How do you know when what you’re doing in practice is unproductive? When is working harder, just not doing what you want it to do in the long run? Here are a couple ideas that can help.
When swimmers workout, especially young swimmers, the thought process is initially… finish the set. The set has an assigned number of reps, the distance, and typically the interval. Some coaches will add a technique focus to the set like… 3 dolphin kicks off each wall, or breathe every 5th stroke in addition to the regular parameters. However, it’s very important that athletes, of all ages, add their own control mechanisms to the set.
There are a couple very simple things every athlete can do to understand when things are falling apart to the point of unproductivity. Now, prior to going too far into this, please understand, I get the idea that swimmers will need to fall apart during some sets, while I may or may not agree with that… I understand the philosophy behind it… so the swimmer knows how to react when they’re falling apart at the end of a race. I also understand that sometimes “making” the set IS the main goal, and coaches will be progressing swimmers to faster and faster intervals to continue to challenge their swimmers to get faster, far too often, young swimmers can be sacrificing long term success for short term improvement.
Speaking from a coach’s standpoint, I believe we must not worry as much about how fast the intervals get, but rather, how much technical proficiency can be accomplished within a set interval. In other words, as the swimmer gains more skill, matures a bit, are they able to hold better form, longer underwater, better breathing patterns, at intervals that used to be a challenge just to make. The pattern of improvement should be massive technical mastery at a set interval, and THEN… drop the interval by :05. Not drop the interval by :05, and then hope they can hold form.
Again, here are two very simple additions that swimmers should know about themselves, and coaches should remind swimmers about… as well as knowing the limits of the swimmers.
Breakout Point – We’ve written about this before, but it never gets old (and unfortunately, never sinks in enough). When you first jump in to the pool, do a fairly standard push-off. Before you get tired, before you start to hammer, where does a typical, smooth, double dolphin kick, or underwater breaststroke pull get you to? Mark that spot. Through the rest of practice… no matter what you’re doing… where are you coming up in relation to that spot?
By becoming aware of what is easy, what is possible, and what should be the least acceptable spot of that breakout, swimmers have no choice but to be honest with themselves about how they’re doing during practice. Not making the spot? Why not? Running out of air? Bummer. Sure it’s goint to be tough for a few months while you get used to expecting higher standards from yourself, but once this becomes the norm… the norm can be pushed to a higher norm. Never settle you’ve made the spot where it CAN be… until your push-offs are at 15 meters.
Stroke Count – We’ve written about this too, but on our own team, where I personally remind swimmers every day… I continue to see very tall swimmers taking 16-18 strokes per length on freestyle. Swimmers who, when focused and relaxed, can easily make a length with 11 strokes. For some reason, in the heat of practice, the thought of technique takes the second spot to the thought of making the interval.
Knowing your REAL stroke count takes time. While push-offs are pretty easy to see, there will be variations on stroke count based on the speed of the swim, the distance of the swim, the intensity. Swimmers should be aware of “what is acceptable” for them, and they should frequently check to see how they’re doing. While understanding what it takes to count strokes while counting laps while keeping track of what number repeat you’re on while knowing when you’re supposed to leave for the next swim… sounds like a lot, all of these become part of being a better swimmer. I think a better word for all of this would be AWARENESS.
Here’s a simpler way to become aware. Start during your next warm-up. Swim with a smooth, long-stroke, and count your strokes. While this will be a bit extreme, it gives you an idea of what you’re capable of. During your practice, spot-check your strokes. When you really start to feel bad, stroke falling apart, having a hard time making the interval… spot check a length there. If you’re more than a few strokes higher, you have to ask yourself if what you’re teaching yourself is what’s going to make you a better swimmer. Remember, very fit people without the technical mastery of swimming, have a very difficult time swimming smoothly, easily, or fast.
We’ll leave it at that… two things… where you break out, and an awareness of how many strokes you take. Making those two parameters a constant and consistent part of every practice will add a new level of honesty to each practice, and long term… make you a much better swimmer.