Blending Training and Other Related Components into a Successful High School Program by Charles E. “Skip” Bird (1994)


Published


Skip Bird is perhaps the best known High School Swimming Coach in America.  He has  been a resident  of Valparaiso, Indiana since the age of two, attending school there through College and a Master’s Degree, and he has now coached and taught at Valparaiso High School for close to thirty years. He writes a monthly column for Swimming World Magazine, and is an integral part of the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association (NISCA). He is a highly popular speaker and clinician, and has spoken at NISCA and previous ASCA conventions.
 
Skip has several popular books on the swimming market, and is a humorous and motivational speaker. To conclude with a bit of his autobiographical description “his other major interest is fishing; he has caught salmon as long as his leg, which, as you may know, is no big deal. He is willing to trade clinics for fishing adventures. His biggest dream in life is to become so rich and/or famous that he will be considered eccentric instead of just weird”.
 
When John Leonard first contacted me about speaking today, he pointed out the Mike Chasson was speaking on athletics and academics; John Casadia was going  to his the most important aspects of high  school  coaching;  Dick Shoulberg was going to describe how he has organized his successful prep program; and Ray Lawrence- a fellow Hoosier- was talking about his  blending  of club and high school swimming. John  Leonard  pointed  out that these great coaches were going to provide the coaches in the audience with a wealth of useful information. Now, this is what John actually said, “Skip, these guys are certain to be sensational; and we want  the last guy to be completely different-a complete change of pace.” I thanked him for thinking of me as the very per­son  who could  be that kind of speaker.
You know, this is the second time I have spoken at the World Clinic; the last time I talked about Dick Bower’s Cruise Intervals at the Clinic in San Francisco. Now, I know that there are many, many high school swimming coaches with great programs who have never been invited  to  address  this  September  gathering. I  asked  John how it was that I am back for a second time when there are others who deserve to speak. He said, “I know this is your second performance, and we may have to ask you back again in the future. You’re just going to have to do this until you get it right.” So, I am somewhat under the gun.
 
The official title of this talk is “Bringing It All Together: Blending Training and Other Related Components into a Successful High School Program-or-How to be a High School Swimming Coach and Still Be Really Cool; There Are Only a Few of Us.” You can see that this talk has a light tone and a humorous intent, but I have always resented it when I have listened to speakers talk at me and fail to give me any information I could actually USE. Therefore, while I do believe that we often take ourselves way too seriously, I also believe I have an obligation to try to tie things up here at the end of the high school track and to give you a few ideas you might like to try in your program when you get back home.
If you have enjoyed this clinic half as much  as I have, then I have had twice as much fun as you have had!
What we swimming coaches, coaching and teaching in school situations do is really pretty amazing. A Texas superintendent. Bryon D. Secrest, said, “The characteristics that Americans admire most competitiveness, discipline, hard work, leadership, ability to listen and concentrate, playing within a set of rules, etc. are developed best in extra-curricular activities. Our coaches/teachers are more successful at guiding, motivating, and disciplining young people than any other group I am aware of, and they do it for peanuts.”
In one point of view at least, the most important single question that high school coaches have to answer  relative to the way in which we organize our training pro­grams involves the concepts of balance and  prioritization. For even if we were able to keep our athletes in some kind of aquatic “Skinner Box” and could control every individual factor in their lives, we  still  have  to deal with time limitations, since there is nothing we can do about  having only  24 hours available each day for us to use in our training.
 
What we must do then is to decide what sort of time and effort ration we want to establish among components as diverse as diet and rest, weight training and stretching, swimming, kicking, pulling, using fins and drag suits, doing lactate and aerobic sets, and providing instruction and drills, and dozens of other components that we recognize as important in our total program. Or, put  another way, when do we do what and how much of it do we do?
This is a dilemma we must all face, planning the season and organizing each day’s practice.
 
