As the new swim season gets under way, I’ve received letters from kids in various countries. They all seem to have the same concern: "I’ve moved up to a new group, and the coach just wants us to swim really far, and doesn’t care about technique."
What to do?
This age-old question has troubled swimmers of ALL abilities for years. Which is more important, fitness or technique? When you are on a limited timeline, which should you attack first? In starting a new season, as a coach, what message do you want to send to your swimmers?
Some people have the STRANGE idea that because I’m a "technique person," I don’t believe in hard work. I’ve addressed this issue many times before, but, heck, our sport is all about repetition, so I’ll say it again. Teach first, then train. This applies to both the BIG picture of a swimmer’s career, AND for the little picture, or seasonal planning.
I learned this philosophy from one of the best coaches in the history of our sport, Don Gambril, at the University of Alabama. When I started swimming for "Coach," I had already qualified for the US Olympic Team, so I was probably pretty technically sound. Each year, however, as we set up the season, we started with at least one solid week of stroke drills. Although many of us felt it was boring, the week of drills was the refresher course we needed to get us ready for what was to come.
It also served as a way to ease into the season. At that point in my career, I had been through SO much training, that it wasn’t reasonable to assume I could work HARDER every year? At some point you reach a point where there is no point in doing MORE. This is the point of diminishing returns. It’s the point where, if you try to do MORE, you end up accomplishing LESS. Time constraints, mental stress, and physical strain can all contribute to a swimmer reaching his maximum training load.
While the goal for many coaches, myself included, is to push, and demand that our athletes eventually REACH that point of total commitment and total max-out of performance, the question is when do you START to demand it of them.
While every swimmer is different, this is NOT a question of age necessarily, but rather of WHEN in a SEASON. I received another letter last week from a 14-year-old girl who, in her first week of practice, swam 8,600 yards, with almost 50% of it with pull-buoy and paddles. Now, I’m not going to make any judgments on the coach, because I don’t know him/her, and I don’t know the overall plan. I DO know that this swimmer had NOT been training extensively previous to last week. So, does this sound like a valid way of introducing swimmers to the upcoming season? What kind of yardage is this 14-year old going to build to? Nine thousand? Ten thousand? Fifteen thousand? Oh…and this is with ONE practice a day.
I could get irate about this, but what good would that do? I’m simply complaining and not helping. I empathize with ALL swimmers. I understand the pain you go through on a daily basis, and appreciate how mentally draining and disheartening high yardage can be. To be faced with mega-yardage in the first week or two of your season is even tougher. All I can say is don’t give in, don’t give up, and don’t STOP THINKING!
First, you MUST remember that, as an athlete, this is YOUR career. This is NOT about your coach. It is NOT about your TEAM. It is NOT about your FAMILY or FRIEND. Your swimming career is something for which you have COMPLETE responsibility. If you are successful, the Coach, Team, and possibly family and friends will all be happier, but if you don’t focus on YOU, there is less chance of overall success.
Because you are on a team, you have a responsibility to listen to your coach at all times. Sorry. That’s the way it is. But you also have a LARGER responsibility to your own personal goals. If, in the early weeks of the season, you begin to feel pain, and the WRONG kind of pain, you need to take responsibility for your health and long-term goals and talk to your coach about what’s going on. There is good pain and bad pain. That numbing soreness, the cramping calves in class, the overall general tiredness…that’s GOOD pain. But that sharp join pain each time you lift your arm in the pool and during the day…that’s BAD pain and you need to address it rather than try to work through it. Begin to identify the type of pain that will make you great, and the type of pain that can end your career or your season.
Don’t be a hero and push through the bad pain because you’re afraid someone is going to call you a wimp. Only stupid athletes hurt themselves on purpose, and from my experience, you can’t reach your goals by being stupid. Sounds harsh, sorry, but goals are accomplished through planning.
If something starts to hurt in the wrong way, vary your stroke, or try to make subtle changes in the middle of a set to change the way your muscles work. In my personal teaching and coaching, I work more with ranges of movement, rather than try to teach a swimmer ONE movement that will work for them. The most common form of injury in our sport is repetitive-use injury. Doing the same move over and over and over again can lead to soreness and inflammation. By varying your stroke just a bit from lap to lap or set to set, you may save your shoulders, knees, elbows, and wrists from injury in the long run, and build a well-balanced muscle around those tender joints.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s tough for me to warm-up quickly. I now vary my freestyle during warm-up, and it seems to help me. I swim a lap or two using a straight-arm recovery, then a lap or two using a low-hand recovery. Then I switch to finishing the stroke by lifting my elbow out of the water. Then I switch to pushing my hand all the way through to the finish. So, in a 200, I may use four different types of freestyle strokes, or at least the FOCUS is different. I’m not sure if anyone on deck can see what I’m doing. Heck, actually I’m always hoping nobody is watching. It’s not about what anybody else thinks, it’s about what I feel. Warm-up is my time for ME.
As a coach, I want to push swimmers as far as they can physically go, while still holding on to as much technical mastery possible. This is incredibly demanding both from a physical and mental standpoint. It may not add up to as many yards as other programs, but it’s NEVER about how much TIME you spend in the pool. it’s about HOW you spend your time in the pool. I believe that thrashing back and forth for a couple hours is never as productive as doing proper movements.
For coaches, if your desire is to be a hard-nosed, tough coach, then demand that your swimmers push off perfectly EVERY TIME. DEMAND that they finish at the wall, do TWO-HANDED turns (on breast and fly), get out of the way of the person behind them when they finish. Demand that they listen when you talk, leave on the proper interval, get in on time, breathe every 3 when you say breathe every 3, etc. etc. etc. If they don’t, STEP UP, make them do it again, and don’t move on to the next set until the do the current one properly. If you don’t make it to the end of your planned workout, or if your overall distance doesn’t add up, don’t get worked up. Consider it a victory that they’re actually learning something.
To me, being a tough coach doesn’t mean giving a long set, then kicking back and feeling all pumped up about how hard it’s going to be for the two swimmers who can actually accomplish the set. Being a tough coach is CONSTANTLY reminding your swimmers that you will accept NOTHING but perfection — no matter how far you ask them to swim, or on what interval. Sure, it’s a tougher job than watching, but I thought you wanted to be tough. You can’t just talk it.
For the swimmers, revel in your pain and agony. Do it smartly, and be in tune with your body always. It’s better to swim slow, or rest for a day, than it is to permanently injure yourself and end up sitting on the deck… uh…with your coach and a bag of ice. This is the time you need to remember for the rest of your life. These tough days are the ones that make you so special. Getting through them will give you SUCH a sense of pride later in life that you’ll never forget what you did. This time in your life teaches you time management, the importance of selecting supportive friends, the importance of GOOD study habits, and the importance of diet, rest, and overall life balance.
Become the athlete you were destined to be, whatever level that is. Just stay in tune with yourself, and be honest with yourself.