I appreciate being here. When Bob asked me last year to talk on excellence, I asked him if he could more narrowly define the question and he said no, and I said “Why?” And he goes, “I want to see you squirm.” And so if I’m up here squirming, I apologize but I will do the best that I can on this topic.
A number of years ago, as I got into college, it seemed like a lifetime ago, my father presented me with a plaque and he said, “Keep this close to you.” It had two words on it that at the time I couldn’t read despite 4 years of high school, and it just simply said, “Semper Avanti.” At the time it didn’t mean very much to me, being an 18-year-old wet-behind-the-ears kind of guy. But over the years I think I’ve gotten it. Semper avanti in Latin means “always forward”, and I was fortunate enough to have parents who, with that way, both are 80 years old to this day, both of them work full time. Retirement is not in their vocabulary simply because my mother says “everybody I know who’s retired, dies.” So, her philosophy is don’t retire and she’ll live forever. My sisters and I are debating the value of that but we’ll see how it all goes.
Semper Avanti has been kind of the mantra that I’ve tried to build my coaching career around and my teams around, and to a certain extent a compass for me in terms of measuring the progress of the team. Measuring the progress of the program and helping me make hard decisions because that kind of attitude requires certain levels of risk. It demands things that you did are not always comfortable, and that’s kind of what we’re going to talk about. For me that’s the key to excellence, taking that kind of an approach.
I want to give you a little bit of background on where we are at Denison. The men’s program was established in 1963. Coach Ted Barkley, many of you know Ted: he’s still around. He had started the program, Ohio State grad, and our women’s program was established in 1970 as more of a recreational program but they did have some competitive meets.
So Denison swimming isn’t old compared to a lot of other programs out there. Our men’s program is only 47 years old; our women’s program is celebrating its 40th this year. We don’t have the tradition as maybe some other programs out there. We have approximately 60 swimmers in our program, 30 men, 30 women. I have a 6-lane, 25-yard pool that is close to a diving well. At the time it was built, it was state of the art, but as we know, arts change.
In order to get our swimmers through the week, we’ve got to run 20 workouts a week. I’m on deck for all of those. It’s a demanding schedule just simply because of our limited facilities. We have a very well-equipped dryland facility and weight room. And like so many schools and so many of the challenges that we all have, Denison is a very academically-intense environment; and that’s something that has to be factored into our daily decisions and how we go about structuring our program, to make sure that we’re providing an environment that not only sets the kids up for success in the pool but of more importance sets them up for success outside the pool and academically.
We’re also, and I didn’t put this down because I didn’t want it to go on record per se but, we’re a very socially active campus too. The Denison student is an extroverted student and is a very socially-centered person, and there’s a lot of pressures that come along with that. Some of which are academically and, let’s say, service-learning oriented7 but like all college kids, some of which are on the party side too.
So I think like all programs out there, we’re challenged to help our kids balance these sorts of things out. And probably our greatest asset is that we’ve got a very strong and secure budget at Denison. I’m lucky to have the support of the Board of Trustees and the President. I know that there are programs out there that are far less fortunate, they have to work really, really hard to make money to do things. We’re in a very different situation. Not that I can go to the president or go to my athletic director and ask for everything, but I have more resources than most people do and that’s a big part of our success: having those kind of financial resources. If we can get the pool up to that level then we’ll feel a little bit better about things.
I want to talk to you a little bit about my training theories and practice. My background is in exercise physiology and counseling psychology—that’s what my degrees are in. As Tim mentioned [in the introduction], I went to Canyon College and then went on to Michigan State and did my graduate work there. So I’m part practitioner, but I’m also really well-grounded in theory and that guides our program quite a bit.
In terms of the research, we rely really heavy on researchers like Tudor Bompa from Canada; Jean Ulbrich; Bill Heusner, who was my academic adviser in Michigan State, one of the great swimming coaches of all time and one the great exercise physiologists; Hans Selye–if you haven’t heard Hans Selye’s work, you need to. It’s just critical to understanding how the body works and understanding the body as an adaptive organism and the importance of stress, but also the importance of adapting to those stresses.
Then Joel Arthur Barker, if you’ve not read or kept up with any of his work, I’d highly recommend it. Barker was the psychologist… actually a former swimming coach from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, if I understand properly. He was the psychologist back in the 1970s who coined the phrase “paradigms”. Joel’s work was groundbreaking and it talks a lot about how our mindsets influence our success: attitude determines altitude, that kind of thing. Joel also talked about blind spots. He talks about blind spots in the teaching ranks, he talks about blind spots among business people, he talks about blind spots in athletes and how these blind spots ultimately can be around doing. He’s got anecdote after anecdote after anecdote, and I highly recommend that you spend some time with his work because it’s really fed me professionally, and probably personally too.
From a practical application standpoint, our training and what we do is really steeped in a lot of the work that Doc [Counsilman] did. Doc was one of my first mentors and it was an accidental relationship that took place when they first started at Denison and we happened to be sharing the pool down at Florida together, in the last few years of Doc’s career. What an amazing guy, just an amazing human being, and his willingness to sit down with a young, ignorant coach and his patience with me was amazing.
I spent a lot of time with Jon Urbanchek of the University of Michigan, our training models are really modeled after his. Peter Lynn—who I don’t know if he’s here today—has been a great friend over the years, and Peter at Eastern Michigan University, Peter and I collaborate a lot. We trade a lot of notes and a lot of ideas, very generous with his time and energy. And then ultimately, my college coach Jim. Jim is one of the best at what he does and he’s been a great role model.