And as we face that problem, we have to ask ourselves, of all the concepts, principles, and facets of our training paradigm, what is the one thing that touches, influences, and controls all of the other aspects? It is my contention that mental training, whether we call it motivation, attitude, or whatever, colors and alters absolutely every­ thing in our program. Mental training influences  all facets of a high school swimmer’s life: athletic, academic, social, etc., and when we teach them to shape their attitudes about their swimming, we also have given them skills they can use in the classroom and elsewhere.
The fact is that we can use all of the student-athletes already learned skills and his innate abilities to learn to help him develop technique and attitudes to benefit his swimming performance; similarly, what he learns from what we have to teach him in the pool represents approaches and skills that he can use outside of the pool in all major areas of his life.
There is little doubt that the most successful coaches are those who have paid the price of developing an entire program. The coach who is like a lightening  flash  on the water and is suddenly, but briefly, outstanding in one aspect of his program, tends not to remain so spectacular for very long, especially when contrasted with a coach like Dick Hannula, who is “consistently persistent,” as  he puts it and carefully shapes the stresses and other dominant principles to build and constantly refine a more nearly total program.
The point is, of course, that we each have to develop a well-rounded, complete program, and that as we do this, we use motivational techniques and mental training procedures both to sell the whole program and to be an end in itself.
It is important,  then,  to become skilled  and thoroughly trained in the mental aspect of our training.  All of us use these techniques to one degree or another, but I encourage you to become genuine experts in this field. To do this, reach what the masters have to say.  Make use of the classes in ed. psyche. that you took to become teachers. Tap local resources when you can.  We have had some area psychologists come and guide us through relaxation and visualization exercises.
 
I have gone through thorough training in hypnosis myself. An area hypnosis center with an  excellent  record and appropriate credentials devoted a whole Saturday to preparing our team for acceptance of hypnosis as a useful tool in our program. They followed that up with several weeks of training for me. Since then we have used their methods to visualize good technique, to relax and feel good after a grueling practice, to program our goals, and in general to become convinced of the efficacy of this sort of mental training in all areas of our training.
 
My earliest experiments with fairly formal mental training was the full course in Silva Mind Control, which I still find useful and simple to use. Then, each  new course I took or book I read, like Dr. Maxwell’s Maltz’s Psychocybernetics books or different experts I consulted helped us with our program.
This is, obviously, not a new concept. Dr. Counsilman wrote about the X-factor years ago, and he has always held that a psychologist would make a formidable opponent coach.
 
The fact is that no matter how good your program is, the athletes must believe in it, in themselves, and in you. And frequent mental training sessions, formal and informal, are essential to developing that belief.
We have always believed that it is terribly important to talk to every swimmer on the team and to talk to every­ body every day. Some of the talk will be stroke correction and general instruction and evaluation, but some of it might not have anything to do with swimming at all. Look them in the eye, make physical contact by shaking their hand or rubbing their shoulder or patting them on the back. Be sure you check in with every swimmer, not just the stars, but all of the kids, even the marginal ones who may never become state scorers. Everyone needs to know that they have a role on this team and that they are important to the team and the team members.
 
It’s a good idea to encourage the kids to do something similar. The first time they see a teammate in school or in the pool area, they should go over and greet each other and say something positive about the other person.
Haim Ginott’s words about teachers in the classroom are equally true of coaches in the pool: “I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de­ escalated,  and a child humanized or de-humanized.”
 
There’s a corollary I would like to mention: that very often the most physical of our training says, a really demanding lactate production set of perhaps a longer distance, shorter rest, extremely difficult set also can produce dramatic psychological improvement. For example, when we finish a killer set of one kind or another, not only have our bodies become stronger, faster, more fit, but we feel tough. We get to thinking that no other team in our area could have done this set any better than we just did. The physical set produced a very real improvement in our attitudes and our belief systems.
Another psychological effort we make is to put half of each circle at the opposite end of the lane, so that we have effectively doubled our lane leaders. In a some­ what related matter our circles do not all circle the same direction. By having the odd circles circle counter­ clockwise and the even circles go clockwise, the circles blend into each other when the arms overlap the lane lines; otherwise the freestylers would hook arms or smack hands fairly frequently, whenever they swim too close to the outside lane line.
It is increasingly evident that we need a holistic approach if we really believe that the mind and the body work together to help our swimmers go faster farther. Part of this concept is that in order to stimulate the swimmers to apply increasingly more effort, they have to be convinced that they are improving because of the training, and, perhaps even more importantly, they must enjoy what they are doing, they must have fun. Fun requires conscientious attention to detail and to variety. Except for a few traditional, annual practices, we never repeat an entire practice. We try to keep things lively and interesting, while at the same time increasing our physical demands on our bodies. These things complement each other, helping us maintain high morale and a positive mental attitude.
As a result, some of what we do would fall into the category of playing, but we are actually generally getting some real practice in. We have quite a collection of these special events. If you are just getting started or are looking for a way to freshen up the routine practice, look into the great ideas in such sources as Bob Steele’s book of gimmicks.
I am very interested in your sending me YOUR favorite sets, mottoes, songs, and other motivational material.
 
