In the early days, my rock moves rocked (and they still do).

My swimming instructor, when I was six, got us to line up at the deep end of the 25m pool (it was an indoor pool near where we lived but not our local pool). Being the youngest of the class which also had my nine year old sister, I simply had to do everything first. The instructor told me to touch my toes and as I did so, he pushed me from my backside into the water. I got a snot full of water and choked terribly on my flailing way back to the safety of the side of the pool. Needless to say, I hated swimming lessons.

This cat is what I looked like trying to dive into a pool (if the cat was also holding its nose).

This cat is what I looked like trying to dive into a pool (if the cat was also holding its nose).

As a 13year old, I was great at backstroke because I didn’t have to dive (there were very few kids in those days doing back dives). Anything else though, I was well back in the field because I either started in the water or held my nose diving which looked more like a cat trying to resist gravity and going in legs first.

The family that lived back to back with us were very much into the local swim club – all their kids were super tall and pretty much built to swim. Their mum, Joan, was the swim club treasurer but like my mum, Joan wore several hats. Joan and my mum were also friends through volunteering with our marching band and the local girl guides unit – needless to say, they were like extended family. Joan had noticed that although I couldn’t dive, I was an ok swimmer and had seen me as a ‘six’ leader in the brownies (the little groups in each unit), so suggested to my mum that I might be a good swim teacher. 

In those days, the local council ran the swim lessons. Instructors were volunteers and the lessons were free – can you imagine?? I’m not sure of the quality of my teaching then, but I really enjoyed it (even on the cold rainy days – it was an outdoor facility). One thing that stuck in my mind was how the kids parroted me, even after the lesson was finished and they were showing their parents what they had learned. It seemed strange to me at the time (I was 13 after all) that they didn’t get all that I’d shown them and they’d pretty much all got something different which meant the following week I’d have to do the same lesson again and then the next week and so on until they got all the points I was trying to convey.

I could see it was getting boring towards the end of term, so I started to mix it up adding dance moves into the lesson. Thankfully, the kids were too young to know any dance moves because I was making it up on the spot, but they did all like thinking they were rockstars and very soon, their fake rockstar moves translated into forward propulsion in the water. After the Christmas break, I was in demand as a teacher despite being the youngest teacher there.

I used to loathe our school swim carnivals – if only I could go back and do them now! This was my local pool growing up – we were so lucky to have such a nice facility.

I used to loathe our school swim carnivals – if only I could go back and do them now! This was my local pool growing up – we were so lucky to have such a nice facility.

Derek Zoolander doing Blue Steel

Derek Zoolander and his trademark pose “Blue Steel” – when I ask the guys to do this pose they almost always do it looking over their shoulder which is exactly what I want to help them achieve body rotation.

I still use my rockstar moves although many have changed names from things like the “pop tree” to “rocket ship” when I work with kids or “streamline push off the wall” when I work with adults. New ones that have stuck though are Michael Jackson’sMoonwalk’ when I work on people’s kick and Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ and (to help the guys) Zoolander’s Blue Steel (pictured below) when working on body rotation and breathing. It makes sessions a lot of fun and with it brings marked progression in short timeframes for guys and girls!

 Now, all my sessions are tailored around my best offering to the group I have in front of me. I still write my lesson plans or drag out old ones, but I’ll pull aside different people at different times and get them to focus on an element of the set – i.e. reaching longer, moving their hips, timing of their breathing etc. Regardless of the set, something can always be added to it to improve their strokes, and they always get homework no matter what their age!

Why coach?

There are two elements to that question – one, my nickname is Coach McFi because at an old workplace there was another Fiona and she was already there when I arrived, so having a surname that started with Mc, I became McFi and when I am coaching, some people have extended that to be CoachMcFi. The second element is why do I coach? For that readers, strap yourself in because I’m not sure I’ll be able to give all the reasons!

Let me give you some examples of why not to coach – which is what is often used as a topic opener for people talking to me about this. Marion Jones, Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and others have all individually brought sport into disrepute. The AFL and NRL teams with their salary cap breaches, the current issues with the Australian Swim team’s performance in London after poor athlete behaviour disrupting the camp, the four doubles badminton teams that were thrown out of the London Olympics for match fixing – something that was described as cheating on the holiest of sports events. The ongoing investigation into drugs in sport in Australia which has tarred us all with a dark brush is something I have to admit makes me very cautious as to my next steps in a field of work that I love so much – I should graduate next year from a degree in coaching and exercise science but do I really want to make the jump out of my current career into one that is much less stable and will at best halve my pay?

