Progressive Development Model
for Age Group Swimmers
by Monika Schloder, University of Calgary Swim Club
North American society is based on very strong competitive values that permeate not only our everyday lives but are reflected in sports as well. Subsequently, children – young swimmers in our case – are often treated as ‘miniature adults’ as to expected result-based performances by coaches and parents. Instead, the focus should be on general athleticism, fundamental movement patterns, and technical training of all swimming skills. The late developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) proposes that children 6-12 years engage in the so-called “smorgasbord of activities” rather than focusing on one activity. His theory seems to have merit since swimmers like athletes in other sports experience early ‘burnout’ symptoms due to undue and high pressures. According to research, the dropout rate has also increased to about 73% by the age of 13 and tends to be higher among females. There are numerous reasons. However, the most cited response in a national survey is, … “It was NO longer FUN!” … Sport psychologists attribute this occurrence to early specialization. One could argue, … “It really doesn’t matter because he/she wasn’t very good anyways” … This author however holds the belief that every child deserves the best he/she can be! The ‘dropouts’ most likely left programs because they were deficient or lacked the physical and technical aspects for successful performance, which is the real reason for “Not having FUN.” Regrettably, swimmers leaving to join other sports programs (basketball, volleyball, etc.) lack the essential physical abilities to be successful in those as well.
We all are familiar with the term ‘Kindergarten’ – the concept developed by German educator and pedagogue Friedrich Wilhelm Fröbel (1782-1852). He proposed that the development of children resembles a ‘nourishing garden whereby blossoms, flowers, and trees could either come to full bloom, grow and expand, or die if not watered or properly tended’ by the teacher. He believed that all children have unique needs and capabilities. If we accept his thesis on education (Latin ēdūcere = leading from within to the outside = individual talent) then we should provide the best teaching/coaching environment so that young swimmers are able to cultivate their abilities. This means that we offer opportunities to develop – foster – increase – and promote skills and capabilities in a systematic progression so swimmers are able to succeed at the higher level.
Developing General Athleticism
Coaches should decide on that developmental model, which is the most ideal and workable in their respective scenario to challenge swimmers to achieve a high level of functional and motor fitness. In other words the ‘amazingly gifted athlete’ is created and developed not borne although talent is partially genetic. Throughout my coaching career I have listened to the same statements many a times … ‘we pay for valuable pool time and I only have so many hours in the day … I can’t afford all that extra time for all that other stuff’ … We really need to reflect on our coaching philosophy and the long-term aim of developing the athlete-swimmer. The ideal development should provide a level of overall athleticism so swimmers can choose to commit to higher levels in swimming or pursue other sports rather than being told … ‘You just don’t have’ … ‘Maybe try another sport’ … ‘Quit wasting my and your time.’
The following components develop general athleticism:
- Body composition
- Metabolic components
- Cardio-respiratory fitness
- Endurance (aerobic) fitness
- Muscular fitness
- Functional fitness
Motor Fitness – Physical Attributes or Components
- Motor fitness
- Neuromuscular coordination
- Muscle balance
- Kinesthetic (body) awareness… or proprioception … vestibular awareness (balance)
- Balance –
- Static – dynamic
- Body control
- Agility and mobility
- Coordination (motor – hand-eye – hand-foot)
- Laterality – dexterity (hands/feet) – symmetry
- Peripheral vision (without ‘looking’)
- Core strength – strength (muscular and strength endurance) – speed – power – flexibility (range of motion [ROM] – ankle joint and foot flexibility)
- Muscular and strength endurance
- Body symmetry
- Cardiovascular – Muscular
- Hand/Eye coordination
- Power – explosive power
- Speed (various types; physical and mental)
- Body Kinesthetics – overall body awareness
- Movement aesthetics
- Spatial awareness
- Head and hip-pelvis awareness
- Lateral awareness
- Limb awareness – limb extension – limb strength – limb flexibility
- Groin flexibility
- Body undulation (torso flexibility)
Training Athletic Abilities
Training athletic abilities is based on swimmers’ developmental versus chronological age and the existing skill level. Consideration is given not only to physical abilities but also to the cognitive, psychological, and emotional development as well as maturity because so-called learner ‘readiness’ is important for successful progress. However, some swimmers may be more mature, taller, stronger, and faster for their respective age. Termed ‘talented or gifted’ they keep winning during those early years. Yet, as others ‘catch up’ reaching maturity the ‘child protégée’ often fades, mostly due to personal disappointments (less winning), ‘pusher-type’ coaches and parents, who live vicariously through the success of the child (one cited reason for dropout). It seems that many a times the system ignores or fails to recognize the fact that children, especially boys, develop at different rates (‘late bloomer’). Subsequently, they may not get the positive attention and encouragement from the coach. We could argue that a child’s athletic ability prior to puberty is an absolutely meaningless indicator of his/her athletic ability post puberty, although girls mature much earlier than boys. For example, my younger son was 5’4” at age 14 – a talented athlete, who fell into this very category. He was 6’6” at age 21 and played successfully at the World Circuit of Beach Volleyball as the only non-Californian and non-college/university volleyball player. He would have made a super backstroke swimmer with size 15 shoes and his height! He succeeded in several other sports, tennis, basketball, high jump because his training was built upon the developmental model.
