The title here, hopefully, got some people’s attention. I don’t know whether I can prove this or not, but I’ll explain it a little more later, about how to get your age group kids to go fast, hopefully without it ruining them. I will explain what I mean by ruining them later.
The goal of the talk is just to address the question or the thought of how to effectively develop our age group athletes to ensure long-term success and happiness in the sport. In looking at that, I always try and start with the base level expectation or what we are hoping to accomplish. With that thought in mind, at least in this discussion, I decided to look at the objectives of USA Swimming. Just as a reminder, you know USA Swimming builds an athlete base which I see as based on improving or increasing the number of athletes we have in the sport, promoting the sport itself, and then achieving competitive success. The last objective I think, I have coached swimming in Maryland, Oregon, and also in parts of the Pacific Northwest, depends upon the local levels in varying degrees; we often, or we sometimes forget at the local levels, that we are here to achieve competitive success while also attempting to promote international swimming at all levels. We forget that objective of developing from the grassroots towards that goal. We are not just a recreational program. How do we accomplish these goals? And again, this is more at the base level. Hopefully the kids will have fun and that would, in turn, keep them in the sport, thereby increasing the overall numbers to the base of athletes we have. We need to develop swimmers who like to race, along with having good technique. We are going to return to that in more detail. Also, we need to develop people who are good ambassadors of this sport. I don’t think that idea needs a lot of explanation. But, I would say, we have heard good and bad stories of athletes, but as such, fortunately we generally have a lot of good kids.
I did a talk at the National Team Coach’s meeting back in April, I believe April or May, the beginning of May in Colorado Springs. In it, I was discussing how to develop world class race characteristics, which happened to be the title of the talk. It was also the one that I gave online about six weeks later. As a side note, I think that will be available on the internet at the USA Swimming website sometime soon. I am not sure exactly when it will appear, but if you are interested in what I am talking about, there might be a need to look at that once it’s published, just to get a greater explanation of some of the ideas I’m presenting today. But, in that, we started with the idea of looking at what international swimming trends are pointing towards.
I said that between the last 10,15, or even 20 years, the majority of international swimmers are leg-dominant. They use their legs a lot. They have excellent distance per stroke. They look like athletes out of the water. They look very fit. They are very strong and they have very fluid movements. They have the best technique of most of the swimmers that are in the country and in the world. Someone who I use as a reference often, he is not a swimmer or a swim book writer, but he is a writer on sports physiology, is a guy named Tudor Bompa. His definition of technique is high efficiency.
With this, I always have to ask, there are always exceptions, the main exception being in the women’s distance events, looking at it from a backwards, or from a reverse-engineering perspective, what are we trying to build? To me, we are trying to build athletic leg-dominant swimmers. We are just trying to pull these things together with great technique. We are trying to develop swimmers who love to race, enjoy the sport, and are good people. I ask this question, can you imagine how good practice would be if we had a team full of those athletes? Really, to me, that is what we are trying to develop.
On the other hand, a lot of times when I go to club meets and since this is a talk on age group swimming, I’m going to leave the universities out of it, I will pick on the club system, which I’m a part of and I’m guilty of some of these things myself, but just generally speaking, most club swimmers are unfit. What I mean by that is, they don’t look like athletes. A lot of them are arm or tempo driven, as in the ages of 10 to 13-14 year old. You see a lot of the better age group swimmers have a higher rate of arm speed, a high tempo as opposed to a longer distance per stroke technique of swimming. In my opinion, it is easier to get kids to go faster that way. You train them pretty hard. They can maintain a high tempo without developing lactate or the amount of lactate that they are capable of developing at those ages. It is just an easy way to get them to go fast without a lot of instruction. I am going to come back to the opposite of that and also the pitfalls which ensue. You see a lot of poor technique and lack of skill. You know, you can go to any meet and see that, you see the culture of train hard and your dreams will come true. Originally, I started coaching down the street in Baltimore. You know, I think in the northeast more than anywhere else, there is just, just generally speaking, in the culture, there is a belief of, if you work hard you get the results. Growing up in that area of swimming, I think the idea of toughness and reward is ingrained in the culture. If you work hard, you are going to get what you want. It is in the main culture and it perpetuates the idea; if we work harder than everybody else we will be better then them. I happen not to believe that philosophy is true. Again, I will return to that. And then, we see from the 9 to 13-14 year olds, what I call mini-machines, as in how they swim and they can swim pretty fast, but they are not necessarily racing. They are just implementing exactly what they are training to do, which is to use a lot of time on higher end endurance swimming.
