Interview with Tyler Fenwick – Associate Coach, Tennessee men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs.
Tyler Fenwick is one of the most recognizable distance coaches in the world, having served as primary coach for multiple US National finalists, US National Champions, Junior World Champions and World Champions.
Prior to arriving in Knoxville, Fenwick served as the Head Men’s National Team Coach for the Mission Viejo Nadadores, a premier Gold Medal club team in California. Read Tyler’s full UT bio here.
Tyler, you’re currently one of the most recognized distance and open water swim coaches in the United States and you have a bright future ahead of you. What got you interested in coaching and why did you decide to make swim coaching into a career?
Tyler Fenwick: A major influence was my family…they’re all teachers! My grandparents, aunts and uncles and my parents have all worked in education. Inevitably, teaching found me, too. The process started early in my life. I began swimming at Germantown Academy in the early 1990’s. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I watched Dick Shoulberg like a hawk. I noticed the genuine way he treated people, his unique approach to the individual and the passion he had for life. It was an amazing learning experience.
Shoulberg’s influence was a huge factor. I love swimming; working with athletes and helping them achieve their goals. Matt Kredich gave me a huge break when he brought me in as a graduate assistant at Tennessee. My second year with the Vols, I was pretty green but he put me in charge of our pro group anyways. It featured US Olympians Christine Magnuson and Davis Tarwater. I was hooked and things really took off from there.
You’ve coached several different age groups and levels of swimmers, What is your coaching philosophy, and does it remain the same regardless of what types of swimmers you are working with?
TF: Regardless of age group or level of ability the tenants of my philosophy remain the same. I have a strong belief in hard work, discipline, order, goal setting, planning and the ability to handle failure. These are ideals that apply to swimming but more importantly, to life. I do not shelter my athletes from challenges or negative situations. I want them feeling prepared regardless of the circumstance. Rarely, do events in life line up the way we expect. I try to immerse my athletes in mental and physical obstacles. They learn to expect the unexpected…and deal with it!
Which coaches have most influenced your own style, and what lessons or guiding principles have you learned from these coaches?
TF: I’ve been fortunate to learn from 3 of the best in Dick Shoulberg, Matt Kredich and Bill Rose. Each has had an immense amount of success in a range of events and forums. They always have a thorough plan, are committed to the highest levels of our sport and share a strong belief in hard work. The magic behind their success is unconditional love for the people in their lives. They have immense respect for humanity, genuinely care about the well-being of their athletes and staff members, while going out of their way to put others first. They inspire loyalty, dedication and passion from the people around them. It’s been a privilege to be a part of each of their programs.
What do you consider to be your proudest achievement, as a swimmer and as a coach?
TF: I was not a very good swimmer. I was Junior National level in the breastroke and I had to work my tail off to get there. It was a great experience to swim through high school and college. As you get older you don’t get to connect with old teammates as frequently as you’d like, but I’d do anything for them. They’ll always be very important to me.
The moments that make me most proud as a coach are when an athlete creates a plan, works toward that plan, overcomes adversity in the process and is able to achieve their goals. When I coached at Mission Viejo, I was always most proud of the fantastic universities my boys went on to attend. I knew the work they put in in the classroom and the pool. I’d make them buy me a t-shirt from their schools. I wore those t-shirts with pride; I was a walking billboard on the pool deck! At Tennessee, it’s a great feeling when a former athlete calls me to talk about a job they’ve landed or a graduate program they’ve been admitted to. Swimming lasts for such a short time, I’m most proud when I see what an athlete has learned from swimming and applies those lessons to lead a successful life.
You’ve been incorporating the Vasa Trainer and Vasa Swim Erg into your swimmers’ workouts for may years. Why do you think swim-specific dryland training is important for coaches & swimmers? Why are coaches interested in this type of training?
TF: Connection to the water is a major factor in swimming fast. An individual has to position their body efficiently while utilizing their strength and power functionally. Swim specific dryland allows you to slow things down, pinpoint or isolate a specific connection and to focus on it. Working on the land is manageable because it’s a fairly controlled environment compared to being immersed in water.
