Middle Distance Free by John Collins (1996)


INTRO: John Collins was all American butterflier from Indiana University in the mid of the 1960’s. He earned his law degree in 1972 from Fordham Law School. Since 1970, he has been the coach of Badger Swim Club, in Larchmont, New York. In addition, he has been the coach of Manhattanville College (Div. III) for the past 22 years. John Collins is best known for producing Olympic Champions. Champions like Rick Carey (1984), Lea Loveless (1992) and Christina Teuscher (1996). He has also produced middle distance freestyle champions, like Tobie Smith, Mimosa McNerney and Robert Darzynkiewicz. John Collins was named ASCA “Coach of the Year” in 1983.

I’m here to discuss the topic of training middle distance freestyle. It is a subject that not only is important but it’s vital to the success of swimming in this country today. It’s also a subject that I’m quite familiar with or should be since I have spent the last 25 years coaching the middle distance oriented program. You have to remember that I was 16 when I first started coaching. As long as I’m talking about 25 years ago and beyond I think it’s important to discuss a little bit about my past, and maybe some of the influences on my coaching career.

Obviously my one big influence was my dad. My dad was a coach. In fact, he was Joe Bernal’s coach. That is a little known fact, which I was hoping Joe would be here and I could spring that on him. He and I were teammates. I was influenced most at Indiana University during the 60’s when I was training with Doc Counsilman. He had an eclectic bunch of swimmers during those years, most of them were world class. The way he did it was by his innovations, his demeanor, and his intelligence. This had a lasting effect on my fragile egg shell mind. I think it’s interesting to note that during my years at Indiana the assistant coach was Jack Pettinger and the manager during those years was a young guy named Bob Rossett. So we had a pretty good group of people who are still around. I never thought I was going to be a coach, much to my father’s dismay I followed in his footsteps. I have a couple of things I want to give to you before I begin talking about middle distance training. Number one. My perspective in all this is from the point of view of a developmental coach that runs his own program. I deal primarily with swimmers who are 13 and up and are fed to me through my age group program. My group size is usually 20 to 30 swimmers. Number two, I’m not a great statistician, workout recorder, and scientist nor do I use a computer like many of my counter parts do. Don’t expect to hear detailed accounts of workouts or exact formulas for success. I will tell you what we do at Badger and what works for me and what I believe is important. Number three, I don’t think I’m going to teach you anything about middle distance that you don’t already know. But maybe I can refresh your memory with some of my insight.

My definition of middle distance may differ from yours, but in the early days it would be anything from the 220 to the 440. Nowadays it is probably more correct to say the 200 to the 500. Even though the title of this is middle distance freestyle, I’d like to take the liberty to say that my program basically deals with middle distance butterflyers, backstrokers, and breaststrokers. I really like that 200 distance and also the long IM’ers, the 400 IM. So if I can ask for your indulgence I’d like to include those into this discussion. In my way of thinking the category then basically includes the majority of swimmers. Which is to say that training for middle distance should be the bread and butter or the meat and potatoes of every club coach.

Middle distance training provides a necessary background for all types of swimmers to emerge. A lot of the great sprinters of today and even people like Mark Spitz, Tom Jaeger, and Jenny Thompson have all come out of great middle distance backgrounds. If you think you are a middle distance oriented coach a good test is the following: do you have a group of 10-14 year old kids who come into your program in September who are between 4:40 and 4:30 for the 400 meters? If you have a big smile on your face when they come in, I think you are middle distance oriented. I know I would be real happy to have 6, 8 or fewer kids like that walk into my program in early September that fits my program to a T.

One other way I have of looking at middle distance is like classical education. It prepares you for anything you might want to specialize in as time goes on.

My program is a classic middle distance training program. I would define it as very aerobic, middle of the road distance wise, emphasizing versatility and pulling. I do less kicking, strength training, and anaerobic speed work than most programs. It has a no pansies atmosphere and it provides a challenge in every workout. I encourage my swimmers to make 10 to 12 workout sessions per week. During the school season that means 1 1/2 hours in the morning which is about 5000 yards, and about 2 hours in the afternoon which is about 7500 yards. Saturday and Sunday are included some weeks, we go either 2 or 3 hours every morning. Once school is out the am’s and the pm’s pretty much line up to 2 hours each.

