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How To Coach So Kids Will Want To Swim

Here’s a message that was posted recently on the Go Swim discussion board:

Glenn,
Let’s assume we’ve done a good job teaching technique. How do we build the base that science tells us is so important and that the elite coaches rely on to get swimmers to swim real fast? I see many discussions about young age-group “technique-oriented” practices and race-pace “elite” practices. How do we convince our young athletes and parents that nothing is more important than time spent in the pool? How do we sell our swimmers that there is value in grinding it out and going the distance? — Coach Larry

Larry,
Without a doubt there is no substitute for mileage in the water, but my coaching philosophy is: Teach first, then train.

That’s it. I like to keep things simple. Teach someone the proper mechanisms of swimming, then train the swimmer to maintain those correct movements for as long as possible, at the highest possible rate of speed.

Coaching requires the ability to push your athletes as far as possible until technical breakdown of the stroke occurs; in fact, pushing them past the breakdown point isn’t always so harmful either. It teaches them how to react to all the physiological stresses that set in during the last 5 to 10 meters (perhaps more) of a great race. If they’ve never been pushed to that point in practice, they won’t know how to recognize it or cope with it in a race.

But if a coach pushes too hard too soon, burnout and total breakdown can occur and the swimmer may quit the sport. Time spent in the pool is important but, in general, ten-year-old swimmers should be in the pool for less time than 14-year-old swimmers, who should be in the pool for less time than 18-year-old swimmers. The trick is to be able to provide a stepped program for each swimmer, based on age, goals, and level of commitment. Take, for example, an age-group swimmer whom you want to peak for the ultimate swimming performance as a senior in high school – right when the college recruiters are watching. In the perfect world, you can offer him/her 11 to 12 practices per week. This is every morning and every evening, Monday through Saturday.

As a freshman, the swimmer may come only in the afternoons and on Saturday morning – 6 practices per week. As a sophomore, the swimmer adds Tuesday and Thursday mornings. If each practice is about 5000 yards, you’ll be increasing the workload by about 33% that year.

Depending on the swimmer’s reaction to the workload increase, she could increase her junior-year swim load with morning workouts on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday or on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If the workout schedule now includes four weekday mornings, five afternoons, plus one Saturday, you’ve increased the load by another 25%, or by 66% over the start of the high school career.

If the athlete is thriving in this environment physically, mentally, AND emotionally, then at some point in the junior year he/she could jump to the full load of 11 to 12 practices per week. I say this because the year prior to the desired peak-performance year plays a great role in the ultimate performance. Many people wait too long, and start this preparation too late.

The senior year does require total commitment: every practice offered by the team, with the coach paying close attention to the athlete’s emotional state, as this is a very demanding time not only from an athletic point of view, but also from a “life” point of view. Allowing the athlete to skip a practice here and there (coach approved, NOT decided by the swimmer), gives the athlete the trust he/she needs in the coach to know that the program is designed in their best interest. Don’t forget, however, that too-frequent gifts by the coach take away from the reality of the commitment level needed for peak performance.

Something NOT taken into this equation but that has a definite impact on overall yardage and your creativity as a coach, is that swimmers generally get stronger, taller, and (with good coaching) more technically proficient as they get older. Let’s say that a freshman swimmer with reasonably good technique requires a base interval of 1:30/100 yards to maintain proper mechanics. By senior year, that same swimmer may require only a 1:10 interval, which means MORE yardage can be done in the same amount of time. The 5000-yard freshman practices could easily grow to 6000 yards (or more) in senior year. This means you’ll have more time as a coach to create specific practices that will keep THIS PARTICULAR SWIMMER mentally involved, plus pinpoint the specific event for which he/she is training.

Selling all of this? Hmmmm. That’s always the trick, isn’t it? If I were to start a team from scratch (big smile here), I’d make sure of a couple of things.

First, I’d make sure that the people who join my team understand that this is a partnership among coach, swimmer, and parent. We’ll each play our own role, and the parents’ role is one of patience, trust, and love. They must have patience to let their swimmers develop in a graduated, planned way – not all at once. They must trust that the coach can outline such a program and guide the swimmer through it. If they want their young, inexperienced swimmer to make national cuts in three months and demand 12 practices per week (or else they’re moving to another team), then I’ll suggest they leave now. More than likely, it’s going to take three months of primarily technique work so we can start training.

