Coaching 13-18 Year Olds for the 400 IM by Michael Brooks (2011)


Introduction: Michael is the head coach at York YMCA in York, Pennsylvania, been there for four years and yesterday he talked to us about his sometimes rocky or always rocky journey to bringing that club from nowhere to being a very successful program. Today he’s going to talk to us about what I think is one of the most important events in all of swimming, the 400 IM, and how to develop your athlete towards that. I know that Michael values versatility and I’m sure he’ll share with us how he’s taking advantage of USA Swimming’s IMX program to motivate his athletes to move towards swimming the 400 IM. He’s one of the most creative, thought provoking and – I think he proved yesterday – adaptable coaches that we have in our sport. Michael Brooks. [Applause]

Michael Brooks: Thanks very much, Mark. First I’d like to of course thank John Leonard and ASCA for the opportunity to speak here. It is a pleasure after I get going. Okay, today I want to talk about the IM and training age groupers – well, 13- to 18-year-olds, I guess, in particular for the 400 IM. First, a little bit about York and the IM. We’re definitely a work in progress. Take what I say with a grain of salt. I haven’t yet produced a world record holder or an Olympian. I hope that’s coming in the next few years but we have had some pretty good results in the 400 IM. Over the last couple of seasons we’ve had three NAG champions. We have had at least one NAG champion in IMX champion every year every season and we’ve got lots and lots of kids in the top 10 in the country in both IMX and in the 400 IM. We’ve had two kids make the National Junior Team in the last few years, both of them in the 400 IM and one of them swam in the World Junior Games or World Youth Games in Peru just a couple of weeks ago, also 400 IM. So we are getting some nice things done and I hope that’s just a prelude to much nicer in the next few years.

Because I don’t have a PowerPoint, I’ll give you an overview of the argument and then I’ll try and stick to my plan pretty rigorously so that you’ll have an idea of where we’re going. First, I’m going to talk about why the IM and then why the 400 in particular and not the 200 and then in the 400 IM exactly when do you start having kids race the 400 IM? Next, the challenges of individual medley training. After that, six desiderata which basically means things to be desired, what I want to build kids to be able to do. Next, a motivation to train for the IM. I think it does take a special kind of kid and then last, tactics in the 400 IM both short course and long course. I think they’re slightly different.

Okay. First, why the IM? I see the 400 IM champion as the complete swimmer. I like kids who can do everything and who are good at everything so IM doesn’t mean doing everything poorly. I want to make sure they’re very solid across the board and when they’re older then they can decide that they’re 50 freestylers or milers or 200 butterflyers or whatever but essentially everybody in the program is a 400 IMer until they’re 15, 16, 17 years old. You don’t know what their best stroke is going to when they’re older. I’ll let the college coaches try and figure that out and I think one of the nice things with our few kids who have gone off to college over the last couple of years is that they have been able to fill a lot of different holes for those college coaches. They can do more than just one thing well.

I think training IM kids is so much variety, keeps things fresh for both the coaches and the swimmers and I like knowing that we’re going to do something completely different today from what we did yesterday and I think the kids like that too. Just as far as team points, they can score in nine or 10 different events when they go to a meet, even a big meet, which is much better than having them win the 50 free, win the 100 butterfly and not be able to swim anything else. But it’s really challenging because so many different bases need covering and it’s hard to do that.

Why the 400 IM? At York it’s predominantly an aerobic program: I don’t build sprinters so we definitely are into building the base and that starts from the youngest kids. Success in the 200 IM, especially in the short course, tends to go to the big and the strong and I have absolutely no control over how big they are and in York for some reason the kids tend to be very small. It must be something in the water but I need something that I can control and for the 400 IM it’s usually success goes to the toughest, the hardest workers, the most consistent kids. That’s the kind of kids I want to coach anyway. That’s what IM training – those are traits that IM trying to build so it fits in perfectly with what I want from my swimmers. Then also it’s just much easier to race down if you’ve trained for the 400 IM to go down to the 200 and most people realize or at least agree that the 200-yard IM is a very different animal from the 200-meter and if you’ve been training for the 400, it’s easy to go to the 200 IM.

Well, when do kids, in our program at least, really start racing the 400 IM? They probably start training for it at 11 although we don’t do very many 400 IMs in practice. We kind of set things up stroke by stroke day by day. But when do they start racing it? There’s no real answer. It varies so much from one kid to another. Basically when they’re ready and by that I mean they’re ready to race it and they see the 400 IM as a race and not a survival game. I don’t like to watch kids survive a race. I want to see them go for it and they let me know in practice whether they’re ready to do that. Then also – and this does matter to me – it needs to be esthetically pleasing. I do not want to watch 400 meters of awful, ugly swimming so they need to have four solid strokes and they need to be able to race with four solid strokes. With our better kids they’re usually doing their first 400 IMs late 11, early12 with some of the – maybe second-tier kids. They’re waiting or IM waiting for them until they’re maybe 13 but by the time they’re 13 and 14s pretty much everybody is racing the 400 IM and I do mean everybody. They can’t avoid it because I won’t let them.