I have a comparison between the two: simplifying a little bit and again, these are my estimations of what we want and what we do, but to me, they are pretty accurate. On the one side, we want athletically leg-dominant, great technical swimmers who know how to race and enjoy it. On the other side, we have swimmers with a low fitness level and again, my translation of fitness level would be relative to how fit they look. With that in mind, people like to make up things and find ideas as to why certain teams or certain areas are successful. We do not do fat testing. I don’t monitor their diets. I don’t do any of that stuff. Basically, I encourage good nutrition. We might talk about it once a year, but we are not looking to develop a plan to combat eating disorders or anything like that. My intention, and it is not really included in this discussion, but my intention in practice is to put them in situations where they are required to do things that are going to burn fat, thus they become athletic individuals as opposed to the opposite of that. To me, pure aerobic swimming does not burn fat and results in non-athletic individuals. So I think a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise is the best way to have fit athletes, both in the water and out of the water. As I suggested earlier, what we actually do is develop arm tempo driven athletes for our age group superstars. A lot of these superstars have poor technique and they are mini-machines. What I mean by that is, I’m sorry it kind of sounds insulting, I am not really meaning it that way, mini-machines as in kids who just swim and swim and swim. They do it really well, but it’s a function of their training and their environment as opposed to a function of using a desire to race and to compete. This is not to say that those people are not competitive. They just swim using more of a passion in racing as opposed to kind of implementing the pure strategies used in workout.
Here is the big question of the morning. What does ruining them mean? What did I mean by that? Basically, when I came up with the topic, Guy had emailed me a couple of times, probably 10 times, asking me to come up with a topic. If you noticed in the program that was online, I didn’t have any topics. I finally just came up with this idea and I thought it would be something interesting to discuss because that’s always a goal that we have. So, after going through what I felt would be the best way to develop and build an age group athlete, who was going to end up being a successful senior athlete, and hopefully become an international swimming athlete, I came back and decided that the right hand side of the column for me was how you ruin an athlete.
On this side we have the low fitness level, not being athletic, again, arm and tempo driven swimmers, although there are always exceptions to that rule. Those exceptions consist mainly of swimmers in the distance events, especially those on the women’s side. For any of you that are critical of this idea, if you go to Nationals and watch finals, or go to an international level meet, most of the people are very leg driven and have very good distance per stroke. Again, poor technique is common and to me, the limitation in swimming is all technical. It’s that simple. I mean, it is purely mathematical, the number of strokes per cycles times the tempo, it’s all technical, if they have poor technique they are going to be limited in their ability to swim fast. As with the mini- machine idea, swimmers who swim without passion would stand a good chance of being ruined as they become faster.
Then, there is the other question. I also asked this in my talk at the training center, what would happen if we simply tried to accomplish or address the things that were on the left hand side of the column? You know, by trying to make our kids more athletic? For years we have been talking about and complaining about how we don’t get athletes in the sport any more. We get swimmers, but we have to make those swimmers or, you know, we get the kids that don’t make the basketball team. There’s that whole joke. My feeling is that it’s our job to make athletes. If we can teach them to be athletic when they are younger, they are going to be athletes. My definition of athleticism is coordination along with the ability to learn at a physical level. That is not, I just made that up so, don’t write it down.
But, you know, I was thinking about this on a personal note, I think the kids we see as talented or athletic are ones that figure it out when they are young, much younger than the average person. I was not one of those people. If I used myself as an example, I lived in Portland before I moved to Seattle and I went to Mt. Hood to ski. I had been skiing once, when I was six years old and I figured, I got this huge mountain, I may as well go and try to learn to ski. I went up there with some friends who knew how to ski and I was going down the bunny slope, which probably here on the East coast is like a black diamond. It looked like this. I’m on the skis and I found myself asking questions that I would not have asked if I were 10, 11, or 12. Questions like, you know, where do I put my weight when I try to turn, instead of just trying to turn. Okay, do I put the weight on the inside of my foot, on my turning foot or on the outside of my foot? How do I do it? And, just as a 10 year old who’s very athletic, they are probably not consciously asking those questions, but I started reflecting on that moment. For me, I learned how to at least get down the hill without falling and moving pretty well and skiing in an afternoon. And it’s not because I am that athletic. I think it was a usage of a method of trying to figure out how to do something by asking such questions as, what am I trying to accomplish and how do I do that? Also by asking those people who already knew how to do it, where do I put pressure, what do I, you know, what is it supposed to feel like? I think the people we define as athletic do that naturally. But, what I am suggesting in developing athletic people is, we should try and get them to ask those questions when they are young, so they can learn to implement and use it as a skill. Hopefully, they would carry that on to where it becomes second nature and they turn into people who are naturally athletic. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I hope it does.
A great technique in racers is to try and have them be leg-dominant. One of the needed components of this is, and I am sure there are plenty of things that I left out, but you know the few that I felt like were critical in addressing most swimmers or trying to develop most swimmers into very good age group swimmers, maybe not the fastest, but very good age group swimmers into national level swimmers or international and beyond are these; kicking skills and I am going to go through each one of these one by one, so you don’t have to take the time to write them down. But the ones on the left hand side, I saw as more physical attributes. And the ones on the right hand side had to do more with coaching, where it really involves us, the coaches and maybe even the parents, the last one being a programmatic end.
