A Leader by Example
Michael Collins, head coach of the Irvine Novaquatic Masters, is a guy who can practice what he preaches, he has an illustrious track record as both a coach and an elite athlete.
By Tito Morales
There’s an old saying about the nature of instruction: “Those who can’t do, teach.”
The implication is that the reason why instructors choose to teach is because they themselves weren’t talented enough to make the grade in their chosen field.
However, try running that one past Michael Collins, head coach of the Irvine Novaquatic Masters, and you’re liable to leave the exchange feeling about two inches tall.
On the one hand, Collins, 36, has earned a reputation as being one of the country’s foremost authorities on Masters swimming, he’s written a book on the subject and collected an assortment of prestigious coaching awards.
On the other hand, his USMS career has been punctuated by All-American performances, he’s long been a top-ranked triathlete, and he’s the defending amateur world champion in the aquathon, an event which combines swimming and running.
In other words, this is a guy who can practice what he preaches.
“I just love the pursuit of doing something right,” Collins says.
And, judging from his illustrious track record as both a coach and an elite athlete, doing things “right” has pretty much become second nature to him.
Swapping Board Shorts for a Racing Suit
USMS Coach of the Year, Pacific Masters Coach of the Year, Southern Pacific Masters Coach of the Year, if there’s a coaching award Collins hasn’t yet won during his career, it’s probably only because he hasn’t been eligible for it.
Given his wealth of knowledge about competitive swimming, though, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that Collins was actually a late-comer to the sport. A self-proclaimed “beach rat” while growing up in Southern California, he spent most of his youth paddling after wave sets instead of stroking through main sets. He didn’t even participate in a pool race until high school.
But in what was to become a familiar pattern over the ensuing years, Collins more than made up for lost time by wholeheartedly plunging into the new arena with equal amounts of zeal and determination. He realized that his best chance for success was to become an ardent student of the sport, and to cut straight to the heart of what it took to become a faster swimmer.
“I got to like swimming because it was a combination of hard work ethic and technique,” he says, describing his initial attraction to life between the lanelines. “And the more I kept improving, of course, the more I enjoyed it.” His focused efforts paid off. By the time Collins graduated from Venice High School, he’d not only risen to the rank of team captain, but he’d also earned the Gondoliers’ most valuable swimmer award.
A few years later, Collins duplicated the double honors while competing for Santa Monica City College. While at SMC, he helped lead his team to its only state championship in history and, in the process, set a school record in the 400 yard IM.
That someone with such limited experience could so quickly put together the necessary skills to pull off such a feat in an event as complex as the distance medley not only speaks to Collins’ natural ability, but says even more about his intense drive to succeed.
A Natural Born Leader
Some people, it seems, are just destined to become leaders.
“There are those with knowledge, and those who can transfer that knowledge,” says multi-sport athlete Sarina Lewis, who currently trains with Collins at Nova. “Mike has the rare ability to translate technique and make you understand what you’re supposed to do and why you should do it.”
Collins initially began dabbling in coaching when he was 16. A lifeguard at a summer league facility at the time, he was recruited as an afterthought to help indoctrinate some of the aqua-newbies simply because he was one of the oldest kids available.
Little did he or anyone in the vicinity know at the time that the appointment would turn out to be the genesis of a career which is going on some two decades, and include coaching competitive swimmers at every level from age groupers to collegians to Masters.
While at SMC, Collins had envisioned a career as a draftsman, and he actually spent a year or so hunched over a drawing board designing tools. However, as various coaching jobs began to open up to him, he realized that teaching was something that really appealed to him. It would keep him close to the game, offer him the freedom to pursue his own competitive ambitions, and give him an opportunity to share what he was learning firsthand about the art of training and racing. So instead of devoting himself to tools, he gradually began to shift his focus to designing better athletes.
It was roughly during this period, too, that Collins began to delve into the triathlon. The new three-sport challenge proved to be an ideal fit for someone whose adrenaline and hunger for competition had only glowed brighter with time.