It is really challenging, I think, to train well for a 400 IM because, as I said, there are so many things that need doing and at the Y and our very small coaching staff are tremendously short staffed so we’re trying to keep track of – in the senior group I am on deck alone and trying to keep track of 30 kids and splits and repeat times and comparing them to goal splits and goal finishing times and all that and it just is enough to make your head spin. And when you consider that you’re doing that for four different strokes, it gets to be a little much sometimes. Then also, I think, for the swimmers it’s difficult for all four strokes to be feeling really good at the same time. Even with our top kids I don’t think we’ve been to a really big meet where all four were – an individual swimmer said all four things were working really well. There’s always something that’s a little off and so that means with three or four days or a week to go before Nationals I am trying to figure out how to get this backstroke on track. Breaststroke’s okay. Fly is okay. Free is okay but oh my God, what do we do with the backstroke? That’s kind of a normal situation, I think. At least it is in our program as it is hard to have everything working at the same time, around taper time especially.

I think when you do an IM program the kids aren’t going to make as quick progress at any one thing. I’m absolutely certain that our swimmers would be better at – well, in one case a 200 butterfly or in another case a 200 freestyle or whatever if I wasn’t training them so broadly and so generally. That probably hurts them a little bit when they’re being recruited by college coaches but on the other hand, like I said, they’re going to be good at a whole bunch of different things so they might not be quite as good at one thing but they’re going to be very good at a whole bunch of them. I’m hoping that versatility will make up for the lack of superstardom.

I think it’s a principle that you can’t be good at everything. You do have to choose your spots and I know that we’re weaker at the shorter events. If you look at our high-tech results and compare our 200 fly with our 100 or two back with our 100 or 4 IM with our two, etc., etc., you’ll find that pretty much across the board our kids are stronger at the 200 form strokes, the 400 free, the 400 IM, etc., and that’s just a byproduct of the way we’re training them. Again they’ll be able to come down if that’s the need once they’re old enough in college. That’s somebody else’s responsibility once they get there but there were going to be holes and that’s one of ours. We’ve had some kids who are pretty good at the mile but I think that’s for the most part by accident just because I think they’re really good aerobically, they’re tough, they have pretty good strokes and they have a really good sense of pace. It’s not that they’re really milers. It may be that they are and I just haven’t made them into it yet but it’s just again a byproduct of what we are training the kids for.

The six desiderata. The goal is I want successful 400 IMers. There you go. Then I take a look at what tools do I need to try to give the swimmers, figure that out and then I train them for that. I think there are six keys to the 400 IM. I’ll just go through them really quickly, list them and then I’ll talk about each one. First, kids need to be aerobically very fit and tough. Second, they need to be strong in all four strokes. Third, they need to be technically strong in all four strokes. Fourth, they need good aerobic speed and I’ll explain what that means in a little while. Fifth, they must be able to transition from one stroke to the next in an IM and then sixth, they need to be smart tactically which means an intelligent allocation of their resources. With that list we’ll go through them one by one.

Aerobically, they need to be very fit, very tough. You cannot fake a 400 IM. You can kind of fake a 200-yard IM but 400 IM, you are out there and you are showing everybody your training and again I like – I like to train people for that. I like tough kids so 400 IM shows what I want to see. In our program we’re trying to build the widest possible foundation for their training. In the old days we called it a distance base. That is – that is the foundation of our program and I think that kids need to be trained and then expected to do things right under stress and fatigue. Absolutely necessary if you want to look good the last 50 of a 400 IM. You need to practice to do that as you’re going to be hurting like crazy if you pushed it and you need to be able to swim fast and look good while you’re doing that.

Okay, strong in all four strokes. We train all four strokes and I’ve read some books that argue that freestyle should be used as the major aerobic training stroke and then the other three strokes are more technical, more speed, whatever, so freestyle is to be used to condition swimmers. Well, I don’t think that. We condition swimmers in all four strokes. We work technically in all four strokes and we do speed work in all four strokes and that’s why there’s so much to take care of as I mentioned before. We’re not afraid to do long sets of breaststroke or backstroke or butterfly although I say the breast and the fly with some qualifications. I’ll get to those in a little bit but we work all four strokes and if we’re working on backstroke, for instance, we primarily work on backstroke in the context of a backstroke set. We don’t do many days or many days a week of IM sets or IM training and the reason is if you have a bad backstroke in an IM, your backstroke cannot be good. If you have a good backstroke, you backstroke in an IM may be good if you can transition well. So first we work on, say, in this case backstroke. We work on backstroke sets. We do long backstroke sets. We take them seriously and midway and then especially as we transition into the peak period of our season towards championships then we’ll start to do a lot more of transition work. But if you want a good backstroke leg, you’ve got to be a good backstroker, so we focus on that.

