Trends in USA Swimming by Dennis Pursley (1999)



  • demise of aerobic base training


Values and Attributes Related to Excellence Three “A”s

  • Appreciation
  • Accountability
  • Attitude


Three “C”s

  • Character
  • Commitment
  • Confidence


Three “D”s

  • Discipline
  • Desire



(other “D”s: Determination, Drive)


The “E,” “F,” “G”s

  • Enthusiasm
  • Focus
  • Gratitude


Three “P”s

  • Perseverance
  • Persistence
  • Purpose


Three “R”s

  • Responsibility
  • Resiliency
  • Respect


Three “S”s

  • Selflessness
  • Sacrifice
  • Spirit


My Favorites

  • Character
  • Discipline
  • Perseverance


Factors Influencing the Performance Plateau Declining emphasis on character, attributes and values Misleading sport science resulting in:

  • inordinate paranoia of over training


Shift in focus from:

  • performance issues to “fortune and fame”
  • intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation
  • the good of the team to individual “rights” and agendas


Philosophy of mediocrity

  • if everyone can’t have it, no one can
  • anti-elite sentiment
  • majority rule


“Lowering the bar”

  • from Senior Nationals to Junior Championships
  • from top 16 to top 24 (bonus finals)
  • from challenging time standards to more easily attainable time standards


Growing imbalance of focus, interest and incentive between sprint events and distance events

lInstant gratification mindset demanding immediate results

lDismantling of the authority and control of the coach

  • changing social norms
  • Legal restrictions
  • athletes “rights”

lParental commitment requirements

lCrowded competition calendar and “we can have it all” attitude

lNCAA training restrictions and sprint focus


Fundamental Philosophies and Principles Related to Excellence

lEmphasis on character and values

lAerobic base training:

  • should be emphasized for all swimmers during their development years
  • is essential for success in long course events of 100 meters or longer
  • will enable swimmers of all ages to adapt to anaerobic

training more effectively and efficiently


Trends in USA Swimming (1970s 1990s)


Positive Trends


lSwimmers have become progressively larger, stronger and more athletic.

lCoaches have become better educated and more aware of the science of swimming.

lMore and better facilities have become available.

lFinancial support has increased dramatically for elite athletes and to a lesser degree for coaches and clubs.

lSport science involvement has become more predominant.

lSwimming is being more effectively marketed and promoted than in the past.


Technical Trends

Aerobic Base Training —> Race Specific Training

Distance Emphasis —> Sprint Emphasis Training Competition —> Training Diversity

“We Train Harder” —> “We Train Smarter, Not Harder” “No Gain Without Pain” —> “Don’t Over train”

Simple Training Plans —> Complex Training Plans Uncluttered Competition Calendar —> Crowded Competition Calendar

Invincible National Team Image —> Vulnerable National Team Image


Sociological Trends

Desirable Attributes —> Undesirable Attributes (Discipline,

Sacrifices, Long Term Commitment)

Team Focus —> Individual Focus (“Rights”) Intrinsic Motivation —> Extrinsic Motivation

Achievement Focus —> Reward Focus (Performance Excellence) (Fortune and Fame)

Appreciation —> Entitlement

Long Term Focus —> Short Term Focus (Instant Gratification)

Respect Authority —> Challenge Authority

Limited Athletic Choices —> Many Athletic Choices Male/Female Balance —> Predominately Female


Philosophical Trends

Character Emphasis —> Performance Emphasis Uncompromising —> Compromising

“Right” Thing —> Politically Correct or Popular Thing Coach Directed —> Parent/Athlete Directed (Majority Rule)

High Expectations —> “Lowering the Bar” Spartan Environment —> Pampered Environment Self Reliant —> Environment Reliant

Objective Evaluation —> Exclusively Positive Focus


“The Other Side of the Coin”

After 40 years of involvement as an athlete, coach and administrator, I am more convinced than ever that no sport has a more positive impact on its participants than does the sport of swimming. The personal growth experience is the greatest benefit that we have to offer, and it is one that needs to be protected at all costs. Because of the quality of people involved in competitive swimming, I have all the confidence in the world in our ability to do this. But I also feel that we are approaching a turning point in our sport. On the surface, it appears to be a “no brainer,” a change for the better. But when you look beneath the surface, you’ll find that it should be approached with extreme caution. I am talking about  the growing inclination to embrace the entertainment side of sports with the promise of increasing fame, fortune and popularity.


It is important that we take a close look at other sports which have preceded us in this evolution. In many cases we will find that the pursuit of fame and fortune has resulted in the disappearance of positive role models, the proliferation of drug use, decline in performance and the demise of the team concept. Rather than producing an increase in revenue, in some sports the financial resources have merely been redistributed, making the rich “richer” and the poor “poorer.” The high profile athletes have become wealthy at the expense of the clubs and the rest of the athlete population. Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? I think so, as long as we don’t lose sight of our most valuable asset in the process.