Facility wise, I am reminded of Scott Volcker’s talk yesterday when he described his training facility and the situation in Australia and how it was not ideal. Most of the year we train in basically a short course pool and we have since 1973. From September through almost the middle of June. It’s a 6 lane pool but not an ideal situation. It’s narrow and in many years the water was green and cold and not too many niceties around the facility. No showers. It was a small college team that I coached and I guess that I should mention that it is Manhattanville College. I always looked at it as an advantage. I have seen a lot of swimmers step up and come out of poor training situations to become world record holders. I’ve always felt that it was an advantage for me to train them in a poor facility and take them to a great pool, because I felt that they would automatically be able to swim faster — like going to Austin, Texas or going to the Montreal Olympic pool, or wherever else we may wonder into. I also felt it made them a little bit tougher. It was always real easy for me to sell the concept of, we were the David’s going against the Goliath of the swimming world. I could always characterize the California teams as having the great facilities and outdoor sunshine all year around. We were always the poor people on the block who didn’t have that much but we tried real hard to do well. I think it helped us psychologically to be able to come in with a little bit of an edge.

We trained long course in the summer at my own pool, which is a long course 50 yard pool. Again, it’s not quite 50 meters but it was great to have. The only problem in NY is the weather in the spring and summer. It doesn’t really turn warm until about June 15th. So the limit of the summertime was short — maybe 6-8 weeks of training or less. Fortunately we have been able to move to a long course pool which we train at once a day. I’m real thankful and it’s a great feeling to feel like a college coach.

My program has been successful. Jimmy mentioned Rick Carey and Lee Loveless. We have had some pretty successful middle distance freestylers recently and the ones that I can mention to you that you might know are Toby Smith, Mamosa McNurney and Christina Teuscher. I was real proud of the fact that Toby and Mamosa went on to become NCAA champions — the 500 for Mamosa and the mile for both of them. Of course Christina pretty much fits the same bill and comes out of the same program as they did. It’s great to be able to have people as good as that in the program. I can’t really say that it happened because they were produced. They are great talents and they worked real hard. I hope I have a few more of those come in the next couple years.

The program is successful because its middle distance oriented. I have always had that middle distance focus from year one. Which means I like what I produce, they are well rounded, tough minded swimmers. I think college coaches like them as well. If I had to describe my program and why it is successful in three words they would be consistency, persistence, and single mindedness of purpose.

When I say consistency I’m talking about approach. Of course it’s easy for me to say after 25 years, but I have been doing some of the same things for 25 years. I think it’s important to have that consistency in my approach to the swimmers and to the program. From the coach’s standpoint you’re pretty much the same, you don’t fly off the handle. You have the same, I don’t want to say workman like attitude or professional attitude, but it’s basically me. I try to maintain my demeanor even though at various places I may not want to.

It’s the same pool, same coach, same consistently challenging workouts, same goals, the workout atmosphere is primarily the same. I can say that every Badger swimmer is related to that common experience. I think that consistency is really important, whether you are training middle distance people or you are just coaching. You’ve got to be consistent in what you do.

As far as persistence is concerned I think it kind of speaks for itself. I had a professor in college in Roman History, I was an ancient history major, and as you all know the fall of Rome was a major talk of discussion in many history professor’s talks. He was very learned and his opinion as to why Rome fell was that they lost their persistent energy. The civilization ran out of gas. They started doing things differently. I always thought about that and I still do. I think that if we lose our persistent energy we’re going to fall a little bit back. So I try and remind myself of that and I try to do things the same. I keep trying to do things right and never give up even when sometimes things don’t go your way. It’s persistence.