Generally we work one main stroke each practice. Sometimes we modify that by doing, for instance, a technique set right after warm-up of whatever the main stroke is going to be tomorrow because I don’t believe in piggybacking a technique set and one stroke and then following it with a killer aerobic set, because I think that just trains the stroke technique right out of them so I prefer to separate those.

Another modification would be if we, again right after warm-up, begin with a problem stroke, either one that’s general to a group or I might let individuals decide which is the stroke in the IM that’s giving them the biggest trouble and then we could go on to our main set. For the most part all swimmers in a group do the same program so I don’t have the breaststroke lane or butterfly lane or backstroke or sprint lane, a distance lane or anything like that. Once kids do get, say, senior in high school I might have a group that’s more focused on the 200 IM in comparison with a bigger group that’s focused more on the 400 if swimmers have shown me that a 400 just isn’t their bag. Then we’ll drop them down a little bit. Then even though everyone might be doing essentially the same program, we have different sendoffs with almost every single lane so every single person is being challenged and kids can move back and forth between lanes if they’re having a great day or a terrible day but everybody is getting challenged even if we have a huge range of abilities in the group.

We do a lot of technique work because even though I don’t have a long course pool and I don’t have access to a long course pool, we still train for the 400 meter IM and if you don’t have good strokes, you don’t have a race so I want to see good, pretty swimming. We do a lot of technique work but we do very, very little drill work. Almost all the technique we do is in context of the full stroke. Swimmers will race all strokes and distances when they come to a meet. I don’t let them hide from anything and if a swimmer shows a proclivity to hide from something, that’s the first thing I’m going to put them in and I’m going to keep putting them in there until they stop being afraid of it. They’re not allowed to avoid things. You need to face up to them and you need to learn to be good at what you’re weakest at. One of the little mantras I have with the kids is that it’s okay if you’re bad at something right now but you better be a lot better at it six months from now because if you know you have a glaring weakness and you want to be good, well, you can’t let that glaring weakness continue to be the barrier to your getting better. It’s your job to fix it and I give them lots and lots of opportunities to fix it.

The third is they need to be technically strong in all four strokes and I break each stroke down into fundamental skills and then we will swim a full stroke and then we’ll cycle through the various stroke fundamentals or stroke cues or stroke points. I kind of call them different things but it’s the same thing and I call that a rainbow focus, pass it on. I like to be able to get a lot of good work done and if I have to wait until every single person has finished a repeat before I tell the entire group what I want them to work on next, we don’t get anything done so we’ll do, say, 50s or 75s or 25s. It doesn’t really matter and then as soon as the first group has finished a repeat I’ll yell to them what the focus is for the next one. It’s their job to pass it on. Second guy passes it on to the third, the third to the fourth, all the way down the line and if somebody doesn’t pass it on and leaves his comrades completely clueless, they usually will do 10 or 15 pushups to confess their sins and make sure they do it better the next time. But it’s really important. If your job is to let your teammates know what the focus is and you’re not doing that, well, that’s a problem. We can’t get any work done and everyone behind you gets worse instead of better from what we’re doing so we do that sort of format a lot of the time. Sometimes I’ll let the swimmers take charge of it by saying that the leader in a lane gets to decide on the stroke focus. It’s still everybody’s responsibility to pass on the message but each lane might be doing something different from the rest but again most of our technique work is done just like that rainbow focus passing it on, working on one stroke fundamental at a time, cycling through the list for each stroke so that kids are always swimming attentively. They’re always working on being greater and more efficient in the water and they’re never just slugging through. I hate watching slugging. I want to see pretty swimming. I spend a lot of time – I almost said I have to. I get to spend a lot of time on deck – I want to make sure it’s very pleasurably spent. With each stroke I want to talk about how we train that stroke. With butterfly most of our work is full stroke, not all and most of that limited to short repeat distances swum very fast, very well. We do a few drills with the seniors. I think there are two drills basically with our junior kids. They may do four really simple one-arm drills and alternating single, double, single, double so there are nothing that probably you guys don’t do. We do a very small number of drills. We try and make sure that they’re done very well and we spend most of our time swimming the full stroke.

