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Changing his approach in dealing with athletes has made Mike Thompson a better coach

Posted 2021-08-29

The last five years have seen Mike Thompson change for the better.

In 2016 one of Thompson’s swimmers at the High Performance Centre - Quebec came to him and said things weren’t working.


The swimmer told him he wasn’t connecting with the athletes. His moods were affecting practices.


“At that moment I realized something was wrong,” said Thompson, 42. “I realized the athletes had a hard time telling if I was being sincere. I realized there wasn’t good enough direction of what they needed to do or what I expected them to do. No one really felt they were getting what they should be getting from me.


“If I was angry, everyone would know I was angry. If I would feel happy, everyone would know what was happening.”

It was a wake-up call for Thompson. He did some self evaluation, talked with people, and made personal changes which he believes have improved him as a coach and made him a better person.


“It’s really changed my life, not just my coaching career,” said Thompson.

“I spent the second half of that year really trying to make better connections with the athletes.”

Thompson is one of Swimming Canada’s coaches attending the Tokyo Paralympics. He also was a member of the staff at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto and at two World Para Swimming Championships.


He was Swimming Canada’s Coach of the Year – Paralympic Program in 2019.


Thompson credits his transformation to an understanding of emotional intelligence.


“It’s being able to read the room, understand how to influence who you’re talking to, so that you get what you need from that person,” he said. “More than anything else, strengthening that connection between you and your athletes, your staff and other coaches.”


Thompson said emotional intelligence was “a superpower” he always had, but just didn’t understand how to use.


“I think it was raw, a skill, but I didn’t really know I had,” he said. “What I’ve done in the last two or three years is really leverage that to figure out how to improve it but also how I can use it.”


Previously, Thompson wasn’t interested in feedback. He knew what he wanted done without any debate.


“In reality there’s a better discussion to have, a deeper understanding that I can have,” he said. “Doing things that way really enhanced the trust between the athletes and me.


“I’m dealing with the person rather than just the athlete.”


An example of how things have changed for Thompson came when Aurelie Rivard, an Olympic and world champion, decided to leave the centre in Montreal to work with coach Marc-Andre Pelletier in Quebec City.


“Five years ago if that were to happen, probably I would have been pretty pissed off and I probably wouldn’t talk to her again,” said Thompson.

“When it happened were both upset, we both sat down. We both shed some tears and hugged it out and talked about it. When she left there was no bad blood.”


Rivard and Thompson talked and shared a few laughs as the team trained for the Paralympics.


“That’s a really easy thing for me to do is just understand there’s no threat,” he said. “We’ll move on and continue to have a connection and continue to have a relationship.”


Thompson swam competitively for 16 years. He did some coaching while working different office jobs.


“I just wasn’t happy working in an office,” he said. “I was working with a small club. We had some really good success with younger athletes.”

He got the chance to be head coach at a program in Georgetown, Ont., and moved through the ranks.

Thompson was named the first head coach of Swimming Canada’s Para-swimming Intensive Training Program _ Quebec in 2015 which was later upgraded to a high-performance centre.


Having coached in Rio, Thompson is one of the veterans on the Para-swimming staff.


“I like being a veteran,” he said. “I like being the guy that people can call on for help, but I’m not insisting on it.


“If anyone needs it, I’m happy for them to come and ask questions.”

The head coach at a high-performance centre for Para-swimmers faces different challenges than the coaches at centres that train Olympic swimmers.


“Pretty much every athlete that makes it to the top level on the Olympic side is what I want to say is a finished product,” said Thompson. “They have good strokes at that point.


“Some people in the Paralympics will change classes halfway through their career. All of a sudden the stroke that they were doing is no longer legal. All a sudden the event they have been doing is now double the distance.”
Thompson’s group has 12 people with nine different impairments. That mean’s nine different appropriate volumes of work and athletes training for nine different events.


“I don’t think there are very many people that are patient enough to handle it,” said Thompson. “I didn’t think patience is my strong suit but . . . it does require a great deal of patience and concentration to be able to make your way through and learn fast enough to accommodate all the different athletes we have.


“It’s the fun part for me. It’s what attracted me to the job. Not everybody can do the same thing. You really have to use your brain and be creative.”

Dealing with COVID-19 has demanded both swimmers and coaches be persistent and creative. The global pandemic forced the Paralympics to be postponed a year. The training centre was shut down then re-opened with restrictions.


Just having athletes compete in Tokyo is a victory for Thompson.

“This year was exceptionally hard,” he said. “I’m really happy that we’ve made it this far.


“I really just want to get through this because it would mean more to me to get through the summer with everybody unscathed than come back with a gold medal.”


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