So, I think in kind of how we approach things; we’re very research-based. I mean we are grounded in the research. We are grounded in the science of swimming and we’re grounded in the research of performance. That’s really, really important. Our workouts are highly organized, our training plans are really well-structured and we run very disciplined workouts. It’s all written, I’ll give you an example. The workouts are written in advanced, and the kids have the workouts usually 12 hours. I emailed the workouts to the kids 12 hours in advance so they can see exactly what’s going on. They can plan for the day. They know what to expect, we get them ready, well and advanced. So they’ll get an email from me in the morning or the evening, maybe the night before, what we’re going to be doing just depending on what my schedule is.
But while we’re research-based, my work has been intuitively modified. I don’t coach just from the head. As a coach, you need to kind of feel your way through this stuff. You may have a plan but dealing with 18-21 year-olds, they have a really good way of messing things up. It’s kind of like a 2-year-old in diapers: you don’t expect it but the next thing you know, you got a mess on your hands.
So they’re intuitively modified and I’m not afraid at all to throw a plan out if I really don’t feel like it’s going in the right direction. More times than not, my intuition serve me well. I usually get into trouble when I stay with the plan that at some level I know is not working, that I become a slave to the plan rather than working with the plan.
So staying free to move around is really important, and I think that’s particularly important for our kids. It’s a good model for our kids too because life is full of unexpected stuff and you’ve got to learn to fly. You got to learn to go with things as they change.
I’ll just give you some fundamentals on our program. This is our training schedule. We take Sundays off. Mondays are A.M. practices and this is for all our training groups. This is sprint, middle distance and distance, regardless of what training group our kids find themselves in, this is what we stick to. Every year, I ask the kids if they want to modify the practice schedule, especially the mornings. Do you want to tear it? Do you want certain groups coming in at certain times; do you want to have more flexibility? Every year for the last 20 – this is my 24th season at Denison, they say, “No, we want to come in together.”
We think it’s important that we come in together; I think it builds a certain level of team unity. It allows them to train together and I think everybody feels like they are on the same page. So morning practices start at 5:45; we’ll conclude at 7:30. Classes at Denison don’t begin until 8:30. So if they have an earliest class, it gives them a full hour to get dressed and fed. If they don’t have an 8:30 then they’ve got a full hour to get dressed and fed and up to the library. That’s kind of our approach on the whole thing. This is morning practice essentially.
So anyway, on Mondays, all our swimmers go through dryland programs: 90 minutes of dryland, whether it’s sprint, middle distance and distance. All of our kids do 90 minutes of dryland, twice a week. I look at swimming as a power sport—even the mile is a power event—and our kids need to have high power levels, regardless if whether they’re swimming the 50 or swimming the mile. They’ve got to have good dryland base on it.
Tuesdays, and then twice a week we are swimming and then Saturday mornings, everybody swims as well for two hours in the morning schedule.
I’m a fan of Tudor Bompa and I’m a fan of periodization. We will typically run 5 mesocycles a season, and each of those mesocycles is broken up into a 4-1 model. The first mesocycle is kind of where we are right now, the kids are starting to get introduced into better fitness, some of them are coming off the beach and not having done anything all summer. So we’re trying to improve general fitness at this point. We’ll amp it up for 5 weeks.
Then after 5 weeks we’ll start getting very serious about our water work; again, another 5 week mesocycle. We then head into mixed training, power buildup, and then finally we generally rest really hard at Denison. We had swimmers last year at Denison at Nationals who were on their 8th week of taper. I’m a big fan of rest. I think rest is probably the most undervalued aspect of swimming. I think too often, our swimmers are getting up on the blocks tired.
Jim talked about one of his early papers. He talked about acute fatigue versus residual fatigue. I think far too many of our athletes are carrying residual fatigue built-up over the course of an entire season, at their championship meets, and I think the key to tapering is getting rid of that fatigue. So we tend to rest really, really hard, and we’ll shave multiple times within that 8 weeks. Hillary Callen for instance, who came into Denison two years ago at 5:06 and last year went 4:50 point in the 500 free shaved four weeks.
She had about a 3-to-4 week taper. We shaved her, she went 4:52/4:53, then we rested her again another 4-to-5 weeks before Nationals. I forgot what the gap was; John, do you remember the 4 weeks between conference and 4 weeks we rested where again she dropped another two-and-a-half seconds. But we really believe that rest is the key.
Now, if you’re going to rest a lot though, you can’t be messing around in the fall. If you’re going to shave multiple times, you cannot be messing around in October. That’s the fastest way to screw things up. But anyway, we typically, like I said, we’re on a 4 x 1 training mesocycle, which means that we’re alternating 4 weeks of really hard work, gradual buildup, with 1 week of regeneration work where we cut back the intensity of workouts about 50% and we cut down quantity by about 50%. A lot of people will say, “Well that’s tapering.” I say, “It’s really not taper, it’s regeneration.”
The one thing that I’ve learned over the last several years, and it’s confirmed by a lot of the researchers being done out there. is we don’t get faster when we work hard. We get faster when we rest. I think we have to be mindful of that. We come out of a paradigm in swimming which is if hard work is good, harder work is better and hardest work is the best; and that can really be wrongdoing. The thing that I’ve learned is I’ve got to give my kids periodic rest, and that’s confirmed by Ulbrich’s work, it’s confirmed by Albrecht’s work, and I think we’ve got to be very mindful of that as we go along.
So we’re very diligent about staying within this 4 x 1 training cycle. The one thing that we’ve also wanted to do, especially with college kids–our college kids—is we build those rest cycles or the regeneration weeks in our vacations. We’ll build the model around Thanksgiving break. Our kids get a full 8 days of Thanksgiving.
The expectation when I send them home is that they’re not going to go home and beat their brains up. They’re going to go home and get rest, because I know what they’re going to do anyway. I could sit there and preach until the cows come home: you got to go home and work really, really hard. They’re not going to go home and work hard. They’re going to go home and sleep in their bed. They’re going to find their way to the pool everyday but they’re going to spend the first hour of practice catching up with their coach, making faces at their former teammates in the pool—doing that kind of a thing. And then they’ll get in and maybe warm-up a little bit and do a little bit of maintenance work and then they’re going to get out 15 minutes before the hard work starts in that practice. And I know that because that’s what I did; so I’m drawing on my own experience here.
But the point is: I want to set the kids up for success, so I’ve got to work with what they bring to the table. You’ll have that 5 or 10 percent of the kids who, if you told them to swim through a brick wall, will do it, but 90% of them are just going to laugh at you anyway. So, why set yourself up for a struggle?
Build the regeneration weeks around their breaks and as well as exams. We’ll work really, really hard, we’ll escalate our work up until exam week, say okay, regeneration week, focus in on your exams, get it done, find your way down to the pool but it’s going to be really throttled down this week. That way they don’t feel conflicted. You’re not making it harder on them than it already is. Being a college student is hard. It’s a lot of challenges out there. Negotiating all these different things in their life is really tough and we can either help them figure out or be an obstacle.
I don’t want it to necessarily be another obstacle. I want to be a facilitator from the standpoint of helping them figure out what’s best to do. Within each week we use two 3-day nanocycles. What I’ve come up: nanocycles isn’t in the verbiage. It’s something I came up with because I didn’t know anything smaller than a micro, so I came up with nano, so go figure that. But basically what we do, and this is our distance weekly paradigm in the morning.
You can see we’re doing dryland twice a week but what we do is we have two 3-day cycles per week. You’ll see that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday is just a mirror image of what we do Thursday, Friday, Saturday. So we’re cycling our work, taking advantage of our energy systems. Again I think this is modeled a lot after what Jon Urbanchek developed when he was out at Long Beach. It was my first experience with Jon when he is coaching at Long Beach and I trained with him out there. More famously what he’s noted for is what he developed at University of Michigan.
Probably the couple things that I just want to point out is obviously Thursday afternoons are threshold days. The kids can just expect to come in and get something major in threshold. That it might be stroke specific, it could be in the form of I.M., it could be just freestyle based, it might be whatever…. This is again our distance group.
The one thing that we’ve been playing around with just in the last couple years is making Tuesday and Fridays kick days. We kick everyday, to a certain extent, but the main set on Tuesdays and Friday afternoons is kick, and we have had 90-minute to 2-hour kick sets. It’s not easy, obviously, but we’ve done it and what we’re seeing is some great results. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re resting on the days, they’re not resting but we’re kind of mentalizing a little bit. We’re really focusing on the kick because we all recognize how valuable kick is. But we’re really making it; we’re really putting the spotlight on it on these 2 particular days. We have been really pleased with the results that we’re seeing.
Now, it’s very rare that we’ll grab a kickboard and say, we’ve got 200 or 200, 100 kick or whatever it might be. We’re mixing it up. We’ve got generally stations, we’re rotating, we’ll do vertical kick, and we kick with medicine balls. We’ve got some really cool stuff. We play around with it on a day-to-day basis. I put a lot of pressure on my assistant coaches to come up with stuff that’s creative in that.
But we found that by compartmentalizing the kick on these 2 particular days, we’re making a lot of games and what we’re seeing more than anything is our kids’ legs are not getting tired at the end of the races. Our kids are holding body position better. We’ve actually done some video analysis of this, with DartFish and things like that, we’re watching kids. We’re starting to compare it year-to-year now, how well did you hold your body position at the end of you 100 versus where you were a year ago. Since we started doing it, these massive kick sets, we’re seeing some great progress in that. Kids are just holding up better. It’s been really exciting.
So this is pretty standard, what we’re doing. We’ve got lactate and race pace on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so, probably not unlike what a lot of you already are doing. This is the middle distance group, it’s pretty much the same yet Tuesday and Friday mornings are a little bit different: we’re adding/doing a little bit of speed and power work. This is where we’ll get the power racks out; this is where we’ll do a variety of different kind of speed work. I think it dovetails nicely in with the dryland stuff, but they’ll have their threshold work and it’s a modified distance program.
Then on the sprints, we’re really doing a lot of different stuff with our sprints right now, trying some different stuff. I’ve got an asterisk next to our threshold, things on Mondays and Thursdays, because we only do threshold with our sprinters for about one mesocycle, and then we drop it. We’ve gotten away from threshold training with our sprinters almost entirely. We’re just not doing it because I think it makes them slow. I think it slows them down. It teaches them to swim slow. They don’t need it. They need explosive kind of work.
It’s not to say that that’s the only way to get there, if you’re working with Mark Bernardino down at Charlottesville this summer: that’s threshold city. If you want to go see threshold work, go down and hang out with Dino for a while: it’s crazy down there. You got guys down there swimming really, really fast despite that. He’s got guys that are going really fast down there despite the fact they aren’t doing any speed work. So I think there’s a lot of different ways to get there, but we’ve really started to eliminate most of our threshold work with the sprinters.
The reason we do some is just simply because I don’t have my kids year-round. I think if I have my swimmers year-round, then I would probably… we’d eliminate it completely, because I know what they have been doing. But too many of our kids—because of other obligations, academic, jobs or whatever and because of NCAA rules—they’re not allowed to train with us during the summers. So, I don’t know what they’re doing over the summers. So I think it’s important that they get a little bit of threshold work.
And I think the added value of doing some threshold work is that it sets them up to swim good 200s. We’ve taken great pride in how well our sprinters can go 200s. We had a lot of success in the 800 free relay, especially on the men’s side the last few years. What’s been interesting is you think most of those swimmers would come out of the middle distance group when in fact the majority of them will come out of the sprint group. So, when you got a guy like a John Geissinger who can go a 19.9 but then turn around and split a 1:36.2, that’s a good thing. So I think that little bit of threshold work helps them.
So that’s a little bit of background on where we are in terms of how we train. But the topic here is achieving excellence.
I started thinking back about all the coaches that I kind of modeled myself after or try to draw from, and the one thing that characterizes all of them is that they have this mindset that we can always be better. They’re never really satisfied with what they’ve done. There’s this burning question in there: it’s like, how can I build a better mousetrap? The mousetrap I’ve got right now works, but is there a better way to do it? And they’re willing to tinker and they’re willing to push the question.
I walked in yesterday—I came in late. I arrived yesterday and I walked in, and not surprisingly, I mean the first thing I saw, I walked in there and there’s Urbie sitting in the lobby at a computer and he’s playing. You could see him, you can see him: he’s tinkering, and he’s still tinkering. That’s just his nature. Coach staying at Canyons is the same way: they’re just constantly tinkering, pushing the envelope, trying to find a way, “How can I do this thing better?”
The assumption behind that is that there are no sacred cows. I think too many of us and I’m certainly guilty of this, get locked into the mindset that there are some things in my program that are untouchable because this is the way I’ve always done, this is the way I did it 20 years ago and this is the way it worked then so it’s going to work now. I think that’s the fastest way to cut your own legs and your own throat to a certain respect.
So, fundamental in this question with all these great coaches is: if it’s not broken, break it. There’s nothing in your program that isn’t worth examining. We assume that everything is safe: that’s a mistake. You should make everything in your program vulnerable to examination. Whether it’s how you lift, whether it’s your dryland program, your water work, your drill work, everything should be questioned. Everything.
I remember a number of years ago I had a person ask, “How do you spend your summers?” And my response was, “I spend my summers gardening.” “Well don’t you coach?” I said, “Well I’m kind of –” I coach little league, I tend to make a reference to that coach little league, I also coach ice hockey. But I said I spend a lot of time in my garden evaluating, assessing, analyzing, reflecting and I need to do that. I know some coaches can go from one season, one cycle to the next, I can’t do that. I need time to step away, and assess what we did and whether or not it works.
This has been a very helpful mantra as well: if it’s not broken, break it. Put your program under scrutiny. Just because it worked last year doesn’t mean it’s going to work this year, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in 5 years. Everything is worthy of examination. But before that and in that process, before pointing the finger at your swimmer, be sure to point it at yourself. That was one of the first things Doc ever told me as a 24-year-old coach. I always say, “What’s the secret to success?” And that’s what he said. I think he was having a hard time with one of his at the time—in fact, I know he was.
But he said, “Before pointing the finger at your swimmer, be sure to point it at yourself. Self-examination is the key to good coaching. I look at someone like Bill Heusner. Some of the best conversations I ever had with Bill Heusner was when we’d be sitting in the basement of the women’s building at Michigan State. It would be like seven o’clock in the morning. I just gotten on out of the women’s practice, and I’m over there getting ready for class, having a cup of coffee with him; and he would just sit down and he sit there and start sharing with me, not about his successes but about his mistakes that he made while he is coaching.
That was a great thing about Bill, was that he was so self-effacing, maybe sometimes to a fault. But he knew who he was. He knew what his weaknesses were, but he also knew what his strengths were. I think as coaches, we owe it to ourselves so that we’re having a satisfying career but we also owe it to our swimmers to examine ourselves. “Am I taking the right approach?”
I tend to have a tough well of approach in my own coaching and that works for like 90% of our kids because they’ve gotten used to it. But it alienates 10% of them. I realize that as long as I stay in that kind of mode, I’m not getting-to everybody. So, a lot of this summer with some health firm, some people at Denison, I was trying to figure out: how do I access these kids because what’s going on right now, this gap is getting really big between the two of us. I’ve got to figure out how do I get to those kids and I’m going to have to change. I can ask the kid to change. What’s the likelihood of that? Not much.
You know what we’re talking about, 18-year-olds, right? Okay, the self-awareness just as narrow. The enlightenment is not there. But as coaches, we’re supposed to be the wall mounts. We’re supposed to be the mature ones. We’re the ones who are supposed to meet them.
I go back to someone like Sparky Anderson, the great baseball manager who managed the World Series with the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. I remember hearing him in the speech talk about, “Tell me about your coaching for us?” And he goes, “Well, I’ve got about 20 guys on my team. I’ve got about 20 different philosophies because I’ve got to connect with each one of them.” That was Sparky’s m.o. at work. It’s flat out work.
So we’ve got. If we’re going to put our program under consideration, then we have to put ourselves under consideration and that’s kind of a scary thing. That gets a little daunting sometimes, and be that as it may.
So anyway, I was kind of brainstorming on this a little bit of achieving excellence. I said, “Okay, so what are the characters if we start with this assumption that things can get better, how do I go from “things can get better” to “I just made the changes necessary to make them better”? Well I think it starts with after the initial assumption, it starts with a disciplined application of your training plan. You’ve got to have a plan in mind. You’ve got to know what the course is, because if you don’t know what the course is you don’t know what you’re evaluating. You have to have a plan, otherwise you’ve got nothing to bounce your ideas off of.
So, it takes a disciplined application of a plan, allowing for evaluation. The second point is, this curiosity about how do I build the bigger thing? But I think one word that we don’t hear very much in our society more is humility. I mean we associate humility with weakness when in fact it’s not. Humility is strength, because it’s an admission that I don’t have all the answers. I may have a lot of answers and my kids may think I walk-on-water; I mean my own children doubt that kind of thing but they’ll figure it out at some point. They’ll know that you don’t but there is an assumption and humility.
