INTRODUCTION: My name’s Hamilton Smith. I’m a former Director of Swimming from Great Britain and it’s my privilege to introduce our next speaker. I’ve been going to ASCA Clinics on and off for about 30 years, and I think this is about the third occasion in which one of my fellow countrymen has been invite to speak to ASCA. That’s not very often, but it’s perhaps not altogether too surprising as, until last year, it was 100 years since we last had our double Olympic Gold Medalist and 48 years since one of our women won an Olympic Gold Medal. Which is perhaps surprising for a nation that actually invented and introduced many sports to the world – very important sports like cricket, water polo, and football, sorry – soccer. But then again, until fairly recently, there was an attitude across our nation that if a sport’s worth playing…it’s worth playing badly. Well, that’s changing and we’re beginning to see the first fruits of this with our speaker today, Coach Bill Furniss, who’s leading the way. Bill’s been a multi-games coach, of the Olympic Games. He was head coach of the Great Britain team in Atlanta in 1996. He’s coached ten Olympians to date. Beijing brought double Olympic success with his swimmer, Rebecca Adlington, also breaking one of the great World Records. Bill is the coach to the County of Nottingham, which is right in the middle of England and like his predecessor a thousand years ago, the famous Robin Hood, he took gold from the rich – that’s you – and brought gold to the poor – that’s us: Long may it continue! I remember Bill as a young passionate swimming coach, like many of the faces in front of me here today. Well, he’s not quite so young, but he’s still equally passionate and he’s now the ultimate professional so ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome your speaker today, Coach Bill Furniss.
COACH FURNISS: Thanks Hammy – entertaining as ever. I thought I’d let Hammy get all the jokes out of the way and then I could do the serious stuff. Thanks to Hammy for that introduction, but also thanks to ASCA, it’s a real privilege for me. As a British coach, I’ve looked up to American swimming and American coaches for many years and it’s a privilege to address you today. Thanks to John who has organized all of this behind the scenes.
I’m going to talk about a very special lady, Rebecca Adlington. I’ve coached Rebecca since she was 12½ so I’m going to try and do in an hour what really took 7½ years of blood, sweat and tears – both for Rebecca and often for me. It’s not been an easy road.
What I would say is Beijing was really a definitive moment for Rebecca in that it changed her life – totally changed her life. That’s something that we’re learning to cope with. Like Hammy said, it’s been a hundred years since a British athlete – a female athlete – has won two gold medals in the Olympic Games. You can imagine the fall-out from that once we got back. It changed my life – certainly in the last 12 months it has. I have never been as busy. I would just like to get back to doing some coaching.
Also, it’s been definitive for Great Britain – for British swimming – because I think we’ve made some big changes in the last ten years. Bill Sweetenham had a lot to do with that. Bill Sweetenham came over and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but what he did – he shook the bag. He challenged coaches and, whether you liked his ideas or not, he made people think outside the box and he gave us a kick in the pants and a lot of coaches are responding to that. You’re starting to see the fruits of it, with Beijing and also with the performances in the World Championships in Rome. Dennis is now leading the way and we’re coming into a home Olympics. We couldn’t have a better spring board to carry forward. So, that sets the scene a little bit.
This is the girl I’m going to talk about, Rebecca Adlington – gold medal, 400 freestyle, and gold medal, 800 Freestyle, in Beijing. I’ll be honest, I sat on the plane flying out – we had a camp in Osaka, Japan – and I sort of thought to myself “What would I be happy with?” Because I knew she was going really well and I thought I’d be happy if she could scrape a medal in the 400. That would be great, and if she could medal in the 800…and I was going out with those sorts of beliefs and so to come home with two Gold Medals was just surreal.
The 400 freestyle, she won that in actually a slower time than she went in the heat. It was a strange race. It was a cat and mouse sort of effect, that race. Straight afterwards, of course, all hell broke loose. Because a British girl had won a gold medal and they took us very quickly. So you do all the press things and then they take you into a press conference. The first question in the press conference, the guy said, “Well, here’s the bronze medalist, here’s the silver medalist, here’s the gold medalist, any questions?
A guy in the front of the press put his hand up and he said yeah, I’ve got a question to Rebecca and she said yeah? He said, “Who are you?” That was the first question, so hopefully they know who she is now and you’ll know a bit more soon.
What I’m going to try and do in the next 50 minutes, is look at Rebecca – look at her personal characteristics – how she’s progressed as a swimmer, because there has been some startling improvements and some things that have really educated me as a coach. The thing I think a lot of people will probably find the most interesting is some of the training plans and her sets and, if we get time, to look at her technical development.
I’m very much a “feel” coach and I’ve done a lot of stuff on freestyle technique and the way I coach it. I have a lot of girls who swim with similar techniques, what you would almost call “classic” freestyle, so I want to try and pick out some of the things that I do and just see if you agree with them or not.
We’ve got a little bit of video to look at. Then, just finish off with some of the sport mechanisms that have helped Rebecca to get to where she is.
So, Rebecca is from a little mining village called Mansfield. It’s about 20 miles from Nottingham and Mansfield is like Dodge City on a bad day. You don’t go there unless you really have to. It’s not that bad, but it’s a mining village and the people from there are the salt of the earth, and that’s Rebecca. You can take the girl out of Mansfield, but you can’t take Mansfield out of the girl. She’s a Mansfield girl. She’s tough. She’s hard. She’s honest. She’s straight. She’ll look you straight in the eye. She’s a handful at times. She’s a lovely girl, but she’s a handful.