A good bit of what we do on our team is social. Into this category I would place our team breakfasts and suppers, as well as our special traditions, such as bestowing semi-secret team nicknames to each team member. Many of our activities are designed with the team’s being an extended family. In that capacity, we can assist the swimmer with most problems that arise; academic, personal, etc.
In order to fulfill my promise to give you some hard details that you can actually use, I’d like to offer you a series of special practices and sets, culled primarily from an edition of my swimming training book.
 
The packet of material we have for you starts with the Middle 50 Theory and table. This is simply another way of looking at the problem of teaching pacing, particularly teaching pacing to inexperienced swimmers. By get­ ting them to focus on the second and third quarters of the !00 and 200 especially, they seem to catch on to the concept of pace a little better. Once they know the pace well, and that little clock in their heads is fairly accurate, they can concentrate on maintaining the proper speed in the middle half of the race. Planning the pace in this manner assumes that the swimmer will have learned to hold back a bit on the first quarter of the race distance; by the final quarter the race is nearly over, and the swimmer sprints home with everything that is left. So basically we use this for our novices who need to learn to control the pace for maximum results. I have no scientific basis for this theory, just the empirical observations of the past 30 some years.
We like the Mighty Viking Short Rest Killer Dillers. Essentially, these are extremely short rest or broken repeats based on the swimmer’s best time. When the swimmer first hears about these, she is likely to think that they are impossible to do or that they are worthless, but they really are quite do-able and their effect is demonstrable in that the swimmer feels strong and feels that he has accomplished something when he works through a reasonable set of these.
gory of gimmicks and games, but even when we seem to    The scoring drill, breakthroughs and low send-off  100’s are either self-explanatory or have been around long enough that you may well be familiar with them.
The mind-bender is an old tradition at dear old VHS. It is simply an over-distance, short rest aerobic set. Our young men look forward to it each year mostly to get through with. We go over the directions rather carefully so that each swimmer understands precisely what our objectives are.
The Mini Mind-bender is a similar set up, but here the swimmer can pick his own distance, interval, stroke, and intensity for the first hour of the set. I pick the second hour’s work, usually trying to get just the opposite kind of workout from what he chose. For example, if he picked long rest, high quality. I would pick short rest, over distance. We encourage him to  pick  his  favorite hour set from among the possibilities, and then I try to balance the choice by selecting something that works on another metabolic system.
The last in this collection deals with setting short term goals. The point of the exercise is that it is relatively easy to go slowly on some set  or  not  work  an  entire day’s practice very hard, rationalizing that there  are plenty of opportunities to make it up in the weeks ahead. But when you ask the swimmer where she wants to be in just one week, she needs to have a reasonable yet challenging goal in mind, she needs to know what she has to do to reach that goal, and there is no time to make up a lousy practice effort in the brief time before the meet where she expects to reach or surpass that goal.
 
Beat Mike Bruner Day: He was the first swimmer to go 100 100’s in 100 minutes. We cannot duplicate that, obviously, with individuals, but we can do it setting up relays of 2 to 6 or 8 swimmers, going 50’s or 100’s or 200’s, depending on the individual swimmer’s ability, with the instructions to stay ahead of that minute per  100 pace.
 