One of the main training formats that we use in butterfly I call it Sara Dotzels, named after the girl that worked on them with me. There we go. To sort of polish and find the good way of training fly fast. Essentially we’ll just alternate 25 free 25 fly, really simple and we’ll do those in ladders 100, 200, 3, 4, 5, 6 and back down or whatever or 10 200s or whatever. The trick is you start from the very first repeat swimming fly really fast. The freestyle’s a little more moderate but then you’d descend all the way through the set so the freestyle pace goes up and up and up. The butterfly pace stays very, very fast, so in other words the heart rate is climbing and climbing and climbing while your are holding race pace butterfly. That’s what I call aerobic speed and that’s why our kids can do 200 butterfly pretty well and usually they will be asked to swim faster than their best time for a 200 butterfly by the end of the set like, race best historical time in the 200 fly so you get kids swimming really fast and doing some really nice-looking butterfly while they’re doing it.

For backstroke, it’s a very important aerobic training stroke for us. We’ll do probably every couple of weeks with our senior kids and once a week or so with our junior kids a long backstroke set, 2,500 up to 35 or even 4,000 meters. Most of the time we train short course meters and we’ll do a long set. It won’t necessarily be very hard. I’m not yelling at them to go faster and race and all that. Usually they’ll build their speed but I think it’s really effective at building good backstrokes. They can get into a lovely backstroke rhythm when they do that. The intensities are low enough that they ca work on their stroke and they’re not just trying to swim faster trying to make an interval and then also I can talk to them or at least give them hand signals and communicate with them while they’re swimming without them having to stop everything for a 50 or whatever. And then also – and I think this is kind of important – when they’re doing a long swim like that, they don’t have me in their face all the time. I’m not nagging them. I’m not getting their times or whatever so they have a little bit of a break and even though I wish they always appreciated my comments to them, I know that sometimes they don’t and they just want to ignore me and do 3,000 backstroke. They can kind of do that and then I may give them little technique pointers or whatever but that’s different from saying “Okay, I want to see a 112 on this one. Now I want to see a 110. Okay, 108” or whatever. It gives them a little bit of a break. On backstroke we pretty much have one stroke drill and that’s one-arm backstroke. I think it simplifies the stroke and allows them to really focus on the catch, the entry and then the catch and it doesn’t mess up the stroke rhythm.

On breaststroke, it’s often the weak stroke in an IM and usually the kick is the problem. I think the biggest difference between the really good breaststrokers and the poor breaststrokers is the strength of the kick and I think most of that difference in strength lies in swimmers anatomy. Some kids are built like a duck and they kick like it. It’s great but if you have somebody who’s pigeon toed or just normal, they might not be able to put their body, namely their feet, ankles, knees, whatever, into the kinds of positions that a really good breaststroker can and as a result their kick just isn’t very strong. So we spend time almost every s single day on breaststroke leg stretches, now with five or six stretches that are really focused on breaststroke in particular and then another five or six for more general leg flexibility. I think that really helps because if you don’t have God-made breaststrokers, you need to make man-made breaststrokers or at least people who can be pretty competitive with the really good guys as much as possible so, like I said, we do leg stretching several times a week. We do more drills on breaststroke than we do in any other stroke. I’m not going to list a ton for you because I have absolutely no new original drills. I love double- and triple-kick breaststroke meaning one pull, two kicks or one pull, three kicks. I love the two strokes on the surface, dive down, three strokes underwater or four kicks underwater or four pulls underwater so basic Mike Barrowman drills, nothing new. We do those a fair amount and we used to do them just long and smooth and very pretty and it made for very slow but somewhat pretty breaststrokes. Well I need kids to be able to get going in an IM so now we do our breaststroke drills after the first couple of weeks. When we’re making sure the technique is the way we want it, we’ll start doing some really fast breaststroke drills so it’s for time, their goal times for them. They’re doing it really hard and fast and I think that’s probably more important for the kids who aren’t good at breaststroke than necessarily the kids who are, as you have to make that gap in some way.

For freestyle we just this season started doing a few front end drills like dog paddle and human stroke or human drill, whatever you call it. Up until the last few weeks we’ve done zero, none, out of principle but I finally decided that well, let’s just see if this works because I want to make sure that our front ends, our catches were really good because I think that is the single most important stroke point in freestyle. If you want to be good, you need to have a good catch. You don’t get a hold of the water up front, you’re never going to get it so we do spend a lot of time on making sure the kids are good at that wrist cock, elbow turn, high elbow press. We do most of our freestyle technical work in the context of the full stroke but now we have added a few of those dog paddle type things to really focus on just that first foot or so of the stroke. We do a lot of technical work and we focus on distance per stroke a lot. We focus on balance and by that I mean trying to make sure that kids are even left to right and even breath to non-breath. I know that there are a number of elite world-class Olympian champion swimmers, freestylers, especially males who have a big lope in their stroke and even though I understand that they are really, really fast, I don’t think that is a good thing to be teaching your younger kids. I want to see an even and balanced stroke. Most of our swimming is done breathing every third although when we’re focused on balance per se, I’ll have kids alternate, if we’re doing, for instance, 100s, the first length they’d breathe every third, second length every left, third length every right, last length every five so that they’re changing the breathing pattern every 25. The goal is to have the freestyle feel the same all for four patterns and I ask them to pay attention to the feel of the stroke, how solid the catch feels under these different circumstances and we put a lot of premium in trying to make for really consistent stroking on freestyle.