She started swimming at a very small swimming club – Sherwood Swimming Club – and she was only doing 3 to 4 sessions a week until she was about 11. Then she started to train seriously and going to the Mansfield section of our training group. As a young child, she was overweight. I’m not trying to be unkind, she was. She had a lot of puppy fat and a lot of people said oh, she’ll never make it. She’s too heavy. It took us some time to lose that weight, but as she grew – as she developed – the weight gradually came off.
One thing she had from day one was a tenacious training attitude. I’ve been coaching almost 30 years and I have never coached an individual who can hurt themselves like this girl and can do it day in and day out. She’s a beast in the pool, an absolute beast, and from when I first took her at 12, she had that ability. I didn’t put that there. That’s not a trait. That’s a state. It’s just in her. It’s in her DNA.
The coach of the Mansfield section rang me up and said do you want to look at this girl Bill? I think that she’s really good and we took a look at her and fast-tracked her. We don’t fast track boys. We do fast track girls, particularly if we think they have got some distance ability. So, at 12½ she came over and trained with me and my group – with our top squad.
It was a gradual introduction. She didn’t do all the session. Sometimes we would split her away from the workout, but we moved her into the top group pretty soon. She progressed pretty rapidly. She used to be an IM swimmer, but we switched her to freestyle. She’s a good 200 fly swimmer. She’s a good 200 backstroker. But, if you saw her breaststroke, holy smoke! If she could swim breaststroke, I might have been doing the Stephanie Rice lecture instead of this one. You’ve never seen a breaststroke like it. You wouldn’t call it breaststroke.
She progressed to the point where everything went really well and at the age of 15½, she won the European Junior 800 meter freestyle title. I think we’ve only had two or three girls ever win the European Juniors a year young. It’s a high standard junior meet and everything was rosy.
Then she got glandular fever and disappeared for 18 months. She was in the water, but she couldn’t race. She couldn’t train. She was doing 2,000 meters a day and it was a torrid time, but I think it was the making of her. We spent almost 18 months doing nothing. Everything was on a heart-rate monitor. Whenever she felt tired she’d be out of the pool and her heart rate couldn’t get over a certain limit, so what we did for 18 months is we worked technique. 18 solid months of technique and we were forced to do it and that made me think an awful lot.
We built back-up and we got to the Commonwealth games, but she was chasing a time and she actually missed the qualification time because she couldn’t get there for the trials. We went to a meet later on and she missed it by about two tenths of a second, so it was another major disappointment. Then, they had the Commonwealth Games. The Commonwealth Games team came back and there was a meet in Britain and she beat the girl who won the Commonwealth Games and beat the time that won the Commonwealth Games – just four weeks later. From there things started to go well.
We could increase the training volume. We could increase the intensity and in 2008 she just took off. She swam 8:19 at our trials. She swam 1:56 on the 200. It was a British record then. I think like 4:04 or something on the 400. Massive drops and then she went to World Short Course in Manchester straight after that and swam an 8:08 and won the 800, just outside – I think it’s Kate Ziegler’s World Record at the time – and then obviously another good year and we finished up with what you know about in Beijing.
So, there’s the girl. She’s 20 now, so she was 19 when she won in Beijing. She’s a tall girl. She’s about 5’ 11”. She keeps telling me that she’s taller than me and I’m 5’ 10 ½” – she rubs that in. Her weight varies still. I know some coaches do skin-fold measurements and they want a certain percentage body fat and I don’t do all that. I weigh my swimmers twice each week and the way I weigh them is this: I put their weight scales on the pool side and I walk away.
When I get to my philosophies as a coach a bit later on you’ll see why. It’s their responsibility to keep their weight down and they know their race weight and when we come in to a competition it’s their responsibility to get down to their race weight. Rebecca races at about 69½ kilos and she always gets down to that so she’s very good at self-managing her weight.
Personality: She’s a bubbly, outgoing hand-full. She’s in your face and she wears her heart on her sleeve. I can tell in the morning, “this is going to be a good session,” or she walks through the door and I go “oh my God” – you just have to look at her. So, you can read her very, very easily.
She has very old fashioned values, and I think that’s a good thing. I say to her quite often, I say you speak like my mom, and she does because she will tell me off. She’ll say, “Well, what were you doing that for? That’s not fair. That’s not right.” She’s so prim and proper and yet she’s a child in every other respect. She’s on Facebook and everything else that kids do now.
Her growth and limb length and everything like that, we have been pretty lucky, because her growth has been very general, very sustained, and everything grew at the right time and in the right place. I have not had to deal with what you can get with age groupers sometimes. You’ve got these gangly kids with long arms and short legs and I haven’t had any of that so her injury problems – apart from the glandular fever – haven’t been too bad.
Let’s look at the program she came through – the NOVA program – it’s a County Council-funded program and it’s really interesting. In Britain we’ve got swimming clubs, just like you have. We now have high performance centers. We’ve got five of those. There are about five or six clubs in the area of Nottingham who don’t have great pool time – who don’t have professional coaching expertise – who don’t have a lot of the things that you need for success. What the County Council does, they fund a training group and these clubs can feed into the training group. Then they swim for their clubs, but at National Events they swim for the training group which is funded by the County Council and that’s called NOVA Centurion. So, we have to register that so that they can compete together.