Kicking skills: you know if you can accept the thought or idea that I mentioned earlier that the majority of international level swimmers or even the higher end national level swimmers are great kickers. If that is a requirement to be at that level, how come we don’t spend more time doing it? Or, learning the skills to do it successfully? We all know when we look at swimmers who are great kickers, you know, say if we had a practice with 20 kids, you might have two or three that are great kickers and about ten that are pretty good kickers, and then you got the ones that aren’t. The ones that aren’t, you look at them and you say, you know, well, they are probably not going to be very good. Why don’t we spend the time teaching them to do it or teaching those middle kids how to kick like the ones, those two or three that are great? And I think there is a technique in it which I am going to address in a second. But, I think that it is an important question to ask. You know, the same kind of thing, following the same line of thinking, how many of us continue to teach them to kick once they get out of our bottom groups? You know the bottom two levels of most programs, they come in just out of swim lessons and you have got to teach them to kick fly because they do the flutter kick thing. You got to teach them to kick breaststroke because they have that one funny leg and so on. Or, they are doing the huge scissor kick or something like that, but once they move out of our developmental levels, everybody kind of forgets about it. You might do kicking sets, but I don’t know of many people that concentrate on kicking, other than maybe continuing to develop breaststroke kick or teaching under water fly kicking.
One of the things that I did about two years ago that really pushed me on this idea and again, I am as guilty as the next person about not spending enough time at doing just what I am talking about, but I took all of the swimmers in my group, I got one of those $400 underwater cameras and videoed them. Instead of, you know, I had filmed people swimming for years, like everybody else does, which got me thinking, well, if we are looking at kicking, you can watch how they kick when they are swimming. But it is affected by how they swim; for example, if you watch someone swim freestyle, if they breathe late, a lot of them have a little tiny scissor kick. So it changes what their actual kicking style is or, whatever it might be, if they have a race, that it’s going to change, or it could be a number of different things. So I decided to film them kicking with a kick board or kicking on their back without a kick board and that kind of thing, it was very interesting. I mainly stuck with flutter kick. Later we did some stuff with Russell, Dr. Russell Mark, Russell raise your hand. Russell is the Biomechanics Director of USA Swimming and Dr. Way, at the time, Rutgers University and now at RPI up in New York, he is Department Chair of nuclear physics and every other kind of physics that you can think of. We did some work with the breaststroke kick.
But, at that time, I was just looking at flutter kicking and it was amazing. Out of people in that group, I had two girls, one ended up, I mean she was Ariana Kukors, but she ended up being #3 in the World in the 200 IM right now and #4 in the 400 IM. She was an Olympic trial qualifier. I had another girl who was a trial qualifier at 14 in the 50 meter freestyle. She actually was an alternate in the 50 free, just turned 15 years old at Olympic trials. Well, their kick was a lot different from everyone else’s. It was very fluid, the timing of it was like a whip, as it would start up at their hip and I am talking flutter kick, not fly kick, but it would start up at their hip and it would flow down and everything would go in a wave down to their foot. And there was a last piece of an extra flexion. The girl who was the 50 freestyler, her foot would flex all the way down to where her toes would point down toward the bottom and then almost snap back and then get up to this position. But you would get the pretty good kickers and they would do things like, they would come down here and right at the end, their knee would straighten out and then they would snap so it would interrupt that wave or that whip. So, you were not translating all the energy down into what was coming out of the foot.
The ones that were terrible kickers would kind of go, their thigh would go down and then as soon as their foot would go down their knee would go up and straighten so all they were getting out of their kick was just this little snap with their ankle. And they were probably working just as hard as or harder than everybody else. You know, I went back and showed this to everybody and I was surprised at how receptive the swimmers were to that idea. Well, they were really impressed by it. They thought it was extraordinarily valuable to their swimming. How do you teach it? I don’t know. It’s not easy. I think it’s a person by person thing, but the fact that it is not easy doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. This is especially so if we make the assumption that it is required to have success at a high level or if that is the limitation in swimming. If you know they are not going to be good, then it probably seems like something you need to spend a lot of time on. Some of the things that we used were fly kick on your back. I stole that from someone else a long time ago. The idea created is that a swimmer learns the feel for the water when you are doing it. Underwater kicking, again, I don’t know if Eddie Reese stole this from someone else, but I have heard him call it several times, the 5th swimming stroke. You know, if you are planning on swimming fly or backstroke at a high level, if you can’t swim fast underwater, you don’t have a chance.
Breaststroke kicking, I think breaststroke kicking is like breaststroke swimming. If you don’t spend the time to do it, if you don’t decide that you are going to have breaststrokers, then you are not going to have breaststrokers, unless you have that one kid who can do it naturally. When I think kicking, it’s like what I am talking about with flutter kicking or fly kicking or whatever, you have to teach them how to do correct breaststroke kicking. And the last thing and I think it is the most important part of, at least in our program or what I like to do, you know, I talk a lot about kicking and I have people ask a lot of questions when they see my swimmers race. They ask because they see our swimmers kick a lot while they are swimming. It is dramatic in comparison to most other groups or teams. They ask me how much kicking we do, that’s independent kicking. We rarely do any. This is kind of funny or counter-intuitive after I just spent ten minutes talking about kicking. When we do kicking, a lot of times it is to develop the skill of kicking. We do a lot of underwater kicking, trying to develop that skill and we do a lot of it.