We’ll also do a lot of our rainbow focus work with freestyle. We’ve got eight or 10 or whatever it is stroke points. We’ll cycle through those, a lot of technique work with almost all of it in the context of the full stroke. We probably do less freestyle than most programs. It’s because we do a lot of back. We do a lot of breast. We do a lot of fly and that means there’s less time and space for freestyle and I’m sure in some respects that hurts us in particular since there’s a 50, a 100, a 200, a 400 and 800, a 1,500, a 200 relay, a 400 relay and an 800 relay. That is a lot of freestyle. I think that’s a ridiculous way of setting it up and when I’m in charge it’s going to be different but [Laughter] for right now in IM it sure it hurts us a little bit but, like I said, I want the kids to be good across the board and by prejudicing one stroke I don’t think that serves the kids as well in the long run.

We work on IM every single day in warm-up. We essentially have a “Big Mac” where it’s five parts and the bread is a 400 IM, two 200 IMs and four 100 IMs and then the patties, the two patties, are first, whatever is going to be the main stroke of the day and then the second one is whatever is the minor stroke of the day so the format is built just like a Big Mac which, by the way, I have our swimmers not eat because – they’re not good for them but it’s a nice image or analogy for how we start off every day. We only train actual IM sets maybe once a week. Could be twice a week and every now and then, but for the most part it’s just once a week and when we do, it’s usually incorporating a lot of different distances. It’s done just like most of our training, in a descending format where I’m asking kids to work down to race speeds and goal race speeds by the end of a round or by the end of a set. I like watching fast swimming and when we do IM, it’s fast. We do – and I got this when I coached at North Baltimore – we do a fair amount of our longer IM in a free IM format where you do freestyle instead of butterfly so it would be free, back, breast, free. On days when we do a long free IM set we might start it off with a short butterfly set just so that we’re not completely neglecting that first leg of an IM but when the kids do free IM, they can swim really fast. I think that if a swimmer is working down very, very close to their 400 IM best speed by the end of the set during free IM versus being 10 seconds slower than that if they start off with butterfly, it’s a tradeoff that I will make because the last 300 of that swim is going to be very, very close to what I’m going to see in the race. At least I hope so. Whereas when you start off with the butterfly especially if you’ve done a long set up to then, that 100 butterfly takes a lot more out of you than the first 100 does of a race when you’re fresh, when you’re doing it from a dive, etc. So we do a fair amount of free IM and we do it really, really fast.

Okay, the fourth is good aerobic speed and I’ve mentioned this already, I think, once, and the way we train is primarily descending sets. It’s primarily short rests so the heart rates stay up and I’m expecting that the swimmers are working toward their race speeds and goal race speeds and if they can do that on a short rest because of the way sets are designed, I think they’re training very specifically for 400 IM success. I wouldn’t be that sure if we were doing 100 IMs on the long rest or 200 IMs on long rest or whatever. Keeping that heart rate up is, I think, very important. Also they can and they know they can swim very, very fast when they’re dead tired. I make sure that they do. I don’t accept their excuses “Well, I’m exhausted.” Well, good. Hop on the block. We’re doing a 200 IM for time. They’re expected to do that and even the most stubborn of them figures it out after not too long that they can a lot more than they ever thought they could. I think that knowledge is really important on the fifth day of Far Westerns when you’ve been out on the pool deck for 14 hours a day for four days or you’re at Nationals and you’re coming on the last day and there’s a lot of pressure and you’re trying to make a team or whatever. There are lots things that you need to take into consideration that are going to be thrown at you so you need to be tough. You need to be able to take just about anything and I train so that our kids will be really tough and really adaptable.

Fifth, they can transition well from one stroke to the next. I mentioned that most important is being able to do the stroke really well and I think you get that best by training the stroke by itself but you do need to be able to transition as well. You see it all the time, kids who are really good backstrokers whose backstroke leg in an IM will be horrendous because they’re super tired from having done 100 butterfly so they have a weapon but don’t get to use it effectively because they don’t know how to go from one thing to another. I think it helps their transition work, maybe not the fly to back, but all the others by doing free IM because the speeds can be faster. They can be closer to what the eventual goal is. Some kids will have problems with certain transitions and we will do some work even early season but not much on specific transitions where if I’ve noticed that this group of kids has problems with their fly to back, then we might focus on that on one day. Another group – another subgroup has problems with the back to breast, that will be their focus. Another’s breast, free, that will be their focus so we do have the kids do some very specific transition work but for the most part early and mid season it’s context to the whole IM or free IM and then once we get closer, we’ll essentially work in the middle 200. I want kids to be very, very good at the middle 200 of their 400 IM. We’ll time them and they will be expected to go their goal times for that 200 and…

A very typical transition focus set and I’ll just give one of these, we may do four times 50 back, breast where they’re descending one to four, four 100s back, breast, descending one to four, four 150 back, breast descending one to four and four 200 back, breast descending one to four. They’re expected to try and hold the speed, the pace and improve the pace as they go through the longer distances and by the end I want them swimming crazy fast. Like I said, they’re expected to go as fast or faster than their goal race speeds at the end of the season. Obviously that would just be on the fourth repeat. They aren’t going to start quite that fast. There are several other types of transition sets but really we don’t do anything that you guys don’t do I’m sure.

