Q&A With MIT Coach Meghan Sisson French

Meghan Sisson French

Q&A With MIT Coach Meghan Sisson French

As the fifth female head swim and dive coach since 1997, Meghan Sisson French is continuing MIT’s winning aquatic tradition.

• Springfield College (Mass.), B.S., applied sociology, 2012; MSW, 2015
• 4x member of Springfield team; NEWMAC champions, 2009, 2010
• Head coach, MIT, 2019-present
• Interim head coach, Pomona-Pitzer, 2016; associate head coach, 2017-19, assistant coach, 2015-17; summer swim director, 2016-present
• Graduate assistant coach, Springfield College, 2013-15; volunteer assistant, 2012-13
• Head coaching record at MIT: men (16-1), women (13-3)

In 2020, Meg Sisson French was named the NEWMAC Men’s and Women’s Coach of the Year. The next year, she coached three athletes to the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, and this past season, MIT’s men finished sixth at the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships, while the women placed eighth.

Q. SWIMMING WORLD: What drew you to swimming?
A. COACH MEG FRENCH: My mom was a lifeguard, swim instructor and coach for our local recreation department, so I spent a lot of time around the pool growing up. I owe my mom for my love of the sport!

SW: And then into competitive swimming?
MF: I started swimming with my local rec team in Meriden, Conn., when I was about 5 years old. I transitioned to club swimming in early middle school and swam for the Meriden Silver Fins under Ed Heath, Danny Barillaro and Eileen Thurston through the rest of my age group career.

SW: What epiphany led you into swim coaching?
MF: My coach at Springfield College, John Taffe, asked me during my senior year if I had ever thought about coaching. He thought it would be a good fit and offered me a graduate assistant position. After two years, I realized I wanted to pursue coaching rather than focusing solely on my degree in clinical social work. Coaching at Springfield proved to be one of the best decisions I have ever made!

SW: In what ways is swim coaching a form of applied sociology?
MF: Simply stated, sociology is the study of relationships and human behavior. Coaching is all about building trusting relationships and being in tune with your team and what works and what doesn’t.

SW: A Connecticut Yankee of sorts, why the move to California?
MF: When I decided to pursue college coaching, the Pomona-Pitzer job was the perfect opportunity. The interview was the first time I had ever been to California, and it all just clicked. JP Gowdy convinced me it was a good move. I’m so thankful he did!

SW: And what then drew you to MIT?
MF: I always thought I’d end up in the New England area someday. And after being at Pomona-Pitzer, I really enjoyed working with student-athletes in a rigorous academic environment. MIT had a great combination of all the things for which I was looking.

SW: You have been uber successful at MIT. Who are some folks who have influenced how you coach?
MF: John Taffe for one. I learned a great deal from the graduate assistants at Springfield—Barrett Roberts, Lindsey Delarosby, John Weaver and Katie Stefl. JP Gowdy was a significant influence during my years at Pomona-Pitzer. Others are former MIT coach Sam Pitter and Boston area coaches like James Sica. It’s been really nice having so many colleagues in the same city off whom I can bounce ideas.

SW: Built in 2002, the MIT natatorium remains a real recruiting attraction, does it not?
MF: Absolutely! Our facilities are a big draw for our recruits. The pool is big, bright and fast!—everything swimmers and divers need to have a great training and racing environment. Hosting a lot of our championship meets gives us quite a “home pool advantage” throughout the year.

SW: At this year’s D-III NCAAs, the men finished sixth and the women eighth, continuing a decade-long top 10 run.
MF: Our swimmers and divers are incredibly bright and put 100% effort into everything they do. Their classroom work ethic transfers well to the pool. Our athletes are engineers—they like to solve problems. Swimming fast and diving well at the end of the year is like a problem set: How can they maximize their practice effort and energy to do as well at conference and NCAAs? It’s a fun process to share, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.

SW: Were you surprised at the team’s unprecedented relay success at NCAAs?
MF: After losing out on championships for two years because of COVID, we knew the team was ready to do big things. You can’t always predict how NCAAs will go, but we knew the team was fired up to be on the national stage again. It was awesome to watch them come together and have some of the best relay—and individual—performances our team has ever seen.

SW: The word, “collaboration,” permeates through MIT’s academic and athletic culture. How does that manifest itself on and off deck?
MF: Students play a significant role in a lot of what happens at MIT, and they are very involved in the decision-making processes in practically every part of campus. We also like to take that approach with our program—to take ownership of what we do, collaborate with one another and operate under the motto, “All in, all the time.” We want our athletes to buy into the team experience, be invested in the process with each other and actively make the program better during their four years here.

SW: There is unbelievable internal and external pressure to perform at MIT. How do you and the institute help your athletes manage their academic and athletic obligations?
MF: There are a lot of support systems in place. From mental, emotional, physical health and wellness to academics, we have highly trained experts to help students through MIT’s challenges. The institute integrates the students into the academic community right away and provides flexibility in adjusting to the level of academic rigor here. First-years don’t pick their major until the end of second semester, which allows for a lot of academic exploration throughout the year.

We also try to build in conversations with the team about topics such as sleep, balancing academics and general self-care. By taking some time each week to normalize the importance of what happens outside of the pool, we hope it allows team members to take care of themselves and come to us if they need additional support.

SW: What’s a typical mid-season swim and dryland week look like for your athletes?
MF: We typically have five afternoon workouts and two morning lifts and/or swims throughout the season. There are no academic classes scheduled from 5-7 p.m., so it’s a great time for us to get in a solid water workout. Depending on the training group, most swimmers—sprint and stroke—will lift in the morning, while our upper aerobic swimmers—IMers, mid-distance and distance—will do a split swim and lift to get in a little extra volume. We work closely with an awesome sports performance staff that designs a strength program that’s tailored to our different training groups and phases of the season.

SW: How does your training change during MIT’s four-week Independent Activities Period? Any plans next year for more get-out swims?
MF: IAP, as we call it, is one of our favorite times of the year! There aren’t many students on campus, and our athletes take a much lighter course load, which allows them to focus on swimming. We’re able to get in some of our best training during this time. We typically do doubles most every day and concentrate on fine details, one-on-one coaching, film review, recovery sessions, refining race strategy and team bonding. It really brings out the best of the team and the training. And it’s also a good time for get-out swims!

SW: MIT has had a great record with female swim coaches. What accounts for their selection from 1997 forward?
MF: I’m really proud of MIT’s support of great women coaches. Each of my predecessors has had a tremendous impact on how far this program has come, and it’s a privilege to try and carry on their legacies. There are only a few other schools that have had such continued success with female leaders, and I am honored to be a part of that.

Michael J. Stott is an ASCA Level 5 coach, golf and swimming writer. His critically acclaimed coming-of-age golf novel, “Too Much Loft,” is in its second printing, and is available from store.Bookbaby.com, Amazon, B&N and distributors worldwide.

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