New CALM Head Coach, Gaku Ito sat down with the Waterlog for a short question and answer session:
Tell us something about your swimming background, and how you became involved in coaching.
I was always interested in the water as a young child, and so my mom had us take some lessons in the backyard of a woman’s house where she taught lessons. This was when I was three or five years old in Southern California–I don’t even remember what city or town. Eventually I made my way onto the Glendora swim team, and competed at my first meet just before my sixth birthday. There are still some great pictures of me in my tiny little speedo–I was really small and scrawny back then–but I continued to fall in love with swimming, developed some good friendships along the way. We moved out to La Crescenta, which is in Glendale, still in Southern California where I joined the YMCA team and stayed with that program probably for almost 12 years. I eventually became the captain, and [my mother] took on the role of swim-mom, volunteer board member, Board president in charge of hiring of coaches, and then eventually became a League representative and League volunteer, and finally became league director for the YMCA Swimming League in all of Southern California. I think that is probably the main thing that inspired me to get involved in a way that allows me to give back to the swimming community.
Towards the end of my senior year I determined that I didn’t want to swim in college, but that I was really grateful for the experience and the things that I learned and the people I had gotten to know and the relationships that I’d built with them. Through my mom’s connections and through her volunteerism I was able to meet some coaches in the area where I eventually went to school, Loyola Marymount University, and that’s when I started coaching. I started coaching my freshman year and have been coaching ever since. I started out in the same way that most aquatics staff started: lifeguard, swim lessons, eventually started to take on more of the pre-swim-team kids, and then before long started working with the swim team. I was at the YMCA for five years before determining that if I wanted to continue a career in aquatics and swim teams specifically, that I probably couldn’t stay there much longer–it was hard to see myself building a career out of a YMCA gig.
I had felt so connected to the kids that I was coaching in Westchester, that I couldn’t see myself coaching against them, so I wanted to get out of southern California. For whatever reason I didn’t think of northern Cal right off the bat, so the Alpine Hills Tennis and Swimming Club was actually in the last batch of places that I applied to, and it just so happened that the head coach at the time and I had a lot in common, so we were able to meet when he was down at Junior nationals in Irvine. We interviewed and we had a nice chat and talked about our values as swim coaches, and how you do more than just the coaching–team building, developing–other things that we agreed upon about coaching and coaching jobs.
At Alpine I also had my first opportunity to work with masters, since I was brought on as a full-time coach but didn’t necessarily have the responsibilities that would add up to full-time. They got me involved with masters, and I coached masters three times a week Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and we had a great time–I did a lot of the same things that I still do today.
Do you have a vision for CALM going forward?
That’s a good question. Being honest, what I would prefer to do is continue to get to know the folks who are consistently at practice and receive input from the Board and from Cal Rec and Spencer before really getting deep into the planning of what long-term goals might be. I think right now we’re focused a lot on the short term goals, in terms of stability with coaching staff and finding a practice time schedule that works well for most if not all of our masters.
What I would [eventually] like to see is promoting healthy lifestyles–whether that’s in asking our masters to engage themselves in different types of workouts where they might receive the benefits of full-body training, as opposed to swimming one style/one speed all the time, and to also promote recovery and healthy nutrition habits as best as we can in the frame of masters coaching. I think we all know at some point that your body will benefit more if you enjoy what you’re doing. Sometimes that means working your butt off for an hour or an hour and 15 or an hour and a half, or sometimes that means having a goal–whether it’s to compete in a lake 1-mile swim, or an Alcatraz swim, or participate in the Tahoe relay, or to go to a Masters meet and get a best time or place well in your age group. I think it’s the goal-setting process that can be leveraged into the motivation that would encourage different training or improved training habits and mentalities and attitudes, which I believe could seep into to the greater portion of the team, where maybe more swimmers don’t compete and don’t have competitive goals–and that’s fine–but would benefit from that. On top of all of that, I think I briefly mentioned my desire for community building and promoting culture and learning more about the community that we have and the culture that exists, even if it’s specific to each [workout] hour; there’s definitely a group mentality to every workout…and that’s been part of the fun, but I think bringing folks together more might be an exciting thing that we can try. Certainly with a team our size it’s going to be quite a challenge to get everybody together, but [it’s] something that I would be happy to promote.
