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Freestylin’: Coach Teri McKeever on How to Swim Like a Girl

January 10, 2019
by Kelly Dunleavy O'Mara

From her office in Haas Pavilion, Teri McKeever can look down on Spieker pool. She’s been known to yell out the windows if things aren’t going the way she wants—just one of the many ways she’s distinguished herself over three decades of coaching at Cal.

The 27-year head coach of the UC Berkeley women’s swimming and diving team is one of the most successful coaches in the sport. She’s won four national NCAA titles, and her team has been in the top three ten years in a row. She’s coached 26 Olympians, including Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin, and Dana Vollmer. She was the first woman to be named head coach of the Olympic team and has served as assistant or head coach for the national team at the Olympics and World Championships many times.

But she’s most known for her quirky coaching style—having her athletes dance and body surf and jump rope—and for rehabbing burned out swimmers, like Coughlin, with an intellectual and unique approach.

“The workout is the easy part,” she said. But refining the craft of coaching has taken her a lifetime.

“I’m in charge of four hours of the 24, and you’re in charge of 20. Who has more influence on what your performance could be?”

She’s Been a Head Coach Her Whole Life

Growing up, McKeever swam in a pool her father built in the family’s backyard. Her mother coached her, but with ten kids in the family things could get a bit hectic. “It wasn’t a set time for practice or a set length of time or whatever,” she said. They just had to made it work.

McKeever sitting next to a pool
McKeever in the 1992-93 season // Photo courtesy of Cal Athletics

The training was all about collaboration, and the unpredictable schedule forced McKeever to take responsibility for her own workouts. Her mother, Judy, had also been a competitive swimmer, but she had to stop when she got to college because there wasn’t a team for women. She became a P.E. teacher instead, and for McKeever and her siblings, sports were practically a requirement.

As the oldest, McKeever was also responsible for helping the family operate smoothly. After her father died in a car accident when she was just six years old, her mother remarried and the family grew—a lot. That meant if someone was playing softball, someone else was running the snack shack. Everyone had to pitch in, and McKeever wrangled the crew. The day McKeever turned 16, she got her driver’s license and a credit card and took her siblings shopping to get clothes.

“I look at it as I’ve been a head coach or a coach for my whole life,” she said.

Despite the chaos, her informal training must have worked. When McKeever got to college at USC and finally began swimming in an official program with a professional coach, she didn’t get much faster—even with all the extra resources. “It made me start looking at why is that?” she said.

That question shaped much of her coaching philosophy.

Training to Perform

Back in the 1970s and 80s, swim training was all about volume. It was a “badge of honor,” said McKeever to do monster sets and huge amounts of yards. “But you don’t get awards for doing sets,” she said.

“I became a really good trainer and I didn’t really perform much better,” she said. But the goal isn’t to train well. The goal is to win races. “We should be training to perform.”

McKeever high-fiving an athlete
Photo courtesy of John Polzer, 2017

Now, at Cal, she’s known for her unique workouts and holistic training that often occurs outside the pool. The team works out on indoor rowing machines, known as ergs, and practices body awareness techniques that include dancing, yoga, and Pilates. During her summer training camps, McKeever has her swimmers body surf. During the regular season, her athletes have team-building meetings. And they all take two days off each week—something McKeever jokes is considered “ground-breaking” in the swimming world.

Just doing yoga or jumping rope isn’t the point—they could jump rope for hours and still not become Olympic-caliber swimmers. By taking them out of the pool, however, where so many elite swimmers get set in their ways, McKeever forces them to examine their tendencies, their self-talk, their weaknesses. They have to practice what they want to be good at in races, like streamlining off the wall or perfecting their stroke; they have to practice performing after failing a test, say, or breaking up with a boyfriend. There are also specific things she has her swimmers focus on when they’re jumping rope or body surfing. Like what, you ask? For that, you’ll have to wait for the book she plans to write.

In the meantime, here’s her bedrock philosophy: Her athletes have to buy in. They to take ownership of their own training, just like she did.

There are two kinds of athletes, said McKeever: those who want to just be told what to do and those who want to learn along the way. She wants the second kind.

“I’m in charge of four hours of the 24, and you’re in charge of 20. Who has more influence on what your performance could be?”

Like a Girl

McKeever was the first female head coach of the U.S. Olympic team and she knows she’s had a harder path as a woman, especially 30 years ago when she first started coaching.

