Age Group to High School to International by Dick Shoulberg (2008)


[Introduction] One of the other great professionals who is going to be speaking next is Dick Shoulberg and his topic is “From Age Group to International” and there may be no one better at talking about that in this country than Dick because he constantly has people on National teams, on Junior National teams, on Olympic Teams and he is equally passionate about his swim school as his high school swim league as he is about his National Team. He cares about swimmers and swimming at every level, and demands excellence at every level. It is a pleasure to introduce Dick Shoulberg.

[Coach Shoulberg] First of all I wanted to thank NISCA for asking me to speak because the last time I spoke here they did not have any electronic equipment and I really couldn’t give my talk. So, today I am going to talk about Germantown Academy from age group to International swimming. Then tomorrow I am going to show, on my computer, our dry-land program which I think is really pretty unique and is the key to our program. We have about 90 kids in the pool during the school year from 3-6 o’clock and it is just juggling balls.

I lived all my life in 2 ½ square miles. Therefore, I have done all my coaching in Montgomery County, in the Philadelphia area, and I just love coaching kids. I started out as a summer club coach when I was about 18 years old and our head coach was 21, named Dave Payner, who was going to Lehigh. The age group parents were always giving him a hard time and he walked off the deck and Mr. Spangler (who was a Division III top running back in football) said to me “you are the swim coach of Penn Square Swim Club.” The only thing I knew was that I was a slow swimmer and I took all the Red Cross courses, I had my WSI at 18. I just loved swimming. I got into it (coaching) by accident.

Some of you have started out in beautiful facilities. For 9 years, my winter coaching was in a 4 lane, 20 yard pool – not beautiful. The first year we made our own lane lines. We had ropes. Mr. Watson had floats, they were like a cork and he painted them red, white and blue and he baked them in his oven. They could not eat their turkey dinner at Thanksgiving because of the fumes in his oven. You just have to improvise when you first start out, and I think I still improvise all the time. My first 11-13 years is basically dual meet swimming. The Y was dual meet swimming in the winter; summer club was a dual meet thing. I was always identifying talent, even when I first started to coach. I was trying to find the next really good kid in my community who could swim fast. I still do that – I hope.

I went to Germantown Academy in 1969 because Germantown Academy had a brand new 6 lane, 25 yard pool and they didn’t want to pay anyone anything. My wife and I decided we would try it for one year before we sent the boys to Germantown Academy. Our sons, at the time, were in elementary school. They were bright and I knew they were not getting the academic challenge that I wanted or my wife wanted them to have, but we didn’t want to take them out of our public school setting not knowing if G.A. would like me or I would like G.A. Forty years later I love G.A. I don’t know if they like me. So, we started this crazy thing – Germantown Academy school team and Germantown Academy Aquatic Club that’s open to anyone in the community. There is only one rule to join my program: don’t come if you don’t want to work. If you don’t want to work – don’t take up space because I don’t have the space to give. If you want to work and have no talent I will spend all day long with you.

I had a young man who this year I saw at the Olympic trials. He got a job at NBC taking pictures. When he was a 9th grader at G.A. he wanted to swim as fast as David Wharton, Erica Hansen, Trina Richie. These are high school kids that all made the ‘88 Olympic team. I told Kirk, if I could make the day 39 hours, the week 9 days, and all that extra time we could spend on swimming he will still be slow. But I told him I wanted to work with him. He went from 11 minutes in the 500 in his sophomore year and when he broke 9 minutes in his senior year there was a standing ovation in our pool. There are only so many hours , so many days, so many weeks that you can work with an athlete. I really think that you have to be honest with kids and you have to identify talent; I just love doing that.

I also teach at Germantown Academy and up to this year, after 39 years, I am not going to teach from 11-2pm. I have taught an average of 4-5 classes in the pool. Years ago I went to the school and I told them I had some extra money I wanted to hire someone that could help me with these classes for 3 hours a day. I really wanted to have a little bit more time to be creative in coaching and being the Aquatic Director. My department head said “we have figured it out. Don’t come to morning practice and you won’t be so tired.” I said, “Joe – morning practice is like the beginning of a new day, a new life. I love morning practice because the athletes who are there in the morning are there by invite. If you are not going to work hard in the afternoon you are not going to be invited to swim in the morning.” When I first started morning practice at Germantown Academy it was one athlete and me. That one athlete became the best athlete. Do the afternoon well and come the next morning. Don’t do the afternoon and don’t bother me because I like to go in the morning. I like to say a few words to the kids. I like to play my music in the morning. (I play music almost at every practice. I love music.) If I have a spat with a kid on Tuesday night when they walk in Wednesday morning I will be playing the kind of music they like – as long as it is not rap.