You have the strength of character saying, “I don’t have all the answers, and it’s worth asking some questions about that.” To examine yourself and examine your program and admit, “Okay, I’ve got some polls here. I can make some adjustments. This requires a certain level of humility and willingness to learn. That’s why I love going down and working with someone like Bernardino at Virginia. He is like a sponge. He just wants to take it in. He’s so interested in what you’re doing. Now here is a guy who’s been coaching a long time and has been around the block a lot and had tons of a success. You go into their hall of fame. it’s like a Who’s Who of American swimming in a lot of ways. Here is this guy in the middle of his career who is just so interested in learning what you’re doing and it’s great.
I think the third piece of this is that you’ve got to have a really discerning eye. You’ve got to be able to sit back and say: ‘What just happened? What happened at this meet? What happened at this swim? What happen this season?’ I’m also having a conversation with my assistant coach—it’s just yesterday morning about this very issue—that we’re talking about how well we had performed last year. There were some unsettling things about our performance and we were talking about those sorts of things. But it’s taking me a while to process that. I’m such a competitive person, my emotion’s getting away. I want to win so bad but that stuff just blinds me. That stuff blinds me to the facts that are going on, so I think you have to have a discerning eye and you have to have a discerning mind.
You have to be able to step away from the emotion of the moment and say ‘okay’. Not only what just happened but why did it happen; what were the contributing things to it. I think all the great coaches do this. Doc was so deep in his science that I think it was a good place for him to be. Heusner was the same in a lot of ways. But you have to be, to a certain extent, detached from the moment so that you can assess what’s going on. Then ultimately, you’ve got to apply what you know. You have to apply what you know to what you’ve just seen.
But here is I think the critical step, and I think it’s where I struggle, is having enough imagination to visualize what the potential solution could be. I think this is where the art of coaching comes in. I think this is where we leave the science and move to art, and I think this is where the best coaches excel. They’ve got some vision of how to make things change. They’ve got some image in their head of building that better mousetrap. How can I get there? What do I have to tweak to make this thing work? I don’t know how you get there, but I just know the best coaches can do this—they get this.
But it’s one thing to have a great idea in your head, but then you got to have the guts to play the card. I think there are a lot of people with a lot of great ideas out there, but we get caught up. We’re kind of unwilling to approach the unfamiliar because the old stuff is comforting, the old stuff is comfortable. We want to stay with it. We know it.
I didn’t work for the coach—I shouldn’t say that. I was near a coach—that’s the best way to say that. I was near a coach who in 1983/1984 was using the same workouts that he had written in the late 1950s. Okay: think about how much had changed in that twenty-some years. I was just blown away by that because it was really interesting. I had a friend who used to swim for this coach in college—email was just I think just coming out but he would write me letters more often than email. He say: “Let me guess what the workout was today.” Granted, he lived in California and I was in Michigan. He would write down the workout and he would say, “Was that the workout today?” I’d call him and say, “You got it!” This guy swam for this guy 10 years earlier.
We get caught up in the comfortable end of things and we’re not really willing to push it. It takes great courage to make change, and if you think about all the things that we can get caught up in… If we’re unwilling to change, we’re going to get left behind. Which gets me to another quote and I love quotes because they inspire me.
Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of Great Britain had it right: “It’s not enough to do our best, sometimes we have to do what’s required.” I think too often we take comfort: “I did my best today.” My wife tells me that all the time. “You did your best.” I’m like: “Stop, you’re the devil. Step back.” that kind of thing. I’ve got my dad on one side, my wife on the other, that kind of a thing going on. My wife says: “No, you did a great job.” I’m like: “That’s not helping right now.” It helps for the moment, but it doesn’t really get me any further down the road. Too often, we take comfort in knowing that we did our best when we know deep down that there is more that can be done.
This picture, I got great inspiration of this. I can’t remember, is it [Lewis] Pugh? The swimmer who just swam to the North Pole? This is a picture of him diving into a glacial lake on one of his stages. This is legit: he swam to the North Pole. I don’t know if you know the story or not, but what he was trying to do was he was trying to draw attention to global warming, the fact that you could swim to the North Pole. You didn’t have to do it by dogsled or snow mobile or tractor or whatever. So he basically found a water route to swim all the way to the North Pole and accomplished it.
This guy is quite amazing. He is quite an amazing guy because he can stay in 35-40º water for a long, long time; like swim miles in it. He is a bit of a yogi. He can grace his body core temperature just through meditation. He can get his heart rate up just through meditation. It’s a wonderful story but I’m like: this guy gets it. If you can do that, you can anything. That takes great courage. It takes great vision to be able to pull something like that off.
So, let’s not wrap ourselves around this in this security blanket when there’s more to be done out there. Now, with that said, I want to just share some of the things that we’re trying to do at Denison right now that might be a little out of the norm. That’s Nebraska, [Indiscernible; 0:40:36], he is my man, Detroit Lion. I’m a Detroit Lion’s fan. I know, nobody brags about that but me, but that’s okay. Anyway, we’ve been trying some different things in our dryland training that I want to just share with you because I don’t know if its cutting edge but it’s new for us.
So, we’re really excited about that. There’s probably some people on the other side of the world who are doing this all the time. But we first started getting into this and the reason I’m showing this training condition is that I wrote an article last November for this magazine and it’s in this magazine, so I’m showing that. This is the November issue of Training and Conditioning. If you want all the details on what we do, it’s in that article. So, there you go. I’m not going to get in to all the details here because I’m much more in interesting as a writer than as I am as a speaker.
