We always knew men and women were different. David Marsh says coaching them presents two very different problems.
Marsh has been preparing men and women for Olympic competition since 2007, and is in Rio as coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s swimming team. He is also chief executive officer and director of coaching at SwimMAC Carolina in Charlotte.
Coaching, Marsh says, is about focusing on another individual’s success more than your own. Female athletes need more one-on-one time. “I need to take more time to be in communication with them,” he says. Investing time in conversation about personal lives builds a sense of trust and camaraderie in the coach-to-athlete relationship, Marsh says, and the key is demonstrating that he is just as invested in female athletes as individuals as he is in their athletic success.
He takes a different approach with male athletes. When working with men, he focuses on building a relationship of trust in moments of failure or success. Men tend to feel more comfortable with another individual when they’re working on something, or through something, together.
It’s also necessary for Marsh to recognize less-than-obvious physical differences between male and female athletes. “Even the technical things you deal with are different,” he says. “A female’s buoyancy is very different to work with than a guy, who sinks like a rock.” Because a female swimmer typically has an easier time gliding through the water, their training is tailored to this specific body feature. Men get different techniques.
The positives of working with female athletes are significant, Marsh says. “The biggest positive of working with women is that they invite you into the experiences more than men do,” he says. “When women do something great in a race, they want engagement with the coach.” A female athlete is more likely to hug her coach after winning an Olympic medal than a male athlete, he says, and males sometimes have a tendency to believe that they were the only ones involved with their success. He jokes that men might stand on the podium, beat their chest, and then acknowledge the effort of their coach a few years down the road.
Ultimately, Marsh says, his commitment to coaching is not dependent on whether he is coaching men or women. He sees it as a calling, as an opportunity to build character in people, and a chance to create high standards in the sport: “From the first day I started coaching I knew I was going to be a coach forever.”