Building a winning mentality

Interview with Graham Hill, Head Coach of Swimming South Africa & Coaches Committee Chairman

Graham Hill, Chairman of the FINA Coaches Committee, has a coaching experience that spans more than 36 years, out of which the 8 have been as Head Coach of South Africa. Graham has led the Olympic Swimming team, World Championships team and World Junior team from the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai and has attended 5 Olympic Games (2000, 2004,2008, 2012, 2016).  Under his guidance Terrence Parkin picked up the silver medal in the 200m breaststroke during the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Darian Townsend the Gold medal in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay during the 2004 Athens Olympics.

In the 2012 Olympic Games, Graham coached 5 swimmers, among them, the young sensation Chad Le Clos, who won a gold medal in the 200m butterfly and silver medal in the 100m butterfly and who later went to win silver medals in the 200m freestyle and the 100m butterfly in the 2016 Olympics.  Among Graham’s star athletes is also Princess Charlene of Monaco.


Currently, Graham is focused on the qualification of some of his swimmers and the preparation of the Team that will represent South Africa in the Tokyo Olympics. We were able to discuss some topics relevant to his experience and hear his thoughts on planning and competing at the highest level.

More than 30 years coaching at the Highest level! Tell us, how a coach can evolve in such a long period to keep bringing swimmers to the highest level?

First of all, you have to understand that it is a sport in which you need to be passionate about. Without that hype and feeling for the sport you cannot dedicate yourself to the requirements of the day-to-day on the pool deck. The amount of time and dedication that our sport needs is unique, and only with the correct mindset can you continue to strive for the best.

I believe the mentality is what keeps pushing the swimmers to the highest level, and the baseline for building up any athlete. You need to enjoy what you do, and you need to be able to transmit and connect with the athlete to make sure that the swimmer also feels the enjoyment in the sport. Especially when you reach the highest level.

But of course, swimming has evolved enormously in the past few years. and there are a lot more aspects that shall be considered in order to produce elite swimmers nowadays. Strength & Conditioning and proper dryland have become a key element. We have worked a lot with altitude, living high and training low or training high and living low and analyzing how these adaptations were benefiting our athletes. But there is a lot out there to be done and to continue doing, and not all programmes will fit your athlete.

Basically, in order to keep up with the times, I have been very fortunate to have an extensive network between coaches that is continuously exchanging best practice. The amount of knowledge shearing with coaches not only from leading nations, but from programmes all around, that work and produce expected outcomes has been a high resource over the years. The exchange of experience and findings, mixing and matching the different theories and programmes with what you are currently doing, and a clear vision to be focus on has helped me over the years.

There are a lot of knowledgeable coaches out there. People is prepared and ready to share what they have and the world coaches community is huge and full of talent. Stimulating this network with a clear objective of maximizing the efficiency of out training has been always fruitful. Coaches shall go out there and see what others do, how others work and understand if this would work out with your athletes, the same sets or programmes are not working with all swimmers but certainly there is always something that can be learned. 

You have been one of the coaches that has proven that competing (a lot) can also be good for performance. How do you think that such charged calendars help athletes develop their full potential?

There is room for all. I am one of those coaches that likes to race a lot, and believes that racing is the best quality training possible. It’s good to simulate at home, and create your own races and tests, but this will never be as effective as competing at major events. The athlete has to get used to the call room, the starting blocks, the diversity of inputs you receive during a competition, standing on blocks just before the race, getting used to racing, and very importantly getting used to winning! Learning to win is key to build up a Champion’s mentality. An athlete will be able to learn to handle expectations by him or heself and in their own environment.

In your continent there is no such diversity of meets like in Europe or in the Americas where in each meet you can find a World or Continental Championships Finalist. How do you plan your seasons in this regard?

It is true, but the level in Africa is rising, and results will come soon, a clear example is Farida Osman (EGY) and the latest results at the African Games.

But yes, we have to travel a lot. The positive aspect of this is that we go to the European summer swimming season, with competitions like the Mare Nostrum, in order to prepare the athletes for World Cups and World Championships. At the end, as I explained I believe in competing to prepare the athletes and you have to prepare them in the best way possible if you want to achieve results.  The costs are high, but it has to be done if you want to race at the highest level.

Throughout the season the best way is the participe at the World Cups. There is no other competition with such a high end set-up where all athletes will also be competing at the Olympic Games or World Championships. The turns and starts in the short course, and the long course competitiveness are growing year after year.

But going back to your question, we do not do any real preparation. We take it as it comes, and I believe this is part of what makes us what we are, it’s all about building a winning mentality, it’s about integrating in your DNA the capacity of adapting and taking the best from each opportunity. You have to prepare your athlete not only to win, but to undertake the path that will lead us to the win, which is going to be hard, long and full of difficulties. If you are not ready to be focused on your goals, regardless of any situation, it is unlikely that you will compete at the highest level at World Championships and Olympic Games. 

Now that you talk about the FINA Swimming World Cup, you have been participating since the first one in 1999. How do you thing the FINA World Cup has evolved and progressed?

It has moved in big steps in all areas possible. We have venues, sports presentation, athletes, results, and all other elements that simulate events like Olympic Games or World Championships. Just think that we are here in Kazan with Erin Gallagher, (RSA) and only Sarah Sjostrom, (SWE) is missing, from the strongest contenders for the Olympic Medals next year or from the World Championships finals in July this year.

The evolution has been incredible, and big performances have come along. The prize money is very attractive, and has helped, especially in these past 10 years, on the professionalization of our sport. Just think of the athletes who have won more than 100 events overall, and make the math!   

Talking about planification, you have a large number of athletes under your responsibility from various ages, and historically, you have developed a lot of swimmers from an early age (16 years with Chad Le Clos for example) which do you think are the key factors for planning the LTAD? 

Yes, I have around 70 athletes under my responsibility, and a group of elite swimmers of around 20-22 athletes. In my team you can find kids and Olympic, African or World Championships medalists.

The most important thing is to keep the athlete interested, making sure they enjoy every practice and making them feel that the sport is helping them grow. The swimmers also need to see a future on what they are doing. Understanding that what they are doing has ups and downs but that the progress is there.

We set progressive goals, with a clear vision. All my swimmers must understand that they are swimming to progress and achieve our goals, which can go from regional meets to World Championships. The short-term targets help us keeping the motivation up, realizing the progression and understanding the direction we are taking.

It is not easy to make your guys swim 60k per week, and it certainly will be impossible if they do not see the benefit of it and how all this work pays back.

You mentioned the word “Elite”. To reach that level there is a selection that only few can reach. How do you as Head Coach of South Africa manage that?

Performance is key, of course, but it is not what we consider the most. The attitude towards training and being part of a group that is going to strive for their goals. In our group the Elite is constituted by top and average or even low average performances, however we all understand the reasons why we are there.

Nationally we rely a lot on the clubs, we organize regular training camps gathering the best from each region where I could attend to check the athletes with their coaches, try to plan together, and support both coaches and swimmers to keep advancing. We work with our High-Performance Manager on putting programs together that could help them in their progress. We do not have any National Training Center, so this idea of a National Team training together is not possible.

Besides that, I strongly believe in the synergy between a coach and an athlete, we cannot break this. Being a Head Coach. I can be approached by any coach from South Africa for guidance or advise, and I will do my best to help them, but that chemistry created between a coach and an athlete is fundamental to generating the results we all are looking for.