The Interrelationship of Physical Attributes –
Linkage of Physical and Technical Components
Carefully selected cross-training develops and increases functional and motor fitness in addition to movement efficiency. It is important to teach physical attributes based on their respective interrelationship and then link each to technical aspects of swimming rather than performing each in isolation. In my opinion, young swimmers need to understand the connection between the physical and technical not ‘just doing the exercises’ without knowing its significance. It is ‘learning’ about becoming an athlete! For instance, gymnastic-type activities, modern dance, modified ballet, athletics (run – jump – throw-type activities), soccer, etc. develop body and spatial awareness, agility, balance, flexibility, speed, power, strength (based on the age group), and rhythm among others. They are taught and linked to drills in order to be comfortable in the water, learn the ‘feel’ of water or is applied to specific aspects of stroke technique. The Kalos program included ballet training as cross-training. Modified dance movements associated the physical requirements with the respective technical swimming skill. For example: various hops and jumps improve explosive power (starts-turns) and body alignment (streamline-strokes); forward rolls on the gym mat enhance rotation and speed (front and back crawl turns); and body waves augment undulation of the butterfly stroke.
You may ‘scoff’ at this! Dancers are recognized as some of the most athletic individuals, a fact that is not easily acknowledged within the sport or swimming community. A study, undertaken by Watson and Garret in the UK at the University of Hertfordshire reports the results of ten standardized fitness tests in late October 2008. These were administered to dancers of the Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet School, and a squad of national and international British swimmers (including 2012 Olympians) in order to construct individual fitness profiles. The test battery included strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, and psychological state among others. The results: ballet dancers were fitter, scoring higher on 7 out of 10 test items. Moreover, they were apparently 25% stronger when tested for grip strength. You wonder … how can that be? … Well, the male partner has to hold up the ballerina with one or two hands and she has to stay up and balance while being supported. So, do ballet dancers really have better overall fitness levels than elite swimmers?
How many times this past week did you think about these concepts with the younger swim group? Rhythm is one of the most under-taught features in sports, including swimming even though all movement is based on it. How often did you focus on that aspect during drills? For example, we refer to stroke rhythm but how many coaches emphasize this during the early years? How do young swimmers ever ‘get it’ when it is not part of their ‘skills vocabulary’ from the beginning? When both, physical and technical, are taught as ’building blocks’ training becomes a ‘meaningful’ transition and movement ‘flow’ is established. The ‘key’ is to develop movement quality and movement ‘aesthetics’ to optimize and maximize performance later on. Isn’t that our aim?
On the other hand, it is difficult and somewhat unreasonable trying to develop all physical components at once. Limited number of training sessions and allotted time per week for the 6-8 and 9-10 year old groups is an issue. Coaches should therefore identify the most desirable and required components and develop these first through activities in and out of the pool. Additional ones are added in selected sequence as needed or suitable. It has been determined that body and spatial awareness (body streamline – lane space – turns), balance (dynamic-stroke position – turns – static-starts), rotation (turns), leg strength (push-off – starts – turns), agility (quick change of direction – turns), flexibility (strokes), and rhythm (strokes) are essential. These can be taught through enrichment and cross-training activities such as gymnastics movements on the low balance beam or a gym bench, modified ballet and modern dance movements, judo, karate, athletics (run, jump, throw), soccer, etc. Based on the number of swim sessions during the early years, children are able to take part in outside sports activities. This is crucial because swimming as a sport per se is not an impact activity to delay or prevent the onset of osteoporosis. In other cases, some coaches are resisting such involvement for various and at times selfish reasons!
The Effective Teaching/Coaching Paradigm of the Model
Teaching/coaching is based upon competent and creative linkage of physical and technical components. Sanders (2007) developed a skills pyramid related to effective teaching-coaching, noting factors, which influence learning in various degrees. The author suggests the “rock and roll” rhythm to emphasize movement rhythm as the evolution to learning and to achieve skill mastery. The illustration below shows the features to balance fun, physical and technical skills, and performance goals (technical goals). Is it not our main objective to have swimmers ‘feel good’ about their experience, build self-confidence and enhance self-esteem because they ‘have what it takes’?