Pick a Card: I put different sets on index cards, one 1520 minute set per card, and then I laminated the cards on both sides. The sets vary from quite easy rest 5 minutes, Go Home (I keep that card out until late in practice) to demanding alternate 2 x 400 IM and 2 x 500 free on 6:00 progressive. After a warm up, each swim­mer picks 8 cards one at a time. Everybody keeps track of what he has done, and there are prizes for the most and least (kicking,  pulling,  swimming,  total  yardage.  We make deals, too. I ask them if they will trade their card, which they have not looked at, for the card in my shirt pocket on the one in my pants pocket. we play Indian poker: two kids pick cards and without looking at them, place them against their foreheads so that the other person can read the set on the card; if they both agree, they trade cards.
I should mention that a year ago, my daughters produced a team video, using the song,  “Right  Now”  by  Van Halen and shorts from our team season. Since  they spent many hours on the “toaster” an electronic editing and special effects machine, it was a thoroughly professional tape.   It serves to inspire us whenever we see  it.
 
One of our most effective sets is our Saturday Goal Set, which we use whenever we do not have a weekend meet. Therefore, these are scattered throughout the whole season. Depending on how many Saturdays we have available for this in our winter  season,  We  start with 15 x 100 on 4:00 or 12 on 5:00; each time we do the set, we increase the interval  and reduce  the number of reps until we reach 4 x 100 on 15:00 or 3 on 20:00. We write down all the times and strive for a faster aver­ age each week or two when we do the set.  The kids look at their last performances and attempt to beat the previous time. This pushes  us  into  swimming  faster  with longer rest and fewer repeats as the season progresses. We do the shortest set just  as  taper is  beginning.
 
We use the WipeOut WorkOut once or twice a season. The springers and strokers do 50 x 50 on 1:15; IM’ers and middle distance freestylers do 60 x 50 on I:00; and the distance swimmers go 80 x 50 on :50. Properly done, this does indeed wipe them out.
Tubing aided swimming: one of the things that has  greatly improved our sprinting in the last few years has been aided swimming  using  stretch  (surgical)  tubes.  The student fastens her end of the tube around her waist and goes to the far end of the pool. Her partner “reels” her in, keeping steady tension  pulling  her in.  Instruct  the swimmer to try to swim faster than she  is  being pulled in, not just to “go for a ride.” The swimmer pulling the tube in must take care to do all the pulling underwater so that if the tube breaks, neither one is likely to get snapped by flying surgical  tubing.
 
We reverse the direction of our circles every so often to help prevent our swimmers  from swimming  in circles  in a meet.
 
A Dr. Feelgood Practice: we set up one of these when the kids are particularly turn down physically or flat mentally. I suppose most of the elements in a practice like this could be found in various practices you would have done during taper generally  low stress, some long distance with short rest, etc. Be sure to label the practice “Dr. Feelgood” so the kids approach it with the proper attitude that they are backing off a bit in today’s practice, an easy practice to balance out the tough ones they have had recently.
To conclude, many years ago Knute Rockne outlined some of the objectives he felt were important in any athletic program that sought to develop the whole student:
“SCHOLARSHIP The player should first be a good student. Do not neglect your studies. Your first purpose should be to get an education.
 
HABITS · Good habits are only doing those things that help and not doing things that will harm or hinder.
AMBITION Keeping an eye on the future, always try­ ing to improve oneself. Interest and spirit sometimes out weight natural ability.
ATTENDANCE Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Try not to miss a day of school or practice.
SPORTSMANSHIP Good sportsmanship means clean and fair play. Treat your opponent with respect.
LOSING You can be a hard but a good loser. Any coach or team that cannot lose and treat their opponents with respect has no right to win a poor sportsman generally tries to amuse the spectators with his self-styled clever wit by making abusive remarks, which on intelligent spectators, act as a boomerang.
 
WINNING If you are the rightful winner, be willing to take credit for it, but keep in mind that it was only your time to win and that your winning was probably due to conditions or a reward for your sacrifices; a kind word or a handshake goes a long way toward forming a last­ ing friendship, and does not change the score.
 
SERVICE Students should always consider that they are receiving far more than they are giving. Their best efforts for their school are none too good.
THE PRESENT  AND THE FUTURE   Give  your school the best that you have, and the best will come back to you. Your success in the future depends on the present.  Build well.”
I do not require a standing ovation, but, like the dairy cow on a cold morning, I could use a warm hand. Thank you very much.

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