How much is too much? As a coach this is a question you have to ask on a daily basis. You want to be on the fringe without going too far. After all, reaching a breaking point can’t be good; otherwise, there would be a better name for it.
In swimming there are two dependent variables you have to consider: How much is too much physically? And how much is too much mentally? The first is rather easy to determine. Over the course of a season, you do a certain thing or set or practice several times. You start out the season by doing that thing, set, or practice at a lower volume or with less intensity — usually with softer intervals. As the weeks go by, you need to adjust the intensity and work load. If you stay at the same level at which you start, you will never progress, but giving your swimmers too much too soon will make them regress. This is kind of like driving on the highway. The speed limit is an acceptable speed at which you are supposed to travel. There is a buffer that goes on both sides of the limit. If you are traveling down Route 50 here in Annapolis, the speed limit is 55 mph. So you are “allowed” (most of the time) to travel between about 70 mph and 45 mph. Everyday I drive on Route 50 I see someone on the side of the road who decided that 70 was too slow. As a result they must go to court and pay a fine. So when you are pushing your swimmers, you want to keep them within that buffer.
Sometimes, when you are speeding in a car, there are even more dire consequences than going to court and paying a fine. You can also crash and get hurt and end up hurting other people. The same is true in swimming. There are some very dire consequences to doing too much. If as a coach you never allow time for your swimmers to recover, you can cause major physical damage to an their muscles and joints. This is the obvious consequence of doing too much. Physically maxing out your swimmers is sometimes not such a bad thing. All you need to do is back off a little. You can do a day of recovery, or maybe it is even timed so that you will be starting taper.
The not-so-obvious consequence of doing too much too soon is what you are doing to your athletes mentally. It’s easy to forget how complicated life is as a young kid, or adolescent. Being a kid is something that should require as much attention as the Xs and Os of coaching. When you push a swimmer until something goes snap inside his or her head, the consequences can be permanent. Swimming is about more than a group of kids going up and down the pool at a certain speed for a certain distance. The kids that you coach are not there to serve your interests. It is the other way around. Pushing kids and young adults takes as much building up as it does breaking down. The task as a coach is to mix the physical demands with the emotional encouragement. Keeping a kid from reaching the breaking point is not that hard to do. All you need to do is communicate.
When I was a kid, I had the pleasure of swimming for one of the “gods” of Western New York swimming — Tom Farenholtz. While I was swimming for him it amazed me how he defied the definition of what a coach was supposed to be. As a kid I had the impression that coaches were well organized and prepared with all the answers. One of my favorite things about Coach Farenholtz was that he was none of those. I can recall more than once him asking me if I had seen his glasses, to which I would reply “they are on your head, Coach.” While he wasn’t the stereotype of what a coach was or is supposed to be, he was the best motivator I have ever met. He had a kindness and openess to him that made it impossible to let him down. He was always encouraging you to go faster, not yelling and saying you are going too slow. When you would see him in the hall he would ask how is everything going? How is school? How are your folks? It didn’t take much time, but it left a lasting impression.
The next time you are on deck, remember how lucky you are to be doing what you are doing. This job is not a drag, so don’t treat it like one. You have kids who are thirsting for your attention. Give it to them. Ask how school is going, tell a story, tell a joke, then beat the living snot out of them in the pool. That little amount of encouragement will go miles in preventing them from reaching their breaking point.