Once the technique is acquired we do a lot of it pretty fast, but as far as pure kicking sets, not that I think there is anything wrong with it, but I have seen a lot of swimmers that I have had who are great kickers with a board and then you have them swim and they don’t use it. That doesn’t do any good. So it kind of evolved into, I don’t know if it is an evolution, but I have adopted the idea that any kicking has to be while they are swimming. So, you know, doing things, I don’t know, I am sure Frank Busch the other day, I didn’t see his talk, but talked about doing 12 kicks per cycle swimming, or that Archer drill, you know, to really emphasize the kick. But a lot of times, we will do things like just regular swimming freestyle sets. It might not be on the hardest interval they can do, but it’s just over-kicking. And I will stand there, probably what I say more than anything in practice is, “Hey, kick more, kick more, kick more!” And, I will just do that forever and ever, to the point where it is annoying, but I make it annoying on purpose, to get me to shut up, they have to do it right.
So you know, I think coordination is what I am getting at, the important part is the coordination of always using that kick. Going back to my own swimming career, I went from being a very average breaststroker to being a very average freestyler because I hurt my ankles, but in that transition, I went from someone who never kicked in freestyle and I became a sprint freestyler to having to learn how to kick while I was swimming. It was a very hard transition for me because it was a coordination thing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t kick; I just couldn’t kick while I swam. I have to think that when you get tired at the end of the race, if you have wired your body into kicking all the time; whether you are swimming slow, whether you are swimming fast, or you are swimming while you are fresh, or you are swimming when you are tired, that when you get tired, you can still maintain that coordination to keep your legs moving even if they don’t feel like they are putting pressure on the water. They are going to be doing something, instead of not moving at all and then losing your body position and having your body go like this and stop moving. So the goal would be to keep kicking, in all the strokes, but freestyle is probably the easiest to exemplify because it is the one we use the most.
The idea of teaching the feel for the water, you know, again, I don’t like drills and I will talk about that in a minute. I don’t like getting into this stuff. We definitely don’t swim to swim, swim, swim, but I like things that are a little bit more tangible where the athlete has ownership more than, you know, talking about sculling and stuff like that, not that there is anything wrong with that, it is just a choice that I prefer. But the idea of feel, it goes along with my question about kicking. We know that some kids, when you watch them, even when they are 8, 9 and 10, you can see them, when they put their hand in the water, they know what it is supposed to feel like and they just move. We all know it when we see it. It is impossible not to see it, but if that’s something that is needed at the highest level, how come we don’t spend time learning that skill? Can you make it as good as that innate person? I don’t know. It would probably be pretty hard to do, but I think the younger we try and teach them to do it the better chance they have. I have seen kids who are older implementing some strategies to do that, to learn how to do it, and acquire it. But the only thing, I will come back to the drill idea, but any of the drills we do are usually to address feel for the water.
If you were in here earlier, Bob Bowman and I were talking about this drill that Frank Busch, which I mentioned a minute ago, Bob, where are you? Did you call it the Archer drill in the thing? The Archer drill was this thing we were talking about it at the PAN-PACS camp. It’s kind of like you’re setting up this way and you have your other arm up here and you’re just kicking and the idea is just to get your body in the position you want, at least to me. I think Frank described it a little bit differently, but to me, it’s to get your body in position and then the timing that you want to make sure your legs are doing what they need to do, but the bonus and the reason why I like it so much is, we worked a lot in the last year or so, based on some of the results of what Russell and Dr. Way and I found with international swimming and getting a high elbow. We worked a lot on trying to get a high elbow on freestyle and I didn’t have a lot of success in it because the kids could do it, but they wouldn’t feel the water right away, so they ended up bringing their arm down here and it didn’t do them any good. So, working on the idea of getting that feel right when they get their arm in that position, so you know when they are doing that drill like this, I talk to them about feeling the water on this side, you know, as they are going forward in the water, pushing against their forearm and their hand. When they turn that into swimming, it seems like, if they start out that way, then they go into swimming, they can feel the water and pull right away. As soon as they move their hand, they move forward, which is obviously what we want. To me, that is the reason to use the drill. The same thing in breaststroke, I think in breaststroke you need to use whatever drill works for that individual. To teach feel also, we do a lot of stuff on a tether, like a rope tied to the wall, especially for backstroke or against the stretch cord. It’s not really one of the tight ones that you know, I am not talking about trying to make it to the other side and you end up taking 85 strokes to get to the other side. I am just talking about a lighter cord where it provides enough pressure where you have to feel the water to actually move. And it, I think, creates a little bit more resistance to a point where your body can pick up on it.
Why not drills? Again, it is my opinion, I really don’t think there is anything wrong with it, but I don’t necessarily like to use drills. When I’ve watched, even in my earlier coaching days, drills were put in as filler for practice. And over the years, one of my main goals is always to try and get rid of anything that is not actively doing something very specific, so you have everything in a workout with a much more defined purpose. And if you just do, you know, the dreaded ten 75’s kick drill swim with no defined purpose, then it is worthless to me. And then, the last question and this is the main reason to me, why spend time teaching them to do drills correctly? And again, when I first started coaching older swimmers, you know, I would brag about how many drills I had for each stroke. We were spending all this time teaching 15 different drills, but how good would they have been if you had spent that time teaching them how to swim correctly?