Modified from: R. Sanders (n.d.). CARE (Center for Aquatics Research and Education). Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh, UK. Retrieved February 15, 2008, from http://www.care.ed.ac.uk/sn1
The Skills Pyramid
Physical movement patterns are taught as progressive ‘building blocks’ in a pyramid-like format with the ‘befitting linkage’ to required swimming skills or drills. It is very important to connect these as swimmers progress systematically from one level to the other. The skills pyramid is critical because young athletes tend to enter competition before they are actually ‘ready or possess’ the required skills (‘have it in your pocket’) to be successful (does not necessarily mean ‘winning’ but finishing the race with good technique!). ‘Struggling’ during the 100m, 200m or 400m events in front of parent and friends is NOT FUN! These competitive events require strength, power, race strategy, and more advanced skill components developed through extensive physical preparation and training. Younger athletes are more aerobically inclined but this relates more to training principles rather than competitive distance events. Therefore, young swimmers should engage in SLD (slow, longer distance) and drill-oriented sessions in daily training with stops to encourage correct technique.
TLC Drill Framework
The success at the higher level lies in the correct progression, sequence, and continuous refinement of fundamental skills. The Teach – Learn – Compete (TLC) model embraces the teaching of physical components and technical abilities to perform successfully at the respective level (beginner, intermediate, advanced, and elite). The ‘skills with thrills’ approach within the model is a ‘simple to complex’ progression to match young swimmers’ learning readiness and their individual skill ability (Schloder, 2010). Program balance between physical abilities, technical skills, and performance goals (technical goals) is the primary pursuit (Schloder and McGuire, 1998). Coaches compile a large collection of stroke drills over the years. Many of these become shared information but the so-called ‘standard’ drills tend to become somewhat boring after a while. Therefore, younger swimmers quickly lose interest and motivation. They need a wide assortment that offers ‘excitement with the new stuff’ (skills and thrills). Wagner and Rush recap these thoughts in “giving kids their wings” (1988, pp. 25-28) as do Bingham and Klatt in dryland offers more than just “lap swimming” (1994, pp. 18-20) while the late Bruce Lee states, “give a new twist to an old principle” (cited in Little, 2000, p. 48). The main objective is to have swimmers ‘feel good’ about their experience.
My motto is, “if you don’t have it – create it” – the only way to boost your coaching ‘toolbox’. This applies to all four competitive swim strokes since they have common features. For the purpose of error detection, we can look at these components/features or key elements and then design specific drills for error correction. The drill sections for each of the competitive swim strokes are taught as progressions and sequences, i.e. beginner – intermediate – and advanced – with the ideas to create variations or combinations from basic drills. These can be adapted or modified easily from one stroke to the other by establishing the specific purpose for the particular stroke. In so doing, swimmers learn the similarities and differences of the stroke patterns. This is very beneficial for teaching the IM event, which should be the aim before stroke specialization later on.
Drills are always created with a purpose in mind. Certain aspects of stroke technique are isolated to create a fitting movement theme to make the pattern more consistent. We can break down stroke action into individual components and teach these on land, using mirrors whenever suitable before transferring these to the water. New drills should be performed for shorter distances because ‘bad habits’ are otherwise endorsed, especially in younger swimmers. Drill-distance is increased once the skill is ‘automated’. After a basic drill ‘repertoire’ is established and well known, creative variations and series can be designed in various body positions, suited to the specific stroke. This has several advantages:
- the basic drill pattern is already known;
- the same drill serves different outcomes or has a different emphasis (the coach has to explain less although the new purpose has to be clarified);
- swimmers are encouraged to modify basic drills (enhances creative thinking and understanding);
- swimmers create their own drills from the basic format (transform coach-designed drills into new ones; invent names; or attach their name to that drill – ‘let’s do the funky Jane’ – this increases self-confidence and self-esteem); and
- swimmers learn about the coaching phrase ‘drill choice’ as preparation for more advanced training later on.
We can apply the same framework to Starts, Turns, and Finishes. Starts and turns make up about 25% of the overall performance time and are the ‘art’ that needs to be perfected. The former should be practiced on a daily basis rather than prior to the respective swim meet. This is not sufficient, efficient, or effective training! ‘Going through the motion’ during turn performance (note the word!) is a common ‘lazy syndrome’ during drill sets. It fosters ‘bad habits’ because this skill requires full speed – no matter the drill! There is no such thing as a ‘slow’ turn! The body has to be trained to deal with the physiological demand, inclusive under-water movement and the breakout stroke(s). Young swimmers also need to learn the importance of a ‘strong and aggressive’ finish into the wall instead of ‘drifting in’ or even standing up! Therefore, my slogan, … coaches “walk as much as the swimmers swim” … to stay abreast of all movement in the water! Even elite swimmers could improve on these aspects (World 2011 and Olympics 2012 commentators on national network).
