Week #9: Weeding Out Excuses

�I missed my turn, Coach.� �My start was slow.� �My finish was slow.� How often have you heard � or UTTERED � one of these commonplace excuses for a mediocre performance?

This week our goal is to eradicate the Excuse Mistakes � banish them from our vocabularies and from our swimming. This is every swimmer�s responsibility, but it�s every COACH�S responsibility as well. I believe that if one of my swimmers loses a race due to a poor start, turn, or finish, it�s largely my fault that they weren�t better prepared. So in each of our practices we will pay particular attention to starts, turns, and finishes.

I think that starts, turns, and finishes are taken for granted by much of the coaching community. Some coaches conclude that good starts, turns, and finishes either come naturally, or never come at all � and that you can�t do much to improve them. Others believe that starts, turns, and finishes are relatively inconsequential compared to training � or that they�ll improve automatically if the swimmer just does enough of them.

I remember as a swimmer that we spent one day a year focusing on starts and turns. It was a joyous day of celebration because we did fewer laps and went through every start and turn progression that my coach had read about. For that one day, everyone was at his or her best on the blocks and walls. The only problem? That was the ONLY day we were great on the blocks and walls. What we learned on �starts-and-turns day� lasted about a week, then was slowly replaced by less mindful turns. The reversion was due to force of habit. It would have taken more than a single starts-and-turns day to correct the habits ingrained by THOUSANDS of mediocre, mindless repetitions. I am not excusing my own bad practice habits. Even with the best coaching (and my coach was one of the all-time greats), it is still the responsibility of each athlete to focus on doing everything right in practice. With that in mind, it�s the coach�s responsibility to teach good form, and then to demand attention to detail on every lap.

Every day we strive for intensity of focus and attention to detail. In other words, we look for perfection on the little things. We call them the Racing Intangibles � the aspects of racing that are too often neglected and thought to be beyond conscious control. The mission in the sprint group is to make the intangible tangible, and to be conscious of the things we do unconsciously. To help us do this, we have changed the physical environment of our pool. I have the luxury of coaching at a 50-meter X 25-yard pool with two moveable bulkheads. We have pushed the bulkheads to within 13 yards (4 lanes) of each other in the middle of the pool, and have designated this as the Sprint Zone. At the beginning of certain practices, we take out the lane lines and swim across the four lanes — 13 yards. With only 13 yards of water and two walls, we can focus on working starts, turns, and finishes above race speed. If you don�t have a 50-meter pool, you could achieve the same kind of environment (except for the bulkheads) by taking out the lane lines in a standard 6-lane, 25-yard pool.

We began practice with a start progression that focused on a clean entry. The first step was to jump off the bulkhead and enter the water as cleanly as possible. To illustrate this to our budding engineers, mathematicians, and doctors, I asked them to enter the water like the X axis intersecting the Y axis at zero. I say things like this to pretend I am smart, which usually makes them laugh because they know I am not. The next step is to jump off the bulkhead, touch your toes, and enter feet first. The final step is to jump, touch the toes, and enter hands first but completely vertical, like a platform diver going for a perfect �10.� This helps ingrain the pike motion essential to a clean entry, and to a fast start. When everyone had a good grasp on the pike motion and smooth entry, we went to the practical application. Each swimmer did three starts off the bulkhead and stayed in balanced streamline until he or she touched the opposite bulkhead. Not everyone was perfect on Day #1, but everyone is improving, and will have an opportunity to work on starts every day.

We spent the next 30 minutes swimming bulkhead to bulkhead to bulkhead 26s with a variety of focus points. Having a 13-yard �pool� provides a great opportunity to work on turns and pushoffs at full speed without the fatigue factor. Our first set was 4 X 26, focusing on fast turns. The first 26 was at a speed that allowed them to achieve perfection on the turn. The next three were at race speed without changing anything, i.e., they should still be perfect. For the next step we went 8 X 26 and added fast underwater dolphin kick. The entire 26 was underwater dolphin except for the turn, which was at full speed. We ended with two super-short-course 100s. They were actually 62s (4 X 13 yards). Each swimmer started from the bulkhead and swam each length all out, making the walls as fast as they could. For the swimmers, it was like being inside a pinball machine. For me, it was like watching a ping-pong match.

Reconfiguring the pool has changed the atmosphere of practice. We�re now in the X-league � the extreme end of the sport � and the swimmers really enjoy being able to do some ultra-fast swimming. If I had to compare it to one of the new extreme sports it would be Slam Ball, the full-contact basketball game that is played on a court with trampolines and no real rules. The trampolines provide a boost to the players so that they can soar and dunk the ball from 20 feet away. Having the bulkheads 13 yards apart gives our athletes the sensation of soaring through the air by making the wall closer. Unfortunately the finishes are not quite so spectacular as a two-hand reverse jam, and there is no contact involved, but remember that this is just our first week, and these are very inventive students.

The biggest benefit to starting practice like this is that each athlete must take ownership of his or her swimming. The short walls help them see vividly and immediately �what I did right� and �what I need to do better.� It makes them see and feel the importance of attending to the details.