Side notes and I am not going to go into this that much and it might raise questions, it might not. Actually, I am just going to describe the 50 things real quick, but my goal in practice with that feel idea is just to put the swimmers in situations where they have to do the skill correctly. The best example I can think of, especially with age group kids, before I moved to Seattle I was coaching a senior group and I also had a group of 9-10 year olds. And with the 9-10 year olds, we did, probably at least once a week, maybe twice a week; we did this set of 50’s. They had fins on and they would basically do two or three 50’s and they had a partner and in the 50 they had to do, they had to take somewhere 15 and 19 strokes per 25. This is yards. Their partner was there to count how many strokes they took. And in those 15 to 19 strokes, they were trying to go as fast as they could under those conditions.
There were a couple of other rules they had; they couldn’t push off past the flags, even though that is something we want, but you know how 10 year olds are with fins, they want to go all the way. So they couldn’t push off past the flags, so it made them have a longer distance per stroke, especially because they are all short because they are 10, right? It made them use their legs and it made them feel the water and the other thing they had to do was it could only be one stroke apart so if they took 15 the first 25 they had to take 16 and after each one, even though it took forever, I would go to their partner and I would say, “How many strokes did they take? Oh, 15/17 and I would say, “Is that right?” No, we are supposed to take less on the second one. Well, okay, what was their time? 32 seconds. We did this for months and I think after watching it evolve, there developed in those swimmers, the feel for the water, that they learned how to manipulate the water so that they could be successful under those conditions. Instead of talking to a bunch of 10 year olds about, okay, put your hand in and it has got to feel just like this and you know, reach over a barrel and all that stuff. If you are good at that and you can accomplish what you want by doing those things, great, I could just never do that. I was never effective in doing that and so I try and put them in situations where they had to do those things in order to be successful in what we were asking them to do in the workout. The same kind of thing with older swimmers, a lot of the stuff we do, I have them swim against, say the power tower. They have got one up in the exhibit area, wherever they are selling all the stuff. It is two big buckets, kind of like the power rack and you pull it.
I talked to the Arizona guys about, I know they use those a lot and about what they do with their big 100 freestyler guys, the South Africans and Simon Burnett and they do as much weight as possible in those things and still try and get across the pool in 10 or 11 strokes. You know, you can fill them up and put 1,000 pounds in there, but if you take 25 strokes to get to the other end I don’t think it does you much good. But if you kind of control the technique of it and then apply resistance to it, I think there is a lot of value.
Next one, coordination, again, taken from Tudor Bompa, coordination is the ability to perform a desired skill. It’s that simple, it’s the ability to perform a desired skill and you might be coordinated in some things, but you may not be coordinated in others. And, this part is more my opinion. Coordination is developed through challenging the nervous system. You know, things we have used to do that, doing ball skills like throwing tennis balls against the wall with your strong arm and then trying to do it with your weak arm, getting your weak arm as good as your strong arm, and then, doing those skills with racquet balls. The racquet ball is a lot harder or bouncing balls with your hands or, you know, standing on one leg and throwing a ball against the wall or throwing to each other or using a medicine ball, whatever, anything you can think of to challenge the nervous system to have to adapt to a new situation.
Jumping skills, it’s same kind of thing. We’ve done, we don’t have a big seating section at the King County pool, but we have enough stadium stairs where you can get a little bit of stuff done. I will have them jumping up the stairs on one leg, down on one leg. There is always the fear of them falling over, but that’s okay. But you know I’m just trying to get them to learn to use their body in different ways. Anything that you can think of, I had this lifelong or I guess for the last two years, I had this dream of buying a bunch of unicycles and teaching the swimmers how to ride unicycles and then throw balls and stuff. Don’t tell US Swimming that, I don’t think their insurance would like that very much. And you know with that, just remind yourself or remember that it is much easier to perform those skills on land than it is in the water.
The second part of it, just the idea of fluid movement and athletic control, I think we all understand what fluidity is and that it’s important. One of the things that in talking, going back to the idea of kicking and some of the stuff that we looked at with Russell and Dr. Way again, about fly kicking, underwater fly kicking and the necessity of kind of flowing all the way from the highest point of the kick, whether, you know, some people start their kick here and they are effective at it. Say if they are here some people, you know the better ones, I think start up a little higher like if you look at Natalie Coughlin, it starts at the top and then just rolls all the way down. There is, the word I use is connectivity in that, it never breaks. If you see someone who is less successful at it, they might roll from the top part all the way to here and then in the center of their rib cage, where a lot of people are rigid, it kind of stops and then the kick picks up again and it flows from the bottom. It’s kind of like how I was describing the flutter kick.