But what we’re working on is something that we’ve kind of coined called systemic strength and connective strength. Growing up as a swimmer, this one in the college and it was certainly characteristic of what I knew coming out of exercise physiology which focused in on isolating muscle groups. We’re getting away from that now. We’re looking at systemic strength which means basically connecting the entire body in terms of strength.
What first got me interested in this was that I’ve got a friend, a professor at Denison. He is an art history professor. He loves Byzantine art but he is heavy into free climbing. Those are the guys who go vertical with no attachments on mountains and stuff like that—it’s quite insane. I could never do it; I can’t do it. This is what got me interested in this: I couldn’t do it.
He took me to one of those walls like Dick’s Sporting Goods thing; he went up there like a little monkey. He said, “Okay, you carry your 250-pound frame up that thing.” I really couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the physical strength, and he goes, “Okay, now we’re going to go to the weight room and we’re going to bench press.” So we went to the weight room and I put up mine and he could put up half of it. He could put half the weight that I did. Yeah, he could scale a mountain, like I said, like a monkey and I look more like a walrus or something trying to climb—it was quite ugly.
We got into this wonderful conversation about functional strength and power. He says you’re stronger than me but it’s not functional. He goes, “You can lift weight but how much of a life is lifting weights? How much of climbing a mountain is lifting weights?” Obviously, the next question is how much of swimming is lifting weights, as opposed to moving your body around? Of all things, my Byzantine art friend and I started getting all this pretty heavy conversation. I started trying to introduce some of this stuff into our training program.
Then 2000 came on, Olympics in 2000 and then 2004 came around, I started watching the gymnast. And I started watching what the female and the male gymnast were doing on their floor exercise and, their ability to move their bodies around in a synchronized, coordinated—most importantly—connected way. They’re connected from fingertips all the way down to their toes. Nothing was ever out of line; everything was working systematically. Systematically, it was fluid.
I have this moment—when I was changing the diaper—that was like: that’s what we’re trying to do in swimming. Swimming is nothing more than gymnastics but in a different medium. What these guys are trying to do on their floor exercise is exactly what we’re trying to do in the pool, which is to move our body around in a connected sort of way where everything is working together.
So being the guy researcher, I started watching video tape of gymnasts. I’m like: man, that’s so cool; I wonder if we can get our kids to do that. So this is actually one of our Denison swimmers… not really, it’s not. None of our kids can do that. But I will share one story about something that I felt was quite amazing.
We had a swimmer years ago at Denison by the name of Darius Grigalunias. Darius was from Chicago, Illinois, but he had dual citizenship in the United States and Lithuania. His parents were immigrants. His goal when he came to Denison was to make NCAA Division III Nationals. But then long-term was to make the Lithuanian national team. I thought both were big reaches and he was like a 1:49 200-yard freestyler coming out of high school.
He never made Division III Nationals. But what was interesting was that towards the end of his senior year, you could see this kid, he was very immature physically. I mean he looked like Opie at 21. I mean he’s just really immature kind of guy. But you could see, he was starting to come. It was going to happen. So I really encouraged him. He graduated in 2000. I said, you know, stay with us. Let’s give this two more years. If you have the means, let’s stay with your training for two more years. Well to make a long story short, he decided to do it. He started splitting his time training between Lithuania and the United States, specifically with us and home in Chicago.
They were doing some really interesting stuff over in Lithuania. Their swimmers were training as gymnasts, which is kind of dovetailing really nicely with what we’re trying to do. They had this exercise, they call them horizontal pull-ups, where you put your feet on a stabilizing ball here and then you grab a bar. You’re kind of in a horizontal position like this, and what you do is you just pull yourself up with your feet stabilized with the stabilizing ball. That’s a fairly simple exercise. Maybe a less severe or less developed exercise would be with your feet on the ground. I remember Darius started out with a stabilizing ball on his feet and he could maybe do like 10 pull-ups that way which is pretty good. I was like, that’s pretty impressive.
Well he went to Vilnius for six months. He came back and he is going back and forth and we’re working on this exercise. Well, to make a long story short, he ended up making the Lithuania National Team as an alternate. He was 50.3 100-meter freestyler in Athens which is pretty good, 1:49 200 yards to 50.3 meters. That worked out pretty good.
After he got back from Athens, he was getting ready… we were going to go [short course] world championships, I think they’re in Indianapolis that year. He came by and we’re doing some dryland work. I said, “Remember those horizontal pull-ups you used to do? How many can you do now?” He goes, “Well, let’s see; I haven’t done them in about six months,” because he would taper and all these sorts of things. We went into the weight room. He grabbed the bar and I said, “Do you need the stabilizing ball?” He goes, “Oh no, I don’t need that anymore.” As he pulled up, his legs went up. He did 10 pull-ups in this position, horizontal, stabilizing his body not unlike that but, is that making sense. Have I got a good picture of what’s going on here? I’m like: that is functional strength. I said, “We got to go mountain climbing together.”
So anyway, so I sent over my friend over at the art department, I said, “Listen, I got somebody who can kick your ass.” I’m old, I’m decrepit; but he can kick your ass. I got to back a little bit on that.
But anyway, so, what we’re trying to do, what I want you to see is the connection here. I mean you can see what’s kind of going on here. It’s the same stuff. We’re trying to connect from head-to-toe. We’re trying to be able to move this body in a coordinated fluid connected kind of way; functional strength. Again, we’re not in a weightlifting business, yet so much of it, so much of our time is spent lifting weights.
What we’ve done since 2000 now is we’re about 100% weight-centered program. We are now at about 5% weight-centered program; we’re 95% of our work now is against our own bodyweight. It’s all we do: work against our own bodyweight. It’s amazing how many options you have doing this.
