Pierre Lafontaine, swim coach at the swimming pool

Pierre Lafontaine - Building a club, community & team for success

Today we speak with Pierre LaFontaine, who has been coaching since 1976. He's a master of motivation currently resides in Ottawa as the head coach of Swim Ottawa.

Today, we talk with Pierre about his passion for fitness, his passion for coaching and swimming, and his passion for community. Stay tuned. It's going to be a fantastic conversation.

The text that follows is an excerpt from our hour long conversation.  The full video interview can be found on our youtube channel and by the link here. The full audio can be found by vis the Spotify link below

Thank you for making time. You've been involved in coaching for five decades. In that time, you've gone from corner to corner of the globe. You've impacted thousands of people. I want to dive into the thick of you and your coaching to get as much out of this as we can.

So what has a lifetime of coaching taught you? That's a big question, and I got to get you to boil it down to some key points, 

I think the number one is we can't make people do things. We have to empower people to do something.

I also believe that I'm not in the swimming business; I'm in the people business. I always felt a lot of the work was to inspire the best out of people and help them dream big. It all fits within the bigger picture; it's not just about swimming better. It's about being a better teammate, being a better person, being a better son and daughter, and, hopefully, being a better world leader tomorrow. We coach kids that you hope to want to get involved in the sports and complete the circle when they are adults, as a volunteer or as a coach or as an official. It's all about the bigger picture, not just the swimming aspect. 

You went literally from teaching swimming lessons to being a world-renowned coach starting in 1976 at Pointe-Claire. 

Tell us about the move to Calgary.

I was trying to help Derek Snelling do his magic. I was there for four years, and I was always trying to out-think the master. If he needed me to help with a senior team, I certainly would do this, but I got hired in 84 to be his assistant coach. Within six months realized that if we're going to build a great team in Calgary, I needed to get more involved with the age-group levels. So I took over the age group program at the same time. 

So what was the trigger for you? How did you realize that you had to go back and make a certain part better to make the system better? 

I became the head coach at the Olympic stadium. We started a swim club with a small group of kids and grew it to 30 kids within a couple of years; we finished ninth at nationals. I remember the amount of work it took to finish ninth; we had to work hard. I went into the Calgary mode more as a head coach wanting to learn to be a better head coach. Derick was one of the best in the world; why not pick Derek's brain to the best that we could. So I was always approaching it with the mindset that if I was a head coach, how would I handle this?

And so those four years with Derek was very much that approach. What else can I do to remove some of the roadblocks for him to coach even better? 

It must've been an exciting time, through 76, 80, 84, 88; those were some glorious times for Canada and swimming.

So leaving. Leaving Calgary, as you said, fine-tuning your skills as a coach and as a head coach and creating a more significant, deeper understanding of what it's required to lead a world-leading club.

Leaving Calgary with your experience that followed, how did your coaching evolve, and how did your look of the athlete evolve? 

That is an excellent question. So I got approached by Dennis Pursley. wanting to build the best swimming club in the world. Dennis had just left Edmonton while I was in Calgary. We had a great rivalry and friendship. They would win the provincial championship by a couple of points, then we would, and it would go back and forth. It was an incredible time; Dennis became the Phoenix Swimming Club head coach, hired Jonty Skinner, and hired me to be the distance coach. I had been there for just a few months when Dennis had become the USA Swimming head coach.  

Gary Hall Sr was the club president and asked me to be the interim head coach of the swim club. We worked well together; the whole Hall family built something pretty cool. It was probably the best environment.

To your question, the environment that we create is probably the most important platform to create the performance. You can create the performance, but you might not see the Michael Phelps or the Ryan Cochrane in your swimming program if the environment is not there. You need to create a great club environment, and the greatness will blossom. An incredible environment where kids want to be there, where they can't wait to get to work out where their teammates are there to challenge them. This is the platform that will create high performance. 

Here is a great example, I moved back to Canada in 2005, my youngest son was cross country skiing up in Gatineau Park with a club called Nakkertok. It was minus 28 degrees outside, and he said, "dad drove me to work out." I'm thinking like; there's no way I'm going to drive this kid. It's pitch black, it's freezing, but he insisted. "I want to go." I thought if this 13-year-old wants to go to workout, there's a reason, So we went, when we arrived, I opened the door in minus 28, and thirty 13 & 14 years old. And the cacophony was incredible. These kids on cross country skis were playing soccer with a beach ball, and they just, they were so excited. I remember thinking, YES!, that's the environment I want my kids in. When the coach creates a platform where kids can't wait to be a workout, this is what creates high performance. It was a sum of all things we try to do across all the swim clubs I was involved with. For example, with the Phoenix swim club, it was a magical place, the environment, and the discussion we had; everybody talked about how to be the best in the world every day. Whether it was the master swimmers or the age-group swimmers themselves, the coaches or the public came for the swimming lesson program. It was the culture.