The fly kick, I think, to be effective at that level, it has to roll all the way down and not have any holes in it. It’s got to be connected all the way through. And which, for most of us, mere mortals, it’s not an easy thing to learn or to teach or to do. And one of the things, there is a guy that I use, that we use in Seattle, he is a manual therapist which is a branch of physical therapy that I learned about from Bob, I think Michael used to use or still uses and you know, part of that, I am not going to go into describing it, but it’s in creating a good structure or platform for your body first and then having the best athlete possible to use. But in sending some of our athletes over there to him, we have developed some exercises to do, to get that kind of fluid connection and one of the things we did, I didn’t put this in here, but it is one of the foundations of what I believe in sport or in coaching is when you apply resistance to a skill, the skill is learned faster. And that’s again is a Tudor B0mpa thing, but I think it works kind of like how I was describing learning to feel, you are applying resistance to it and your body can learn.
In one example and we started doing this about in January. We just tied a little tiny, a very thin stretch cord around these kids, around their head. It sounds kind of funny but they are not in the water and the one we first started with was a 10 year old girl who had some kind of structural back problems, a genetic thing. We filmed her beforehand just to try and do a fly kick motion on the water and then, or excuse me, on the land, just standing up and down. We worked with her for about an hour with this thing on and off, tied around her head. It was a stretch cord and it was tied to the wall and there was a slight amount of resistance, that resistance allowed her to learn how to be fluid with her whole body. It was just interesting, I don’t have an explanation for it, but it seems to work with everyone we tried it with. The bosu ball, that is one of those half physio balls that you can stand on, we did some stuff where you know, that we stand on one leg and try and swim freestyle, just when you are out of the water. It is not very easy, but it kind of showed them where their imbalance was and then they get back in and try to implement that or try and fix their balance issues in the water. But the ideas of these things were to develop fluidity. I think it is such a fresh thing or new thing that I have been working on, I can’t describe it as well as I would like to, but I just wanted to include it because I thought it was important because we all know, again, you know it when you see it. I do think it is a skill that can be learned.
The ability to change: again, you have to have the coordination to change, to have the ability to change. So, if you are dealing with an athlete who is not coordinated, their ability to change is diminished. Creating acculturative change, you know, we all talk about a culture of excellence and I do too. I think it is important. But I think the underlying culture within our program is developing a culture of change because in order to get better, yes, you have to train harder, but in order to significantly get better you have to be willing to change for the better. So, create a culture where change is desired instead of feared. Most of us fear change, but through that stress, the big picture, tell them what I was talking about, tell them, you know, say if you don’t kick, you are never going to make this and give them examples and educate them. Give them enough reason to change and sell them on the idea, this is how it works. Show them race analysis of an international level swimmer compared to what they do. Maybe you do not do that with 10 year olds, but find another example. Get them to want to change for a reason instead of just because I said so. Stressing the big picture again, we are going to talk more about that in a minute and to me, getting an athlete to believe in change and adapt to and embrace the culture of change, I think is the most important thing in their development, at least in our program. And the last part of it, doing the same thing yields the same result, right? I always credited Einstein, even though I have never looked it up, Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We do that all the time.
Strength: kind of body weight exercises, we all know this stuff, nothing too exciting, pushups. I heard Eddie Reese a couple of years ago say that if you can’t do 40 pushups there is no reason you should be in the weight room. I think he is probably right. Any abdominal exercises, core stuff, to me, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know exactly how to define “core”, but to me it’s when you are swimming, say freestyle and backstroke and even breaststroke, you want to be in this position, you know, not letting your lower back break or you are like this while you are swimming, anything that is going to help you maintain that, to me is core. That’s kind of how I define it. Pull-ups, I love pull-ups, I do them all the time. I don’t do them, they do. And I think you can get effective use of these basic tools and exercise until after they stop growing, before adding weights. Strength in the second part, I see strength in the water. You know, just translating you know all the basic stuff using paddles, using cords, fast swimming, tethers because any kind of resistance training you are going to carry over.
Flexibility: you know, this is something I am guilty of, I don’t use it too much, but there are questions that I think are important. You know, flexibility to me is a usable range of motions. You know, in going back to the kicking idea and the idea of feel, we all have swimmers who are inflexible and how do we deal with them? We know they are limited. Say, if they had inflexible ankles, we know that they are limited by that. But most of the time, we don’t do anything about it. We just chalk it up to, well that is just the way they are. But it’s not true, if we look at gymnastics and dance, two sports that are much more developed than ours and much older and evolved into more of an art form than ours has. You know, flexibility can be dramatically improved. Those gymnasts do not come out that way. They might have tendencies like that, but those things are developed. You know as a side note at Pan-Pacs, I was kind of watching for this, I didn’t take statistics or know exact numbers, but the majority of the National Team members have hyper-extended joints. One would think, if that is the case, that flexibility is probably pretty important. And then the idea of ankle flexibility going back to my discussion on kicking, if that flexion at the end is important to increase that range of motion and act like the tip of the whip, you know, snap down, to increase the amount of power you can put in the water, again, that would seem to be pretty important. Also you know, with breaststroke kick, the ability to increase the range of motion and snap around, for that kind of flexibility.