So we talked about connected the five points. I’ve heard Mike Bottom talk about this. The key to a good stroke is to connect the fingertips, elbows and the shoulder. I think it goes beyond that. I think you have to connect with the hips. You have to connect all the way down to the toes. That’s where that big kick, those big kick days, come in because everybody thinks about cores: nothing more than this [visual/hand display]. That’s not core. That is part of the core. The core is really shoulders down to your knees. So you have to develop that entire piece and you’ve got to stay connected.
So we worked. We talk all day long to our kids about this. It’s interesting, if you watch a video tape of kids failing in races, you always see a break in the hip. You see the backend drop: they can’t hold it up. The better swimmers stay up. Focusing-in on this kind of connective functional strength, you don’t see it.
Our kids were again, like I told you, we’re doing some video analysis. We watched Hillary Callen this year finishing her races compared to where she was a year ago, like I understand. Hillary is a big girl; Hillary is not small. I mean she’s broad. She’s getting better but she’s broad. For her, when she first came to us, I mean she couldn’t move her body around. She just couldn’t do it. But this year, she is just not failing and her body is holding up beautifully now. She came back this summer looking even more like an athlete. That’s one of the things in Division III is we don’t tend to get the elite athletes. There are frumpy ones in there. Let’s just put it that way. Then she is frumpy. The Frump Club, that’s what we call them. Anyway, got to work on their self-esteem too.
Anyway, okay, so – I’m not that childrenistic, really I’m not. I just grew up with all sisters and I’ve got this issue with that. So anyway, talk a little bit sister systemic strength and power training. So basically, these are the fundamentals: is that our body works in an integrated way. That’s just the way our body works. Our bodies are connected organisms and we have to train it that way. Isolating muscle groups doesn’t necessarily get you where you want to go, because that muscle is not going to work in isolation from the rest of the body while you’re swimming. So make sure as you’re training that it stays connected.
So focusing on developing powerful coordinated movements that incorporate the entire body because that’s what swimming is: it’s an entire body motion. Here is the thing, this is one of benefits of this is we got into, you start creating athletes. It’s amazing to me how non-athletic some of my swimmers are. We have the Frump Club but we also have the Fainting Goat Club. Have you seen the video, the fainting goats? Have you seen that speed? There is like a breed of goats out there that if you go up and startle them, they fall over and they’re paralyzed and they can’t move—I’m not kidding you. Go to YouTube; it’s hilarious. My five-year-old thinks it’s the funniest thing. He goes up to our dogs all the time and tries to make it work, and they just want to bite him.
But anyway, Emily Schroder, who will be a junior this year, Emily came to us as a 4:32 400 IM, where last year as a sophomore went 4:23. We are doing some balancing work in our dryland work. One of the very simple task is can you stand on one foot? Emily could not stand on one foot.
I know that sounds stupid. When I was told by athletic trainers that she couldn’t stand on one foot without falling over, I was like, “You got to be kidding?” So I thought, it might have been an inner ear issue or something like that. It wasn’t, she checked out. She just had that little coordination; she couldn’t do it. Not surprisingly her freshmen year as she was walking to practice, she fell down. I’m not overstating. She just fell over like one of the fainting goats. I figured a car bleat its horn or something or startled her, somebody jumped out of the bushes. But her teammates were like, “No coach, she was just walking to practice and she fell down.”
Now the bad thing for Emily is when she fell down, and this is more testimony of what a man athlete she was, when she fell down she fell on her fist. Who falls like this? Nobody falls like that. You fall like this: you catch yourself. She didn’t. She fell on her fist. What happened, she separated the cartilage in her sternum. She was out of the water for like 2 or 3 months because that stuff just doesn’t heal. So part of her rehab was learning how to stand on one foot. But what we’re finding with this is that we’re developing kinesthetic sense. Our kids are learning to feel where their bodies are because a lot of this work has instability kicked into it. We purposely destabilized the body, so they’ve got to feel where they are.
One of the things that we’re doing now is we’re having an exercise with blindfolds on. Try that: try exercising with blindfolds on. Have them do weight work literally, close their eyes. You want to teach your kid where their body is or what their body is doing, take that sense away. We do the same thing in the pool. We will go especially… we want to get the lungs in the short course focus. Fainting goats tend to run in the walls too. But when we get to long course, we’ve got goggles that we’ve blacked out. What happens, they swim with their eyes closed. Can you swim straight without looking? It’s amazing how a few of them can.
Interestingly enough when I was in grad school, I work with a blind swimmer. He was in the Paralympics, I think. I forget exactly what particular disabled group he was in but he was one of the most technically perfect swimmers I’ve ever seen. But he had never seen: he is born blind. He had never seen himself swim but he could feel his way through the water like nobody I’d ever met. It’s pretty amazing. Have your swimmers try to swim blind sometimes: you’d be amazed of how nonathletic they are.
We do starts. You got those kids in your program who can’t do breakouts property? They always tend to start pulling too early. Have your kids do it blindfolded. It’s interesting what happens. We do this with our kids all the time. You have fainting goats don’t break out of the water very well either. What I’ll do is I’ll have them dive in with our opaque goggles on, so they can’t see where they are. It corrects the problem like that. Usually within one or two repetitions, the problem was corrected because they’re relying too much on their sight. They’re not depended on their feel. So take the sense away, and the next thing you know is they’ve got it figured out. What we’re trying to do is create athletes.
So anyway then, just to move on then, we’ve got the core muscle group, shoulders, knees. So anyway, I’m just giving ideas of some of the stuff we’re doing. We’ve got 14 different kinds of push-ups in our program. It’s amazing. We’re going to come up with more. I’m meeting next week with our assistant coaches and I’ve got an assistant coach who has come up with six more different kinds of push-ups. Well this is just one. This is Jack LaLanne when he was like 110 or 150 doing fingertip pushups. Well one of the things that we do, if we do this fingertip pushups but then we have our kids crawl with them side to side. Try that.