It’s a good model. It works really well, provided that you get on well with the clubs and you involve the clubs and the club coaches. We have three training groups. We have a main one in Nottingham, I coach that. We have another one in Bassetlaw, which is probably about thirty-five miles away which takes up another part of the county, and the one that Rebecca came through, the Mansfield group which is about twenty miles from Nottingham. We have a top groups, an A squad, and – this is at all three centers – two B squads, then, below that, development squads. The developmental squads only train twice a week. We take kids in the 8-10 and that’s purely talented ID. We just look for talent and then they move on to the squad at 11, proper, if they are good enough.
Rebecca has progressed through that system, so she has come from what we call a base club, right the way through to be Olympic Champion. It’s not a big squad. Everybody in Britain thinks the NOVA squad is a big squad. It’s not. It’s about 100 swimmers in Nottingham. There are probably sixty in Mansfield. There are probably fifty in Bassetlaw. We do a very good job, I think, with a few swimmers and we do it by extremely tight control. Three times a year we meet. We discuss every swimmer on that program. If they’re not making the attendance required, if they are not making the progress required, if their attitude is not right, they get a letter – a six-month warning letter – and they’re off. We don’t stop them swimming – they go back to the club. Effectively, for a lot of swimmers, that would be it. So, once they’re on the squad they’re monitored daily. It’s very, very focused in terms of how we expect them to progress.
If you look at Rebecca’s progression, she does big drops. When she went the 8:19 in the Olympic trials last year – going into the Olympic trials her best time was 8:27. She dropped straight to 8:19. When she went the 1:56, she’d not been faster than 1:59.8. So that’s typical of her progression. Just four years ago she was swimming 8:41 and now she’s swimming 8:14.
She’s old-fashioned, a bit like me as a coach because she will work very hard all year and wait for the taper so she doesn’t swim fast in meets all the time. If she’s in hard work, she can’t swim fast, and if she’s swimming like mid 8:30’s in hard work, I’m pleased. If she’s swimming 4:12 for 400 in hard work, I’m pleased, because we do work as you will see in a moment – extremely hard.
It’s not been a smooth ride. I’ve talked about the illnesses. We’ve had some major upsets. Wins the World Championships in Melbourne and she was swimming great and then she didn’t make the final in the 800. Just inexperienced – she went out just too fast. She bounces back very quickly from this point. She’s very resilient.
It’s been interesting for me the last few days because I’ve been listening to the debate of clubs in American swimming and how important they are and I really believe in clubs. I’m biased you know – I work with clubs all the time – but I think they are the breeding ground. It’s where the next Olympic champions are coming from. As Rebecca was progressing I was told “You need to move her on Bill, you need to move her on.” She’s training in there with six kids in a lane, she’s training short course, and she’s getting up at five o’clock in the morning.
I’ve said, “Do you want to move?” to Rebecca many times. I suppose that question has been answered. It’s a big club program I suppose, but a club program. We did produce a World Record holder and an Olympic champion. Lots of people told me during the last four or five years I couldn’t do it. That’s an important lesson I think in terms of belief because you can’t ask your swimmers to believe if you don’t believe. I’m a stubborn sort of bloke and I always thought I could do it.
The important relationship is the relationship between the coach and the athlete. Everything else in swimming is great. You can have your sports science. You can have your land work. You can have the support mechanisms you need, but never forget – the thing that’s going to get them there at the end of the day is you as a coach. The relationship between the two of you – that’s absolutely critical.
When she was thirteen, let me give you a normal day for Rebecca: She’d get up at five o’clock in Mansfield. She’d get changed. Her mom would have her a bit of a snack ready in the car. They’d go out to the car. If it was still there, they’d get in the car and they’d drive twenty miles to Nottingham. We start training at a quarter of six. Fifteen minutes on deck first and then in the pool at six o’clock, six to eight. She’d get back in the car at eight o’clock. She’d have her breakfast on the way back. She’d go to school in Mansfield. She’d be in school in Mansfield nine until three-thirty. She’d go home. Her mom would be at the gates. She’d have a snack in the car. She’d drive back to Nottingham, another forty-five minutes in the car. We train at five o’clock till seven. She gets back in the car at seven. She’d drive back to Mansfield. She’d do her homework in the car driving back. She’d have her dinner. She’d go to bed at half past eight. She’d get up the next day and do it all again. She did that for five years.
You have to understand the difficulties that face some kids. I know a lot of you have those sorts of problems as well, but it can be done. It can be done. When people say oh, they’re too tired – they can’t do this: yes, they can. It’s if they want it bad enough.
She’s very sociable, Rebecca, she loves people. She needs to be in a big group. She needs people around her. She doesn’t love school. She came in to me one day and she said, “As soon as I can get out of school, I’m finished.”
So, she finished school as early as possible and now she’s a bright girl. She wants to go back and go to University when she finishes swimming, but I said, “Are you sure about this?” And I said to her parents “Are you sure?” They said that’s what she wants to do, she wants to swim. She says she can do her education anytime so she made that choice and as quickly as possible she dropped out of school to concentrate on the swimming.