Thirdly, single mindedness of purpose. It’s not too hard to figure that one out either. I find myself reading comic books, I know some of you do to, and there is a program on TV called Pinky and the Brain, and I have to confess that I like watching it. My son and I watch it as much as we can. It’s about 2 lab mice who are transmitted into something a little bit different. The Brain is very intelligent and Pinky is a little bit of an idiot. Each episode begins and ends the same way, with Pinky asking the brain “What are we going to do tomorrow night? “The same thing we do every night Pinky, try to take over the world.” That is what I try to do. I like to think that what I’m doing every day and every workout is trying to coach kids to become the best swimmers in the world. It’s that single mindedness of purpose. It’s maybe a harsh way of looking at it and I’m not interested in making them good looking swimmers or making their strokes correct. I want to be a good guy, but my main concern with coaching is trying to make them great. I always had that. Even in 1970-71 when I was in law school coaching a YMCA team. Maybe it’s a result of my early training but I think it’s something good to have.

Add to that equation plentiful pool time and I don’t think you can develop great middle distance swimmers without having a lot of water time. I’m not saying you can’t do it with 2 hours a day, but it sure helps when you have a key to the pool. You can go in and use that pool early in the morning and late in the afternoon. You can use that pool on Sunday and do whatever you have to do. You have to have that extra 15 or 20 minutes for an extra set. I think it’s real important to have a pool or facility that you can count on to use as much as you want to.

My main role as a coach is to train my swimmer’s intellect. To make them into educated champions. Anyone can write workouts and tell them here’s the 10 400’s and the timed 3000 of 3300 and do these every day and finish this workout and you’ll become a better swimmer but I think training their intellect is the real coaching challenge. Taking talented youngsters and making them into champions is what coaching is all about. That’s what gives me my motivation to continue to coach. I Think I have the best job in US swimming coaching my own developmental club team. The sky is the limit and hard work is a vehicle to success — where next swimmer I could work with the next Rick Carey or Lee Loveless or the next Christina Toucher. That’s what keeps me going and I think it’s real important that a coach has some kind of motivation that’s going to keep him passionate.

I will go statistically through what we do and I don’t think it’s anything drastic. We average between 70,000 and 80,000 meters or yards per week. Obviously that’s basic training time from September through November into December. We do cut it down for meets. When we go to major meets we usually do less but not always.

The heart of my program probably lies in these principles that are coming up. I don’t like to see swimmers swim slowly in competition. No matter what kind of meet they’re in. I don’t like to bore my swimmers with huge quantities of mindless yardage. I believe in proper stroke technique. I believe in building strength through swimming. I believe in aerobic training. I also believe in not squeezing the lemon dry. It’s my way of thinking.

Meets are more important than workouts in terms of performance. Which means I would rather have someone swim fast in a meet than do a great workout. A lot of times I would rather see a kid swim fast in a workout because it’s exciting for me as a coach and sometimes you can put people in situations where you know they can be challenged. Whether it’s a timed 100 or stand up and do something. Sometimes it’s better not to do that. That’s like squeezing a lemon too many times. The name of the game is competitive swimming and you have to do that in a meet. I’d rather have them save that fast swim for the next time they compete.

I’ll give you three workouts that we did this past year just in case you need them. If you listen to the radio station that plays rock and roll music, one of the formats they use are contests where they have people write in. If you were stranded on a desert island what three records or ten records would you want to have with you? I have deserted island workouts or deserted island sets. There are three workouts that I do that I think really sum up the Badger program, which worked for me for years and are valuable parts of our program and I think are the valuable parts of our middle distance training.

The three sets are 10-400’s, timed 3300, and 50 times 100. They can be done on different intervals and they can be done all different strokes. The 10-400’s that I like to do most is the 10-400 IM’s. I’ll give you various ways of breaking them up. I’ll give you a workout we did long course this summer: a 600 warm up; 5-200 freestyle pull on 2:20; kick 5-100’s with zoomers on 1:30; swim 5-400 IM’s reverse order on 6 minutes; go 5 more 200 pulls on 2:15 freestyle; kick 5 more 100’s with zoomers on 1:30; and then finish up with 5 more 400 IM’s straight order on 5:45 each one faster.