Do you have a different approach to coaching Masters vs. age-group swimmers.
Well, I think right off the bat a 1-hour format is so different from what I’m used to, at least with my senior groups that I’ve coached over the past several years. While there are certain formulas that I tend to stick to whether it’s because I like them and I believe they will work–or just out of pure habit I know that it might be okay to get away from those habits and patterns with the masters group. While a lot of the quotes-of-the-day I’ll write on the board are geared towards motivating an individual on a daily basis, there are also quotes about being a part of a larger community, and there also quotes about trying different things in order to find growth within yourself. What I appreciate the most about Masters is that the motivation that you tend to provide age-group swimmers isn’t necessarily something that you need to provide on a consistent basis, or at least in the same way for masters. You tend with masters to get more self-driven individuals. That said, I do like to challenge the Masters to maybe see what they might be capable of in a certain moment or at a certain time of the year, or just in general as opposed to: ‘this is what I usually do, and I don’t feel comfortable pushing myself any further unless I’m asked to.’
So yes, in short, I think what would be the biggest difference is just how you motivate hard work and how you engage adults is different. The second thing would be, I tend to find myself coaching less technique with masters–and that’s probably more so out of a bad habit, rather than the need or desire to do so, and I will say, I really appreciate the masters who pull me aside and ask: hey would you mind looking at my stroke–I think that’s a really healthy question to ask.
Co-inciding with your hire, for the first time we have also created a position for a Lead Assistant coach, and hired Tryn Kaleel to fill it. What’s your take on working with a Lead Assistant coach?
First I’m really excited to have a lead assistant. I believe I’ve performed my best as head coach or even as a lead coach with an assistant by my side, whether on deck in person, or having somebody you can depend on when you’re maybe not on the pool deck at the same time. As a leader it’s hard to be everywhere–I know my schedule won’t allow me to coach every practice, and it’s nice and re-assuring to know that there’s somebody dependable who can competently run a practice on his or her own. With Tryn, and even with any of the other coaches that we have–I know Kendall is another one that I’ve spoken with briefly–I’m excited to see what their strengths are and what they believe are the types of workouts our Masters would enjoy, and which ones will be challenging to them that we might want to try introducing at some point. I am a big believer in team effort, especially when it comes to staffing, and so I’m really looking forward to working closely with the lead assistant and the rest of our assistant coaches. Certainly in my previous roles as a head coach I’ve enjoyed and taken seriously the opportunity to develop other coaches. Sometimes that’s in the form of shadowing on the pool deck during workout, some time with meetings before and after practices. I do believe one of my strengths as a leader is developing staff, so I look forward to that challenge here.
Tryn’s still working on finalizing her schedule … my understanding is that once she’s figured out a routine for herself, then we can figure out where we can plug her in. I’m excited to get somebody else on board because I think we can all appreciate the consistency that a coach who is regularly at practice can bring.
Following on the last question: is your plan to write all workouts yourself, or allow Tryn (and perhaps other assistants) to create workouts for their own deck shifts?
I do not intend to write all the workouts myself–although I’m prepared to; I believe that I have a big enough tool box to regularly write six different types of workouts over the course of the week, and that is because I’ve worked with groups that practice up to 10 times per week, and although those are senior swimmers who have sectionals or junior nationals or maybe even Olympic trial aspirations, I know that a lot of the same strategies that we use to coach them effectively can still be filtered down, or even adjusted to be appropriate for masters.
So I’m playing around with a couple of ideas on my workout manager–I spoke briefly with the Board about using that to make workouts available online–and I’m formulating a draft of an A and a B schedule and we would switch off every week. While the same six workouts can probably be found over the course of a week, the days of the week that those workouts would appear on the schedule would be different, so that folks who might be coming only Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or only Tuesday, Thursday–any pattern of schedule–might be more likely to experience different types of workouts. I do believe in a pattern, I do believe it’s healthy for athletes to have an idea of what they can expect on their way in, so, whether they dread it or are excited about it coming through the door they’re at least mentally or even emotionally prepared to take on that challenge.
