Christina Kouvousis is the Head Coach at Water Polo West Provincial Training Centre and the Team BC programs. She is the Program Associate at the University of British Columbia Aquatic Centre and was previously the Head Coach of a grassroots program, Vancouver Vipers Water Polo Club, for nine years. Christina graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in kinesiology and a minor in psychology. She is an advocate for coach development, creating healthy sports environments, and empowering athlete and coach mental health to drive performance.
Freelap USA: As a water polo coach passionate about long-term athlete development, what are your principles for LTAD, and how would you describe your coaching philosophy?
Christina Kouvousis: My coaching philosophy is athlete-centered above all else. For me, coaching must always come from a place of empathy, respect, and patience. Prioritizing building trust and rapport with my athletes creates the foundation to begin working toward high performance and excellence in sport.
I always want my athletes to feel they can share what they are excited about, frustrated with, discouraged by, etc. It’s important for me to coach in a way that demonstrates I am there to help them achieve their goals and support them in and out of the pool.
I love the long-term athlete development model because it allows coaches to understand and embrace that athletes will grow and develop differently, especially youth athletes who are approaching or going through puberty. I think this is where patience is essential because keeping LTAD in mind leaves space for us to support athletes who might develop earlier or later compared to their peers.
It’s an excellent resource to refer to while coaching because it can help guide performance planning to meet the needs of athletes at each stage of the pathway, ideally prioritizing physical and mental health as they invest more into their sport.
Freelap USA: Water polo is a demanding sport that requires the players to tread water or swim for the duration of the match. What does an athletic development program for water polo players look like, and which physical qualities do you want S&C coaches to focus on in particular?
Christina Kouvousis: Water polo is such a dynamic and demanding sport, using both aerobic and anaerobic systems and requiring athletes to constantly exert energy in the field of play. One paper broke it down to around 50%–60% of athletes’ energy is aerobic, 30%–35% is anaerobic, and 10%–15% is anaerobic-lactic pathways. As an athlete, I did not have much experience with an S&C or athlete development program outside of the pool, and this is something I’m working to change for the athletes I coach.All athletes should build the knowledge of what their body and mind need to perform and recover and have the resources to explore what helps them be their best, says @chris_kouv. Click To Tweet
All athletes should build the knowledge of what their body and mind need to perform and recover and have the resources to explore what helps them be their best. Outside of aerobic conditioning through swim sets or game-speed drills that focus on pushing athletes out of their cardio comfort zones to prepare for competition, I would love to see more water polo athletes build strength and prioritize mobility and recovery (especially to prevent injury). As a sport-specific coach, I’m still learning so much of this as I continue to dive deeper into the research on my sport!
Mobility in the shoulders, thoracic spine, hips, and ankles are all areas where athletes can improve their flexibility and range of motion and see an impact on something like their shooting performance in the pool and swimming strength/speed. Core strength is another area that can help athletes improve their shooting, as we generate a lot of power through the core and torso rotation while shooting and create stability while treading water and moving in all directions.
Some other keys are:
- Exercises that help develop throwing power—and those that help athletes engage their entire body in the process—as athletes in the water don’t have the ground to draw stability from.
- Strength programs that focus on protecting the shoulders, as overuse from swimming and throwing motions often leads to injury for many athletes.
- Leg strength development is essential for creating a strong and stable eggbeater base that drives power and explosivity into shooting and jumping movements.
- The ability to cover space effectively is huge in our sport, so helping athletes develop strength and power to move more explosively in the pool is tremendously helpful.
I have also always been curious about how improving grip strength can help athletes with throwing speed/release in their shots!
Freelap USA: You’re mainly a sports coach—what does a good relationship with an S&C coach in your sport look like?
Christina Kouvousis: When I was training, especially as a younger athlete, there wasn’t much discussion around S&C or working with S&C coaches, and that’s something I think should be prioritized for athletes across sports.
A good relationship with an S&C coach involves plenty of communication, collaboration, and a willingness to try something and adapt as necessary. I feel like one of the biggest obstacles in coaching can be ego, so the sooner we let go of needing to be right and collectively focus on finding the most effective systems for our athletes, we all win. That’s the way I envision an excellent relationship/environment between all coaches, S&C coaches, mental performance consultants, physical therapists, psychologists, etc. We all want to achieve the same goals and must recognize and respect the unique strengths and gifts we each bring to the table to make it happen.
Freelap USA: You are involved in a project called the “Female Athlete Resilience Project.” Can you tell us about this undertaking and why you became a part of it?
Christina Kouvousis: The Female Athlete Resilience Project wasn’t something that I started; however, I did speak at the conference, and it was an incredible experience to connect with female high-performance athletes and discuss subjects critical to their development, well-being, and performance.
I spoke about the power dynamics that exist in sports, especially between coaches and athletes. This is a topic that I care about deeply, as it relates to athletes’ mental health and creating a safe environment for athletes. My goal was for athletes to recognize and understand the imbalance of power that exists between them and a coach to help them trust themselves if they feel that a coach’s behaviors have been harmful or inappropriate.
The goal of this area of my work is to help build confidence and the ability for athletes to trust themselves so that they can share what they need or speak up when things are not okay. My hope is that through more discussion and more coaches (or other sports staff) focusing on building trust and open communication with athletes, there may be more opportunities for athletes to speak up if something negative or harmful occurs.
Freelap USA: Another project of yours was the Junior Coach Development Program, which was created to encourage youth athletes to become involved in a leadership role within their community water polo club. What can coaches do to engage youth athletes beyond sports participation?
Christina Kouvousis: The Junior Coach Development Program was wonderful because it allowed us to work with athletes who are so enthusiastic about water polo and show them that they can be involved in sport in a different capacity—more importantly, using coaching as an opportunity to build leadership and interpersonal skills that are transferable to so many roles/careers. Providing opportunities or at least a pathway that shows athletes what they can do in their sport beyond participating as an athlete is huge. We know that not all athletes will reach high-performance or international competition levels, and too often, we lose many kids early on because they don’t feel as though they are one of the strongest kids in the pool.Providing opportunities or at least a pathway that shows athletes what they can do in their sport beyond participating as an athlete is huge, says @chris_kouv. Click To Tweet
The Junior Coach Development program really retained athletes in the club/team setting because it took the pressure off only having to be great as a player. Kids who knew they might not want to train or compete at a competitive level loved engaging in coaching and giving back to younger athletes.
I’m now working at the Provincial Sport Organization level in British Columbia, building a similar program for coaches and referees. The goal is to create a program that provides teaching and mentorship to help young people build competence in leadership, interpersonal skills, time management, planning, etc., to help them achieve their future goals! I see it as an opportunity to keep youth engaged in their own growth and development, which can certainly help them in their sport but will ultimately help them excel in life.
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