Her parents have been great. Her parents are very keen, but I hardly see them now. Now she can drive and she’s got her own house and stuff like that. I only see them when there’s any problems, but every time there’s been a problem they have been 100% supportive. The World Championships didn’t go exactly as we wanted and she was a bit upset and her dad’s first words were, “Yeah. Get over it.”
That’s the sort of family they are. That was the first comment. Yeah, get over it. Nobody died. Come in, let’s move on. So her friends are important and she’s got a good group of friends around her who she’s very, very close to and very involved with and she draws a lot from them.
Self-regulation: I don’t believe in the strict disciplinarian approach. If you came to my program people would say that’s what I am, but I don’t do it that way. I believe the athlete is responsible for managing themselves and I think the ultimate goal as a coach – make yourself redundant. When they walk up at something like a World Championship or Olympic final, they’d better not need you. If they need the coach almost as a crutch to get them through something, my angle on that is you’re doing a bad job. You need to make them self-reliant. They need to be responsible for everything they do so I really preach self-regulation all the time. I do it from an early age. If one of my little kids says can you just do this? No, do it yourself. It might just be because I’m lazy, but that’s how I get away with it.
I think the limiting factor in performance is technique. I don’t think it’s that difficult to get people fit – to get people strong – but I think the thing that will decide how good a swimmer you can be is technique. If you’ve only got the technique to swim 54 in a 100 meter freestyle, I don’t care how strong you get, how fit you get – eventually that will be your limit because it’s a simple tradeoff in swimming. I’m not a bio-mechanist or anything, but I was a swimmer and I’ve watched swimmers for years. It’s just velocity versus resistance. Eventually, the faster you swim, you’re just going to create so much drag you can’t go any faster – unless you have got superior technique. It’s just a diminishing return, so technique is the key all the time.
Another thing that I really believe in: only train for the demands of the race. I don’t train anything else. Everything I do is based on what they want to do in the race. I love routine. I really think there’s nothing as good for swimmers as sleeping in their own bed. That doesn’t mean I don’t go on camps, I do go on camps. I enjoy camps, but they’ve got to fit into my plan and my routine. Sometimes, as a coach there are so many opportunities and you can get dragged from pillar to post and you can almost compromise what you’re trying to do. Sometimes you have to be pretty firm on that and say “Look, I’m sorry, we’ve got a plan here. We’ve got a way we’re going to do it and we’re going to try and stick to it.”
Look at the race stats. That’s from Rebecca’s Gold Medal of the Olympic Games in the 800. That’s a World Record and a World Record is a great feeling. It’s just unbelievable. To take down Janet Evans’ record – I have so much respect for her and I know Bud’s in the audience and what a fantastic athlete she was – it was just a real privilege.
You can see she’s very consistent. A stroke rate around 42. Her average hundred split 61.8. A stroke count 38/39. They’re figures we work with day in, day out in training. If this time is going to go – and I think potentially it could go by quite a ways, eventually – those are my tools to work with over the next three years.
My training model: She’s progressed gradually as an age grouper. We get to a point where she’s becoming world-class. So what happens in 2008? She’s not come from a big endurance background. She’s not a twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year old girl who’s been doing 80-90,000 meters a week. She’s progressively increased her volume and intensity in years, that’s a fact. I held her back. I had told about the bout with the glandular fever, but even up to being 15, it was like 40,000/45,000/50,000. We were building her up very gradually.
Look how fast these people are going. There are three girls now on 4 minutes or 3:59 on 400 free. It’s a no brainer – 2012 you had better swim under 8:10. You can’t do that unless you’re a fast swimmer. These girls have got 1:56/1:55 200 speed. You’ve got to be able to cruise out in 4:02, 4:03. You cannot do it without speed and if you look at the men’s 1500, it’s exactly the same.
So, you’ve got to have speed first and then what you do is speed endurance. In other words, you’ve got to be able to maintain that speed so you’ve got to train to be able to hit race pace comfortably. Only train for the demands of the race because there’s no use having a guy saying alright your race pace is 59.5 and he bounced off hundreds and he is going 59.5, but he is doing it with a 28 stroke count and when he wants to swim the race he’s got to do it with a 25 stroke count because – trust me – when he swims a race he’ll bum out. It’s not easy enough anymore just to say let’s do race pace. You need pace – you need the race stroke rate – you need the race stroke count and stroke length.
If I had to pick importance there, I’d take stroke length over everything else. Length of stroke: absolutely critical. Then all you do is train to hold that pace off the shortest race you can. It’s smart coaching – it’s not rocket science. I might be proved wrong, but at this point in time I think the old days of swimmers going 90 or 100k a week – I just don’t know how you can do a hundred k a week and swim the speed that you need to swim at unless a lot of it is garbage yardage. If it’s garbage yardage why do it?
This is Rebecca’s sort of normal training week in 2008 – 70,000 a week. We have a pretty flat periodization. Once I get up there, that’s it. We might be on 70,000 – we’ll alter what we do in the weeks, but we might be on that volume for 30/40 weeks of the year. That’s a flat periodization, but we don’t do a lot more than that.
