Coach Like Abbie Fish

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Fresh from 6am swim practice, Abbie Fish confirms that is, in fact, their real name. It seems too serendipitous for someone who was a 6x Olympic Trials qualifier, NCAA qualifier, 2x USA Junior National Champion, and now a highly successful, sought-after swim coach.

“So many people ask me that, throughout my whole swimming career,” Fish smiles. When I was swimming as a youngster, I would stand behind the blocks and the timers would be kind of looking at me, looking at the time sheet—you could tell they wanted to say something. They'd ask, is your name really ‘Fish’? And as a 10 year old, I’d think why would my name be anything different?”

A few decades later, the name Fish still garners attention in the swimming world. 

Coach Like A. Fish

Fish originally planned to be a physical therapist but, after finishing at their university and missing the athletic environment, Fish turned to coaching. Fish still wasn’t sold - unsure if the lifestyle, male-dominated space, and the constant grind was the right path—and it wasn’t. They might seem like a normal swim coach, but over the course of a decade Fish carefully crafted their own version of being a swim coach. 

Instead of staying within the four walls of their hometown pool in Kentucky, Fish expanded to coach online and use social media to increase their reach. Fish’s TikTok account has an incredible following with over 670 million likes on videos that detail stroke corrections, drills, how-tos, new technology, and tips and tricks for every level of swimmer. “I like the virtual stuff because it allows you to maximize your reach versus just being in a small, local scene,” Fish says. “By using social media, I can talk to and work with a lot of swimmers throughout the day, versus just having 40 of my own swimmers.” 

Think Like A. Fish

Redesigning the coaching work flow in a way that works for them, however, is just the surface of how Fish coaches differently. “One of the things that I was doing when I was younger was thinking it was cookie cutter,” Fish says. At their first coaching job, Fish memorized the given handbook but pretty quickly it became problematic. “I started questioning the advice we were giving people because it was the same advice to every person, no matter what their goals were, how old they were, or what their ability level was. I remember distinctly working with adults and wondering: does this actually make sense to tell this adult to swim with a Straight Arm Freestyle? Especially, if they're trying to swim a 5K in open water? That doesn't really make sense.” 

Questioning the methodology gave Fish a “few big lightbulb moments” and started them on a path grounded in discovery, not dogma. Being a swim coach wasn’t about reciting swimming drills and corrections. “I can still regurgitate that book…but I can also pick out of the 74 pages, which ideas I think are good ideas,” Fish says. After “the book” and working under other coaches, speaking to mentors, and taking her own experience as an elite swimmer and a coach into account, Fish started to gain confidence in their own perspective. “I could take a little bit from this person and a little bit from that person, and then a little bit of what I know, to combine together and give people the best advice.”

Grow Like A. Fish

Perhaps it’s a coming-of-age-like process that many coaches go through but Fish didn’t stop there and that’s what has made them so successful.

“Coaching is an ever-evolving process of you getting better as well,” Fish says. “And realizing that you think you know things but then you really don’t—you keep learning as you keep going. Even now, the way that I thought about things 5, 6, 7 years ago is different from the present day because I've continued to keep an open mind and stuff is evolving. If you're going to be a teacher of something, you have to keep learning and evolving yourself—you still have to be a student.”

It’s a philosophy that Fish especially encourages while working with other coaches. “When I speak at conferences, I always tell coaches just because I'm the one with the microphone doesn't mean that I'm right. You might say something to me that makes me ponder and I can learn just as much from you as you can from me.”

“I think in any realm of sports you have the “greats” or the ones who have already done it. For USA Swimming - it’s Michael Phelp, Katie Ledecky, and Caeleb Dressel - but just because those swimmers always look to be the best — doesn't mean that's the only way to do it or the right way for you to do it. There might be another way to invent the wheel.” 

Adapt Like A. Fish

Fish doesn’t just think having an open mind is the best way to coach, they believe it’s the only way to keep up. “People keep getting faster and I truly believe that you have to keep adapting to continue to get faster,” Fish says. 

“There's a girl in Kentucky from the club team that I grew up swimming with that just broke the national age group record in the hundred backstroke. She went 52 seconds. The best girl on our team in 2008 who was a hundred backstroker was going 56. So 2008 to 2023, that’s 15 years and you're talking a four-second drop with the same age group—that’s crazy. Some of it is natural ability and genetics, but then also the training has changed.”

Fish uses Michael Phelps to explain further. In the 1990’s, underwater dolphin kicking “was never really a thing” but after Michael’s successes, young swimmers on club teams all over the world were then taught how to do a dolphin kick. “These kids have a higher base level of knowledge with technique and they don't even realize it. They're just going through the process which has set them up for new heights.”

Today, advances in swim training are coming more from the implementation of new technology: better underwater cameras, tracking devices, and, of course, custom goggles. “There's more and more wearables and trackers and things that swimmers can wear in the water that give coaches more data versus a stopwatch time, stroke rate, and stroke count. You have more metrics which is super cool.”

“A good part of my job is actually product testing and implementation. How do you actually relay what this product is and teach it to a coach, so they could implement it with their team."

While new technology might give more insight and better informed training, Fish says some coaches and swimmers can be reluctant. Adapting to something new can feel risky, especially when you’re asking them to change something they already know works but, as Fish says, it all comes down to the data and “numbers don’t lie. Fish loves product testing and conducting research for this purpose because if my swimmer wants to question whatever I’m saying, or they don't know if they agree with it - the data makes it not an emotional conversation of what I think. It’s more about: here’s some data, why don't you think about it and these numbers and what makes sense given them all?”

Fish shares data and testing results at conferences and within the coaching realm but also on TikTok to make the information accessible to every swimmer. 

“I want to give the opportunity to swimmers no matter how good they are or where they grew up, access to great swim coaching. Swimming is a very honest sport and numbers do not lie - so if you want to be really good at this sport, let’s deep dive into it.

Create Like A. Fish

It might seem like Fish is all about the metrics, but her open mindset to coaching ensures there is always a holistic and adaptive approach. “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘Training is science, but coaching is art.’ The base around what any coach is doing is scientific but the way we all deliver the message is different and that's the artistic backing of swim coaching.”

The balance between the science and art of coaching is constantly moving and, for Fish, therein lies the beauty and constant intrigue of creating successful swimmers.

“I think it’s really cool to watch other coaches do their thing. How coaches deliver information is interesting because what I say to one swimmer could work or it couldn’t; but, someone else could say the same message in a different way and maybe it clicks with the swimmer—or doesn't and vice versa,” Fish explains. “We are all artists.”

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