Teaching, kind of my opinion on technical things, good technique is a good coach, bad technique is a bad coach. Sorry if I hurt anybody’s feelings. I think there are varying levels of this. If you are coaching 8 year olds you might have 20% of your swimmers who have good technique and you are doing a good job, but if you are coaching good senior level swimmers in a club setting, if you have, I think you want it flipped, 80% of your swimmers should have really good technique. You are always going to have that 10-20% who, you know, for whatever reason, hasn’t decided that it is important and they don’t listen to you. The other night I had this, Peter, I think I saw Peter, is he in here? Maybe not. Peter Banks, the national team forum the other night, he made a comment about the national junior team, a couple of years ago when he was coaching it. He stated that most of the swimmers were unprepared and automatically everybody made the assumption that Peter was talking about training or unprepared as in, they didn’t know how to warm-up on their own without their coach there. They didn’t have the knowledge to take care of themselves. And I talked to Peter later, and I was right in this assumption, he was talking about they were unprepared, as in, they were not technically good, they didn’t have good starts, they didn’t have good turns, they weren’t swimming like international swimmers and his assertion was that they got there because they were good, not because they were coached well. I think that was pretty important. He said that he felt bad saying that because it’s kind of pointing the finger at everybody else. But, as I do, I felt like it was important to say and with that, I kind of followed with the thought of, when did coaching in our sport become synonymous with the term trainer? You know if your kids don’t have good technique and I admit I was, especially early in my career, I was guilty of being at a meet and saying so and so doesn’t have good strokes. They are not going to be any good, they were my swimmer. That’s my fault. I didn’t do the job in teaching them to swim right. So, you know, somewhere in there, I think we need to go back, that’s been lost.
Belief in themselves, build them up after breaking down, this is nothing new. Make them earn your respect and earn theirs. I talked about this before, but into each workout, each one of my athletes has to give me a handshake and I do this for a couple of reasons. You know at first, they thought it was stupid and they hated doing it and now if I forget they get mad at me. One of them is just the idea of contact. You know, just shaking someone’s hand, it creates a connection. The other two main reasons are; if they do something really well in workout, but you just happen to miss it because you were doing something else, but you saw it, it gives you an opportunity to say, “Hey, you know what? I did see that. That was great. Keep it up.” Or, on the other side of things, if you got mad at them at practice, or if they had a terrible workout and they just want to slink out of there and not see anybody and be mad at you for a week, they have to look you in the eye and you’d say, “Hey, you need to do better at that.” Believe it or not, it’s amazing at defusing that situation, so they don’t walk out of there ready to quit. There’s a connection that’s made. I also see in the belief aspect, kind of our job is being like a boxing manager. You know, you put the athletes in situations where they win by a lot, where they lose by a lot, where they are challenged, whether they can win or lose depending on what they did, and not any of them all the time. You have got to mix it up as much as possible.
The stroke management idea, I mentioned this earlier, the number of cycles times tempo swimming speed, that is basically all we do. That’s how simple it is. The tempo thing, this is what I am talking about. This was my criticism of high tempo younger swimmers. Once they stop growing, many stop having significant improvements. They are going to be, you know, maybe they might get a little bit stronger and either their tempo increases if you used our equation before; one of these two things has to improve for them to get faster. So maybe if they get stronger their tempo will improve by a little bit, but we all know if the tempo goes up too much, you start spinning and it ceases to be effective. And the other one will go through the roof, so you end up swimming slower. Or, maybe you increase your distance per stroke by a little bit just because you are a little bit stronger and you can put a little more force on the water.
And you know your turns can be better or whatever, but basically, if you do not address stroke length actively, I kind of describe it as polishing the same rock. You can polish it and make it look really nice and you can put it in a nice jar around some other rocks, but it is still the same rock. I think a perfect example of this is Erik Vendt. You know, he is 5’ 7” or 5’ 9”, something like that, not very big, but when you watch him swim, he looks like a really big guy in the water. He has learned to manage his technique to where in the water, he is a lot bigger, he’s pulled the water into thinking he’s a lot bigger than he is. I use this in the national team coach’s meeting, these are two guys. Neil’s time is not his best time, he was 52:7. He formerly had the American record, Tommy was 52:8. That is when he made the 2000 Olympic team as the second person. And, the idea of this, Tommy was 19 strokes. Actually, I think it was 18, but that’s what came out. And Neil was 18. I know that Mike Mintenko who is the Canadian record holder is 52:4, I believe, he is 18 strokes. In that discussion, I made the assertion that you could not go under a 51.8 or 51.5, something like that, if you took 18 strokes.