I also teach pre-K through 12th grade. I spotted this young lady in the 5th grade when she first came to Germantown Academy. She is now going to be a Junior at Princeton and was 3rd in NCAA’s in her freshman year. She was 6th at Olympic trials this year. She has represented the United States in four international trips. I test all of the kids going the width of the pool. It is 15.3 yards, every class I start out does the width of the pool. First of all, she looked like Olive Oyl. She was as tall as any kid in 5th grade and there was nothing to her. It was all sticks and long legs. Her freestyle was not good. Her backstroke was horrible, but then she did a width of breaststroke and her feet set up fantastically. I knew that this young lady had a feel for breaststroke. I told her “you are mine. You can play soccer in 5th grade. You can play soccer in 6th grade. You can play soccer in 7th grade. Once puberty hits you had better start training.” In 7th grade she really got hooked on swimming and started to work really, really hard. It is fun to take a kid who you have never seen and say “you have talent young lady and I am going to make you work hard.” And you see the sparkle in their eye and see them wanting to do the work. That has been the beauty of teaching classes.

Q. What was the other thing that you were looking for? I always look for feel in the water to see if they have a pretty good stroke pattern. The thing I look at when I talk to kids is a sparkle in their eye. The lady sitting next to you – Laurie Hook- she swam in my age group program. She swam in my high school program. She made her first Junior National cut as a Junior in high school. She made her first Senior cut as a Senior at the University of Maryland. She won the Bud Light Series in triathlons. She is an athlete and so it is just awesome to watch kids in my program develop. I talked to one of my swimmers three nights ago, Karen LaVerge. She was our first Olympian. Three years ago she was the #1 amateur at the Iron Man in Hawaii in her age group. Most important, I try to teach fitness for life – more so than winning a swim meet tomorrow. I want to teach my kids fitness for life is more important to me than anything.

Every morning at Germantown Academy from 7:40 to 9 o’clock it’s free swim for anybody in the community. They can come in and they can swim. I only take three lanes for my 5th graders from 8:20 to 9 o’clock. The reason I do it is I want the G.A. students to know that fitness for life is more important than anything and allowing Mrs. O’Riley, who is in her late 70’s and who tells the best dirty jokes in the world – it shows the kids at 17 and 18 that I really value fitness for life. It’s free because once they pay they think they own you.

Our school team has about 85 athletes on average, in a 6 lane pool 25 yards. How do we do it? We juggle balls. What I started to do a few years ago was if the students have last period free and they are good academic students and they come to morning training I will get them in the water at 2 o’clock and go to 4:15. Then, I will give Nina 3 lanes from 3 o’clock to 4 o’clock with middle school. I determine basically how much pool time each athlete gets and then how much land work. I mean – it is chaotic at Germantown Academy. At different times of the year I increase and I decrease pool time, off of what I think the intent of the athlete is. The kid that really, really wants it will get more and the kid that really doesn’t want it, I give them a big hug and I talk to them on the deck because then they are not in the way of the kids in the water. I know some of those kids better than any of the kids.

I love high school coaching. I think it is my biggest passion and working with young kids. Now, I love international coaching – we all know that, but it all starts and if it wasn’t for high school – Germantown Academy would not have kids on International Teams – I know that. I never wanted to coach in a non-academic environment. I always wanted to coach where they were student athletes first and foremost. I have had opportunities to coach at University or wonderful clubs, but I never had an interview after 1969 and don’t want one.

Some of my better 7th and 8th graders move into my group and swim with the high school athletes even though they are 7th and 8th grade. I had an 8th grade boy this year, Arthur Frailer, go 4:43 in the 500. He came through our club program, but high school swimming does so much for kids. In my 39 years at G.A. I only had one club swimmer give up swimming at her public high school because I couldn’t work with her public high school coach. It really upset me. Her name is Janie Boylan. She swam at Upper Dublin. She ended up 8th in the World when she went to Arizona State and got a Fulbright Scholarship. She’s a fantastic student athlete. She had a new coach at her high school in her senior year and her new coach who was 22 and right out of college said, “Janie, you can’t swim with that crazy man down the street – he will burn you out. You have to do relay starts two afternoons a week for an hour.” Well, Janie won the state championship in Pennsylvania in two events in 9th, 10th and 11th grade and held the state record for many, many years until another G.A.A.C. swimmer broke those state records. I felt bad that Janie gave up the opportunity to swim high school because the swimmers can identify with their peers, it is something really positive and I think high school swimming is really, really important.

I decided, when I had the opportunity to go to G.A. that I would coach club, but my first love would be watching these middle school or high school kids get good. Now, I had no idea I was going to have kids make the Olympic team in 1969. I didn’t even know what the hell it meant. I knew they were good swimmers though. I thought I was going to go to the Olympics when I was in 10th grade. Then I went to prep school and I swam against a guy named “Chet the Jet.” I was at National Catholic so I dove in and this guy next to me had on a red bathing suit. Now, not many people would wear a red bathing suit in 1958. When he turned at Villanova’s pool going this way and I am going in I thought he was going to die. He broke a minute. He was the first high school boy to break a minute. I thought I was never going to be that good so I started to coach and I have been lucky. I think this is really an important part of my program.

We come in to the pool in the morning and we train and then I say to you – you are really working hard. Your grades are good. You come every morning. You come to every afternoon. You do the training away from the pool really well – in other words – you do your homework. You are not ripping around, but if you really want to get good you have got to do 32 minutes extra every day of dry-land – free period – lunch time and I set up an individual program.

For the four years that Maddie Crippen was at Germantown Academy she missed one day of extra dry-land and that was the day of her senior prom. Her brother and Maddie’s boyfriend had a case of beer in his car. I didn’t say anything, didn’t ask Maddie and didn’t ask Arthur Roy. But, I picked up the phone and called Pete Crippen . I said “Pete – I am not walking out and looking in the car, but a little birdie told me there was a case of beer in Maddie’s boyfriend’s car” Pete said “thank you.” I then called Arthur Roy’s dad who said “No Way – my boy would never do that.” Maddie came down about an hour later and she said her dad was so mad, she didn’t know why, but he was going to drive her to and from prom. I never told her that Fran told me. That’s a true story that shows you the difference of parents because we all need them. They are the key to our program. Mr. Crippen believed me. Arthur Roy’s father knew his son would do nothing wrong. Every kid makes mistakes. I wore out my eraser before I was 4 years old. I ask the kids to do extra. I have always really believed it gives them a greater ownership to the sport by doing extra.

A typical day for high school training begins at 6 o’clock and we do 28 minutes of some form of fitness. Dollar for dollar – the best piece of equipment is the Vasa Trainer. I have nine of them. I have nine Plyometric blocks so I can deal with 18 kids just on two different stations. Monday, Wednesday, Friday we do medicine ball, Vasa, blocks, incline. Tuesday and Thursday morning at 6 we do rope climb. I have two ropes hanging 24 feet over the water. We do rope climbing with weight belt. We do rope climbing to strengthen fingers, palm, wrist and forearm. But, if you are really strong in this part of the body you can set up your strokes better. Our distance group will try to do 5200 yards in 70 minutes working all four strokes. Our sprinters or new 9th graders certainly don’t do 5200 yards. The PM practice is 2 hours and 10 minutes in the water and it is 45 minutes of fitness, 5 days a week. Certainly if they have a meet we do not get the afternoon training. We do not rest for dual meets. I may pick an individual or two or three within the group, but the main group never rests for a dual meet. That is a mortal sin in my training. The average of my distance swimmers at Germantown Academy is 16,000+ yards.

I have always designed the training to the best athlete and then I filter down. I have never designed to the middle of the group because that is not the way to coach. Challenge the best and then filter down to whatever they can handle. I always write six different practices because I have six lanes in the 25 yard pool. I also have a 10 lane pool at Germantown Academy this is 15.3 yards. We cycle through that and we do a lot of width swimming and that may be the most difficult training we do. In other words the lanes are a little wider, less kids, more stress and we do this five days a week. Now, if you have an academic need you can leave early. If you didn’t finish your homework and you get there at 6 o’clock and use my office or Nina’s office to finish your homework I don’t ever have a problem with that. I do have a problem if you didn’t finish your homework, went to practice and then I get a call from the English teacher. The school work will come first at Germantown Academy – it has always been that way and it has always been that way with me.

Being the Aquatic Director I do have some control over the pool and that really helps, especially for weekends. We used to do 4 hours and 40 minutes in the water – now it is down to 4 hours. A typical Saturday is anywhere between 15 and 17,000 yards. Again we are working all four strokes. Sunday we do rope climbing, vertical kicking with weight belts. We do drills or we do make-up day. So many kids like to take one afternoon a week off because of academic stresses. Sunday is not required and morning practices are not allowed to be required. Morning practices and weekend practices are by invite. I want the kids that are there to want to be there – who have the twinkle in their eye- and who want to get some work done.

I think that there are basically four groups at Germantown Academy. Developmental: My developmental group are local kids from school or the community that swim only two days a week for about 50 minutes and the ratio of coach to swimmers = 1:16. Age group: We keep adding work as they get better. Maddie Crippen played three sports through 8th grade and swam four days a week at Germantown Academy. She played soccer, volleyball and softball and if I had my druthers every kid in my program at a young age would do some form of gymnastics, ballet or dance or martial arts. It teaches strength, coordination and more important, body awareness. If you do not have body awareness you cannot swim fast and I think those land sports or land activities develop those skills quicker than in the pool. All my age groupers have to do other sports, that is just the way I am.

Mariah is one of my favorite groups. This year I didn’t have much to do with them because of the Olympic trials. I have my age group coaches select anywhere from 10-14 kids with the best work ethic at Germantown Academy Aquatic Club. These are not the fastest, but kids that really have that desire to work hard. We work with them for about an hour a day on technique. When I do the Mariah group, they work with me in normal training, 60 minutes of Coach Shoulberg which is normal sets geared down. But then the next one hour they work with Chris or Lori or one of my other coaches on technique. There is a balance of conditioning with technique. If the athlete is not conditioned they cannot hold technique. Conditioning is as valuable as anything but at some point they need to learn the skills. They also need to become fit and so we do a lot of work on fitness. Mr. Jacobs used to come in two nights a week to work with the group. I always had a fresh cup of coffee made for him and had to listen to his awful jokes. These were rules that I had to follow. He was the father of ten kids. He was an engineer. He went to Drexel University after WW2. He was one of those great Americans from that greatest generation. I couldn’t wait to see Mr. Jacobs on those days. He gave back so much to the sport that the new people coming in doing his role are Mr. Jacobs, Junior. They could never walk in his shoes though. He was just so special. He was a little guy, about as tall as he was round. But he could get kids to be passionate about stroke drills and swimming; he really did a lot for my program. As a matter of fact, I went out to Jackson Hole four years ago and did a clinic for his daughter because that is how much I loved the guy. And then I had two coaches within six weeks, Mr. Jacobs and George both died of a heart attack, it really upset me.

Everything is in a progression. Everything starts slow and keeps increasing. Coaching swimming is so simple; it is not open heart surgery. All you are doing is teaching the kid to go from one wall to the other wall faster. Don’t make it so complicated, but do it in a progression that they can handle the work and make it that they enjoy it and make sure you are teaching at all times. You must be engaged. I have kids that go off to these wonderful 8 lane 50 meter pools in college and the coach is on the phone doing recruiting. Unfortunately they do not get faster. You have to be engaged whenever you are dealing with people.

We found Maddie Crippen in the Mariah group. She swam with me for one hour. She heard this crazy voice from a man walking up and down the pool, yelling out splits, yelling at her for one hand touch in breaststroke. I talked to Maddie Crippen every day for one hand touches in breaststroke. We go to the US Open in Auburn before she had Olympic trial cuts. She made her first Olympic trial cut in the 400 IM in lane 1 and was so excited. It said DQ by her name; she said “I didn’t do it wrong! I didn’t DQ.” I told her she’s been touching with one hand every day since I started coaching her. At the Olympic Trials, after she made the Olympic team she thanked the official. She went up and told him he had changed her life. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t get her to do her turns right. Thank God there are officials. There is a reason that we need people to correct other than us to correct our kids.

Everything I have done in swimming is in a progression order. I rent three different pools. Linwood is about six miles from Germantown Academy. The pool is six lanes, 48 yards 11 inches. Laurie gets mad because it is not the exact 50 yards. I can’t move the wall. We train there after school three days a week in the fall; it is heated. On May 1st we go outdoors and my God, the kids love going outdoors. They start to get a suntan, they look better for the prom and all the BS, but the advantage of going outdoors and coming back in full swing the end of October or beginning of November is it makes the winter months shorter.

Mermaid is another pool we rent. It’s 33 1/3 meters by 70 meters and it has a 25 meter, 6 lane course right in the center. That is where I coached 12 summers. It (coaching at Mermaid) was my lucky break. I didn’t want to go back to Penn Square Swim Club because the parents wanted to run my life. The owner’s daughter was the Associate Athletic Director at G. A. and when the pool was built she came to my house with a stamped envelope addressed to the Headmaster and asked me to type my resume and send it in. The job wouldn’t pay much but I could run a club team and be the Aquatic Director. Wasn’t that lucky that the parents at Penn had pushed me out? In 1974, in my dining room I designed his pool which is the only real 50 meter pool we train in. We built the whole pool, locker rooms, the filters, everything for under $110,000. We still use it every day in the summer time. They have 5500 members at it, it’s a community pool. Staying in the same community all my life I have made some pretty good connections.

I am engaged in every practice. I monitor every practice, I know the swimmers’ paces. This is a kid that comes to practice every day with sparkle in the eye, does the extra 32 minutes, does everything right. Monday she usually holds 17.1 when we are doing repeat 200’s. This Monday she is going 16.4 and I know that because I have two watches and I am always watching the kids that work hard. I pull her out of the water ask her why she went so fast. She says she got flowers from her boyfriend, her dad is going to let me use the big car this week AND I am getting all A’s in History. No wonder she is going to swim fast. If she is having an off day then she is going 18.01, I take her out and I tell her you normally swim in Lane 1 and hold 17’s. I tell her she is off pace and ask why. Whatever her reason is I tell her to go to lane 4 and do stroke drills, technique and encourage the athletes in lane 4 to work harder. Kids have off days. I don’t plan the practice for the team. I plan the practice for the best swimmer and then I just keep moving people around.

Here is another thing I do: Dan usually swims in lane 3 and I have been watching Dan the last five days and he is doing a really good job and I ask Dan to come to lane 1 for 18 minutes with my best swimmer. Only 18 minutes, Dan with fresh blood, fresh legs, who is willing to work hard makes her work harder. I am always moving kids around in my pool. That is how I coach. I want to know when kids are going faster than they normally do. I also want to know when kids are not doing things correct. The role of the coach is to pull them out of that bad practice so they can do something else so the whole practice is not wasted.

The problem with moving kids around is if I removed a Maddie and sent her to lane 4 there would be tears. I asked Maddie to take practice off one practice because her paces were so bad, they were just way off. School was good, family was good, nothing was wrong in her life, and she just couldn’t hold a pace. I asked her to leave, so she went out and did a 6 mile run. That was the last thing I wanted her to do. I am not afraid to pull kids out of the water and I am not afraid to move Dan over to the better group though.

Q. How do you get kids to believe and how do you develop a culture that they believe and they believe they have a shot at achieving? Here is an example, we went down to Highlander at Christmas time to go long course and I had a girl who never made Junior Nationals with us. I gave her a 12,000 IM long course: 250 fly, back, breast, free. She thought I was crazy. Afterwards I made her stand up in front of the team and say you just did this 12,000. You did a great job. Now tell the team you are going to make Senior Nationals and Olympic trials. She said “I don’t even have Junior Cuts.” Three and a half years later she was 3rd at Senior Nationals. I really watch kids and if I know that they can’t do it, they are not going to do it. I am honest with kids and when I realize a kid has the ability, has the passion, and is willing to get better, and then I put a challenge to them. But, not until I know for sure they are probably going to be pretty good. I think the worst thing that you can do is tell a kid she will break the National Record in the 200 fly. I knew that girl was going to do it. She just didn’t know she was going to do it, so I individualize it. It is because I am engaged in their training and I watch the little things that I get a pretty good sense of if kids are able to achieve or not able to.