I hope to get our assistant coaches, and our lead assistant involved in writing the workouts, one, because I do believe in trying to draw from everybody’s strengths, and, two, I also think it would be unhealthy of our staff to depend too heavily on any one person. We would do well for ourselves to make our assistant coaches feel empowered to bring what they can bring, and are happy and excited to bring to the table. Within the framework of work we’re already doing, it might not be that every coach decides what her or his workout is going to be–there might be a plan that we stick to [for each day of the week], and we might switch that plan every week or two–but it would allow the opportunity for coaches to bring their own interpretation of what that plan is, which gives more variation to what the swimmers experience, and that can only be healthy.
Specifically for coaching a Masters team, what is your philosophy on the balance between distance/sprint/technique and freestyle/stroke in a workout plan?
I tend to think more in terms of aerobic, anaerobic and threshold, and slow swimming, and I love descending sets, and I do believe in mixing energy systems as much as possible–sprint versus sustained effort. So we’ll be playing around with mixing a lot of those concepts and practice types. That said, I think to be a balanced swimmer you want to train in all areas–I think to just train freestyle would be unhealthy. I understand that physical limitations might prevent you from training certain strokes, and I also understand the desire to get in a certain number of laps, which might discourage a swimmer from doing more kicking, or from doing more breaststroke or butterfly. That said, I think it’s healthy for the heart and for the muscles in the body to train at different intensities, even for masters who just want to get their laps in, and furthermore I think it’s fun to get some fast swimming in, even to ask swimmers to see what they’re capable of if they’re giving full effort on a specific distance.
I think that what we’ll try to do is provide the opportunity for there to be plenty of aerobic training where we’re getting in as many yards we can. I’ve heard all sorts of different numbers from the masters so far. I think for an hour swim, our target will generally be between 3000-3500 for the top lanes. For the slower lanes, I would like to get in between maybe 1500-2000 for our slowest lanes. I tend to like to front-load weeks where we do more yardage at the beginning of the week and taper off and increase intensity as the week progresses. I think that supports folks who have a regular work week where they take the weekend off, and can be relatively fresh come Monday or Tuesday, and then, over the course of the work week we can focus more on speed and intensity, and hopefully that’s fun for folks too.
What I’ve heard from folks in their 50s and 60s is their doctor tends to encourage them to do strength conditioning because the body tends to lose muscle as it gets older, and, although one doesn’t usually think of swimming in terms of strength training, I think there is value to doing high intensity and short sprint work–while, of course encouraging them to be okay with not being as fast as they were when they were 20.
Is there anything else you would particularly like the team to know about you?
I hope that it comes off that I’m a fairly positive person–I view myself as very positive–and while it’s masters and it’s not club coaching, and I understand the stakes might be different for each practice than they would be with a club atmosphere, I hope to maintain a positive and encouraging presence on the pool deck. I’ve found that in my coaching career it has served my athletes best–not just as athletes but as people–to make sure that there’s always that presence of positivity. Already we’ve had a few masters notice me smiling when I deliver a very challenging set, and the look on their faces when they accept that challenge–I like to think that means we’ve all done our jobs. I hope that it also comes across that my sense of humor will be a part of my coaching personality on deck. As off-standing or shy as I may seem–and I may be more introverted by nature than extroverted–I do believe that on the pool deck I can be a very open person. So, if there’s ever an instance where any of our masters feel–after maybe feeling they’re not getting enough attention, or maybe it’s just a better day to talk than to swim the whole workout–that I can be there for them, whether it’s to discuss stuff that a swim-nerd like myself might want to go over like Katie Ledecky’s recent world record and the splits she was holding to do that, to talking about different types of techniques for different types of swimmers and athletes, to just talking about every day life for all of us in and out of the water–I’m there for everybody…and then if it lasts over five minutes I’ll probably say something encouraging them to get back off the wall. I’ve been there too, and I’m looking forward to it, and I hope that comes across as well.