If people are going to be so underhanded, if the pay is so crap unless you’re at the top, if the hours are so long and for many it’s done on top of working at their primary income source, if you face abuse (despite not being tolerated in sport) from parents/partners/athletes/spectators, why be involved at all? Let me share some stories that are my why’s….

Last week a colleague of mine at work posted a basketball video on facebook that made me cry. Happy tears, not sad ones because the video was so touching (if you have a couple of minutes just now, please watch it before reading on). Moments like the one in the video where all barriers life presents us with are completely torn down often give me the strength to get through the tough times that arise.

Bilbys Civic Squad

Three ladies I recently worked with on their swim technique – I got back as much from them as I hope they did from me and I’m really looking forward to now taking their squad long term again.

Two weeks ago, I was filling in for another coach with triathletes doing swim training (my strength as a coach). In one of the lanes was the three ladies pictured below – mother & daughter on the outside who had just started with our club and one of our graduates from this season’s novice program. They can all swim, they all race and they can all get through a 90min training session with us. All of them though have the hunger for self improvement (and let’s face it, if you can spend less time swimming in the lake in Canberra, all the better!). Without wanting this to sound like an advert, I know I can help them. I don’t know how I know the best way to communicate to them refinements in their technique, it just happens but as you can see from their cheesy grins (lucky you can’t see mine behind my iPhone) they were willing to also help me by posing for this post.

I have met many people along the way through our novice program and I feel very privileged to have been an element of their successes in life. My last house mate and my current one I met through swim clinics for triathlon and like many of our friends, they are like family to me now. There are also people who inspire me – a few years back, Phil started novice 6 months after giving up smoking which he’d done I think for over 20 years. As if that achievement wasn’t enough, he went from not being able to swim five meters in the pool (roughly from the wall to the flags – I honestly remember at one point thinking I was going to have to dive in clothes and all to assist him) to competing in sprint triathlons which have a 750m swim.During the program he was posting some really funny blogs (you may need to click on the blog tab) on our old club website which I’m not sure if he knew but it’s helped not only novices in his program who were facing the same challenges, but also ones since who went looking for information to see if they were doing something wrong and that’s why they were finding the program so challenging. At the end of his program, Phil posted an article titled “SAD”:

…I will post later about future goals for me – this is just a start I hope – but at this time sincere and heartfelt thanks to all the coaches who have taken us this far – Garry especially! The others are too numerous to name, you are all great – but a personal thank you to Fiona for teaching me to swim – i owe you a beer when you return from sunny Europe   Cheers to you all, Phil.      

It still swells my heart and gets me all full of pride. Phil lost an extreme amount of weight over the program and the following years, went on to longer distance triathlons (pretty sure he even did a half ironman) until his progression in his professional life took off with the new found zest he had for his whole life. When Phil gave up smoking and started this journey, I doubt he had any idea of where it would take him and the impact he’d have on other people.

Another story is of a female triathlete (I won’t mention her name because I am conscious she doesn’t like limelight despite how incredible she is), who came into our program barely able to walk because of her size. She told me she took on the challenge of the program to shut her mother up – her mother was badgering her to make friends. This lady was in her 40’s, single, introverted but happy – or, as she told me later, so she thought. The program was based around helping people from all walks of life to complete a triathlon. In that year, we had people who were ex-pro athletes from other sports and the age range was from late teens through to early 60’s. Possibly the most diverse group we’d had but that is one of the many reasons I love coaching it.

By the end of the program, this lady had not only completed her first of then to be many triathlons, she’d made friends outside her work. She was getting out more and her mother was relieved to find she was having to call her on the mobile rather than house phone to get in touch. I am so not claiming it was all me, but I’m happy to know I helped facilitate a change that led to this lady leading what she described as a self imposed oppressed life into one where she felt like she now could try out many more things. She now races at events up and down the coast – she always thought she was too fat to go to the beach but when she’s racing she’s part of something and feels she has a place there and has even now tried snorkelling, surfing and sailing. 

This is just a few examples of how becoming physically active has positively altered the lives of others. Not everyone is nice but I figure they’re just different to me and they will find a coach somewhere that is perfect for them. Just like the volunteer work I’ve done with Cure Cancer Australia, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army or serving in the Royal Australian Navy and soon I will serve the community in the Rural Fire Service, coaching for me is about serving others to help them in their life journey and in return I gain self satisfaction and learn so much from them….this last part, is a whole other post!