Sixth is they need to be smart tactically (intelligent allocation of resources). Especially in an IM because the strokes are changing, kids have to know themselves. They have to understand their pacing. They can’t get caught up in somebody else’s race, somebody else’s strengths and weaknesses. One of our very best 400 IMers (very talented, very gifted) can do a wonderful job when she’s in control of a race but when she’s around people who are faster than she is, it muddles her thinking and she can’t be comfortable. It really shows. You can’t even tell it’s the same swimmer so obviously one of the things that I haven’t done well enough yet and first on our list of things to work on for this upcoming season before Olympic Trials is getting her to expand her comfort zone so she can essentially put the blinders on and swim her race instead of getting caught in the act that she’s behind or whatever. This is a hard thing to do even for kids who are really, really good and it’s something that I try and have them work on by, for instance, putting them next to somebody who’s a lot faster at the front end of the race in practice so that they’re going to be behind when they race this person in practice and they’ve got to deal with that. With any luck, that will transfer over to what we see when we go to the big meet.

We expect kids to know how to use a clock and to use it all the time so they know how fast they’re swimming in practice and I’ll be asking them this stuff all the time. If we’re doing 300s, I might not ask what their time was on a repeat but I’ll ask them, “What was your pace per hundred?” because that’s what I care about. If a swimmer needs to go a 1:09.5 in her backstroke leg of a 400 IM, well, then I need her to know how close she is to that pace so the pace per hundred for us is really, really important. Kids are expected to know their not only overall repeat times but their splits along the way. They’re expected to know their goal splits, their goal times so that they’ve got a nice comparison between what they just did, where they have been, where they want to go. Now it’s probably the case that not all of my swimmers will know that on every single repeat, but that is the goal. I want them to have a lot of – a lot going on in their heads and know how to put what they’re doing in context.

Then last, we practice being very goal oriented all the time, not just once for a season or once for a meet but the kids are setting goals all the time. When I am expecting them to be racing or expecting them to swim at race speeds, they’re, I hope, setting those goals down to that with every set we do, with every round of a set we do so if I want someone to go 1:09 on the end, I want I want to see a 1:15 at the beginning and then a 1:13 and then a 1:11 and then a 1:09 so that they’re not only getting to the goal at the end but they’re getting there in a fairly systematic way and swimming with the same stroke through that range of speeds. I’m sure your kids do this. Mine do it and it drives me nuts where a swimmer on a descend set will go, for instance, 1:18, 1:17.8, 1:17.6, 1:04 and they swim one stroke for the first three that don’t matter in their heads and then a completely different stoke swimming on the last one. Well, I don’t want to watch them destroy water molecules on the last repeat when they’re going fast. I want to see them swim well throughout a range of speeds, so descend means control, descend, very systematic down to what I want to see.

Okay, well enough on what I want to make my kids into and what I want to be able – what I want them to be able to do. Motivation for training a 400 IM: It’s probably harder to get them to do that than it is to train for a 200 IM. It’s harder. It’s longer. You have to be more consistent. Like I mentioned earlier, the training matters so much more than how big you are. So first way that I try to do this is I value IM and the kids know that. It kind of exudes from my pores and that the 400 IM swimmer is the complete swimmer and that’s what we’re trying to be. If I favor any stroke, it’s the IM so I don’t put a premium on who’s just doing butterfly or backstroke. It’s who can do all of them kids pick up on this. They can tell what you think is important and to a large extent what you think is important is what they think is important if your reward system reflects that because they want to be rewarded n various ways.

The team’s recent history, I think, helps a lot. The better swimmers in our program have been strong in the 400 IM and I mentioned at the very beginning that we’ve gotten a couple of kids on to the national junior team and that they’ve been 400 IMers and we have several kids qualified for Olympic trials and every one of them has the 400 IM. At juniors I think a year ago we had six or seven kids and everyone had the 400 IM so it’s just part of the way we do things and kids want to be good at that event and train for it so they should be but I value it a lot. The best kids who are acting as the example, the role models on our team who are setting the standards for the other kids, they’ve been very good at the 400 IM. That helps a lot.

