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Week #8: Slam Dunk

This past summer, Argentina pulled off one of the biggest upsets in international competition history and proved that style ain�t everything. The basketball game was a huge mismatch on paper. The Argentinean team was matched against an American squad composed of some of the biggest and brightest stars the NBA has to offer. The Americans played to the crowd, going for impressive dunks and no-look passes. The Argentineans played a fundamentally sound game, doing all of the things necessary to win. They pounded the boards and hustled after loose balls. Their shots weren�t impressive feats of athleticism, but they went through the hoop. They out-rebounded, out-assisted, outscored, and just plain out-hustled the high-priced Americans.

As a swimming coach who relies heavily on teaching technique, my fear is that we will produce American basketball stars who go for the pretty plays, not the sound plays.

In the past six weeks, the athletes I work with have responded well to two weeks of drill-oriented practices. They are starting to look pretty in the water. This is a good thing to a certain extent. I want to instill the importance of a QUALITY of motion in the athletes, but also want them to push themselves. Each athlete has to find a balance between looking good and swimming fast. Right now we are in a big comfort zone.

This past weekend was our first taste of competition, and it looked that way. I am not a fan of early season competition. If it were up to me we would have at least three months to learn all of the things you need to know to be successful in racing. We looked like the American basketball players of this past summer. It is the little things in racing that separate great performances from the barely adequate. So much of the work that we have put in to this point concentrates the efforts into what happens in the middle of the pool, like putting the ball in the basket. This is an important part of swimming, but not the most important part. Races are won and lost on the things that happen at the far ends of the pool � approaches, starts, turns, underwaters, and breakouts. In basketball, you keep stats for rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. I wish we kept similar stats in swimming. Wouldn�t it be nice, after each race, to have definitive data on time off of the blocks, in and out of the wall, resistance of breakouts, and finish speed?

The results of this weekend were as expected: slow. I was looking at a pool of pretty swimmers with slow starts, sloppy turns, and unfocused breakouts and underwaters. This was a little frustrating knowing how good these athletes can be when they pay attention to the things that are needed to win. They know how to do it. At last season�s championships, I witnessed each and every athlete swimming with complete focus. Their focus on the details of their races won them two team championships.

This week I am trying to push the athletes out of the comfort zone and in to a real time zone. I have been reading Dave�s posts on how he trains a lot of the time at or above race pace. We aren�t quite there yet, but we are starting to make that transition into fast, quality swimming. During warm-up the drilling this week is more of an exaggerated swim. The objective for the athletes is to do the drills they just learned with more rhythm and flow, without changing the quality. We have also been adding cycle bursts at the beginning practice to introduce the notion that now it�s time to DO AT FAST PACE what we�ve been LEARNING AT SLOW PACE.

Now that we are in the second phase of the season, I get to work with the sprinters alone. We will begin every practice by working on starts. We�ll start with the basics this week, and progress to more advanced skills as the season progresses.

Starts, in my estimation, are the most athletic motion required of swimmers. I want my swimmers to look and act like athletes while they are on the blocks. This week we�ll work on how we stand on the blocks while preparing for a race. There are several effective ways to stand, and we�ll experiment with those � as we weed out the WRONG ways to stand. After we develop athletic starting positions, we will work on exploding off the block, by firing the head, hands, and hips out. In the first couple of weeks, we work on quickness and reaction time off the blocks. As the season goes on, we�ll work on proper entries and underwaters.

As a part of our season development, we have a test set every Tuesday throughout the season. The purpose is to get the athletes race ready without being in a race. I force my athletes to use their heads every day while they are practicing. The test sets allow the swimmers to work out any kinks that may affect race performance.

Yogi Bera once asked, �How can I think and hit a baseball at the same time?� No quote can be more readily applied to racing fast. Practice is the time to prepare yourself physically and mentally for racing. When you are in a race there isn�t enough time to think AND race. You have to rely on your preparation, and simply REACT when the gun goes off.

Here is the first test set that we do:
*6 x 100
The * is to let the athletes know that this is a test set and they have to go all out. The 100s are on a five-minute sendoff, so the test set will take roughly 30 minutes.

Here is the schedule of for �Test-Set Tuesdays� that we do throughout the season. Each box represents a successive Tuesday throughout the season. We vary the distance each week to work on different races that we have in the meet. We take an average for each set and then double to give athletes goal times for longer distances. For instance, this week we are swimming 6 x 100. If Mr. Blue averages 50 seconds, his goal time for the 200 will be a 100 seconds � or 1:40. The times give us good feedback, but we pay more attention to the WAY each athlete swims than to his or her times. In the early season we use time as an indicator that they must continue to experiment in order to be successful. As the season progresses, we hold them more closely to the time standard that is expected of each athlete. At the end of the season, we take away time all together. The feedback at the end is more of a Socratic method. At the end of the year we want the athletes to be able to tell us if the swim was fast or not without seeing a clock.

The athletes have learned how to look pretty. Now they must learn how to put the nasty into their swimming that is required to win. They have to find a way to push themselves physically without shutting down their brains. This week marks the start of that process, and it will continue for the next four months. The test set was very successful this week in accomplishing the goal of getting athletes out of their comfort zones. Each athlete got up and gave it their all for each of the six 100s. The downside of the set was that strokes were falling apart the further we went into the set. Now the goal is to build their strokes back up to where they were so that next time we can swim fast and hold our strokes together.