The swimmer must also show patience, and must understand the entire process. Their role is also to have a goal. We as coaches should encourage them to have both short- and long-term goals, and should be able to guide kids through the goal-setting process. We should also never underestimate the ability of even the youngest child to have a dream and a goal. We need to help them dream and to set realistic goals, and outline programs to reach them. Parents need to be part of this process, but goals should be set and articulated by the swimmer. Parents need to be on hand to determine whether THEY can devote the necessary support time to help the swimmer reach those goals. I talk more about this goal-setting process in an article titled “Commitment Is a Team Effort.”

Once goals are determined, it’s the coach’s role to devise a program that will help the swimmer reach those goals. The swimmer must then meet or EXCEDE the agreed-upon work schedule, and NO excuse is valid once the athlete falls below the minimum required workload. Failure to meet the requirements is a path toward failure for everyone and has the potential of harming other swimmers within the program. This means the penalty for a lack of commitment could carry the consequence of removal from the program. Sound harsh? Well, consider your own job. If you don’t show up, or if you don’t call in if you are sick or an emergency comes up, what happens? We all talk about teaching kids life lessons through sport. What better way to teach them about commitment, teamwork, and responsible behavior — and the consequences of their actions and decisions. I want them to realize the direct relationship between work and reward.

Kids respond well to discipline when it’s given with the absolute meaning of “for their good.” This means you can’t require things from kids based on YOUR desire to DEMAND RESPECT! Or to SHOW WHO’S THE BOSS! Kids will see through this and, eventually, harshness loses its effect. If your desire is to make your swimmers truly happy, then you’ll do what’s best for them, not what’s best for you or your ego. If your goal is to make a few of them really fast so that you can pad your resume as a coach, then 95% of all athletes who swim for you will have a disappointing experience in the sport.
It’s been my experience that kids WANT to perform at their best. They need your help to pull the best out of them. They thrive when they sense improvement, and will work even harder if they hear your praise and feel you’re there for them.

There’s no quick and easy answer to your question of how to convince swimmers that they need to spend time in the pool in order to reach their potential. The swimmer has to have a goal. The parents have to support that goal with time and love (and, yes, money). And the coach has to know how to help EACH SWIMMER achieve his or her goal, no matter whether it involves a trip to the Olympic podium or just to be able to swim a legal butterfly. This requires constant attention to EACH swimmer – what he needs, how he’s progressing, how he’s feeling, what his times are. No coach will ever motivate a kid by giving a set (10 X 100 is the classic), then burying himself in a cup of coffee and the morning paper. A coach can’t make kids WANT to work for her if she is always screaming about the bad turns and never applauding the good ones. Every time an athlete TOUCHES the water, the coach MUST BE ON! The coach must DEMAND attention, focus, and work…every morning, afternoon, and weekend. After the swimming is done, the same level of focus MUST be reached in the weight room or on the dryland mat. Treat your pool and weight room as if it were a dojo, and your swimmers as if they were aspiring to triple black belt in karate. Demand respect, honor, and commitment. Place the highest value on perfection of movement, and on having the focus of a warrior. If you find you’re surrounded by athletes who don’t meet these requirements, teach them how to find focus and desire. It will be difficult at first. People may leave your program because you’re no fun anymore. Just make sure you turn off the Rambo/Rocky attitude when practice ends. You can be firm without screaming or ranting. Be respectful to your swimmers. Explain WHY they are doing each set or drill. Show you care but, again, be firm in focusing on what they need to do to achieve the next level.

In the end, the people who travel this path with you will be physically fit beyond their wildest imagination. They will be mentally strong. They will be respectful and responsible youth. And, they will more than likely swim MUCH faster than they ever dreamed. In a few years, your biggest problem will be lack of room for members on your team. People desire this kind of program for their children. If you need proof, ask your local karate teacher how business is doing…or check the waiting list at any private school. Kids thrive on challenge and discipline and individual attention. Coaches who can provide this, along with a sensible, stepped program, should have success in helping kids WANT to Go Swim.