How to Choreograph a
Directing the Movements of Swimmers In Space and Time
By Bill McKeon
The stage is made of one tenth concrete and nine tenths
blue-green water. Red and yellow kickboards are stacked by the edge of
the pool, the only visible props as the curtain rises. The arriving swimmers
fix their eyes on the giant poolside pace clock. When the red hand points
straight up, the show begins.
Lined up in lanes by level of skill – arranged by speed
within lanes – swimmers launch off at five second intervals, taking their
place in columns of churning water. Each swimmer flips at the far end wall,
then pushes off and glides. Then breaking the surface, one by one, the
swimmers form a new line, a line that charges ahead like an angry serpent.
The practice builds from start to end from slow to fast
to faster. Strokes and formations change from lane to lane. Swimmers pass
in bursts of speed in elegant precision. There’s a place for everyone and
everyone knows their place.
A practice that appears to run itself is a well run practice
indeed. But sophisticated movement patterns never take shape on their own,
it’s the coach who designs and directs an orderly practice.
Training sessions should be well organized to avoid wasting
pool space or workout time, advises Cecil Colwin, in his book: An Introduction
to Swimming Coaching. This former national technical director of Canadian
swimming suggests making practice sessions more productive by optimizing
the use of space and time.
Such a philosophy leads to the concept of the choreographed
practice, where every aspect of the training session is planned out in
advance. A choreographed practice takes advantage of every cubit of space
and every unit of time. This efficient use of resources enables the coach
to accommodate swimmers of varying abilities, strokes and distance pursuits
in the same practice pool.
Harnessing Practice Time
I recommend you to take care of the minutes, said Lord
Chesterfield, the 18th century English statesman, for hours will take
care of themselves. Most swimming coaches would agree that harnessing
time is a minute by minute affair. In the blink of an eye the clock can
get ahead of the plan.
The coach’s ability to take control of time can make or
break a practice. And if a practice fails to start on the stroke of the
pre-planned minute, the coach is already beginning to lose control. Minutes
lost in getting started can never be recovered, and the coach ends up in
a no-win race with the clock. This produces a disjointed practice, one
that is likely to miss its intended mark. A timely start allows a practice
to flow according to plan, with swimmers receiving proper doses of training.
Caught up in the struggle to keep pace with time, the
coach can become an unwilling slave to the clock. If time restraints are
allowed to affect the structure of the workout, the intended purpose of
the practice will be altered. For example: If the coach shortens the rest
intervals between repeat swims, to squeeze the practice into a tighter
time frame, the training emphasis gets shifted toward the aerobic. This
compromises the integrity of the workout.
The best way to harness time is to follow the well known
adage: Plan your work and work your plan. The plan can always be adjusted
as time sensitive factors change. These adjustments will be easier to make
if plan B options are included in plan A. For instance: The coach can assign
a priority rating to each workout element, based on its importance to that
day’s training. If practice time is unavoidably cut short, the coach can
use this priority scheme to quickly devise an abbreviated practice.
Using Pool Space Effectively
Equally as important as controlling time, is controlling how pool space
is used. Overcrowded lanes and lanes full of mismatched swimmers must be
avoided. Congested swimming space slows swimmers down, and swimmers swimming
different strokes can get in each others way.
When team members arrive at the pool, they should not
have to guess where to go or what to do. To ensure the most effective use
of the pool, lane assignments must be clear and regular swimming patterns
must be in place. Nothing devalues a practice more than confusion. In the
words of Coach Colwin, A well organized practice is the hallmark of a
There are many proven training formations that make good
use of pool space, but the makeup of the team and the layout of the pool
will ultimately determine the best distribution of swimmers. Once determined,
this information gets written into the detailed practice plan.
Assigning swimmers to practice lanes should not be taken
for granted. The placement of swimmers has much to do with what gets done
at practice. For example: It is very efficient for seven swimmers to train
in a single lane. But confined to one lane, a group this size will be forced
to swim in circles, possibly fostering faulty swimming techniques.
Very often efficient methods aren’t the most effective.
Before allocating pool space, the coach should know how the plan will impact
swimmers. Even when faced with facility limitations, the coach must strive
to find swimming formations that enhance the effectiveness of training.
Coordinating Space and Time
Few things are as challenging as coordinating space and
time. Both of these entities have a mind of their own. This is why coaches
turn to choreography. Coordination requires a master plan.
In a typical set of climb-out swims, swimmers start from
a dive. They emerge after every one-length swim and scurry back to the
start. When a swimmer doesn’t make it back to the starting point on time,
the space in the pool where the swimmer belonged goes unfilled. Seconds
later, two swimmers vie for a place to swim. The problem here is not lack
of space or insufficient time, but the failure to make these elements work
When selecting swimming sets, coordinating space and time
is important. A set of 5 X 125 Free on 1:40 may look like the perfect fit
for an open time slot. But was it the coach’s intention to have the swimmers
finish the set at the opposite end of the pool from where they began? If
not, the coach has allowed the clock to determine the physical location
of the team. In this situation, time was considered, but spatial concerns
were somehow overlooked.
Transitions between swimming sets should always be planned
in advance, especially when swimmers are changing lanes. This is when the
door is open for trouble. If the swimmers in lane two move into lane three
before the swimmers in lane three have stopped swimming, the coach has
failed to coordinate space and time. If the swimmers in lanes two and four
switch places by crossing the active swimming lane between them, time and
space are once again out of sync. If swimmers move, but needed equipment
stays behind, choreography was incomplete.
The elements of space and time always work together. The
simplest change to one can have a dramatic effect on the other. For instance: Rearranging lane lines during practice is intended to reshape space, but
it also eats up lots of practice time. Moving lanes around during practice
is usually a bad idea, unless the new setup is of greater value than the
time lost in transition.
Synchronizing Dissimilar Activities
When it comes to synchronizing several swimming groups
engaged in different activities, nothing is more effective than the pace
clock. According to coach Dick Hannula, author of Coaching Swimming Successfully
Pace clocks serve as assistant coaches and must be in place at every practice.The pace clock can regulate the starting, stopping, and pacing of any number
of simultaneous activities. This frees the coach to concentrate on coaching.
But the pace clock can only regulate what the coach sets
in motion. A quality workout structure must be in place. If the plan is
for swimmers from three different groups to start and finish together,
the swimming set might be arranged like this:
Group A 15 X 100 free on 1:20 – 1,500 yds (total time
Group B 12 X 100 free on 1:40 – 1,200 yds (total time 20 mins)
Group C 10 X 100 free on 2:00 – 1,000 yds (total time 20 mins)
Throughout the 20 minute swim, swimmers control their
own pacing and monitor their own send-off times. A high degree of complexity
can be built into a practice, if the pace clock is used to synchronize
Creating Coaching Opportunities
The primary purpose of the choreographed practice is to guarantee time
and space for essential activities. This is why pre-planned coaching opportunities
should be built into every practice. For instance: During a set of 8 X
100 breaststroke drill, the coach can identify swimmers who are having
problems. This group can then be moved to an outside lane for several minutes
of individual coaching, while the rest of the team goes through the drill
again. Opportunities to reinforce skills are easy to create, if time and
space are set aside in advance.
Any old workout will get swimmers wet and occupy their
time. A choreographed practice organizes training so more gets done at
each session. The eventual result, says Cecil Colwin, will be swimmers
with ever-growing confidence, technical skill and physical ability. In
other words, swimmers will require less time to travel a preset distance
through liquid space.
*** Bill McKeon has coached high school, college and club
swimming in Florida and New York.