To go faster than that, there are three people who have been faster than that as far as I know, you got Ian up there as the world record holder 17, you got Michael who is 17, and you have this Ukrainian guy who is 16. Mathematically, I don’t think it’s really possible. You can look at many books on swimming, ranges of World Class Swimmers for 100 butterfly, what the tempo ranges are, they are high, you know, 1.0 something is a high end tempo. Maybe if you get a .95 it is no longer effective and you start adding strokes because you are spinning. But somewhere, the mathematics has to play into it. And that is where it is, 17, 17 and 16, 18 is not going to do it. If you do not believe me, go home and play with the math. But, I think this is an easy example because it is the 100 butterfly, but I think that plays into everything we do. And you know, looking at these guys, Tommy is about 6’ 4” a big guy, about the size of a linebacker. Neil Walker is what? 6’ 6”, 6’ 7”? Mike Mintenko is probably 6’ 3” or 6’ 4” and his nickname up there is “The Tank”, a big guy, but if these big guys are going out in 18 strokes without being managed to go 17 strokes, you figure you have to be pretty big to go out in 18 strokes without actively trying to get to that level. What are you going to do with your guy who is 5’ 9”? He’s going to go out in 19 or 20 strokes or 21, and that is going to be where he caps off until you start pushing him down. Again, it’s mathematics. So, the idea of trying to, over time manipulate those levels to get faster. Just for fun if you want, I am giving Bob’s secrets away, Bob Bowman, if you want to, go look at Michael Phelps’ progression in the 400 IM and the number of strokes from when he was 14 until he broke the world record, the number of strokes for every part of his 400 IM.
Coach-parent expectations: I am going to try and pick it up a little bit, I am running out of time here. Expectations to me, especially for the younger ones, just expect them to work hard and improve. Improvement does not always mean go faster. Be honest about performance. If it was bad, tell them it was bad. You know everybody wants to sugar-coat everything. If you are honest with them, they will respect it. You do not have to be mean about it, but you can say, “Hey, that wasn’t very good.” Again, I stole this one from Bob, he was talking about his relationship with Michael two or three years ago in something I saw, you know, he said, “Try to keep things on an even keel.” Not like how it fits with how I like to do things, but I think we are all like that a lot. But you know, he was talking about how Michael had a great swim, say he broke a world record and he comes back by and Bob goes, “Hey, great job, go warm down and let’s go get a sandwich.” And if he had the worst swim of his life he comes by and Bob goes, “Hey, go warm down and let’s go get a sandwich.” I kind of have the same, not that you do not get excited about those things, but keep your energy level the same so it is not as traumatic on them internally. Leave somewhere to go in training, look within your program structure and make sure each group has a place to progress. You see a lot of teams that have good age group swimmers and not good senior swimmers that have their 12 year olds swimming almost as much as their 18 year olds. Of course they are not going to get faster.
Reserve most stressful resistance devices for the top group and at King, we do not do weights for our high school athletes. Could they be faster if they did? Probably, but the one thing I know, I think I graduated this past summer, 13 or 14 swimmers and they probably went to 11 different universities. I don’t know anything about what they do in training. They don’t know anything about what we do in training, but the one thing I do know is that probably 99% of the universities out there, they are going to use weights, so it gives them an opportunity to do something that they’ve never done before, a place to go in their training, to improve.
This is, you know, I am not going to explain this at all, I just throw this in there because it is a cornerstone in our training program, again, once they put that talk that I had at National Team Coach’s Meeting online, you can get the greater explanation of this, but this is instead of a traditional periodization, this is the process that we go through. Kind of recognize the direction for improvement, educate that athlete about what we want, and apply power to learn that new technique going back to the Tudor Bumpa idea of applying resistance to a skill. Add endurance to that new technique. Recover and see if it worked and then, if necessary, improve athleticism so if they didn’t do it correctly, they can hopefully do it correctly next time, and repeat the cycle.
Lastly, just to leave for those of you who like to write sets down; this is what a typical warm-up would be for my group. I’ll explain what the purpose is; first there are three 200’s on 2:20, just get them in and swimming. 30 pushups. I like to do things, say in warm-up which requires going in and out of the water. You know, to me it makes a lot of sense, if you are warming up your whole body; you are going to be more ready to swim, than if you just swim. It awakens your nervous system and so on. We do stuff like this in meets also. The 30 pushups and then the pull-back/free we do to kind of help recover from those pushups, doing the backstroke first where they just kind of float. We then do some minute squat sets which is something I stole from Tai Chi where they just kind of squat like a breaststroke type squat, with their heels down and my intention is to kind of wake up the knees and ensure the safety of their knee joints and flexibility in their ankles. We then do a 100 breaststroke kick with a pull buoy and that kind of helps them to get to feel the water with the bottom of their feet. It also works on flexibility and kind of snapping their ankles at the end. Then there are 30 reps of pike-ups, whatever you call those abdominal exercises. Then, 20 seconds with the back flat on the wall, just trying to work on the back of their head to the back of their heels, having every part of their body touching. I figure that is a position you want when you are coming off the wall, pushing off, or even, trying to duplicate that to a certain degree while you are swimming, say freestyle. And then kicking 8 X 25’s say on 25 or 30 or 35, whatever, the intervals are irrelevant, you are just trying to maintain that back-flat body position, but you know, I put that up there to give you an idea of what you might do to try and implement some of these strategies. For an age group swimmer obviously, they are not going three 200’s on 2:20 to start with. Maybe they are on 3:30, I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter.