Goggleblog talks to Planet Swim’s open water coach Leigh Harvey


Swim coach Leigh Harvey (right) gives a safety briefing ahead of swimming in Merchant Taylors Lake, Northwood, Middlesex

What does it take to be an open water coach? Chris Price talks to Planet Swim’s Leigh Harvey about branching out from pool coaching into open water

How long have you been an indoor swim coach?

I first qualified in Australia in 2002 to teach learn to swim and coach competitive swimming. I’ve worked constantly in the world of swimming ever since. Before becoming a coach I worked as a packaging designer for 12 years but I decided to follow my passion for swimming.

When did you start training to become an open water coach?

I only started training this year. I am mad for open water swimming and during my time pool coaching more and more people have wanted help with their open water skills. The training was more of an extension of my own open water experiences.

What did the open water coaching entail?

The qualification I studied is currently the highest standard open water qualification available in the UK, the ASA Level 2 Open Water Coach.  It involved training days in Portsmouth and Chichester, both in the classroom, pool  and in the lake at Chichester.

The course ran from April through to June and included a large amount of written work and studying. I don’t find any learning to do with swimming tough though. I am a swimming anorak and could bore you for hours!

I love challenging myself and learning something new about the sport I love. As a coach I think it is extremely important for my self improvement and for my athletes’ futures to be as up to date as is possible. Coaches should never stop learning.


Leigh coaches a group of open water swimmers at Merchant Taylors’ lake early Saturday morning. In the foreground is Steve the Swan – a kind of open water ‘scarecrow’ to ward off the ducks!

What do you think are the key differences between indoor coaching and open water coaching?

There are a number of differences between pool coaching and open water coaching.  The environments are very different. Swimming pools are consistent: the water temperature, the water quality, the air temperature are all at required standards.

Open water venues can vary massively on an hour to hour basis, especially in the UK!  Risk assessments are a vital part of coaching a group in an open water venue to ensure safety for all – swimmers, coaches and spectators alike.

Open water swimmers also need to learn how to vary their technique to meet different conditions such as choppy water – for example by increasing their stroke rate and making it shorter. Even the most competitive pool swimmers can have phobias of open water!

What do you think is the main challenge coaching open water swimming?

One of the main challenges of coaching in open water is the distance between the athletes and the coach.  It is the coach’s responsibility to use the optimum coaching point, be it on the bank, on a paddle boat or swimming with the athletes.

Each of these has their own challenges.  For example, coaching from the bank gives you a great overview of the swimmers and enables you to see the whole group as they are training. The disadvantages of this is when the swimmers are perhaps swimming a loop of 750m and are at a large distance away.

I use binoculars but it is frustrating not being able to make individual stroke corrections as you see them. I swim with the novice groups as we travel small distances and I am able to help calm their anxiety and correct their techniques instantly.  Group management is extremely important when coaching in open water.  Obviously pool coaching is very controlled in comparison. There is something very magical and rewarding when coaching open water.


Do you think we are seeing an increased interest in swimming outdoors? And if so why do you think that is? 

In the past five years or so there has been a huge rise in open water swimming. I contribute a lot of this interest to the Brownlee brothers and the rise in participation in triathlon and the inclusion of the marathon swim in the Olympics.

Open water events have become a large part of the charity event calendar each year with plenty of mass participation events to enjoy. Personally I have a large number of clients learning to swim front crawl as they are entering triathlons and open events for the first time.

What’s more, open water swimming events are becoming more and more progressive with options to swim small distances such as 400m right up to marathon swims of 10km open to the general public.

People can now set themselves amazing challenges such as swimming the English Channel in a relay format or swimming the length of Lake Windermere. A number of years ago these swims would be set aside for the elite of the open water swimming world. Now they are available to all who dare to try!

Which do you prefer? Coaching outdoors or indoors? 

I enjoy coaching in the pool and open water equally. Each has their own rewards and challenges. A large amount of training for open water events needs to be pool based and so they complement each other perfectly.  For example, open water skills can still be practised (and should be) in the pool.

Why did you choose Merchant Taylors’ lake in Northwood, Middlesex?

I love swimming in Merchant Taylors’ lake myself.  I think that was a large reason why I chose it as my preferred venue.  Hercules Events which manages the lake have set up a 750m loop with shorter loops within it.  It makes it the perfect venue for experienced and novice swimmers.  They have excellent changing facilities and parking which is extremely important. They also take safety very seriously with two lifeguards on the water and a spotter on the bank. It is the perfect lake to be in as the sun comes up!

As open water swimming is becoming more popular there are manmade lakes being constructed such as Trifarm in Chelmsford and the lake at the Lee Valley White Water centre.  But I much prefer a natural lake, after all that is what open water swimming is all about!

DSC_0176Do I need to be a triathlete or advanced swimmer to join your group?

No you don’t need to be a triathlete or advanced to join the swims! I run groups for all abilities and I particularly enjoy coaching the novice groups to pass on my love of open water.

What is Planet Swim and how do I sign up if I’m interested in open water swimming? 

I set up Planet Swim originally as a business to supply swimming lessons in people’s homes.  It now has an open water section and will soon be followed with Planet Tri as I qualify to be a Triathlon coach.

Do you have any ambitions as an open water coach?

My current aims are to give the pleasure of open water swimming to as many people as possible, the lifestyle and health benefits are huge.  Coaching an elite athlete is possibly every coach’s ambition and perhaps one day I will but at this moment in time if I can coach just one swimmer to a personal best swim I will continue to be motivated in the sport I love.

Is there anything more that you think could be done to encourage swimming, particularly open water swimming, in the UK?

This year, the RNLI are running free courses for children in learning how to deal with cold water shock since a spate of deaths in reservoirs etc. in the past few years.  I think this is vital to ensure the safety of children in and around open water environments. In my role as a swimming teacher we have a safety awareness week every year where the children are taught lifesaving skills.

One of the biggest problems in getting more people swimming in the UK is the price charged by local pools to just have a swim, often in excess of £5. In my experience people dealing with poor body image or religious restraints are also put off swimming. Thankfully swimwear companies are becoming more pro active with suits that supply more coverage.

But I think generally things are changing for the better. I am teaching more and more adults how to swim who never had the opportunity to learn when they were younger. To date my oldest learn to swim participant is in their mid 80s!

You can contact Planet Swim by email planetswim@yahoo.com or visit the website, www.planetswimcoach.com. A group session is £16 per person which includes coaching and lake fees for an hour in the water including land warm up and briefing. One to one sessions are also available. There is also a £6 fee for swimming in Merchant Taylors’ lake. See Hercules Events for more information here: http://herculesevents.com/open-water-swimming-sessions-2/