Christina finished up with the 5:01 in her last one. Then we finish up the workout with the easy 200 and that makes up 7800 which is basically the amount that we do.

The other set we do which I think is very good is the 50-100’s which we do short course and long course. Short course we try and get them down to doing them on 1:05. I feel that if they can do 50 100’s at 1:05 they are going to be in pretty good condition. Obviously not everybody can do them on 1:05 and you may have to do them on 1:10 or 1:15 or even start out slower than that. However the goal is always to move it down to the 1:05 category. The workout we did with those was a short course yard workout with an 800 swim kick pull. Usually you try to advertise this set, some say maybe tomorrow we may go those 100’s, so mentally you start to put the thought in their minds that this set is coming up. It’s a set that we do straight but we can also break it up into 30 straight and 1 or 2 minute break and go your last 20. You can also break up the interval if you want. We did 50 100’s on 1:05, straight set, and Christina averaged 1:01 on all of them. After that we swam down a couple hundred and that made up 7600.

The third thing that I think is an essential workout tool is the timed 3000 or timed 3300. It’s that over distance double 2 1650’s back to back. We do them as warm ups and we do them as timed efforts. As I said all the kids have done them from way back. Rick used to like to do them very fast. He was always real impatient. He liked to swim fast all the time. The one that we did this year was short course yards. We did warmups with a timed 3300. We told them negative split it. Christina was out in a little bit over 18 minutes and came back in low 17 minute effort. Rick, looking back, he would be doing them in the 32 minute range. After the 3300 we would pull 8-200 IM’s reverse order on 2:30 to 2:45, kick 2 400 choice, swim a 400 IM and finish up with 30-50’s swim or pull on 35. They swam down 200 and that made up 7800 yards which again is about an average workout for us.

So there you have it in a nut shell. That’s the hurt, pain, and agony Badger style. The timed 400 IM, the timed 400’s, timed 3300, and 50 100’s.

I want to talk to you about Christina Toucher. She is basically an ideal candidate for a middle distance training program. Her best events are the 200 free, 400 free and the 400 IM. She is somebody that you would all love to have in your program because she possesses unusual speed. She goes 56.3 in the 100 meters and she has a distance swimmers endurance. She’s been 16:34 for 1500 meters and she has been world ranked from the 100 to the mile in a single year. She has unusual range for a freestyler. It is something that I really liked about her especially the ability she has to have speed. Plus she possesses a German like attitude toward training. Which means she shows up for every workout and completes each one.

Like in many middle distance swimmers I think she could be a great IM’er. She likes to win, to be successful and seems to get better the more races she swims. I spotted her at a JO meet when she was 12 years old. I had never seen her swim before and she was in my age group program. She was swimming the 500 freestyle and I think she was in the low 5:30’s for her final time. I liked the way she looked, the way she swam. She had an ability to ride high on the water and she caught the water very quickly and very well. I told Kip, my assistant coach, that I wanted to move her up right away. She was scared to move up and scared of the workouts but she did her best to complete them and despite her girlish fears she found she could do them and do them well. She obviously made rapid progress and I think she won her junior nationals at 14 years old. Like many exceptional athletes the sky is the limit for her. Her only limitation is herself.

Her favorite sets would be the 50 100’s and 10 400 IM’s. Her Olympic experience this year could have been disastrous. She is somebody who I thought could possibly medal in her individual best, the 200 and 400 freestyle. She was training pretty well going into the games. She went away with the US team from July 9 until the Olympics began. She is someone who may have missed a little bit of personal attention. I didn’t get to see her very much during that period and at the games themselves I wasn’t really able to talk to her on a comfortable basis. She is used to having someone close to her and her family nearby.

