10 Ways Coach Bruce Gemmell Helps Katie Ledecky Win

While we’re not all Olympic athletes, we can all use a good coach to help us achieve our goals.

So, what makes a good coach? How do they help their clients grow, achieve and succeed?

A Passion For Coaching

It’s often said that great writers don’t want to write, they have to write.

Same thing with good coaches. A good coach lives to help people develop from better to best.

At this summer’s Rio Olympics, Katie Ledecky became the first swimmer to win the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyle at the same Olympics since 1968.

Oh, yeah. She’s also broken 13 world records.

Simply astounding.

Beyond her extraordinary talent, dedication and work ethic, she also has the help of a good coach—design engineer Bruce Gemmell.

After years of success in the corporate world (which includes 11 design patents), Gemmell reached a crossroads. He had been coaching swimming part-time, fitting practices sessions and meets around his already packed work schedule.

But the pool kept calling, and the yearning to commit to full-time coaching eventually won out.

As Gemmell says in this pre-Rio New York Times feature story, “If I’m driving to work in the morning and I see a Siemens truck go by, I think: ‘Oh, I could still be working for them,’ and then, ‘Oh, I’m glad that I’m not still working for them.’”

A good coach’s zeal to teach and inspire isn’t negotiable. It’s as necessary to his or her wellbeing as food and shelter.

This passion, combined with a higher purpose, not only drives the coach, but also supplies a powerful daily model for the client.

Purpose > Everything Else

A good coach helps you tap into your purpose.

Knowing and living out your purpose is like driving through life on the Autobahn in one of these.

Conversely, not living out your purpose keeps you puttering in the school zone day after day at 20 mph.

When you’re fueled by a higher purpose, you simply can’t be defeated. Setbacks and detours are merely that—setbacks and detours. You stay alert, learn along the way and come out the other end stronger, smarter and exponentially more fulfilled.

Consider this: Gemmell used his own vacation time to coach Ledecky before he made the switch to full-time coaching.

Now, that’s purpose.

Good coaches find a way to live out their life purpose. In turn, they help you discover and focus your own.

Combine Different Disciplines In Novel Ways

Regardless of your vocation, every new day provides an opportunity to gain perspective and innovate.

As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Major league pitching coaches with psychology degrees whose throwing mechanics theories crossover entire sports.

Head football coaches who’ve also run billion dollar companies.

Three-time “Coach of the Year” Olympic swim coaches.

Good coaches help connect seemingly disparate ideas to enhance understanding and give you an edge.

Focus on Natural Talent

Over 7,454,958,000 people live on our planet, and every single person has specific, innate talents. A good coach helps clients catch this personal lightning in a bottle.

Unfortunately, many people struggle articulating their strengths, much less use them on a daily basis.

If you fall into either camp, quit squandering all of that personal power and creativity!

We would live in an unrecognizably better world than the one we know today if more people understood and focused their unique strengths. (To begin your strengths journey, take the StrengthsFinder assessment. It’s easy, it’s fun and, at the very least, you’ll double your self-awareness.)

Developing our talents and turning them into strengths is a proven path to peak performance. Moreover, organizations with strengths-based cultures yield higher productivity, higher profitability, lower turnover, lower absenteeism and even lower workplace injuries.

Unfortunately, too many institutions (and teachers and managers) focus on fixing weaknesses…

Mitigate Weakness vs “Fix” Weakness

A good coach doesn’t waste time and energy attempting to “fix” areas outside of a client’s natural genius. This approach does two things, but it does them very well: demotivate and de-energize.

The idea that we can create well-rounded employees by trying to fix his or her weaknesses is a myth. Strangely, this notion is still conventional wisdom in some corporate cultures.

What an egregious waste.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Good coaches find creative ways to minimize weaknesses and build on the foundation of strengths.


I remember reading the average athlete in the 2012 London Olympics trained six hours a day, six days a week, for 12 months a year. Imagine the time, focus and energy a competitor like Ledecky invests in becoming the best in the world.