Collins approached triathlon much as he had competitive swimming, like a meticulous researcher intent on learning the disciplines of cycling and running from the inside out. He not only put in the requisite training hours, but he tracked down books and videos, attended clinics and sought out the advice of anyone who he felt could assist him in becoming a premier triathlete.
“Mike is innately athletic,” says Gerry Rodrigues, head coach of UCLA Masters, “but he also educates himself very well in whatever he does. One of his biggest strengths has always been his knowledge base.”
Again, Collins’ thorough plan of attack yielded rapid results. At a time when the sport was becoming mainstream, attracting wave after wave of talented athletes who had their sights set on becoming the next Dave Scott, Collins more than held his own. His specialty became the sprint distance, and he eventually became one of the top professional racers in the country.
Collins notched overall victories in a number of races, including at such competitive venues as Seal Beach, Catalina and Huntington Beach. In 1990, his prowess in the sport earned him a top ten finish at the national championships.
To date, the multi-dimensional Collins has participated in well over 100 triathlon events, including Hawaii’s famous Ironman. Throw in appearances in cycling criterions, mountain bike races, open water swims and USMS meets, and it’s clear that the man whose minivan is forever overflowing with gear and equipment has spent more than a little quality time mixing it up in just about any competition with an entry blank.
A DAM Good Way to Make a Name
In 1989, Collins moved to Davis, Calif., where he took over the helm of the Davis Aquatic Masters (DAM). He’d worked briefly with Clay Evans at Southern California Aquatics, but it was in northern California where he really came into his own as a coach.
Collins’ enthusiasm was infectious, and his training insights gained immediate popularity in the local swimming community. Under his tutelage, the DAM program became the single largest day-to-day Masters entity in the country, rapidly swelling from 350 to 650 members.
“He just has an ability to translate technical information and to break it down into easily understood components,” says Nova Masters swimmer Christen King. “And he’s always giving a good mix of drills and yardage to keep things exciting.”
Collins memorialized some of his workouts and theories on swimming in a book called “A DAM Good Year,” and it was in 1990, at the age of just 22, that his success in Davis earned him USMS’ coveted Coach of the Year award.
“I pretty much started coaching at the Masters level,” Collins recalls. “It’s funny because I was younger than almost everyone I was coaching, and I was not old enough myself to compete at Masters nationals.”
The minimum age for participating at nationals was 25, but Collins went to work to change that. In what was the start of his involvement with the legislative side of the sport, he was one of the leading advocates for instituting the 19-24 age group to the curriculum. Ironically, though, by the time all his lobbying finally bore success, he himself had aged-up to 25, so he never had an opportunity to compete in the category he’d devoted so much of his time to create.
While at Davis, Collins began assistant coaching at UC Davis, where he tutored several national champions and Division II record holders. But Collins yearned for a return to Southern California’s beaches, and it seemed almost inevitable that he would one day migrate back south.
After a stint working with Rodrigues, it was off to Irvine, where he joined 2000 U.S. Olympic team assistant coach Dave Salo and the internationally-renowned Novaquatics program. Within two years in Orange County, Collins grew the organization’s Masters team from 60 athletes to nearly 200.
“I think it’s about creating an atmosphere that people really enjoy being a part of,” Collins says, reluctantly trying to put a finger on how he has been able to expand Masters programs with little more than word-of-mouth advertising. “You have to offer something that isn’t being offered anywhere else.”
Rodrigues, however, believes there’s far more to it than that. “Mike’s a lifer to the sport. There are many coaches and athletes who come and go, but you get the sense that he’s a lifer. People are really attracted to that.”
Part of Collins’ secret as a coach has been a hands-on commitment to his craft.
“At most Masters practices, the coach will give a workout, but they’re not really paying attention or monitoring what’s going on,” he says. “I spend a lot of time with people. When they first start out, it’s practically like private lessons.”
Collins takes his approach to coaching very seriously, and he expects those in his program to accept that.
“If you’re coming to me, it’s because you want to challenge yourself a little bit.”
