Building an Olympian: An Interview with Tim Swords

Tim Swords, coach of Sarah Robles, 2017 World Champion and bronze-medalist at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, shares what it takes to build an Olympian:

Pursue your Passion.  When Coach Swords was a young boy, he visited a drug store with his mother.  At the store, he spotted a fitness magazine with a man doing an Olympic lift, the snatch, on the cover.  Swords asked his mom if she would buy the magazine for him.  She did, and Swords, who was dyslexic and disliked reading, read the magazine three times before his father came home from work that evening.  On hearing that Swords had read the magazine multiple times, Swords’ father told his mother to subscribe to the magazine.  And thus began Swords’ lifetime passion for weightlifting.

As an adult, Swords had opportunities to work as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach.  He chose another path, however–one that allowed him to pursue his passion for coaching weightlifting.  Swords opened a gym in his garage, where he now trains up to 65 athletes–sometimes 30 at a time–as the head coach of Team Houston.  Says Swords:

I have been in the sport since 1979 and watching the sport since 1973.  I have been offered collegiate strength and conditioning jobs, but my heart was in working with kids.  So, I turned down these jobs to follow my passion.

I have about 42,000 hours of coaching on the platform. I haven’t had much compensation, but God has been good to me. I recently retired.  Until then, I had a job that I loved, and it allowed me to get home at 2:00 to train kids. After more than 40 years of coaching weightlifting, I’m still excited about the sport. I chose to follow my passion, and I have lived a happy and prosperous life.

Love Your Athletes.  Coach Swords does not recruit.  However, he never has any problem finding athletes because he embraces his athletes, cares for them, and helps them become the best versions of themselves.

When Sarah Robles approached Coach Swords and asked him to coach her, Swords accepted immediately.  Swords recalls, “Sarah was not in a great place in her career.  She had just received a two-year sanction for taking an over the counter medication for PCOS, and she was having trouble finding someone to coach her.  However, I had seen her compete, and I knew that she was special.”

Coach Swords subsequently helped Robles relocate to Houston, find a job and settle into training.  Over the years, Swords has extended this same helping hand to other athletes.  He once helped two young drug dealers stop selling drugs, become athletes, and secure jobs as collegiate strength and conditioning coaches.  Swords firmly believes that a coach must care about his athletes–in and out of the gym–to achieve success:

I must make my athletes believe that I love them, and I will do everything I can to help them.  There must be a strong relationship between the coach and the athlete.  If the relationship is there, and the trust is there, then you can do amazing things together as a coach/athlete partnership.


Believe that YOUR Athletes are the BEST.  Coach Swords explains:

Even the best athletes have self-doubt.  I constantly strive to build up my athletes.  I want them to feel good about themselves and believe that they are the BEST.

When athletes believe they are the best, they will perform their best.


 Educate Yourself and Build Relationships.  In his early years, Swords recalls:

I read everything I could read about weightlifting.  I spoke to people who were in the sport.  I sought out mentors and built relationships within the sport. I put my energy into learning what other people did.  I visited sports schools in other countries.

Even after forty years of coaching, Swords seeks out opportunities to learn and grow from other coaches:

I always watch other coaches and athletes.  I observe everything.  I am continually learning.

Stick with What Works.  Coach Swords has used the same program with Sarah Robles for the past five years.

Why?  Because it works.

Swords explains:

We train six days a week with a simple program that involves high intensity–low reps, high weight.  It works, so we keep doing it.


Search for the Right Words.  Words have power.  Coach Swords prays each morning for the right words to deliver to his athletes:

I try to make my athletes feel good and charge them up.  I try to make them feel like they are alive.  They are special.  I am constantly motivating them.  I pray to have the right things to say when they need to be said.

Just before Sarah Robles went onto the platform for her winning clean and jerk at the 2017 IWF World Championships, Coach Swords asked her: “Can you give me the best 8 seconds of your life?  If you can, you will go down in weightlifting history.”  Sarah responded, “yes.” She made the lift and won the championship.

Pay Attention to the Little Things.

Winning is in the details.  Coach Swords likes to know the details of everything involving his athletes and their competition.

Swords explains:

Communication is key.  I want to know how my athletes are feeling, how they slept, their nutrition, even the drama that is going on in their lives.

Coach Swords also scrutinizes everything at the competition venue:

When we get to a competition, we walk around the training hall.  We look at the platform.  We recon the area.  We don’t want any surprises.  We familiarize ourselves with everything.  Athletes will have sensory bombardment when they are competing, but you can manage some of this stress by knowing what you are dealing with.

Even the slightest things can become major distractions in the heat of competition.   For instance, in the 2012 Olympics in London, Sarah was thrown off by a buzzing sound coming from a camera moving around on the lifting platform.  She had not been on the platform in advance, and she did not expect the noise.  Coach Swords explains, “At the Rio Olympics, they had that camera, too.  We learned from our experience.”

Coach Swords also observes other coaches and athletes at competitions.  During the 2017 World Championship, Swords constantly collected information:

While we were in the training hall, I was watching people.  I was taking notes on what people were doing–how long it took them to warm up, what lifts they were making and missing.  I had a Scouting report of where people were at.  I come from a background of professional team sports, and it is nice to know who you are dealing with.

With over 40 years of coaching experience, Coach Swords knows how to build champions and keep them performing at their best.  He has build a legacy through his athletes that will live on in their lives.

Photos courtesy of Lifting.Life.

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