There’s simply no margin for mistrust in the quest for elite performance. As Ledecky says in this interview: “I just do whatever Bruce tells me to do, really, in practice.”

Yet, trust doesn’t just happen. It’s earned.

Trust is also “agenda free”.

Which leads us to…

Your Agenda. No One Else’s.

A good coach is present, accesible and undeniably “You” focused.

Research shows that many well-meaning people who find themselves in management roles aren’t a good fit. Sad, but true.

However, many employees assume their manager is also their go-to coach. A logical assumption, but not always accurate.

You want a coach who is energized to work with you and help you become your best. If the coach isn’t committed to the individual, how can that dynamic possibly translate into improved results?

It can’t, and it won’t.

Quick—name one person at work you would call your coach. You have three seconds. Go.

…Now, would this person describe his or her coaching approach with you as Ledecky’s coach does in the Times’ feature story?

“This is my happy place.” Gemmell said. “I feel the tension drop when I get on the pool deck.”

If this description doesn’t feel like the person/coach you imagined, it’s worth examining.

Good coaches really are in their “happy place” when they are coaching. This is what you want. Someone who loves what they’re doing and focused on your agenda.

It’s not about them. It’s about you.

True North Vs Magnetic North

The difference between true north and magnetic north over long distances can be several miles.

For a short trip the difference isn’t as significant. However, for a long journey, if you’re not making adjustments, you’ll arrive miles away from your desired destination.

And, just when you’ve ironed out your plan and committed to move forward on that big project, this little human behavioral jewel rears its ugly head:

The human attention span is now worse than that of a goldfish—8 seconds.


How many emails, texts and notifications will you receive today? How many IMs, phone calls and “emergency” meetings will hijack your calendar?

It’s easier than ever to get distracted from our top priorities.

A good coach is a counterweight who helps you chart your path, edit out the clutter and stay the course.

Always Growing. Always Improving.

A good coach creates an environment of constant learning and improvement.

As Ledecky says, “I think each year has gotten better and better…I couldn’t be happier with how my four years have gone with Bruce.”

A ringing endorsement from the best swimmer of her generation? Pretty legit.

Good coaches are growth and improvement idea machines. Individually in their own lives, and by extension, for their clients.

To borrow from lean startup methodology, we build a plan, measure the plan, learn from the plan and repeat. Build, measure, learn. Build. Measure. Learn. (H/t Eric Ries)

True growth and improvement isn’t relegated to hallway “hi-byes” or perfunctory year-end reviews. Same thing with good coaching.

Abundance Mindset

A good coach sees the unique possibility inside of you and works with you to develop and apply it.

Are there practice sessions in the pool when Ledecky maybe doesn’t swim her best? For sure! We all have those days.

Are there days when she and Gemmell try out a new training routine, don’t like it, scrap it and move on? No doubt.

Understanding and embracing the power of an abundant mindset is a crucial difference maker. Good coaches know this and help their clients practice it.

Carol Dweck’s best-selling “Mindset” explores the key differences between a fixed and an abundant mindset. Catching yourself in a fixed mindset moment and rechanneling it towards an abundance mindset can take time and practice. It can also dramatically alter the trajectory of your success. (For more on Dweck’s mindset research, go here.)

Good coaches know this and instill it in their clients. Life is not a zero sum pie. Life is about growing the size of the pie.

Finally, remember that just because you may not be a gold medal athlete like Katie Ledecky doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a good coach like Bruce Gemmell.

Our own work/life gold medals, whatever they may be, are just as meaningful and worthwhile to us, our careers and our families. We should treat them as such.

Connect with a good coach and reap the benefits.

Are you stuck, disengaged or feel like you’re missing out on your true potential? Or, maybe you’re coming off an extraordinary win and want to keep up the momentum?

Say hello at StrengthsLauncher.com. I’d love to help. And, I promise it won’t involve 4:00 AM laps in an Olympic-sized pool.