Today, most swimming programs are coed. The men’s and women’s team are coached by one head coach with a handful of assistants, which usually means a male head coach with some female assistants—a system that often leads to female assistant coaches doing much of the logistical work with little management opportunity. There are fewer opportunities; women might only have one shot at the head job, which statistically isn’t true for male coaches. “If you get fired, you’re not gonna get another head job,” she said. “Women will fail out. I’ve seen that over and over again.”

McKeever coaching
Photo courtesy of Al Sermeno, 2016

There are also the societal pressures women face: the need for a supportive partner; the expectation that they will put their life on hold for the sake of their job. As McKeever said, referring to herself in the third person, “I didn’t really take very good care of Teri until she was 35 or 37.”

One sacrifice stands out. “I’ve done so many amazing things in my life and there’s only one regret I have,” she said. “If you would have told me I would never have children of my own, I could never even imagine that.”

She hasn’t coached men—other than the odd post-grad—in years, but no good coach, she said, would treat female and male athletes the same. While men’s teams are often result-driven, the women tend to focus on the inter-team dynamics, sometimes pushing themselves too hard to not let down their teammates.

“What I finally realized is my job’s just to be the best version of Teri.”

But, for that reason, women’s teams can also can get a bad reputation for being catty. Which isn’t totally fair, McKeever said.

“People always say, ‘Oh, well, women’s teams, they have drama.’ A men’s team has drama, and if they say they don’t, they’re not being honest. And why is that bad? Because drama and conflict and people being passionate about something—isn’t that what you want?”

Be the Best Version of Teri

McKeever originally wanted to be a fifth-grade teacher. In fact, she was a student-teacher when she fell into coaching. Her school needed a JV volleyball coach, and while she didn’t know anything about volleyball, she did know about athletes. She bought a book to learn the game, then later took on basketball and finally swimming. A few years after graduating, she asked her old USC swimming coach if he needed an assistant and went back to get her master’s. She was then offered the head coaching job at Fresno State and jumped on it. She knew how to train athletes, and under her mentorship they got faster.

It wasn’t until she accepted the women’s head coaching job at UC Berkeley in 1992 that she felt like she was in over her head. It was a different caliber of athleticism. And there was a perception that she had gotten the job only because she was a woman, at a time when there were even fewer female coaches than now. “I definitely was nervous people were going to find out I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

She thought she had to change her style in order to coach like the other top coaches, the big names she saw at clinics and conferences. “And who are 99 percent of those people? They’re men, and they’re saying, ‘This is what you have to do to have this level of success.’ So, I was really trying to be an inferior version of them instead of just doing what I had done before, which is be Teri,” she said.

Her first years at Cal were a struggle. She questioned herself and fought with her assistant coach at the time. She didn’t want to ask for help. For five years, in fact, she didn’t ask Nort Thornton, the men’s coach and two-time national coach of the year, a single question—even though he was part of the reason she wanted the job in the first place. Finally, she got to a point where it was so bad she knew she had to ask for help.

“What I finally realized is my job’s just to be the best version of Teri,” she said.

Always Learning

When she was a young Cal coach, McKeever thought she had to recruit students just because they were fast, but eventually she realized fast athletes weren’t necessarily the best athletes for her style of coaching. “I’m not the right coach for everyone,” she said.

Everyone who is capable of swimming at Cal has already been training for 10 years. So those who choose to swim at Cal, “want to look at their swimming a little bit differently,” she said.

McKeever hugging an athlete
Photo courtesy of John Polzer, 2017

“You already have a bachelor’s, so to speak, in swimming because you’re at a very high level, or we wouldn’t be interested in you. What I’m trying to do is help you get your master’s or your Ph.D.”

Twice monthly her team meets for a kind of workshop retreat. At a recent one, she challenged the women to think of someone important in their lives and give them a spur-of-the-moment phone call. One swimmer came back happy—she’d called her godmother, and they’d had a great conversation. Another came to McKeever upset—she’d called her grandmother, who had been diagnosed with dementia, and the conversation was really painful. It wasn’t exactly what McKeever had planned, and she had to improvise a little to help the swimmer work through her distress.

“I’m learning stuff, right? I’m learning stuff about them, and then it’s just continually teaching. If something’s not right or something comes up, it’s what I call teaching moments.”

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