Four dry-land sessions a week – the dry-land sessions are very much gym based. Core strength, old fashioned circuits, and some of them are pretty punishing. We do one on a Monday evening before we train for an hour and they come out of that. They’re absolutely drenched in sweat. They’re pretty punishing. We do one on Wednesday after a session. We do one Friday again before the session in the afternoon and they do a small one Friday morning of 30 minutes. In the winter we run twice a week and we do sort of three or four mile runs and I run with her. I run with Rebecca because I’m not bad for an old man on tablets. I can run okay and when we started off she couldn’t run. I loved it – it was great. So I would say – “Come on Rebecca, keep up. Keep up.”
Within about eight weeks she was saying, “Come on Bill. Keep up. Keep up.” I can remember the day when she knew that she was better than me because I had sort of waited for her and chatted to her and I felt like she knew it and she went schhhhhooo. You can see what sort of a competitor she is.
We do not have great conditions. We have different length pools and we train in different pools. We train about 60% in a 25 meter pool, but up to 2008 – we get more access now to the Loughborough pool because it’s an ITC and we can use that – but up to 2008 most of Rebecca’s sessions were in 36 2/3 yard – it’s a funny distance – and 33 1/3 yard pools and you have to see one of these pools. I was going to put you a picture up, but I didn’t want to scare anybody. We lose sessions there frequently because there’s funny stuff floating in the pool that shouldn’t be there and they have to drain it and fill it up again. So, it’s not good. But we do get more long course sessions at Loughborough.
It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just water, and I think if you’ve got water and you’ve got some belief and you want to achieve something you can do it. We train long course three times a week and that’s been a big help and a big benefit. Here’s a normal training week and it’s pretty different.
If you look at Monday, it’s a 4k set straight in on Monday morning and it’s based around 800 pace. There’s always some removal in there. That’s what I call it, but there’s always something where we try to move it on and get rid of the lactate. Tuesday night, 200 pace. If you’re looking at the main sets – the ones I’ve starred – a big threshold set – 5k on Tuesday night. A removal pace set, again, based on 400 on Wednesday. Similar session on Friday (to Monday morning) and then we finish the week with sort of a fast as possible pace set.
These are actual sessions that she did last year. I’m not going to read through the sessions. You can see that and you’ll get a copy of this and it’s going to be downloaded to the ASCA website – or you get a booklet after.
That’s a set where basically she’s going six 400’s descending and it’s long course and she gets the removal part of it is that she’s swimming 110 pace on the hundreds and 200’s between it and she comes down from a push there to 4:24. That’s a Monday morning, that’s long course.
This is a good set she did on a Monday evening. It’s based on 400 pace. It’s a broken 400, 200 recovery, broken 200, 200 recovery, broken 100 and then we started the 200 and we started the 100 on the 3rd block. They’re the sort of speed that she can swim at when she’s going real well.
They’re from a push – that’s short course meters –she’s going 27’s, 24, 27’s, 58, 27’s, and 57’s. These are from a push – hundred meters – 27’s.
Here’s a bread and butter set. Just a threshold maintenance set. She’ll wear her heart rate monitor. That set is 5,600 in one set – 4,400 of it is at 30 below base.
This is short course. It’s not that challenging for her and you can see she’s pretty consistent. She’s swimming sort of with nine 3’s, four 21’s on the 400’s, 2:07’s, 2:08’s – that’s meters.
This is a great set. I like this set where basically she starts on 800 pace plus 2 and then she reduces that down and she has to double up on the 200 so she’s got a set of 100’s where she’s just got to go 65-66’s. These are all negative splits. Then, because she’s going 5’s and 6’s, she has to push a 2:12 and then she has got the next set. She’s going 3’s so she has to push it to 6. She went a 2:07. If you look at her last set, she’s swimming as fast as her world records and then negative splits and she’s doing that with the stroke count and the stroke rate for 800. I put them up there, but you’ve got to remember, every one of these sets – that’s monitored. Then she finishes with a 2:04 from a push.
Friday morning set – long course. That set there’s 600 of 400 pace. There’s 1200 of 800 pace and you can see there from a push (and she’s not suited up or anything for these), but all those 50’s at 29’s and hundreds at 61’s. Even the steady stuff she’s going 9:20 on the 800. 4:36/4:37 on the 400’s so it’s just total control.
Now, this is one of the best sets. I was really pleased when she did this set. This was on a Saturday morning because she was absolutely – excuse my French – knackered, right? When she came in this morning I thought, she’ll not finish the warm-up. I put this set up and she dived a 200, went 2:03 and then pushed a 200, went 2:03 and then four 100’s of 59’s. These are negative splits, remember. Then in the next round she went 58 – 2:02 – 58 and then a 27 and a 58. I think that was a 27. Then she had to jump straight out after the 200 recovery and she finished in 56.8. Pretty impressive, I think, especially on a 70k week.
Just to show you a bit of her training, this was a set she did pretty recently. I don’t think she’s in as good a shape this year – for all sorts of reasons – as she was last year, but you’ll see. If you’ve got a stopwatch, start it. These are hundreds in the middle of a broken 400 and this is Rebecca going out top speed. These 200’s – I think, from memory – she split 60.1 and then a 59.7. Look at the kick. Look at the stroke length. Look at the control. It never changes. These were off pretty short rests and I think this is a broken 400. She went about 3:56 or something.
