When I was a wee lad making my way through elementary school we had art projects that were an attempt to make everyone feel like they were budding artists. The art projects were simple. You had a sheet of paper filled with lines and numbers. Each number corresponded to a different color. You had to find the color that matched the number and draw inside the lines. The outcome would be 20 or so pictures that all looked the same. We would have to put our pictures up in front of the class to be judged. I never won, and I am still bitter. I never won because I didnï¿½t draw inside the lines and I drew with whatever color I thought would make the best picture.
I still harbor those feelings of bitterness in my coaching, but I am trying to change the judging. During our taper we divide the sprint group into three different groups — Orange, Blue, and Silver. The groups are a way to give each athlete the rest he/she needs, based on physique and upcoming race agenda. The Orange group is made up of people who are larger in mass, i.e., they have more meat. This group is targeted to receive the most rest of all of the groups. The Blue group is for athletes who require a slightly higher volume of work. These swimmers are very fit but not as massive as some members of the Orange group. Athletes in the Silver group require the least amount of rest. They will be competing in 200s at league championships. This arrangement is reminiscent of the paint-by-numbers projects that I detested as a child. After all, weï¿½ve put the athletes in GROUPS rather than treat each one as an INDIVIDUAL. But there is a difference.
I encourage each athlete to color outside the lines. I make the workouts as flexible as I can to leave room for individuality. Each athlete will have the freedom in practice to make the choices they feel fit them best. For example, I give sets that we have labeled ï¿½visualimization.ï¿½ The point is to bring your race visualization to life at a very relaxed pace. There isnï¿½t a set amount of yardage. Each athlete has to pick which race he wants to focus on. There are so many different ways to race the same race. It is up to each athlete to race the race the way that is best for him or her. This is why I need to give control to the swimmers in this point of the season. If I have three athletes who are all going to swim the 200 free at the end of the season, I have three athletes with three different race strategies. One might have a strong underwater kick as her strongest asset. One might have a strong pull. Another could have great turns. I canï¿½t write a practice that highlights every possible scenario for race strategy. What I CAN DO is help each athlete find his or her individual strength and develop a race strategy based on that. Go outside the lines and draw the picture that fits you.
I also encourage the athletes to choose their own colors. If they look like an Orange but feel like a Blue, they can go with Blue. Four athletes have changed groups since we started taper. They always move down in groups. I place people in groups conservatively based on their highest-yardage event. But just because someone races a 200 of stroke doesnï¿½t mean he needs to do more yards than someone who races the 100 of stroke. Some athletes respond better with more rest than others. One sprinter who has been in the Blue group for the past two years was moved to the Orange group this week. He is a much different swimmer this season. Throughout the season he has put on about 10 pounds of muscle mass. His body has changed and so have his needs. He was feeling lethargic in the water during the first week of taper. It seemed to me and to him that he didnï¿½t have his usual quickness at this point in the season. We concluded that he wasnï¿½t getting the rest he needs for his muscles to recover. As an Orange, he has already shown signs of getting back his quickness and confidence this week.
Beyond colors and lines I want the athletes to think for themselves and to think bigger. If each athlete were to choose one color and stay within the lines, weï¿½d get twenty identical pictures. They would also be able to hang their paintings in a matter of minutes. It wouldnï¿½t require any effort or thought. No one would failï¿½but there would be no chance of greatness. No chance for genius to come through. To make a truly great piece of art takes weeks of preparation, thought, and individuality. Michelangelo was quoted as saying, ï¿½If people knew how hard I have had to work to gain my mastery it wouldnï¿½t seem wonderful at all.ï¿½
Rather than supply each athlete with a sheet of paper with lines and numbers, we give them a blank sheet and ask them to sketch out their painting weeks in advance. Theyï¿½ve been sketching all season. Now, during taper, itï¿½s time to apply the final strokes and touches. Some of the final touches are mental.
We have a routine for the three weeks leading to league championships. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday we simulate the order of events as they will occur at championships (a three-day meet). Thursday our focus is on Sprinting in itï¿½s purest form. This is the day we have the 200 free relay as well as the 50 free. I try to get my swimmers pumped because we can steal a lot of the energy and momentum of a meet on this day. This is the day that the sprint group earns their keep. On Friday we focus on our 100s of stroke, and on the 200 free for those who will be racing that. The sprint medley relay is also on Friday. Saturday is another day for our athletes to bring it home. This is the final day and decides the winner of the meet as well as being the day for the 100 free and 200s of stroke. The final event of the meet is the 400 free relay. On each of these days we prepare in ways that seem kind of silly to everyone else. In the pool we finish the practice with races from the blocks. They arenï¿½t your typical racesï¿½ they are done with control and with a lot of thought. This is the time to think about what you are going to do weeks from now ï¿½ in championships. When we get to championships we have already raced the race in our heads so many times that it becomes automatic. The athletes can just be in the moment because they know exactly how they are going to swim their races. They can let their preparation and energy carry them.
The mental part of swimming extends to what happens on the way to the block. Trying to leave no stone unturned, we practice this aspect as well. Part of being a winner is knowing that you are a winner. There are tons of distractions at big meets. The winners block them out by focusing on what they need to do. To help each athlete learn to shut out distractions and FOCUS, we run them through ï¿½the gauntlet.ï¿½ The gauntlet consists of every athlete in the sprint group lining the deck and trying their best to create a championship environment by yelling and screaming. One athlete has to go to where the ready room would be. He then must walk through the gauntlet of peers with one objective: convince them that he is a winner. If the swimmer smiles or laughs at what people around him are saying, the swimmer has not succeeded, and must run the gauntlet again until he can do it without losing focus. This really works, but it is also a lot of fun.
At this point in the season I am reminded of a favorite book of mine — The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn. There is a passage that talks about the importance of taking individual responsibility. The master tells the pupil that he can only bring him to the bridgeï¿½ it is up to the student to cross it. Each of our athletes is at the bridge. They know how to do everything to succeed. Now they have to cross the bridge. At league championships, each one will see his or her name on the board. They have to know that when they see their name, they will have done everything they can do to prepare for the moment. And then they must step forward into the moment. They must hold up the painting they have worked so hard to create.