Howard's way wins coaches award

SWIMMING: Earlier this year, Deben Swimming Club's Alastair Howard picked up the coveted annual award for Suffolk's coach of the year. Here, he talks to Debbie Watson about the satisfaction – and the struggle of being head coach.

By Debbie Watson

IT'S early evening on a beautiful spring Saturday and Alastair Howard is just getting home for his first 'night in' in weeks.

Work over, training still 24 hours away and no galas on the calendar for another seven days at least.

This, as his wife would tell you, is a very rare occurrence.

"If there's one thing you've got to have as a coach, it's good time-management skills," said 28-year-old Alastair. "There's a lot of juggling to be done, a lot to fit in and a lot of prioritising to do – especially if this isn't your full-time job."

In fact, though Alastair regularly puts enough hours into his coaching post to make it warrant the label of 'full-time', his post at Deben Swimming Club is essentially in part-time addition to working life as a carpenter.

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Clearly, given his devotion to his swimmers, it makes his dedication all the more admirable.

"I do this purely because I really enjoy it and because there is a great buzz in watching people improve and knowing that you've been a part of it.

"Yes, it takes a lot of time, because aside from all the training, I have to write 24 session plans, attend all sorts of meetings, go to galas and deal with other swimmer and teacher-related matters that affect the club itself.

"But you wouldn't take a coaching post unless you were the sort of person who gains something from that amount of work – and someone whose family is going to understand when you're hardly ever there!"

It was 20 years ago that this towering and conversational coach first experienced the close-knit swimming family that is Deben Swimming Club.

Then, in the days of Woodbridge's much-loved open-air pool, he began his swimming career as a schoolboy competitor on the regional circuit.

He would go on to prove a podium winner at county level, a valuable asset to the club's team, but essentially – a teacher in the making.

"I started teaching on poolside when I was just 13," he said. "One day we were short of a teacher, so I stepped in to help and the very next week that same group became mine permanently.

"It was quite an accidental step really, because I was obviously still in the stages of competing and training regularly.

"In fact, I think I surprised myself by just how much I got out of the teaching – by how satisfying it was to watch someone improve."

That early taste of poolside coaching was to sow the very seeds of Alastair's swimming career.

Very quickly he ticked off the qualifications one by one and carved himself a pathway toward the chief role at Deben Swimming Club.

"I didn't specifically aspire to be the club coach. We've always had a good team of coaches and teachers at the club and I just considered myself a part of all that," said Alastair.

"I did gradually stop training myself to give more time to the teaching – but even so, I was still competing at galas and I really wasn't set on the idea of chief coach...not until the position suddenly became vacant."

Things only began to change when Alastair returned to the club after a year spent at Camp America.

He arrived back to find that the current coach was due to depart and in January 1993, aged just 19, Alastair stepped into the breach.

"It's a big step for any swimmer to take," he admitted. "Even if you've been a teacher and been coaching for a while, it really is very hard to conceive just how much time the role takes up."

With a look of knowing sarcasm, Alastair's wife, Denise, shoots a smiling glance across the room. This is no easy part-time leisure pursuit.

In fact, Alastair regularly puts in a nine-and-a-half hour day at work, before dashing home (or not), then heading to the pool for another round of training with one of the six squads.

By night and at weekends he is also continually reminded of his commitment through a series of galas, numerous meetings, writing of plans – and not forgetting the extra teaching he does for Suffolk Coastal on a Saturday morning.

"I guess I just love it," he said. "That's the only reason you'd willingly juggle so much, but I do get a great sense of satisfaction out of watching people improve and knowing that is a part of what I have helped a child to do.

"I also get a lot out of realising how much the swimming circuit has changed for the better in recent times.

"The times are improving and the clubs are improving – and that's largely because of the great progression that has been made in coaching standards and the information that is globally available for people in my position."

Alastair firmly believes that swimming has moved ahead with great strides.

He is a big advocate of the measures that have been applied in the interest of better competition and teaching.

"Swimming in Suffolk has certainly reached far higher standards in the last few years – and I have the benefit of being able to interpret that as a swimmer and as a coach," he said.

"You can clearly see the improvement in the times among the older age groups and I'm sure that a lot of that comes down to just how much the coaching standard has improved."

He added: "There is far more information for teachers and coaches now. Not only do we have a national teaching plan through which to try to give some uniformity to the way we bring on the youngsters, but we as coaches can get access to information on bio-mechanics, goal setting, nutrition – all the things which were pretty much a mystery when I was swimming."

Like a lot of clubs, Deben faces the constant battle to try to gain more pool time, thus increasing the opportunities for training and helping its swimmers advance through the county and national leagues.

One of Alastair's particular points of satisfaction is that during his time as coach, he has significantly helped to increase this time.

"Over the past nine years we have gained various sessions in the pool amounting to an extra three and a half hours.

"That's very significant in our bid to push our swimmers as high as they can go – and want to go. The fact that we now have two swimmers at national level is surely testament to the fact that these extra hours pay off."

Despite the long days, the late nights, the reams of paperwork and the weary eyes, Alastair refutes any suggestion that he might be ready to side-step this ever-demanding role at the club.

For him, the taste of satisfaction, of achievement and of deep inner fulfilment are clearly worth all the many sacrifices he might have to make.

"When it comes to the point that I feel I have done all I can for the club, then yes, I guess I will start to consider stepping down," he said. "But right now, there is still so much to keep on achieving for and within the club.

"My heart is still firmly with Deben and that's why I give it the hours that I do.

"To be honest, winning the trophy is great, but the real reward is in feeling the satisfaction of knowing you have played a part in the development of someone's talent and enthusiasm for this sport."

And perhaps, fittingly, that attitude is exactly the one which granted him the coaching acclaim he so deserved.

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