The vast majority of coaches are very interested in swim specific land training. They realize its benefits, enjoy an opportunity to express their creativity and are able to see progress in their athletes. One challenge, especially in college swimming, is the limited background of strength and conditioning coaches. Many are fantastic teachers and understand the fundamentals and intricacies of strength and conditioning, but few have been exposed to swimming. There is also a tremendous amount of turnover with strength and conditioning staffs. You might have an opportunity to train someone and integrate them into your program only to have them replaced soon after. It’s essential that coaches are schooled in the fundamentals of swim specific land training to ensure their strength and condition program remains specific to swimming no matter who is running it.
What are some examples of sets or drills you use on the Vasa Swim Ergometer or Vasa Trainer with your swimmers?
TF: Vasa makes it easy to create variety and maintain steady and appropriate progression. I rotate sets and drills based off of time, repetitions and incline level. It’s important to take an athlete from where they are, forward. Every swimmer, no matter how similar they appear, is in a unique place. Progressions are dependent on the individual.
On the Vasa Trainers, we do a lot of work on our backs. It forces athletes to maintain proper body position and to engage their core. We do reverse freestyle pulls, maintaining a straight body line and raising the toes slightly. We maintain catch holds with a flat back and great posture and do lots of abdominals with our hands on the front bar and toes on the bench.
On the Vasa Swim Ergometers, I like the neuromuscular connection in maintaining form with varied stress levels. We do timed swims to see how far we can go under certain stress levels as well as trying to hit distances on varied intervals.
The Vasa Trainers and the Vasa Swim Ergs allow me to introduce new training opportunities while targeting swim specific movements. Creativity is limitless.
Although you have several Vasa machines for your swimmers’ use, many teams can only afford one or two. How would you advise the coaches on these teams in how to use them most effectively?
TF: Staying within a tight budget is one of the challenges of our sport. I’d love 2-3 times as many Vasa machines as we currently have on deck. One of the advantages of a budget is that it forces a coach and staff to think outside the box. We do a lot of circuit training where the Vasa are part of a larger chain of activities. We love to have our athletes teach each other. The ability to teach something indicates that you have command or understand the skill set. We often see athletes doing sets they’ve come up with on their own before and after practice, on their own time. They’ll take these sets and share them with teammates. That kind of motivation makes my day!
What are some of the most common weaknesses you see in swimmers, and what tools or exercises do you use to correct these weaknesses?
TF: Some common themes that I see are a collapsed elbow on the catch, a lack of connection in the core, low shoulder stability and limited flexibility.
The advantage of the Vasa Trainer is that when placed at little or no incline, it is a tremendous teaching tool. I like to work on the catch at a low incline and then progress gradually with perfect form on pulls. Reverse planks and knee drives are great exercises to target the abdominals. I encourage my distance swimmers especially (because of inflammation typically caused by volume and repetition) to strengthen their rotator cuffs. Shoulder raises at different angles while staying within the scapular plane are fantastic. As with any exercise, progression is critical. An athlete shouldn’t be stressed beyond their capability. Where the Vasa is great for flexibility and extension, we also love having the team do yoga!
What are your goals, both short-term and long-term, for your team at University of Tennessee? And how do you personally see your coaching career develop over the next few years?
TF: We are committed to continuous improvement at Tennessee. Each day we identify ways to become better and enact a plan to improve. That process is motivating! It’s time to hang some more banners in our rafters…it’s been a while. So winning a National Championship is something we are working hard to bring to Rocky Top. Preparing our athletes to compete in Rio is our top priority. The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of our sport and they are our main focus at Tennessee. We have US Open Water Nationals in April which will serve as the first step of a two part Olympic Trial process for our open water swimmers. I am very excited to get to Miromar Lakes.
Personally, I’m glad to be part of one of the most exciting programs in the world. I want to continue to contribute making Knoxville a center of swimming excellence and a breeding ground for progression and new ideas in our sport. We have a constant stream of coaches, athletes, scientists, engineers and thinkers on our pool deck. You never know who is going to be at practice. It’s a fun environment to be part of!