I’ll come onto the kicking in a bit if we get a chance on the technique. She kicks like that for 2 hours. That’s something that I think I will raise now because every coach that’s been here so far has said how important kicking is and has given examples of kicking on boards and kicking under water and kicking against resistance. You watch your swimmers. Most of them don’t kick when they swim and I have nagged her day in, and day out, for seven years. She kicks 6 beat two hours, non-stop. I nag my other swimmers and some of them are getting better at it, but they can’t do it yet. To me, the best time to kick is when you’re swimming and we don’t do that much kick on a board. We don’t have to. She can kick pretty quickly on a board when I put her on it, but we don’t have to because she does it when she’s swimming.
This is the race pace set where we did the five 100’s, the recovery and then, had to pop the 200. The interesting thing here is this is the one with the stroke rates, the heart rates, and the counts. If you look at that – at the bottom – it only becomes really tough for her on the last block. That last block she’s swimming at 800 pace, but if you look at her stroke count it’s 39. Her stroke rate’s a 41. That’s more or less exactly what she needs in a race and then she finishes off with 2:04 on the 200 and holds those rates so even though she’s stepping up from a block of hundreds straight onto a 200, she can maintain.
This is a set I’ll put up. I’m not going to go through it too much detail. You can just see that it’s pace 50’s and pace 100’s. What was impressive here were the times that she swam – these from a push – in a 50 meter pool – all the fifties 29’s, all the hundreds 60’s, 61, some 59’s in there and then negative splits. If you look at the last set, look at her lactate. It’s only 5.8 and 4.6.
This was last year. She’s coming back. She would not have such a good year this year because of the fallout from last year, but she’s scratching the surface I think of what she’s capable of.
In the last cycle up to the Olympic Games, once she’d swum the 8:19 at the trials she ranked #1 in the World, I thought – well, what can we do now to improve – to step up for the Olympic Games? We’ve been pretty notorious – I’ll be honest – in Britain in having fairly good trials and then going to the games and actually swimming not as well. I wanted to make sure she could very much step up.
So we did a lot of work on improving her stroke length. That was key in every session she did. Everything we switched to negative split because we did the Seven Hills meet in Rome and Filippi swam that and Rebecca was leading at 400 and Filippi took her apart on the second 400 and I said to her – now Filippi was rested, I think, and Rebecca wasn’t – that’s not going to happen in Beijing alright? That’s pretty easy. We’re going to make sure we can come back faster than her.
The third cycle into Beijing – and I haven’t worked as hard since – was the hardest I’ve ever worked a swimmer in 30 years. I used to drive home at night and think “Bill, this is bordering on child abuse. You can’t do this.” She was often very close to breaking point. I couldn’t do that with her this year. I probably won’t be able to do it with her again, at that intensity, until I need to because I worked her so hard – it’s like career threatening – it’s how much can you take? I’m not talking in terms of big volumes. I’m talking, as you’ve seen, the sort of sets and how regular those sets were.
Very scientific at taper: I put a lot of work into this as you can see. She basically comes down 70k, 60k, and 50k. She’ll swim off 50k. Her main sets come down 4k in length, 3k in length, and 2k in length. I don’t really do much different to that. I still keep her swimming fast. For the Worlds this year, I couldn’t do that. We hadn’t done the sort of base, so I tried something else. Not so good. It worked on her 400. It didn’t work on her 800.
The good thing about hard work is it’s real easy to taper. Coaches get stressed about taper. I don’t get stressed in the taper. I get stressed in the three weeks before the taper. I don’t want anything to go wrong and I want them working very hard. Once I’ve got the work in, I think “You’ve done it. I think you’ve put them to bed!” and they believe in it.
That really was the case because she got real sick before Beijing. She got a really bad chest infection. She was coughing all sorts of grunge and she was on antibiotics and I had to literally miss four, five, or six sessions. She just couldn’t do anything and when she swam the 400 freestyle in Beijing, she swam a good heat. In the evening she swam next to Pellegrini and they both went 4:02 and she closed Pellegrini down, but she was full of it. The next morning she looked like – you know when you’ve got a bad chest – she looked like death. She swam for 350 of the 400 – she swam like a brick – and then just decided “I’m going to finish in 29.1” because she’s a beast and got her hand on the wall first. She won the event, somehow, but she was not well when she did the 400. By the time she had done the 800 she’d recovered.
We do a lot of evaluation. It’s important to me as a coach with British swimming. We look at the race segments. We look at what is going on. We look at rates. We look at things like simulating morning races. That’s something that we did do a good job on. For morning finals in Beijing we changed most of our domestic competition to morning finals in the 12 months before Beijing. I moaned like hell. The coaches moaned like hell. Actually, it was a good move. Our kids were able to swim good morning finals in Beijing.
We look at things like the suit. Should we practice with suits? Should we practice without? I’ll just be glad when they’re gone. Rebecca wears a LZR. She didn’t want to wear anything else in Rome. I think it cost her in Rome, but her mind was “I don’t want to swim in a suit and then I can’t go near the time again for three or four years. I know I’ve been this time in a LZR so I can compare.”
I said “Well, you might get beat,” and she said “Well, I’ll get beat then.” She has got that sort of single mindedness towards a point.