That's brilliant. Fantastic answer. And I like how you, the points you went into, will come back to the environment a little bit later when we get into some other questions following that journey. Coaching was a journey for you, 1975, you are coaching swimming lessons, 2003, the head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport. That's a journey with a ton you learn along the way. 

You're back running a club; how is running a club and building a team similar to chairing and leading a provincial sporting organization or national sporting organization?

The athletes don't live in silos. They don't train in silos. There's a continuity to their life.  

At the end of it all, we could not have Swimming Canada; we could not have Swim Ontario. The sport of swimming started with kids, families getting together and getting passionate coaches. That's where the sparkles in, in the kids' eyes, will ignite. To me, I think the club is the backbone of anything; the environment with the families is the key. LeBron James said a great in an interview in 2008 or 2012 before the Olympics when someone asked why show up three weeks before the tournament? He responded, "we have to build a family before we build a great team." And I believe that wholeheartedly believe that what we need to create with our clubs is an environment where even the less gifted athlete feels are part of something magical. When I was with swimming Canada, we had 50,000 swimmers, of that; 30 swimmers that go to the Olympics, three medals, there's still 49,970 swimmers across the country that need to feel that they're in a magical place, and coaches create the magic every day.

Thus, the importance of supporting the clubs, the importance of supporting coaches, the importance of being there, and developing the regional excitement and provincial excitement becomes evident. We need to think of that before we think of it at the international level, The everyday parent and young swimmer can't even relate to it. And so we need to create a fantastic club and regional development program. And then, from there, move to the provincial with exciting events, and progress from there, provide variety, you can't keep going to the same meet every year. You need to, you know, partner with other teams of similar size across the country, whether it's online meets now or go South. I mean, we're lucky we're just down the street from, you know, from the US. As soon as that border reopens, we need to build a partnership with similar size clubs for dual meets and make it fun.

Yeah, great answer. And I'm going to dig a little bit deeper on that. Now I'm going to ask you the, how, how do you do that? You talked about the coaches and the role that people play, bringing it right down to the grassroots and the importance of the community. How do we create that community where people want to walk in the door every day and feel they belong where they are? 

A club has to be built with a partnership between a great board and a great coaching staff. It can't be me against them or them against me. And I'm blessed at Swim Ottawa. I have a great partnership with Laurie, Andrea, and Erin; we talk every day about making it better. We understand that when somebody wins when a club wins, we know who wins with us. The high school principal and the high school need to win with us; they need to see that when they allow kids to leave on Friday to go swimming, They are doing great things, and we're building great people, not just swimmers. The city council and, and the pool managers, lifeguards, everybody needs to be part of the success story of this club.

I can't just show up at the pool and be pissed off at the lifeguard because they opened the pool five minutes late; we're all in this together. So the environment, our kids need to go to the pool and feel like everybody welcomes the environment is huge. 

Here's an example for you to see what I mean. When I was at the AIS before the Olympics in 2004, I had a huge barbecue just outside the pool, with the maintenance guys, the staff, the lifeguards, the pool managers with, the greens keepers, everyone. I said, "I want you to come in and meet my swimmers that are going to represent Australia at the Olympics." I introduced each one of them, and I wanted these people to understand that they were part of helping me get these people to do incredible things for Australia and that they were part of it. I came back from the Olympics in 2004, I have goosebumps telling you; I got a note on my computer screen from the maintenance lady. She had asked to come in at 4:30 in the morning instead of five, so she could set up the locker room for the swimmers. So that when they're there at five o'clock, their lockers are clean. Everything's picked up, and she wrote to me coming back from the Olympics, "thank you for making me feel part of your team."

I knew this lady's birthday or her husband's birthday; what she'd like to drink, she was part, they were all part of making this magical environment. I'm trying to do the same thing at Brewer Park with the staff, the City of Ottawa has been incredible in helping us through this pandemic. They've kept some pools open just for the swimming teams. Not just mine, GO, and Nepean; many of the pools were closed, and some of the staff and the upper echelon of the city are incredible at looking for solutions. It was not, no; you can't. It was okay. Well, let's figure it out. At the end of it all, we might have an Olympian or two, but everybody is going to feel like, wow, like I'm welcome in my pool.

To build a great team, you don't need a thousand people as I had in Atlanta; we've got just over a hundred kids. They're incredible people, and I'm blessed that the clubs allow me to do what I do, and I'm excited about it.

Incredible. I got goosebumps when you talked about that story and the maintenance lady coming in and, you know, communicating like how she felt part of the team, I feel like that hit the nail right on the head. It's really about building the family, isn't it? Everybody's involved, and everybody understands the role, and we all work together; it's a genuine human ecosystem.

It is. One of the things I, when I was at swimming in Canada, we saw often and would ask the coaches, "What are you guys doing for the mayor of the city?" Have you sent them a card signed by all the kids at Christmas saying, Hey, thanks for allowing us to use your facility or bottle of wine to the city Councilman or the aquatic manager?

We're a family; we're just, we're not solving world hunger. We're just trying to get kids excited about pushing themselves to their limit. And hopefully, some of them will represent Canada. 

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I find just an offshoot question to that, just you know, or maybe a statement that often we get into.

It almost seems like a habit where most of us say, well, I don't have time for that. You know, like I'd like to do it, but I can't or, you know, like that person said this, so I don't want to do that. Right. And it's, it's removing that level of pettiness and that level of, you know, imposed self urgency to take the time to recognize those that are around you that are genuinely helping to make the magic happen.

Yeah, in life, it's the little things that change the world, everybody coaches, nobody's got the magic pill, some people are good at sprinting or distance, but you know, it's how you make people feel every day that creates the magic. Many years ago, when Paul Bergen was at Etobicoke, he wrote his workouts every day and sent a fax to a bunch of coaches. I remember asking, "Mr. Bergen, why are you giving us all your secrets?" He replied, "Pierre, there are no secrets, it's not, what's written on the paper that makes it work; it's how we relate to our athletes that make it work." I believe that. 

For coaches, your career is a masterclass in the art of patience. Tell me, why is patience necessary for a coach, not only in developing a career but also in developing athletes.

Because we're in the people business, people take a long time to adapt, believe, and see themselves & what they can do. I chased trying to get better, you know, I moved my family around the world, you know, to be better. And they were incredible at following me, I'm blessed with four kids that I'm not sure my running around the world helped save my marriage, but you know, my wife was, was patient with me and you know, what this life happens and, you know, she moved on. Still, life is a sum of experience, and I chased the experience. I look for people that were better than me, I asked a lot of questions; one day, I called Bill Peak, who coached Mary T. Meagher; Bill recently passed away, bless his soul.

 I said, I'm just a young coach at Pointe-Claire, and I want to know what you did with this woman, with this great swimmer. And he was coaching swimming at Old Dominion University, and he took an hour and a half on the phone to talk about what he did with his swimmers.

If you stay humble enough and understand that all you can do is try to help make a difference every day. I got lucky with some good people, I moved from being a swimming coach to CEO; I had an incredible board, Dan Thompson, Brian Johnson, David de Vlieger. Great people that helped me through my growth as a CEO. I wasn't a CEO before. One thing I did before I moved from Australia to take on the role as CEO of Swimming Canada was to define what do I stand for; if I'm going to run an organization, I needed to be clear about what do I stand for?

And the number one thing was I needed to be value-driven like, I needed to make sure that I stood strong on principle and that what was right had to be right; and not cross the line of performance over ethics.

I think people that are in are in my era now I'm willing to help anybody. I, you know, we're just trying to help swimming grow and be Canada, be, be a powerhouse in Canada.

Yeah, great answer. 

So basically boiling it down, here is

Pierre Lafontaine's  list of developing a long-standing coaching career:

  1. Be patient
  2. Ask questions, 
  3. Drive yourself 
  4. Understanding there is no silver bullet
  5. Build a community

If you start leapfrogging kids and groups and so on and segregating and leaving people out of that journey, you're not taking the time to build a community, and you're not setting yourself up for success. 

Yeah, I agree. Some people will progress faster than others. Some people are, are singly minded, I do think with a club then within the country, we need to have programs for the extremely gifted people, but also swimming has to be swimming for all if their high school swimming is the highlight their life good on them. 

 I also think that we have a role to play in Canada is to stop drowning and, you know, Ryan Cochrane did not join swimming to go to the Olympics.

His parents put him in swimming so that he learned to swim and be water safe. And I would say that 50,000 of our swimmers are exactly the same way. So if we can be a country with zero drownings in Canada & everybody under the age of eight knows how to swim, I think we to consider that part of the equation of swimming.

I recently spoke with Alex Baumann; I got a chance to talk to him a few weeks ago. And one of the points that he brought up that resonated with me was the swim Australia vision "to win when it matters to inspire a nation," which is very similar to what you just said.

How important is it for you to win when it matters? 