He winces at the notion of training without purpose, what he refers to as “mindless swimming.”
“I think I run more of an age group style of practice,” he says, referring to an emphasis on stroke drills and technique, “but with a fun atmosphere and a Masters flair.”
“Even though we’re all at different levels, we’ve all been taught specific tools to make us better,” says Lewis, who admits that prior to meeting Collins, she never thought of swimming as a very enjoyable exercise. “He makes it fun. You don’t feel as if you’re just following a black line back and forth across the pool.”
Collins is convinced that it’s never too late to improve, and one of the keys to newfound success is a willingness to diversify one’s approach.
“You’re a pretty one-dimensional person if you think that just yardage is the key to getting faster. You have to find your weak link. Is it diet, a lack of strength or not enough flexibility? The yardage thing is just a tiny speck in the whole picture of what makes you faster.”
Collins encourages even his long-time competitive swimmers to make stroke mechanic changes. He maintains that the newer style of swimming isn’t just for the young. It’s there for the taking by Masters swimmers also, and can have a huge impact on one’s performance.
“You need to be willing to change the way you’re doing things,” he says. “Most swimmers are not going to be able to do more yardage than they did when they were growing up, so you’d better find some other method.”
He estimates that 70 percent of his swimmers compete in at least one to two events per year, be they aquatic or triathlon-oriented, and while he certainly doesn’t discriminate against those who choose not to race, he has long been a proponent of participation in organized athletic events.
“I really do encourage my athletes to compete a little bit so that they somehow test themselves.”
The Process of Reduction
“I don’t consider myself to be a real originator of anything,” Collins insists. “But I am pretty good at taking good ideas and bringing them together.”
His many years of coaching and competing have led him to believe that there are three basic tenets for improving athletic performance at any competitive level, doing the sport right, doing it faster and doing it longer.
Doing it right is all about proper technique, and Collins is of the opinion that most athletes never spend sufficient time mastering the essential skills of their sport before moving on to the stages of developing speed and stamina.
“You need to learn how to do something correctly,” he explains, “and to use less overall energy to do it.”
He advocates literally putting the reins on swimmers, for example, until they’ve retrained their minds and muscle memory to perform more efficiently.
“A lot of what we do incorrectly in swimming is that we’re doing too much,” he says, alluding to inefficient technique which leads to squandered energy and diminished performance. “We need to find ways of doing less.”
Collins says that many of his athletes are not only more physically and mentally fatigued during the initial stages of trying to redesign their form, but also noticeably slower. And because of this, he confesses that his philosophy is one that “not a lot of people buy into.” Eventually, though, as he’s seen time and again, a commitment to change will bring about much stronger results.
Once proper technique is achieved, Collins promises, a doorway will swing open which will allow an athlete to perform faster and with far greater stamina than would have ever been possible under the athlete’s pre-existing methods.
While Collins has had experience coaching swimmers of all ages and abilities, he professes a profound enjoyment in working with Masters athletes.
“Everyone who’s there wants to be there,” he says. “They get out of the pool and thank you for the workout. You’re never going to hear that from a kid.”
Ever the researcher, Collins continues to look forward and to search for additional ways to develop and enhance athletic performance.
He has embraced video analysis, in particular, and with the advent of the new DART technology, which enables the user to load and compare two images side by side, he’s convinced that coaches and athletes alike are truly missing out if they shun innovation.
“It’s such an awesome learning tool for swimmers to be able to compare themselves to an Ian Thorpe, or to compare themselves before and after a lesson,” he says. “I really believe I can get faster results and improvement in a one-hour session than I can with a month of non-video coaching.”
“I’m always asking myself, `Am I teaching these guys something?'” Collins says. “`Am I showing them how to do something right?'”
Given his list of coaching achievements, and the fact that as an athlete he is the quintessential example of someone who is more than capable of leading by example, it’s obvious that the answer to Collins’ self-scrutiny is a resounding, “Yes!”
Tito Morales, a novelist and free-lance writer, is a Masters swimmer who competed collegiately for the University of California at Berkeley.
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