CASE STUDY - Tide Swimming

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Tide Swimming is a Silver Medal Club with USA Swimming located in Tidewater Virginia. They have programs from beginner up to Masters with 530 swimmers. In the 2019-20 year, they had their highest finish ever at Junior Nationals (11th in the combined team scores) and has qualified 4 high schoolers to compete in the 2020 Olympic Trials in Omaha. Tide has a wonderful Board led by Katy Wilson-Arris and an excellent group of coaches led by Richard Hunter, well supported by Jack Roach who provides a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.

Katy and I grew up swimming together and have kept in touch off and on throughout the years. In 2018, we started talking about how to move Tide to what she referred to as “the next level”. The team had been experiencing strong membership growth and was achieving success unlike they had seen in the past. The “next level” to Katy meant to intentionally create a plan that deepened their investment in their coaches, ensured they had the right processes in place, and ensured the Coaches and the Board were working as one. All of that meant they needed a strategic direction.


I had a few sessions with Katy, Jennie Carder (Executive Director), Richard Hunter (Head Coach), and Jack Roach (Director of Coach and Athlete Development). During these sessions, we ironed out what we felt was the best approach. We decided to kick-off the process by doing an anonymous survey of the coaches. Then we agreed we would come together for two weeks to plan the direction of Tide and how they were going to reach their goals. To Tide’s credit, they wanted to be inclusive so those two weeks would involve 5 Lead Coaches, Jennie, and Katy. In addition, to ensure there was true transparency, the Lead Coaches were to present their findings and solutions to the entire coaching staff each week and to the Board at the end of our working together.

Week One

In week one we reviewed the results from the anonymous survey. Some of the results were as expected, some were eye-opening. One of the biggest areas of concern was that not many of the coaches felt they were heard or valued at Tide. Just like many clubs, Tide leadership felt overall their communication was solid only to find out that it was not quite as good as they thought. The leadership took the information well and were eager to find ways to address deficit areas.

From there we spent the remainder of the week codifying the culture and standards that the coaching leadership had been practicing the past three years so it could be clearly communicated to the rest of the coaches and its members. We clearly defined the club’s Vision and Values as well as establishing the Behaviors that needed to take place to reach their Vision. Behaviors that can be modeled whether you are a coach, swimmer, parent, or board member.

The last item we tackled in week one was to develop an organizational chart so there were clear reporting relationships and reasonable spans of control for managers. This ensured every staff member had a touchpoint monthly with a direct supervisor, which meant communication was clear from top to bottom and back up again. That “back up again” is essential to living the club values as it ensures that everyone is heard and solidifies their purpose in the club.

We ended week one where the Leadership team shared the survey results with all the coaches to show they were listening to what the coaches had to say. Then they not only presented the Vision, Values, and Behaviors, but they also gave examples of how to embed them in daily activity. Then they finished their presentation by laying out the new organizational structure. The coaching staff were engaged and motivated to see the changes. They also felt comfortable speaking up and offering their thoughts. What a wonderful end to week one.

Week Two

During week two we worked to put together a professional development plan for all coaches. They had some structure in place to evaluate coaches, but it was spotty in terms of follow-through and there was minimal institutional knowledge on how to manage people. Together we built an evaluation framework that drove coach performance, which would then drive swimmer performance and happy members.

We also developed a cadence to their meeting schedule that ensured proper communication, planning, learning, and focus was given to areas of need. During the second week, we also discussed appropriate management practices to get the best out of all staff, even including a discussion on difficult conversations. A lot of coaches have not had the opportunity to learn such skills, but they are necessary to drive excellence in performance.

At the end of week two, there was another presentation to all the coaches where the Leadership explained the different avenues for growth within the sport of swimming. They further explained how each coach is responsible for setting their own goals and trajectory, but Tide would work to support them both internally and externally. They also discussed how they devised a monthly meeting structure and cadence to ensure every age group is covered and addressed. Again, this was met with great enthusiasm.

The very last meeting of our time together was where the Leadership presented all their work and decisions to the full Board. As an observer, it was excellent to see the smiles on everyone’s faces as the Leadership team unfolded their plan. All could feel the enthusiasm and see the well thought out direction; everyone was on board.

If you fast forward a year and a half later, where everything has been turned upside down due to COVID-19 and where a lot of other clubs have had to close their doors, Tide is in a good position. They have a structure and a solid understanding of where they could and needed to adjust due to stay at home orders. They had a Board and a Leadership team that made the hard decisions together. Tide was able to act methodically and purposefully giving them confidence during an uncertain time.

For me, as a consultant, I could not be prouder of Tide. They took on the challenge of not settling for their status quo, which would have been easy enough given how they were growing in swimming notoriety.

They chose to look deeper and recognize that a better club operationally meant better swimmers and happier members. It meant they were turning out young adults with values and purpose. It meant they would grow coaches, who may move on, but the investment in their skills is beneficial to all. It meant through dedication they would live their Vision, “Building Champions in Life Through the Sport of Swimming.”

Direct Quotes from some of the Leadership Team:

Tide Swimming Executive Director, Jennie Carder said, “Our team has grown to 7 locations, 12 full-time staff, and 20+ part time staff, and we have no office space in which to regularly convene. That growth and structure alone creates a challenging dynamic in terms of managing staff. The opportunity to come together as a leadership team and step out of our day to day operations to define our Vision, Values, and Behaviors was time well spent and an investment in our team’s future.

Renata was an excellent discussion leader and facilitator. She asked the tough questions which helped us to hone in on what we truly value and what we want to see for the future of TIDE.”

Head Coach Richard Hunter said, “Prior to the work I did not have a clear idea of how as a Head Coach of a team of 30+ coaches I was able to best serve them. The organizational chart gave me a clear idea of which coaches I was directly responsible for managing at the same time it was also clear that the structure allowed for functional collaboration outside of reporting relationships. The work also brought clarity to all of the leadership roles which helps with communication as well as responsibility and accountability.”

Katy Arris-Wilson stated, “It’s been my experience that most sports clubs – not just swimming – hire a coach, throw him or her on the deck or on the field and then say , “go coach.” The sports clubs, particularly the youth sports clubs, do very little in terms of professional development and evaluation and in the end, it’s the parents and kids who then suffer from a sub par experience. At Tide we want to be better than that. We want our coaches to feel valued and one way is to systematically give them feedback and support them in their own professional development. We believe that, along with competitively compensating coaches and providing benefits, is the best way to ensure our parents and kids have a great experience at Tide.”

Jack Roach explained, “If we get the Vision, Values, and Behaviors right, it answers every question any stakeholder might have about how and why we do things at Tide. I feel really good about what we came up with and how it represents what we do.” He added, “sport has a unique and special place in society and it’s important that it’s done the right way. Every problem our world encounters in the coming years – scientific, economic, political – is going to be solved not by one person but by teams of people working together. By the time a child starts at Tide as a youngster and then leaves Tide to go to college, they essentially have earned a Ph.D. in the team. They know exactly what a good teammate is and what a bad teammate is and those are skills that will serve them and our community for the rest of their lives.”