I think if you watch the tapes of the 200 freestyle once you get up to the trials she had a real funny look on her face and it just wasn’t her. I think she was really scared and kind of got herself unnerved and she swam that way. The same was true in her 400 freestyle. Thankfully she had a couple of days to settle down after the 400 and she was able to swim the relay and thank God it worked out very well, and she was able to come home with a gold medal. She swam a little bit better and I think more of an indication of the way she could have swam.

The challenge with her now is that she has decided to take an alternative route as far as college is concerned. She is going to Columbia University in New York — a place which she chose. It’s a very good academic institution and she likes the idea of going to school in NY, she likes the cosmopolitan atmosphere. She like the academic riggers facing her and she intends to train with me on a daily basis. Of course the unusual part is that she could have gone to Stanford or USC or any other place in the country with a full ride and instead she is paying $25,000 to go to Columbia and stay closer to home. It’s an experiment I guess. A lot of people are looking at it, and a lot of college coaches are looking at it and it will be a real challenge to see if we can pull it off and have her swim well this year. It’s a challenge that I welcome and I think it’s something that maybe more people should look at. Especially club coaches who have kids that they work very well with and instead of trouping them off to college to possibly an unknown coach, or someone who doesn’t know them as well as you do — maybe there are other ways to do things. I think some of you are aware that Brooke Bennett took the money and so she won’t be competing in college in a couple years or whenever that turns up. I think swimming is changing a little bit along those lines.

I have some concepts that are very closely related to my program and I think that I’d like to discuss a few of them or throw them out to you and if you have any comments please feel free to ask me.

The first thing is window of opportunity. It doesn’t stay open forever. I think if you’re going to coach a club and have swimmers that you’re trying to point towards national competition and you have people who are talented, I think that you have to understand that they may not be great for long. You may find that your opportunity with them may only be a couple years and I think that you’ve got to make the most of that opportunity before the window closes. I also think that this also means that you’ve got to encourage those swimmers a little bit more. There is an urgency here. There are no rules about swimming fast when you are 15 or 16. One of the things that bothers me with US Swimming today is you don’t see too many high school boys being finalists in nationals or making their mark before they go to college. I think that it wasn’t always that way. I think that you have to try and work real hard with those guys and make sure they understand that you don’t have to wait until college to become good swimmers.

The other concept I’d like to use is to practice horticulture not agriculture. It’s like vegetation and planting flowers, you have to take care of them every day. Each plant and each flower has to be given a dose of daily attention. It’s nice to have a big team and in some ways financially I think that it’s great to have 80 to 100 kids in your program. Obviously you can’t deal with them all yourself. I usually can handle 20 to 30. It’s much better if it’s lower. I think that you’re able to get to those people on a much more effective basis if you have fewer people to worry about. When you want to produce national caliber swimmers I think that you are going to have to understand that you can’t work with everybody. So you have to practice horticulture which also means that you have to work with your good swimmers, the people who need your attention every day. Not just for a week, not just for a month, but you work with them every day for years.

The third concept is competitive swimming. I don’t want to sound stupid, but it is competitive swimming that we are talking about her. I think that my program is a good program and I like to win. I like to beat other teams. I like to win titles. I think that the swimmers you deal with and the swimmers you are coaching have to have that competitiveness as well. You can’t lose sight of the fact that they have to stand up and race and beat people. It’s nice to have a friendly atmosphere at a meet and it’s nice to have coaches you are friendly with. It’s nice to go to meets and have everybody say I like what you’re doing with your kids, your kids are doing great.

I think you lose a little bit if you get sucked into that philosophy where everyone is friends and everything is hunky dory. As long as you make your junior cuts, everything is fine. I think that kids thrive better on teams like mine. I don’t want to say a cut throat, competitive atmosphere, but back in the late 70’s early 80’s we had a very strong region one. That’s in NY and New England where we would be highly competitive and tried really hard to beat teams like Joe Bernal’s team and Chuck Warner’s team when he coached at Wilton Y, and John Leonard’s team when he coached the Syracuse Chargers. We had some real classic and monumental team battles. Whether it was at the state championship level or the region one, which were great and that’s the years when I had some great swimmers. Some of those region one meets in those days, when you look back on them, produced faster top 5 or 6 times than some Jr nationals we’ve had recently. So I think that we have gotten away from that and I think it’s important to remind ourselves that this is competitive swimming we are talking about.