Q. How many yards are you having someone swim who is on the cusp of puberty? If they are swimming with Chris Lear, my head age group coach, they are probably going no more than 6500 in two hours in the evening because they have to touch all four strokes. If they attend the academy and they are coming through Nina’s group and we identify them, probably 6800 at the most. Alecia, in 7th grade, went five afternoons and one morning. Arthur, the boy I talked about that went 4:43, goes five afternoons, and two mornings for 45 minutes and Saturdays. He is an 8th grader and a male. The trouble with Arthur is that his father sits up in the balcony and gets googly-eyed when Arthur swims fast. I worry a little bit about that.

Q. ?
I think it is really important to high school kids to represent their own high school. If I had an athlete like Janie who had a marvelous coach in 9th, 10th and 11th grade, we would cooperate. I was really upset when she gave up high school swimming. She could have been a State Champion 8 times, adding two more titles in her Senior year. But, she had this new young coach. If you are only going to dedicate 14 or 15 weeks a year to a kid who wants to play the violin at the Academy of Music, don’t stop them. Communicate with the USS coach and try to work something out. Unfortunately, which I think is really sinful that because of State rules some kids who really want to excel in both high school and USS are not allowed to do both. That is a huge mortal sin. We would never say to a kid they can’t get better on a computer or the violin because nobody cares, but when we start scoring meets and giving out trophies it gets mixed up.

Q ?
You have to work together. If you don’t work together you shouldn’t be a teacher, real simple. That is my philosophy. If you are not going to work with anyone to help enhance your student’s progress you are going to smother them and hold them back. I will tell you one quick story. I had a girl in 1984 who was a National Champion at age 14. In 1986 I saw a splinter in her training; I saw a crack in her attitude. In 1987 I asked her to leave my program. I told her not to go swim for Mark Schubert. I knew she would because I told her not to. So, I outsmarted her. She went and swam for Mark and made the 1988 Olympic team, and the 1992 team. She came back and trained with me many, many different times between ’92 and in 2004 at age 37 made the Olympic trial cut in the distance events. I think as a coach, when you realize you are not connected to the athlete that has talent you need to take a stand and get them into a program that will enhance their performance. Three kids made the Olympic team for US this year that changed coaches at the end of March. That is pretty awesome. In 1976 we had a boy from Delaware who changed coaches and six weeks later made the Olympic team. Sometimes we don’t always mesh with our kids. When you see this happen, help them move on because all they are doing is creating a new cancer in your program and no one wins: you don’t win, the teammates don’t win. It is a loss and I cried over losing Erika, but oh well.

Q. Where do your post-grads like Berkoff fit in?
When the post-grads come back and train, they do the morning training with the team and they are just one of the group. I had a girl this year with dual citizenship that made the Puerto Rican Olympic team. She’s going to go to law school next fall. She dropped 10 seconds in the 400 at Ohio State to make her B cut in the 400 and then made it in the 200 fly. She swam with the school kids just like part of the group because she is (part of the group). I have always learned to blend the kids in. In ’92 we had four guys make the ’92 Olympic team. Through the six nights of Trials every night a G. A. swimmer made the team. That May I had a parent meeting with Larry’s parents. They told me I spent too much time with the Olympic hopefuls and it affected their son’s performance. I said, “Well, our girls were National Champions. We have a lot of new kids make Olympic Trials– we took 17 kids to Olympic trials. Your kid was still farting around like he had his whole life. That’s not my fault. But when you get a kid like Dave Wharton to come into your practice or Dave Berkoff they are better than any coach on the deck at G.A. They are awesome, so I integrate them.

Q. How long did it take you to develop an eye for talent?
A. I think I found an eye for talent when I gave my first swim lesson to Stevie Peoples when he was 16. He was a little boy of Penn Square Swim Club who no one could teach to swim. His mother asked me if I knew anything about teaching kids to swim. I was taking these Red Cross courses and I said, “I will teach your son to swim the length of the pool in 10 lessons or you won’t pay me.” I think I got like .50 an hour or .50 a lesson. I had a feel that I knew how to communicate with kids and see talent. Swimmers are great athletes. Thank you.

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