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How Do Swimmers Improve?

What are the skills you want each of your swimmers to have?  Do they demonstrate these skills every day, on every length, off every wall?  What would you give to look at a pool full of swimmers, each of whom is doing everything right, all the time?

021508.finish.550OK… sure… talk about something to wish for, but in reality that scenario won’t happen.  Even the best swimmers have off days.  Even the best teams have off days.  Dreams still live on, however.

While most coaches would give anything to have a pool full of technically proficient swimmers, most coaches would also love to have a pool full of really fast swimmers.   Those two goals are not mutually exclusive, but let’s face it…as coaches we often make a choice between one or the other.  In the quest for “advancement,” faster times usually trump better, more beautiful technique as the daily or seasonal goal.   What’s ironic, though, is that in the quest for advancement, putting FAST before TECHNIQUE is sometimes putting the cart in front of the horse.

Our goal as coaches is to continue to push the intervals of training further down, to get the swimmers to go faster on the same set.  This shows improvement over time, allows us to get more creative with sets, and potentially frees up time in practice to work on many other aspects of swimming.

Improvement
If the swimmers are doing a standard set of 10 x 100 on 1:20 (sorry to be so boring, just an illustration), we will typically do what we can over time to get them to 10 x 100 on 1:15, and then 10 x 100 on 1:10… etc.  We view these advances in set performance to be improvement.  While it can’t be argued that if someone has made this progression over time, improvement has occurred.  The question is, HOW did that improvement occur?  Was the improvement the result of maturation?  Was the improvement due to the increased fitness?  Was the improvement due to a better team spirit with teammates encouraging each other?  Was the improvement technical?

Typically, improvement is a combination of all factors, but which one will stand the test of time the best?

  • Maturation – There is no avoiding this one.  Kids will get faster over time due to growth, increased strength, longer levers, just getting bigger.  We bank on this as coaches, and it’s the easy out for coaches of the younger swimmers to justify whatever training they’re giving as proof that the training is working.
  • Increased Fitness – Absolutely.  If you work out every day, you build a base of fitness.  If you continue to work out, without miss, you’ll continue to get in better shape.  Consistency of attendance and commitment to the training are two of the biggest factors in improvement.  Miss a practice here and there, and the building blocks of fitness get chipped away.  This is a 3-steps-forward, 1-step-back sorta thing.  If you make 3 practices in a row, then miss one, consider the first of those three to not have happened at all.  Training is a series of building blocks that get stacked on top of each other.  As you lay one on top of the other, and continue to stack training on top of training, you’ll see results.  Miss a few blocks here and there, and you just won’t get in the shape that you need to be in at the end of a season.
  • Team Dynamic – Sure, swimming is an individual sport, but for only so long.  It’s an incredibly lonely sport while you’re training.  It’s just you and the water.  Having supportive friends who are going through the same thing you are, at the same time, can mean the difference between giving that extra effort when you don’t want to, or just telling yourself you’ve done enough.
  • Technical Improvement – Ever heard the expression, it’s just like riding a bike.  Once you’ve learned a skill, you’ll retain that skill.  If you never learned how to ride a bike as a kid, it’s a daunting process, mostly overcoming the mental aspect.  Imagine as an athlete, you’ve improved gradually with all the previous steps, through the natural discovery of how to swim, yet the absolute skills necessary to allow you to go faster (those skills I asked you to conjure up in the first paragraph), were never learned.  It’s frustrating to work so hard, to see others go faster.  There are certain things that every individual needs to learn, and that means specific things about how THEY swim, how THEY interact with the water, that will be different from how others swim.  The earlier the learning process starts about that interaction, the better prepared that athlete will be when those skills need to be called on.

Which of these aspects of improvement will last the longest?  I think it’s pretty easy to determine that one.  Maturation ends at some point.  Fitness can only go so far.  You can only train so hard, and get so strong.  Team Dynamics are tough to maintain from season to season and, eventually, you change teams.  Technical Improvement, or skill acquisition, doesn’t go away.

Of course there are many more aspects that go into improvement, but of some main ones, technique will last the longest.

When you teach someone a better way of doing something, you’ve given them a gift that will last a very long time.  No aspect of improvement is above the others, and all, including many not listed, are necessary for the ultimate success:  reaching your potential.

That is seldom done.