Another thing which is important. I used to listen to a lot of Jim Morrison songs and I had a t-shirt that said break on through to the other side, which was a Doors song. Of course the meaning is obvious, you want to produce swimmers that are going to break through that barrier and the barrier is usually a record. I think it’s something that you have to try to bring up to your swimmers as well. Not just get up to a certain level, let’s get to Jr’s, let’s get to sr’s and that’s great in itself. That’s fine. It’s a step. But the fact is you have to do something really good. Your goals have to be set at the highest level. We always use that little saying.

I can also look at this year’s Olympic trials and look at performances that were done there and compare them to the times that were done in actual performances in Atlanta and say maybe we didn’t do much breaking through from March until July. I can look at Christina’s times and say gee she was 1:59.5 in March in Indianapolis and going to Atlanta and goes to 2 minutes point. Or I could say in 1994 she was a 1:59.8 200 freestyler and now 2 years later she is a 1:59 200 freestyler. I’m not doing a very good job at getting her to break through because we are pointing much faster. I think that maybe we have to look are ourselves and ask if we are we becoming great maintainers, then maybe we’re not such great coaches. We’re just becoming great maintainers. It’s important to keep that concept in your mind. You have to break on through, you have to do something real good.

I was looking through the US Swimming rules and regulations and in the back they have the records. It is interesting looking through them. I don’t do it very often but I did notice that in the 1995 age group records in the 13-14 200 meter backstroke Rick Carey is still in the record books with a 2:08.12 from 1977, which I find amazing. I’m proud of the fact that he’s still there. The other record that I’m proud of and I hope it wasn’t broken this year is Robert Darsen Kevich holds the men’s jr national east at 15:43 done in 1988. I think both of those records point out a weakness in swimming that we have today. We’re not producing great distance boys at that age and we should be. Someone told me yesterday that Rick’s record had been broken this year, but I won’t think about that. We’ve got to do things that are going to get these kids swimming faster. I think that one of the things that you can do is run a strong middle distance oriented program.

I think one of the problems with US swimming today is the glorification of the prima donna sprinter. I lay this at the feet of a lot of college coaches. When you start elevating a sprinter, a 100 or a 50 person and give them status that is a little bit above that of a middle distance or a distance swimmer in their programs, I think that we have changed the course of swimming in this country. It has happened over the past 10 years. I think that they get a lot of special treatment. They get special coaches and there is no doubt that they swim fast, but I think their worth, especially when you’re talking about long course swimming, is really not that valuable in terms of US swimming. It’s great to have college swimmers swim fast in that 50 but it doesn’t seem to help our cause in the Olympics or world championships. That’s my middle distance bias showing.

I wanted to basically finish up with two points. One is an article from a newspaper in Fort Lauderdale during the nationals. It was the last day. It’s something that I think is important to think about. Bill Peak was honored, one of my good friends, and a friend to many people here. He was honored the last night at nationals primarily by Mary T and some of his former swimmers. He is quoted in this paper. “It still comes down to work ethics”, Peak said, “It’s great we did well at the Olympics but you can’t lose sight that it wasn’t because they swam fast. It was because the rest of the world swam slowly.” Don’t get caught up in the hoopla. We certainly won a lot of medals but I’m not sure that we swam that well.

Number two is don’t haggle with the watermelon vendors.

Question from Audience: How important do you consider dryland training for a middle distance female?

John: I think it’s advantageous but it’s a question of how much you can do. When you talk about high school age kids, I don’t like to compromise my water time. When they go into high school it’s hard to fit in that extra hour that they need 2 or 3 times a week. We do work on the VASA Swim trainer, we do some light calisthenics and I think it’s important. We try to fit in 30 to 45 minutes, 3 days a week. We don’t do a lot of weight training.

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