If you’ve been around swimming for any length of time, then you’ve witnessed the impact of good swimmers leaving a team. It could be because the family moved, or the swimmer went to college, or even that the swimmer quit the sport (worthy of its own post – see Gary Vandermeulen’s recent post here). But this post is about when one of your top swimmers leaves for another team.
This is not all that rare an event: everybody from Olympic Champions and lesser mortals have changed clubs. I even did it myself many years ago. And while there is always a common theme in the reasons, the impact on those around them can be quite varied.
It’s almost universal that swimmers make these types of big changes because they think the move will make them faster. I still remember having complete confidence (in that typically omniscient style that only teenagers have) that it was all onwards and upwards for me. But there are a lot of other emotions as well, including frustration that this move is thought necessary, excitement at the new potential, and concern about fitting in with new teammates, a new coach, and a new environment.
From the coaches point of view, the feelings when a good swimmer leaves is similarly complex. There is definitely some frustration at all the effort that was invested in the swimmer, with the rewards to be reaped by another team. But at the same time, when a swimmer is unhappy and wants to go, it’s usually far too obvious to everyone around them. That attitude can create a negative presence on the team, and sometimes you don’t realize how destructive that is until the swimmer has gone. It’s as if everyone can breathe again.
I know this is an age-old question, but it became fresh in my mind this week when one of my swimmers asked me why we weren’t doing the high mileage that so many other clubs are doing. As I explained to him, our philosophy is to prioritize technique and race pace over lengthy but slower sets. In effect, to emphasize speed and speed endurance over endurance.
However, and here’s where discussions start, there are many incredibly good swimmers who came out of heavy mileage programs. In fact, this old school slant towards heavy mileage has never really left us. There are legendary sets out there that amaze anyone who sees them. Sets like 200 x 100 or 50 x 400 shock us and excite us as we contemplate how incredibly tough those swimmers must be. And yet it begs the question: Does heavy mileage really improve our swimming speed? Considering that most swimmers specialize in 200s or less, it’s hard to imagine that an aerobic set lasting for hours can significantly affect an events lasting 2 minutes or less.
There don’t appear to be any definitive answers for this. So as some swimmers look at massive sets with envy, I’m faced with the task of trying to explain our emphasis on speed and speed endurance, mixed with lots of technique work. In fact, even now I think back with some sense of bizarre pride to the monster sets that I did when I was a swimmer. And then I think back to how my shoulders gave out and I had to leave the sport far too early. How do I explain this to a teenage boy who feels immortal and sees stardom in his future?
All that I could say is that in very wide range of training philosophies, ours leans towards less
Last week we had our first meet of the year. It may not seem that early for most teams, but it is for us. Most of our swimmers had their last meet of the year in late June, and we could only get back into the pool in mid-September. This meant we had just 5 weeks of training prior to this meet, after close to 3 months off. (We don’t have a summer league, and even if we did, I wouldn’t want my young swimmers training 12 months of the year).
So why have an early meet? Realistically the swimmers can’t expect to truly swim fast, and with the last competition 4 months ago, they can’t expect to compete well either. And that’s exactly the point. This is the one meet in the year where we can remove unrealistic expectations and focus on the process.
And here’s what we learned. These aren’t in any particular order, and I’ve probably left some out, but here were our goals for an early first meet:
- get the swimmers re-acquainted with the competition process, including pre-race preparation, strategy setting, and post-race analysis
- identify bad habits before they become ingrained
- remind them of why they need to train hard (nothing reminds them of that better than getting beaten)
- identify common problems that I need to address as a team issue
OK, so what happened at this meet?
Well, for the most part, it ran as expected. We had lots of the expected mistakes: warmups, race preparation, strategy. I attribute that mainly due to the lack of recent competition experience. There were also lots of individual bad habits that were exposed, discussed and a plan put in place to correct these in practice.
We also uncovered an uncomfortable number of common problems that I need to address right away. These included the underwater phase of
Not too long ago I wrote about Mount Stupid (you can read it here), and how I and so many other coaches apparently. Well this year I climbed partway down from Mount Stupid and decided to ask a real strength and conditioning expert to handle what I’d been so confidently messing up for years.
Wow, what a difference!
Now, I should point out that prior to this year I thought I had the experience, first-hand knowledge and obvious intelligence to handle something as simple as S&C. I had a long swimming career, decades of being an athlete, and years of previous experience with coaching. I knew this stuff inside and out, right?
In other words, I was sitting smugly and happily at the very top of Mount Stupid.
So what has changed now that we have a real program? Just about everything.
- We got rid of swim cords. We do enough swimming as it is. More of the same movements isn’t going to make us stronger overall, and probably just increases the chance of injury.
- We started strengthening our backs. Swimmers are notorious for hunched shoulders, and that’s a huge problem if you want to have a strong core and back.
- We started increasing our effective Range of Motion for important joints.
- And most importantly, we focussed on major body movements: squats, hip hinges, Romanian deadlifts, presses, etc.
Now keep in mind, that most of our athletes are performing these exercises with just body weight. Only after some monitoring and testing have we added relatively light weights – in the form of sand bells – for swimmers who have demonstrated consistent and acceptable technique. This is clearly going to be a long term process involving years of development and monitoring.
So is it worth it?
Well, we ran a small 7-week S&C camp for