We video – it’s very objective in terms of the feedback that we get as a coach. It allows me to do things like this. I can compare all of Rebecca’s races, every point of every race. I can also compare Rebecca’s performances with her main rivals around the world, so it gives me important information. I’m not going to spend too much, that’s the system. Mike is down there if anybody wants to talk about how we capture the images and how we download them.
The important thing is that, after the heats, I get the results really quick – really quick – within a matter of 20-30 minutes. Then I can plan from heats to semi-final, from semi-final to final. What things do I need to improve and what things do I need to do better? Do I need to change tactics?
I’m going to talk technique. I’m not going to spend too much time. We’ll just put this one up. This was from an article in Swimming Journal. I think it’s an ultimate 50 in Rebecca’s 800 and the thing – if you look at the stroke length, if you look at the stroke extremes – particularly look at #4, and perhaps at #8 – the stroke extremes are massive. She can stretch her body – a line in the water – just so much, it’s frightening.
So I’m going to give you some really simple things that I think about freestyle technique. I’m not going to go through all of these, you can read them yourself, but the basic thing is swimming two straight lines. You don’t want any lateral deviation. You don’t want any deviation horizontally if you can help it. You’re going to rotate that line, but getting two straight lines. Kick is the key. You have got to kick and you must have a stable head.
Big body roll – shoulders more than the hips. In Rebecca’s case – and when I get onto the kick, that’s important because it’s elasticity of muscles. It allows you to stretch and apply more force, but it also allows you to rest and recover the muscles you’re not working.
Front end length. I must say that to my swimmers a hundred times a week. They’re fed up with it. All I do is talk length – stroke length – all the time. I want to get the longest contact time on the water possible. So I try to stretch it out of the front and the back and I look for the effective length of proportion.
The hand – it was really interesting watching our drills because what I’ve coached Rebecca to do – and I coach all my freestylers to do – is when they enter the water is to have their hand as close to the water surface as they can, so it’s almost coming out. I hate to go straight down. I want them to “there” and I want them to hold that position as long as possible – absolutely as long as possible.
I don’t coach an early catch. If you look at underwater shots of Rebecca, she’s like “that”, but she’s been like “this” for a long time before it. She doesn’t hold the catch for more than “that” (snap of fingers). That’s another myth I think in freestyle swimming. As soon as you apply pressure – if you’re going past that point – you don’t need to hold this point all day. You hold it for a very short time. I coach them on feel and I coach them to wait at the front of their stroke. Hand in the water, and wait, because – a bit like the fly lecture – this thing of starting your stroke too soon is absolutely critically. It robs you of stroke length. It robs you of rhythm. It robs you of feel. I could keep going. It ruins good swimmers.
Rebecca has a high head position. There’s a trade-off there. It actually creates a bit of drag, but it gives her more stability. She’s a very low breathing. I’m always onto her about her breathing and I make her bring her head back fast. Take your breath – get your head back. Don’t leave it up there, because I think you control rate from breathing. If I want to increase rate, bring your head back faster. That will pick your speed up, your arm rate.
The kick is the interesting thing. It’s a six-beat. Now this next bit might really surprise you. I coach a small depth of kick. I coach a tight kick. I don’t want her to kick deep. I think that enables her to have longer, of the streamline points, of a stroke. I’ve done it with some other girls and I’m getting some decent results. I got a 15 year old girl that just went 8:41 long course. I think a lot of swimmers kick too deep. If you’re kicking deep it’s pretty difficult to kick fast. But, I’ve tried it with other people and they just can’t do it. If you haven’t got the ability to hold that long stroke, the two have to go together: exceptionally long stroke – small fast kick.
Classic high elbow: I do a lot of work with the swimmers on loose hands. I’m always on her – particularly when they’re working hard. If you watch swimmers, once they get tight in their hands, they get tight in the shoulders. Loosen hands up on freestyle and you’d be amazed how the technique improves just by that relaxation point. It’s only possible if you’ve got a good kick to swim like that.
This is an important one. I think the biggest problem in freestyle – I’ll show you, it’s this. You breathe to one side and the arm goes across. So, I coach, keep the space to the front of the stroke. When you only ever see one arm in freestyle in front, but if you were to stop them you should have a gap so I very much coach that space at the front of the stroke and I coach it from this high. It’s absolutely critical if you can get a kick, if you can get a still head, stroke length, and the space, how kids can really pick it up.
The big thing is body length and profile. I’ve been through all of that so I won’t go through it, but the 3rd point is – I think if you can get that profile – not only is it more streamlined, but I think the water can certainly go over the body much faster. It’s the speed of water over the body decreasing resistance.
Some of the drills we use…I’m not a believer in all sorts of fancy drills. I’m a believer in a few drills and do them well. I got a book once on drills, it was that thick. So, to swim with a cup on your head and stick this in your ear and put a snorkel on your foot…I don’t do all of that. So we do six-kick rotation – we do a lot where we just kick, hold, and rotate. Try and keep the line. We do a lot of super-slow swimming – swimming as slowly as possible without pausing so they go down the pool like “this”. It takes tremendous control and balance to swim that slow, but do a lot of it, it’s great.
