t have to focus on executing the workouts nearly as much as a player would. As a player, you often focus much less on creating the specific game plan for your next opponent, and more about your matchups. Being thrust into both roles, you need to learn how to manage splitting your time between all aspects.

I found that there were Saturdays where all I would do was watch game film. I would forget what time it was, and just grind out 4 or 5 games, writing each foul time, the mistake we made, the counter we could’ve done, etc. I would forego my personal workout that I had planned because I was so engrossed in the analytics that I would simply forget. My advice to anyone trying to manage being a student, a coach, and a player all at the same time, is to not try and engross yourself too much in one role or another (school comes first for sure, but you know what I mean). Make sure you split your time evenly and know when to take a break, it’ll help you in the long run.

Overall, my experience was a positive one, despite all the challenges and difficulties that came with it during these years. It taught me how to lead, even with a group that I did not feel totally comfortable leading. It taught me to look deeper into the little things, and find solutions instead of relying on someone else to do that for me. Most of all, it taught me to appreciate the game from all aspects, as both player and coach. I loved every minute of water time, film time, and friend time. It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything else, but I did wish that someone gave me a heads up beforehand so that I knew what I might be getting myself into. I hope that by sharing my experience, I can help anyone out that may be going through the same thing, or that knows someone that is.

No matter how you approach your individual situation, you will make plenty of mistakes, with or without reading this article. You will come up with your own unique challenges and circumstances that you must overcome. But at the end of the day, hopefully you can say that you’re doing the job to the best of your ability, and that the team is better off with you in that position.

You’ll figure it out one way or another, just don’t skimp on the dreaded swim set.  

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