But doesn’t that look like good swimming? That’s swimming right there guys, that’s catch. If you can walk yourself around like that, tell me you’re not going to be able to support your body at the end of a 200. You can be able to do it; you can have the core strength.
This is what we call inverted mountain climbers. All he’s going to do is just push his legs straight out and pull him back in, push him straight out but we’ve got pressure up on the front. These are just some examples of some of the stuff that we’re doing. We love pull-ups. We do pull-ups. We test every month for pull-ups. How many pull-ups can you do. Some of them can do a lot; some of them can’t do any.
This is something that we’re getting into a lot is balance and posture. We do a lot of headstands. Actually I have one of my assistant coaches who’s taking classes in proper posture and how making sure that… one of the things, her main functions in practice is just to watch the kids how they walk along the deck. Are they walking with good posture? Are they using the right muscles? Because the right muscles to walk properly are the same muscles that will create balance in the water. You want to be like this, you want to be like that. It’s the same muscle group.
So Lisa Swanson, who was one of our freshmen last year, was one of those really rounded swimmers. She looked like Quasimodo: that was her nickname, Quasi. She didn’t know who Quasimodo was until she took an English class at Denison and then I paid for it. I was like, “Hey Quasi!” “What?” About a month later she came back and slapped me, and said, “Don’t call me that anymore. That’s the hunchback from Notre Dame.” I said, “I know, okay.”
One of her big pieces in practice was—just one of the things she had to do in dryland—was just learning how to stand. So she would go, she’d just stand, and she had to learn how to work the muscles in her back. How do I get those muscles pulled back? She came in at 1:52 last year as a freshman; she went 1:49 in the championships. We’re pretty happy with the 3-plus second drop in the 200-yard event with an 18-year-old woman. It was interesting watching videotape from her high school senior year to where she was last year, her whole body position has changed. We obviously trained a little bit but I just think it was just the way she carried herself and making sure everything was in the line.
Here are just some of the benefits of what we’re doing with this program. Our athletic training staff is, like most places, is really meticulous about keeping records, and I’ve been working with the same trainers now for 20 years and they can go back 20 years ago and look at our shoulder problems and joint problems. Like a lot of coaches, I remember Jim Richardson last May, he’s apologizing that the college swimming coach has conventioned all these former swimmers because of all the surgeries they’d have to have. I thought that was quite an admission.
But what’s interesting is, since we’ve started implementing this program almost 10 years ago now, is watching the reduction in shoulder problems. In the last 3 years we have not had one shoulder ailment. We’re training hard; don’t get me wrong, we’re training hard. These kids have 3 hours of dryland a week on top of some pretty heavy swimming loads, yet we don’t have shoulder problems. Because the key is that we are, in this kind of work, you are developing the stabilizing muscle groups around the key joints.\
You’ve got 2 kinds of muscle groups: prime movers and stabilizers. So much of our training is focused-in on the prime movers but we ignore the stabilizers. The great thing about working on your own body weight is that it’s all stabilizing. They get worked really well and the next thing you know is you don’t have shoulder problems. Now it doesn’t mean we don’t have kids with shoulder problems, but they’ve brought those problems in. Now we’re having a remarkable record of correcting those too; obviously improved body position throughout the race, improved conditioning and fitness levels, improved coordination and athleticism.
I’m throwing this in there for Bob because I mentioned this last May about the warm-up, something new. I mean, this has fallen under the radar about the importance of dynamic warm-up versus static stretching. Even at Nationals last year I remember watching kids just do static stretching before the races? Get your kids away from it because research is really, really clear that it lowers your strength and power levels significantly: 9% on the strength, 8% on the power levels, and it lasts up to 90 minutes. That effect doesn’t go away; I mean there’s not a 90-minute swimming event except practice, that’s 90 minutes swimming practice. But the point is: get your kid away from static stretching before they race. It should be all dynamic kind of motions, full body kind of work. They can do static stretching after the races, that’s fine, because that’s going to facilitate the recovery. But get away from it otherwise. Again, that’s one of those things where you push your kid on it, kids will be like, “My high school coach or my club coach says I’m supposed to do it.” Well, that was last year. The research now says this is where you make detraction.
Anyway, somebody wanted me to talk a little bit about the plusses and minuses of having a Semper Avanti approach. The plusses, when you’re constantly pushing the edge, things generally stay fresh for your kids. If you’re like me, you’re dealing with kids who’ve maybe swimming since they’re 5, 6 and 7, they’ve seen every workout, they’ve heard everything from the coaches, and it all looks the same. And I think as coaches, one of the benefits of pushing the envelope with your program and with yourself is that you’re going to keep it interesting.
I was talking to George Kennedy right before this and George was telling me how he’s kind of overhauled his program this summer and joining a lot of different things this coming year. That’s why George is a great coach. That’s why George gets good value from all the work he puts in, because he’s wanting to do these things. But his swimmers are going to benefit from it because it’s new, it’s exciting, it’s different, and there’s value in that.
I think taking this kind of approach features a value of adaptation flexibility. You’ve got to be willing to roll with the changes—and obviously something fell off the screen there. It keeps everybody learning; most importantly it keeps us learning. We don’t want to get bored with our jobs and this is a job that can get pretty boring sometimes. The minuses, risk of failure. Maybe you make the wrong change. Change can be overwhelming for some, to the point where some of the kids are not going to keep up. Some kids don’t want the change and we call that the dinosaur effect. If you don’t adapt, you go the way of the dinosaur.
I know we’re running out of time, its 11:35. If there’s a question I’ll be happy to take it. I appreciate your attention and wish you all luck.
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