We do a lot of trickle freestyle for the recovery where you’re dragging your fingertips in the water. We do a lot of pull work and swim work with snorkels. We do a lot of opposite arm work with a strong kick and one fin and one paddle and change. You put a fin on one, a paddle on one and not on the other for a set of hundreds every four 100’s change around. It’s improving, again, the length you get in the opposite fin, the opposite paddle, and then you switch it around. We do a lot of over-reaching – trying to stretch as if there’s something you can’t touch and kick through that point.
Technique is also worked on by how you swim the sets. As I say, work in your rate, work in your count. We have this sort of rule where – if she’s doing a quality set – she has to swim at a race rate and count. If she’s swimming aerobically she has to swim within five of it. You can’t hold your race rate if you’re swimming very easy, but she has to be five less than that and you can’t hold your stroke, so she has to be within five of it. Instead of swimming at a 41 rate she’ll swim at 36. Instead of swimming at a 39 count she’ll swim at 34.
This is a big thing, on all key sets. Although she’s negative splitting, she has to swim faster in the last 20 – every repetition, because, if it’s close in a race, that’s what you’ve got to do. That last point was really important. We have a faster/longer mantra. I mean, my kids are fed up. Every time I say “swim faster” I remind them to swim longer.
We’re going to go faster on these. It’s got to be longer. Now, we’re going to go fast again. It’s got to be longer and they say “We can’t get any longer Bill,” and you can, somehow. I would never back off on that.
To finish off – it’s been a bit of a rush to get it all in. I’m sorry about that, but these are the point. Super-hard work ethic – that’s what the girl’s got. It worried me after Beijing because when she came back in I thought, will she still have it? She’s still got it, to the point where she’s sort of a household name in Britain now, but she’s reducing everything back to an absolute minimum to focus on her swimming now. That’s good news.
Excellent attention to detail – she’s an absolute perfectionist. You tell her something once and she’s still doing it six months later. I tell my other kids something once and they’re not doing it six seconds later.
She’s got a positive attitude and she’s resilient. She can take the knocks. She’s proven that. This year as a training year has been nothing like last year. Up to December she did nothing. She still swam 4:06 for 400 free at the Worlds. We were disappointed with 8:17 and she swam an 8:16 in a knee-suit in Glasgow four weeks before the Worlds.
I still think there’s a lot to come. Thank you very much.
The one on a Monday is literally right straight before the swim practice and it’s brutal and then we go straight into a quality set. The one on the Wednesday is straight after and that’s after a heart rate set and the one on a Friday is straight before again. So, literally, they walk from the gym and straight into the pool, no problem.
Ha! Cricket – if you said cricket to Rebecca she’d just say – “What’s that?” She wouldn’t know. She’s certainly had some influence on sport in Britain, for sure. She certainly had some influence on the rest of the British team because I think that they’re now thinking “Hey, if Rebecca can do it, we can do it.” So that’s just great.
All season long. The question was: Do we do broken work – so race pace work all season? I was saying, I’ll get it in as quickly as I can. I build it up. I won’t do as many sets. If I start off, say, with VO2 sets in the first cycle, they might be on 200, 300, and 400. On the second cycle they might be on 300, 200, and 100’s and by the last time they’d be race pace sets. You’d be going on 50’s and 100’s.
That’s why I think the hips – and these are just my ideas on technique – I think you need a full shoulder roll, but I think that you probably don’t need to rotate the hips as much because I think you lose some stability and some propulsion if you’re over rotating. You can only do that if you can kick like that, because otherwise it’s diminishing returns. You’ve got to coach the individual. She can do that. I’ve one or two other kids who are starting to look like they can do that, but I’ve got other kids who just can’t do it and will never do it. You need a fast, tight kick to make that work.
The question is: Did she always have this classic high elbow position? No. She was a pretty rough diamond when she came at 12 ½. I wouldn’t say she was a thrasher, but she was nothing like that, but she just listens. She’s a perfectionist and she improves. I think that’s the big difference. I spoke to – talk about golf, right? I spoke to Lee Westwood – he was a British golfer. I spoke to his coach because I was playing golf in a pro-am with him and I said “When did you know he was going to be good?” and he said – I had twelve guys, eleven and twelve, and he was the worst. They improved faster than him and he just kept improving. Eventually, they stopped and he just kept going, going, going, going, going. He couldn’t see it in him to start with and that’s pretty similar to Rebecca and I think technically she’s still improving. There’re things that she can still do a lot on. Her turns are not as good as they should be yet. Her start isn’t as good as it should be.
I think you can develop it, but I think it’s anatomical as well. If you were to get the American Swimming Team and stand on the side and decided to tell them to push their legs back, they’d go like that. It’s not a fair world. Some guys are anatomically gifted, you know? You need hyperextension and it’s probably one of the things in talent ID we should certainly look for, because it’s very difficult to do that if you haven’t got it.
No, I don’t get bugged. The question was: Do they still have a goal to move her to a center? I’m quite open with her. I said “If you ever want to move, you can move.” Are you with me? I don’t want to hold the girl back, but she’s happy where she is. She likes the environment that she’s in. She moans about it sometimes – they all do, you know? But, no and I get to use the National Centers and they’re very supportive and I can get in there and do more long course training and I can access the Sports Science and the physios, so I’ve got the best of both worlds. That’s the way I see it at present.
Well, thanks for listening and have a good dinner.