What is hard work?
Because of my work over the past five years, it’s already starting here, with e-mail questions about training. What do I believe, and do I "still think" swimmers don’t need to work hard? I want to set up my belief structure as we set up the website and the business, and clear up ANY misconceptions that may carry forward with me from my previous business and training associations.
When I was an athlete, training meant a lot of swimming. We didn’t do a lot of technique work during my elite years, but rather took the form that we had, and challenged it on a daily basis. We swam with much pain day in and day out. As I like to say it, we learned better technique through survival. While at the initial reading of this, it sounds funny, it is also absolutely true.
In 1980, I was swimming under Dennis Pursley at the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins. We were the best team in the United States that year, placing six people on the US Olympic Team from ONE training group. Our training schedule was grueling to say the least. Twelve water practices per week. 2-1/2 hours in the morning prior to school, and at least 2:45 hours in the afternoon, with two of the practices going for 3 hours. We also did close to 1 hour of dryland before or after each practice. Our "recovery" day was Sunday. Other than that, there was no easy day.
We had close to 40 swimmers in the pool going though this routine, and in order to get any special attention, you had BETTER do something GREAT. It was very easy to get lost in the crowd of great swimmers. The challenges on a daily basis were unbelievable just from trying to race the people in your lane. The breaststroke lane for instance, had two Olympians that year, myself in the 200, and Bill Barrett in the 100. Our team placed 2nd, 6th and 10th at the Olympic Trials in the 100, and 1st, 4th, 6th, and 10th in the 200. And the butterfly lane was the good one. The woman placed 1st, 2nd, and 4th in the 100, missing a lane sweep on the US Olympic Team by only a couple tenths of a second. A heartbreaker for all of us, and especially for Diane (4th).
Now that the background of my training history is in place, what does all of this mean? Simply put, with all this training, with all this pain, with all this FAST swimming on a daily basis because of the challenges to win a set, you would expect many injuries. Nope. Wrong. Sure, there was tremendous soreness on a daily basis, but injuries? I can’t remember any, but I’m sure if any of my old team mates read this, I may hear from them.
See, by the time Denny got us, our technique was obviously already very good. Every swimmer in that group had Olympic Trail cuts. We were all already some of the best swimmers in the US. The swimmers were fairly smart about their technique as well. I remember Greg Rhodenbaugh, now one of Amanda Beards coaches, and I working on our turn techniques. And helping his little sister improve her underwater pulls (Kim made the 1984 US Olympic Team in the 200 breast). We were always trying to learn something, but the thing we learned most of all, was adaptation.
If you train this hard on a daily basis, overuse injuries are going to be the most common. Did we have knee pain from almost 10,000 meters of breaststroke a day? Sure. Was it career ending? No. The reason it wasn’t was simple. I remember there not being a question about finishing a set, or finishing a practice. It was expected, so whatever you were feeling, you were going to get through it. This meant if you had pain, you adjusted your stroke. You changed the pitch of your kick. You put the emphasis of your stroke on your pull, on how you dove forward, on how you used your body. After months of this, the results were completely healthy and VERY strong joints, and muscles.
I doubt I was the only swimmer who did stuff like this, but I know it’s now I got through it. At 17 and 18 years old, was this a conscious thought process? No. This was something I did that I realized a few years later. I remembered doing it, but my goal at the time was not to learn more about my stroke. The goal was to beat Greg Higginson, or Bill Barrett, or Greg Rhodenbaugh. Swimmers so many people have never heard of, but still today, some of the greatest swimmers ever. My goal was to get Denny to look at me and smile (those of you who know him, don’t laugh, you know how we as athletes always want that acceptance).
As a Coach, at the time, Denny gave us what we needed. Was it the best way? Would I coach that way now? In a way, YES. Would it be based on the total number of yards? NO.
What I believe is simple. Teach first, then train. The coach’s responsibility is to put the athlete through things they would experience in a race. The greatest races are the most painful, but once completed, with success, the pain IMMEDIATELY goes away. My goal as a coach would be simple, and hopefully, someday soon, WILL be simple. Teach them as perfect technique as possible, then push them as far as physically possible while they maintain that technique. Challenge them on a daily basis to perform at a high performance rate. Give them lots of swimming with correct form. Give them lots of swimming with intensity. Give them lots of swimming at ABOVE race speed. How much is lots? That’s open to discussion. It’s based on the athlete, not the group. Is this my final say on the subject? Or course not. Will people read in to this and say I love yardage? Yes. Will they be correct? No.
I LOVE WORK. I love seeing the athlete struggle. I love seeing the pain that comes with the effort. But most of all, I love seeing the pride of accomplishment that comes from the completion of a task. This means that a lot of the physical work doesn’t necessarily have to come from simply going back and forth in the water. Dryland training becomes increasingly important for our sport as well. From a psychological standpoint, as well as a strength standpoint.
Think of this, does the heart really know why it’s beating fast? If you push a swimmer in the water to exhaustion, and the technique falls completely apart, is it valuable? Only time will tell. But, you can push that swimmer to exhaustion doing sit-ups, and you haven’t harmed the technique at all. The muscle memory in the pool is still set. And we’ve all had a lot of fun!
I guess simply put, I do believe Rocky should be alive in our sport. The intense training is important. I think it needs a little more polish than the 20 grand a day we used to do, but without pain and hard work, I really don’t believe you can achieve the results desired by most athletes. The real question is, where do you get most of your pain from, and where do you practice your art?
I hope this still leaves many questions, but also clears up any misconceptions about my belief in HARD WORK.
Have a great day.