We use USA Swimming’s IMX program extensively. One of the glories of that program is that the computers do all the work. All you need to do is press a few buttons and it gives you a listing by age group of your kids IMX scores ranked top to bottom. It gives you the number of points they’ve scored in each of the events and the percentage of the total that they have scored in each of those events. It shows how they rank nationally by zone, by LSC and within the team. It’s wonderful if you have a group of competitive – and I try to build competitive kids – they look at a list like that and go to town. When the list is posted, it’s public and it gets updated after each meet or as close to it as possible, the competitive kids are going to step forward and, as I mentioned, we’ve had at least one IMX NAG champion in each of the last four, five seasons, whatever as well as a whole bunch of top 10s so the kids, they get very competitive about the IMX. We take it seriously. I take it seriously. They get their T-shirt if they score a certain level of points and they will do almost anything for a free honor T-shirt because you have to have reached a fairly high level to get one.

I think IMX also helps get kids to work on their weak strokes. Sometimes it’s very difficult to have someone focus and be as intense and aggressive and as thoughtful on the stroke that they’re terrible at as on the stroke that they’re relatively best at. We all like to do what we’re good at. A 10-year-old, a 13-year-old is no different but when the goal is to raise your IMX score and your IMX ranking and you see right there in black and white that breaststroke score is 100 or 200 points lower than all the rest, it’s pretty clear even to a 10-year-old that oh my goodness, I really, really need to work on my breaststroke more. The IMX, I think, has been the single most effective way that I have gotten kids to work their weak strokes over the couple of years and I didn’t really have to do anything other than post the list. So we use IMX a lot. It’s important in our program and I think finally in getting kids to train for the 400 IM, we don’t favor any one stroke. Butterfly, it’s important. It’s important that they swim it fast and they swim it well. Breaststroke is important. It’s important that they swim it fast and swim it well, etc. So I don’t just say, “Oh well, you’re not a breaststroker. You can kind of take the day off.” I try and put just as much pressure on them on every stroke and not just what they have the best chance of placing well at Far Westerns or Nationals or Junior Nationals or whatever so we take all four strokes seriously.

I want to spend a few minutes on tactics. I’ll try and be fairly quick. Especially in short course and this gets said by pretty much every speaker, you have to be good at walls. You have to exploit the walls. I think its important also that you’re not only good at the underwater dolphin but on how you transition to the swimming. I see a lot of kids who may be really good for six dolphins but then they come to a crashing halt and then start swimming backstroke or butterfly or whatever. It’s really important that you learn all the parts of that process, the push-off. Make sure it’s at the right depth, the dolphin itself, the tempo of the dolphin, the power of the dolphin and how that gets transitioned into swimming. It’s more than just being good at doing dolphins really fast for a three-second burst. You have to – you have to be a little more subtle than that.

In long course I think it’s really important that swimmers build each 50. You have to finish everything strong. I watch so many swimmers who are wonderful for the first 15 meters of a 50-meter length. The middle 15 is getting a little suspect and the last 15 meters is much slower. There’s tempo decay. There’s speed decay and one of my basic principles of coaching is when I see everybody making a mistake, we try and do the opposite so if they’re going to go super fast the first bit and then fade, we’re going to make sure that we build so that while everybody else is slowing down, we’re speeding up. It’s also good psychologically because when somebody has this happen to them eight times on a 400 where they’re just getting passed at the last 10 meters, psychologically they’re pretty much done by the last length. If your kids can be the ones who are making those passes, that’s a pretty effective way, I think, to swim fast and win races in long course so we always finish strong. We never fade into a wall

Each swimmer has stronger strokes and weaker strokes and one of the fun things about training IM and racing IM is using the tactics of exploiting your strengths and hiding weakness as best you can and coming up with that overall successful race. I think it’s important that swimmers are in a position to use their strengths and a lot of times that isn’t the case. I’ve got a few really, really strong breaststrokers whose fly and backstroke are abysmal. They get to their weapon, their biggest weapon, the stroke where they’re going to just go to town and they’re 20 meters behind. Well, way to go. You’re going to use your weapon to try and catch back up to dig yourself out of a hole that you’ve dug instead of using your weapon to beat people, to pass them, to go by them. You have to be in a position to use your strengths and I think for the most part your key stroke isn’t your biggest weapon. It’s the one right before that. If you’re a really good breaststroker, you’ve got to have a good backstroke so that you are in a position to use that breaststroke. If you’re a really good backstroker, you need to have a strong fly especially technically so that you can be in a position to take advantage of your strength so I distinguish between a weapon, the best stroke, and then a swimmer’s key stroke. They’re not the same. I don’t think.