Young swimmers and coaches together develop a series of ‘mental or thought pictures’ – so-called metaphors – to focus on respective error correction. This not only promotes originality but also adds Fun and importance to the learning/teaching process. ‘Discovery + understanding = growth + learning’ (Bruce Lee cited in Little, 2000, p. 187). As a coach, I see the same ole … same ole … in every day workouts. We should remember that elite swimmers also tend to get bored and ‘just do it’ without thinking or focusing on the purpose of whatever they are doing! In essence, how could we change the ‘ole standby’ of the Single Arm drill?’
Linking drills to main sets is very important when swimmers become more advanced; drill speed increases, and finally accelerates to full-speed while maintaining stroke technique. According to Sweetenham and Goldsmith (1998), “linking stroke drills to the execution of the whole stroke and main sets can result in faster swimming” (pp. 19-23). Drills always have to be executed with a high level of precision not ‘just going through the motion.’ Therefore, swimmers need to stay focused. Elite coaches may also encounter the unique problem that swimmers have acquired certain ‘stroke flaws’ but somehow learn to compensate because of the strength or other factors. A typical statement is, “messing with his stroke upsets him so I leave it alone,” which I do not accept as a sound rationale. Despite our thinking, even those at the highest level need to strive for improvement and perfection. In discussion with several elite athletes, they claimed to be less upset if their skills improved in the ‘long run’ and injuries could be avoided.
The TLC Model – Progression – Sequence – Implementation
A well-planned model is a systematic and sequential progression – step-by-step (ladder) approach – to develop, and increase functional and motor fitness along with swimming skills and stroke technique. Enrichment activities from other sports and cross-training (utilizing methods and skills from other sports) as well as progressive cognitive and mental preparation are implemented at every step of the ladder. The intent is to create a progressive stream toward High-or Elite performance. Each step (box) takes into consideration the age and skill level of the swimmer, growth and development, physical capacity, limitations, cognitive and mental ability. Each step becomes more involved for the swimmer and the coach. We like to insinuate that elite athletes-swimmers evolve through this long-term developmental process within this model. All conditions should be met, however, so that this becomes possible rather than impossible to do. The program consists of the following steps based on the skills pyramid and the developmental model (see the step-by-step program description, p. 16):
- FUN – Fitness – Fundamentals …
- Learn to train …
- Train to perform and compete – refinement and performance perfection …
- Train to compete and win …
- Refinement – Mastery and stabilization…
- Train to win and keep winning – elite or high performance…
The following chart shows 5-step sequence and progression of the model based on age and skill level:
-Train to Win AND Keep Winning-
Elite Training – High-Performance
Continued Refinement of Technique
Strength Training or Alternative
Alternative Activity as Compensation
Visualization – Imagery
Relaxation – Coping Strategies
-Train to Compete and Win-
Transition to Elite Training – 15-18 year old
Continued Refinement of Techniques
Increases Volume and Intensity
Strength Training or Alternative
Alternative Outside Activity as Compensation
Visualization – Imagery
Variety of Relaxation Techniques – Coping Strategies
-Train to Perform and Compete-
Constructional Build-up Training – 12-14 year old
Talent Identification – Start of Specialization
Continued Refinement of Technique
Begin Racing Strategies
Begin Concentrated Training Build-up
Increased Fitness and Maintenance
Increased Volume and Intensity
Strength Training or Alternative
Imagery – Relaxation – Coping Strategies
-Learn to Train-
9-12 year old
3 x per week – 60-90 minutes
Enrichment Activities or Cross-training for Motivation
1x per week – 60 minutes
Enrichment Activities-Cross-training for Motivation and avoid Burnout
Enhancement of Physical Components
Increased Fitness and Maintenance
Begin Coping Strategies
-Introduction to Fundamentals-
4-6 year AND 7-9 year olds
FUN – Fitness – Fundamentals
Fundamental Swimming Skills
2 x per week – 30 minutes AND 2 x per Week – 45 minutes
Functional and Motor Fitness – General Athleticism
Multiple Enrichment Activities/Selected Cross-training
1 x per week – 60 minutes
Introduction of Mental Thought Pictures
Potential ‘Achilles Heel’ of the Model
The potential ‘Achilles heel’ of this model is the need for a high level of competency and creativity of the coach. He/she has to be experienced enough in a variety of sports activities to deliver this model. It requires a multi-dimensional approach across various sports disciplines. This is difficult if the coach is inexperienced, lacks sport education, is sport specific trained (former swimmer who coaches the way he/she was trained), or is a volunteer. The coach at the fundamental stages has to be very enthusiastic and patient because it takes time to develop athleticism along with technical swimming skills. The temptation always exists to ‘rush’ young swimmers into competition due ‘apparent’ talent, personal ‘claim to fame,’ and/or parental pressure, etc. It is absolutely essential to be ‘clear’ about one’s coaching philosophy and subsequent congruent application of coaching principles to the developmental and progressive training process. We need to remember that swimming careers at the elite and international level now extend into the 30s and in some cases into the 40s.