Society is always changing. It has been interesting to observe that many of today’s parents are pulling their kids out of programs for exactly the same reasons that parents were putting their kids into programs 20 years ago! The popular programs of the ’70s promoted the value of a long term commitment, a strong work ethic, the team concept and discipline. In the ’90s these clubs are losing a the recruiting battles to teams which emphasize short term results (instant gratification), flexible commitment requirements, individual choice and “fun” workouts. Although the preference of the ’90s may be more appealing to our human nature, the “old fashioned” value based philosophy is clearly more productive and successful in respect to character building and performance. These social changes, by the way, are not unique to our country. My counterparts in England, Australia and Russia have made similar observations. (Could this be why world swimming is in a slump?)


The shift in focus from the process of personal improvement to the end result has had more than just a philosophical impact on our clubs. Training volume has decreased, attendance may be encouraged, but is usually no longer required, and the aerobic base work that is essential at an early age for long term development in all events, is being neglected. Our tendency to rationalize is also impacting decisions as to whether to travel to an exotic meet or stay home and train, focus on sprint or distance events, demand our “individual rights” or sacrifice for the team, etc.

The attitude of the ’90s has been characterized by the phrase, “if it feels good, do it.” Unfortunately, what feels good is not always what will lead to success. If we are to continue to be the model sport, we will have to be different. Our vision must be driven by values and the pursuit of excellence, not the pursuit of fame and fortune. The good of the team must take priority over our personal agendas. We must be willing to sacrifice short term results in order to more effectively lay the foundation for better long term results. A healthy balance must be maintained in the focus on sprint and distance events. After we have done these things, we can have the best of both worlds. Then we can say, “show me the money.”


The State of World Swimming

The 1996 Olympic Games are now in the history books and the USA Swimming Team will be credited with a highly successful effort. While we were very proud of the aggressive performance of “Team USA” ion Atlanta, many of our toughest competitors (both teams and individuals) failed to perform up to expectations. For the first time in Olympic swimming history, the overall performances regressed from one Olympiad to the next.


Two thirds of the winning times in Barcelona were faster than those in Atlanta. This is not surprising on the women’s side, since it is generally believed that the use of performance enhancing drugs was not as prevalent in Atlanta, but this statistic holds true with the men as well! United States Swimming has not been immune to this phenomenon of stagnate or even regressive performances, even though it plagued the rest of the world more than it did us in Atlanta. In fact, world swimming is just beginning to encounter some of the problems that we have been contending with for many years. I would like to share some of the observations that have been made by my colleagues from around the world.


Sprints vs. Distance

Many of our top college coaches have told us repeatedly that the imbalance between the sprint and distance events, resulting from the inclusion of the 4 x 50 relays in the NCAA program, has negatively impacted overall performances in several ways. Because there are many more opportunities available to swimmers in the sprint events, distance programs (and distance swimmers) have all but become extinct. This same trend has surfaced in world swimming, with the addition of the 50’s of each stroke and the 100 IM in the World Cup format, and the short course world rankings.


Single focus vs. “Smorgasbord” Approach

Not too many years ago there was one major international event on the competition calendar each year. All other competitions were strategically planned and used as tune up meets in preparation for peak performance in the main event. Today the international calendar is crowded with “major” competitions which are offering attractive temptations to deviate from a long range training plan for peak performance. The superstars of world swimming were seen on the world circuit much more frequently in the two years preceding the Atlanta Games than they were in the two year period prior to the Barcelona Games.


Short Course vs. Long Course

186          1999 ASCA World Clinic


Here again, with the advent of the Short Course World Championships and the short course world rankings, short course competition has begun to command a much greater focus and emphasis in world swimming…some believe to the detriment of long course competition. Competing in short course meets is not the problem, but TRAINING for short course competition (instead of long course competition) can inhibit progress in long course performances.


Fame and Fortune vs. Peak Performance

For many years, with very rare exceptions, fame and fortune were not available to athletes in our sport. Our focus was directed toward the pursuit of excellence and the resulting positive impact on character development. In many cases today, this focus seems to have shifted to the pursuit of fame and fortune. Many coaches of the world’s elite swimmers were extremely frustrated with the fact that the time and energy their athletes committed to preparation for peak performance was compromised by the time and energy they committed to the pursuit of commercial interest. Ironically, if we could somehow maintain the focus on these more fundamental (and more valuable) objectives, fame and fortune would be more successfully attained. Money can be a good thing when we manage it properly and use it productively, but it can become one of our worst enemies when we allow it to manage us.


Many of our observers of world swimming believe that these trends have also contributed to the deterioration of the work ethic in one way or another (sound familiar with Track and Field?). We cannot forget the old axiom that, “more important than the will to win is the will to PREPARE to win.”


As a result of these comments, I will be accused of being short sighted, old fashioned and resistant to change, but change does not bother me. I am concerned about regression and mediocrity. Desirable change is change that brings the best out of us rather than inhibiting development and performance.


We probably can’t prevent these trends from continuing, but we can individually choose (as did many of the ’96 USA Olympians and their coaches) to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes that have plagued world swimming. Instead, we can choose to pursue an uncompromised long term plan of preparation for Sydney in the year 2000. All questions of how and when to train, when and where to compete, how to prepare for each competition, and how and when to pursue commercial opportunities must be answered in light of the question, “How will this impact my performance in Sydney?” The athletes who take this focused approach to preparation for the 2000 Olympiad will have a huge advantage over those that don’t.

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