I think in a 400 IM – a 400 long course IM the idea of key strokes and weak and strong strokes counts doubly. The 400 long course IM is a different animal from that short course. You have to be much stronger. In racing the 400 IM, just kind of a few suggestions for each stroke: on butterfly relax the first 50 and then build momentum in that second 50. I see it all the time. People will go crazy fast the first 50 and then struggle home so that they’re reaching the backstroke leg and they look absolutely exhausted already so I like kids who’ve got good technique and kind of float that first 50 so nice and fast coming home and they are going full speed going into backstroke. I think that’s important. You want to come into that transition of full speed and usually when a swimmer has gone out really fast in butterfly, it destroys not just the butterfly. It destroys backstroke too. I like to see maybe a three- to four-second difference between the first and the second 50 of butterflies at the most and when I see five, six, seven, eight, 10 seconds difference, it’s like we need to reevaluate our tactics for the 100 butterfly on the front end.

On backstroke, I think that for a lot of swimmers it’s the key stroke. Technically I want them to increase the tempo, to lay off the legs and I’m pretty sure that Bob Bowman said exactly the same thing, probably Dick Shoulberg and probably Gregg Troy. A pretty common – a really good effective way to destroy your race is to destroy your legs on the backstroke leg so lay off them. Make sure the body position is really good so you’re just like a cork floating and up the tempo so it’s a little bit more aerobic and a little bit less muscular effort on backstroke and a lot of kids will kind of take the day off on their backstroke leg, even good backstrokers, because they’re tired after butterfly or they’re waiting for breaststroke to make a move so you can really take over a race if they will go on the backstroke. So if a kid builds that butterfly, they’re really finishing the fly well and then takes off on backstroke, that’s what I like to see.

Breaststroke, I think it’s absolutely crucial for sorting out the medals and there’s the biggest difference between the best breaststrokers and the worst breaststrokers, a bigger difference on breaststroke than there is in the other three strokes so you can lose or you can gain the most ground in that 100 of your race. Faster breaststrokers should absolutely exploit their advantage and attack with guns blazing the whole way and if they have set up their breaststroke by having a nice backstroke, all the better. Most kids are probably not going to be as strong at breaststroke, so for the weak breaststrokers we have a few rules. If you don’t have a kick like Kitajima, you’re not allowed to glide like Kitajima. I have some kids who have absolutely no power in that kick at all and yet they will just sit there in a streamlined position for eight seconds between strokes. Meanwhile anyone who’s any good is just gone, so they’ve got to pick up the tempo. It’s a little bit higher in the water and much faster tempo if their kick isn’t particularly good. They’ve got to control the bleeding as much as possible and also poor breaststrokers have got to have a good backstroke and they’ve got to have a good freestyle because you may be able to compete well if you have one off stroke. You cannot compete well if you have two off strokes in a row. You’re gone. You may get your best time but you’re going to be so far behind the kids who are solid, so that’s kind of part of the deal. If you’re a bad breaststroker, you better be good at everything else and then you need to make sure that you are working on those weaknesses in breaststroke as much as possible so that six months from now we don’t have the same problem.

On freestyle, I want to see kids begin the freestyle leg with a sense of urgency. If they’re ahead, they need to attack and exploit that advantage because the other kids are swimming breaststroke and you’re doing freestyle and if you are going to find a disparity, it’s there in speeds so go for it and from the beginning. Don’t wait and slowly build the first 50 and then attack the last 50. I like them to go because your biggest advantage comes those first 10 meters or so while they’re doing breaststroke and you’re doing freestyle. If one of my swimmers is behind after breaststroke, they need to try and catch someone right away. I see it all the time where swimmers will just be nice and stretched out and comfortable the first 50 of the freestyle leg and then at the wall they’ll go crazy. They’ll start kicking. They’ll turn up their tempo. It looks like a completely swimmer. Well, if you had done that from the beginning of that leg, you wouldn’t be different making a furious attempt to catch the people who are 10 yards in front of you. You’d be past them already so don’t wait until it’s too little too late to start swimming hard and start swimming fast on freestyle. They’ve got to try and catch someone and that someone can be eight lanes over or it can be their imaginary friend in their head. I don’t care as long as they get after that freestyle leg. You’ve got to try and catch someone right away because catching someone in the first 15 meters means you can then look around and see if there’s anybody else for the next 15 meters and you just kind of play leapfrog over as many competitors as you can. If you wait, you’re done for so that means you have to be a little bit tougher and a little bit stronger but I’m trying to make my kids tough and strong and fit so that they can do that.

Then last 15 meters or last 10 meters you put your head down. Period. The air you take in can’t help you physiologically. It already hurts like crazy so it’s not really going to hurt anymore and it is going to be faster so you finish strong no matter what.

And – pretty good. Basically I’m done and I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to field questions because I’m going to be at the Swimming World Television booth in a few minutes and the Q&A session will be televised so if you can hold your questions for five minutes while I get to the television station or whatever, studio, then ask away.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news