Let me put it the other way around. If we don't serve the platform to win when it matters, the swimmers that could win won't. We have to create the platform that, if you could win, the pathways there, for us to help you set yourself up to win. I think there's also the platform below that, and nobody wins without an incredible team, whether it's support staff, whether it's another group of people that train underneath you. So thinking that everything's done for one person can't be there.

To create performance in sport and swimming

We need incredible: 

  • Massage therapists
  • Chiropractors
  • Doctors
  • Coaches
  • Support staff 
  • Team managers 
  • Provincial organizations

Who are giving them tools to help them win. If we have people who could win, we need to do everything we can to help them win. And create a club structure and a provincial structure that will allow kids to be the best they could be. 

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I want to point out like there's a common theme in all your answers, and it's all community bringing people together, working together, finding common ground, and understanding how we can achieve more together.

So it's a great message and a lifetime of messaging that you've, you've spread. Something that starts from a conversation is born from an innocent, simple idea. But certainly from this national health and fitness day, all sports will benefit. You get a kid into a basketball gym for the first time or onto a soccer field for the first time, or into the pool for the first time; you're driving more participation in sport. I'm not sure if that wasn't an initial goal, but have you seen, or are you, are you able to talk about that at all?

Have you seen any results in the stats? 

So it's interesting. We're just partnering up with a company now. To help us build those KPIs, but, you know, we see it in terms of the number of communities involved. Now we have over 500 communities that will be opening to rinks and pools, and gyms for free.

I'm not so much looking for KPIs; I'm looking for more and more people, knowing that they're making a difference, more and more partners, knowing that they can make a difference. So that's right now; that's how I'm looking at it. But you know, when we do post-mortem and post-analysis of those days now, more and more, we're going, okay, how could we go with better?

Yes, it is about getting more people involved. It's not just people that could afford skates or expensive hockey sticks like school. The school grounds are where every kid in the country could have access to learning, to play. Bringing the sports back at the school level is crucial, opening the field of play so that anybody new Canadian, rich, poor and disabled, and gifted. Should be able to play outside. A child's job is to play; to me, it's opening the country to play; now we're getting more and more people on bikes; we're getting more and more people into swimming lessons. I want to make sure that every Canadian has a chance to play at every level. If some of them could be great, that's the benefit of getting every Canadian out and about. 

Absolutely. And I guess, you know, sticking with what we've talked about, you get those kids in, and they participate, they're fit. They're happy & part of the community. They have a great experience regardless of where they end up. If they do end up climbing the ladder to the Olympics, they come back to inspire a nation, and that's how we all win. 

It's not who wins, but how many people win with you? We need to recognize all the coaches that ever touched these kids' lives, not just the last person who goes to the Olympics for that. So thanks to all the clubs, the parents, coaches, the presidents, everyone.

That seems to be a critical way that you bring your community, your tribe together

Absolutely. Yeah,, we try always to have our spring camps, our pinnacle camp. We've been doing it now. I started in 2000, and it's been a huge part of our community getting together each year; people look forward to it. I have people that have been coming for many, many, many years it's just a fun week because I think one of the things I can say about Healthy Results is that we don't have egos. You know that's, I think my personality doesn't draw to the person with a huge ego our club is very open to new people.

It's not a clique which is neat. It's what I feel so special about it that we can get people together, maybe because they're not all from the same community, we can have a lot of fun together as a group. 

Absolutely. This interview, Pierre has been a masterclass in community building, club building, and, being in the people business, as you say.

I appreciate you spending the time here and sharing all that information for anybody listening, clubs, parents, kids, coaches, and any final words you'd like to leave? 

Many, many years ago, I saw an interview when I was in Phoenix. It was about a school in Watts, LA.

And the school was one of the worst high schools in LA. They interviewed this principal five years after she became the principal. The question was around What did you do? How did you change this school from being one of the worst to one of the best?  Her response: I have three rules. 

  1. My teachers have to be comfortable with who they were; their self-esteem wasn't going to go up and down with their students' performance; they were comfortable with who they were. 
  2. Number two, they had to love what they did. 
  3. Number three, that the smile all the time.

It's not perfect; coaching swimming or anything for that matter is difficult sometimes, and you know, kids come from everywhere, but you know, we're just trying to help kids dream big, regardless of their level. And I'd love to think that when they walk out of there, whether they were, you know, Olympic champion or just a kid that loves to swim, that they'd go wow, like that was really cool.

And I think if we could go that way, we've done 99% of our job. 

Brilliant. A perfect way to end off this interview, Pierre. I appreciate your time. Thank you for being here. 

Thanks, Jason, for doing this. It's great. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Thanks, Pierre. 

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