Coaching Personality: Josh Stern

Everything Is Geared Towards Long-Term Success


Nikki Dryden

His young face, mischievous smile, and enthusiasm deceive you. They are all contagious as well. Josh Stern, the 28-year-old head coach of the Ocean State Squids, is anything but your typical hard-nosed swim coach; no one could ever call this guy "Mr. Stern." Josh is more like that kid in your grade eight class who cracked jokes and was always disrupting the teacher. However, he is deadly serious about his coaching, and his unconventional ideas are as unique as his distinct sense of style and humour.

Sometimes it is hard to decide who is the Squids' authority figure and who are the swimmers; but that is exactly the way Josh likes it. His passion for learning is equaled only by his passion to teach his swimmers, thus empowering them and creating a dynamic learning environment for all.

In the fall of 1996, Josh moved to Providence, RI, to rebuild the fledgling club stationed out of Brown University. He left a position at the Mass Bay Marlins in Boston and the security of an established program with a population base to support it. His sole reason for moving south was to work with and for Brown coach Matt Kredich and athletic director Dave Roach (former head women's coach at the University of Tennessee). With his sights set not on the coming season, or even the next Olympics, Josh invested his heart and soul into the long-term development of an age-group program he could be proud of.

Kredich considers Josh a "philosopher coach" who is able to seamlessly integrate practice, performance, and attitude into a life philosophy. "To be a successful coach you have to be able to make swimming and coaching an expression of the way you think life should be led. Josh does that to a higher degree than any coach I know."

After a US distance camp, Josh began getting e-mails from kids at other clubs begging him to send them some of the workouts done by his top swimmer, Eric Vendt. "There are about eight kids down in Virginia right now doing 30x1000s just for the fun of it. I get so angry when I hear people say that kids today don't want to work hard. That is the biggest cop-out. Kids do want to work hard, kids want to be studs." Josh believes it should be US Swimming's job to promote the hard workers in this sport. "Misty Hyman works hard. Everyone thinks because she goes out and dies that she doesn't train, but I've seen her and she does. Why isn't that promoted? Why isn't that a big part of the message that gets given to swimmers and coaches? These are the issues that affect kids. I look at it as my responsibility to try and promote the message that kids do work hard."

Similar to his coaching counterparts in Australia, Josh believes his swimmers must be educated about their sport and have built a firm foundation in technique before they are allowed to attempt the grueling sets they so eagerly devour. Josh loves recounting all the swimmers who beat Eric when he was younger, still meticulously perfecting his stroke. "Swimming today promotes this attitude that coaches are either big on efficiency or big on endurance and it's so wrong. The best coaches don't do that. When we put these two things on opposite sides of the spectrum we enforce the mentality that it is either/or. If you want to win you have to push the limits in both." Josh believes that age-group coaches are the most important coaches, laying the bedrock from which swimmers will construct their careers. "Eight-year-olds should be learning to compete and working on their techniques, but not racing. Who cares who went what time when they were eight or ten? Why do we even keep national records on that stuff? We don't know who the best basketball player in the world was when they were ten. Do we care? No."

Erik Vendt, a prominent Squid
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

There are less than 100 swimmers on the Squids, so one would think Josh would be happy that kids from all over New England are calling him up, asking to join his team, but that is simply not how it works. "We don't take anyone who is in grade eleven or twelve. If they came in at that age they would have to change their technique and their approach to swimming and that would take away from the rest of the kids. Our age-group program is focused on long term success-maybe, maybe in five years it will be ideal, but not yet."

Some may argue that a dedicated handful of Josh's top swimmers followed him to Providence. Some, including Vendt, travel as much as four hours a day to train with him. But that in itself is evidence of how important he is to his swimmers and how important they are to him. "When you look at a young swimmer you owe it to him to imagine the best possible swim he could do. You have to envision a perfect swimmer and as he gets older you have a better picture of what works for him or her."

Everything Josh does and believes is geared towards the long-term success of his program and his swimmers. The hardest part of this philosophy is assuring parents that their kids can and do take responsibility for themselves. "Kids are willing to sacrifice. They can close their eyes and dream; they can buy into the whole ÔRocky' mentality, because that's what they are raised on. You teach them it's the process and the effort, not the outcome, that will payoff. The problem is that parents want their kids to be happy and they want to see the results and the payoffs for all the sacrifices." When Eric decided to follow Josh to Providence his parents weren't crazy about the move, but they trusted Eric and his belief in Josh. "You build trust in your swimmers through communication, by explaining not just why they swim fast but why they swim slow too. When a kid has a baby swim, you tell them-they respect that honesty. In most cases this has transferred to the parents on my team. My swimmers love being challenged, they know every day is going to be hard, and there is no fear. Their parents see the self respect they've gained through these daily tests, and this confidence is reflected both in and out of the pool."

The Ocean State Squids men's team placed second in the point score at US nationals this April. With only two individual swimmers and three relays, they lost to powerhouse Irvine Novaquatics by only one point. It was proof that Josh and his team have come a long way, but now have many new oceans to cross. "I became a head coach at a young age because of the loyalties I developed with my swimmers. But I would love to spend a year or two learning from some of the best coaches like Gregg Troy, Dick Schulberg, Eddie Reese, Jon Urbanchek, and Dave Marsh. I have a lot to learn from these guys and when I ask, the majority of the top US coaches are very willing to help."

Josh's approach to coaching has always been a two-way street between him and his swimmers. "For the last two years Eric has given me feedback about his tapers and he has been right." Josh is able to instill a confidence in his swimmers by making them a part of the process. "Every day the most important thing I do as a coach is learn. I went to Brown to learn from Matt and Dave, specifically to be in that environment. If I stopped learning and questioning I would be a bad coach, because as soon as you stop moving forward you move back."