World Class Beginnings: Getting Young Swimmers Started on A Path to Excellence by John Leonard (2005)


1. How do young athletes come to your squad?
2. Transitions from Learn to Swim To squad.
3. Parental education. Early and Often.
4. The Stroke School – Our transition point.
5. What are we preparing young athletes for in the “next level”?
6. The Program in “Year One”
7. The Program in “Year Two”
8. Construction of the daily program. (the same every day)
9. Teaching Key philosophies to our athletes (and parents).
10. “Training”.???????????

Some Quick Background
1970-1978 Syracuse NY. 36 pools, 10 x 50 meter, 20 x 25 yard, odd others.
800 swimmers. Consistent national top 5-10 team finishes, One 1976
Olympian, four athletes who represented USA Internationally.
Coaching Seniors and Learn to Swim Coaches.
1978-1984 – Lake Forest, Illinois – 1 x 50 M, 1 x 25 M, 140 swimmers. 7 who represented the USA Internationally. 140 in the program from age 7-8 to our Olympic Trials. (ages 13-22). Coached everyone.
1985-Present – Executive Director, American Swimming Coaches Association.
1990-2004 – “Hobby Coached” senior swimmers. 3 to represent the USA, including two Olympians, and 6 Olympians from outside the USA. Also coached Novice swimmers just getting started.
Today – JUST coaching novice swimmers and the occasional odd help with the seniors.
My senior swimming interests are covered with my role of Chairman of our USA-Steering Committee for our Olympic and National Team. Its my honor to serve.

The Coach.
Everything comes from the one on one relationship of a coach with an athlete.
The coach builds a “system” or “model” that suits their personality and skills.
You cannot achieve anything great by doing what everyone else does.
Hence, “Systems” are not transferable.

1. How do young swimmers come to your squad?
• Quality at the base of the pyramid is absolutely vital.
• The Base of the Pyramid is Learn to Swim.
• Do your instructors “push children upward”? (preferable)
• Or must you or a member of your staff “Pull children upward? (less preferable)
• Do children come to your squad from outside of your own learn to swim program?
• If so, why? Entrance interviews.
• Do you advertise for swimmers? If so, is the advertising consistent with the product?
• Do you use your current swimmers to bring more swimmers to the program? If so, how? (invitation cards.)
• WHEN can new young swimmers join your squad? (whenever? Or on a schedule?)
• Payment. Registration Fees. Monthly fees. Expectations.
• “the Right Way versus the Expedient Way.”
• How do you measure the productivity of the LTS program and your program at this level of the sport?

Transitions from LTS to Squad.
• What is an Obstacle?
• Different Time, Different Place, Different Person or People.
• How does each apply?
• How can the obstacles be removed?
• Ideal Transition: Same Pool, same time, familiar people.
• What does the ideal situation look like (visually)?
• Importance of Role Modeling throughout the process.
• Who is the Role Model? Senior Swimmer or Peer?
• Importance in transition of “starting more than one” at a time.
• PLAN the transition in some detail.
• Discussion with young swimmer or not?

Parental Education….early and often!
Discussion with parents before the child begins with the squad.
– expectations of attendance, being on time, attending meets, set.
– What the child and parent can expect the child to gain from the squad.
A – Improved fitness and resulting self-image.
B – Improved physical skills in the water.
C – strong sense of oneself as a skilled swimmer.
D – The ability to work equally well with other young women and men.
E – Learning the ability to compete, to “Strive with”.
F – Learning to “make an effort” physically.
G – Respect for achievement, one’s own and others.
H – Willingness to learn about the concepts of TEAM.
I – “ownership” of the sport …independence from the parent.
– Continual planned sessions of education (short/long) to keep the parent “prepared” for each stage the child will go through. Enlist the parent as an “ally” !
– Important to plan and organize education for parents.
– Delivery mechanisms are crucial to success. Email can be the best !!
-What do you educate parents about? What do you care about? For me:
1 – Disciplined, structured workouts. (what do the athletes gain from these?)
2 – Attention from the young swimmers.
3- Willing attitude. “I will try, coach!”
4. Honest, constructive criticism.
5. Dedicated teaching of new skills and dedicated learning of new skills.
6. Purposes of practice.
7. Purpose of training
8. The place and meaning of competition.
9. Evaluating your child’s development in swimming.
10. Proper parental participation in the process.

The Stroke School – Our transition point.
• Existing right next to Learn to Swim Lane.
• Move is easy.
• Come 3 x a week instead of one in first year.
• People are familiar to the child and parent.
• Can “easily” move back for remedial work if necessary, temporarily.
• Only 45 minutes a day.
• As the child goes forward through the year, add a day, add two days for five total.
• Work is typically done in a 12 yard pool or lane, then gradually to 25 yard work.
• Totally stroke oriented except for two things: kicking “work” and dryland strength work.
• Goal after 6 months…swim 100 yards nonstop free and back, 50 of breast and fly.
• Kick 200 yards without fins. Decent mechanics. Attending “Mini-Meets”

• introduction to competition.
• 1 hour in length.
• each swimmer two –three events (25 free, 25 back, 50 free, example.)
• Timed and recorded for progress.
• Parents time.
• Take the time to teach at the same time as compete.
• (Here is how the referee will call you up to the blocks.)
• Relaxed, everyone cheers everyone loudly. Very positive.
• Coaches do “DQ’s” so the child learns there is a correct and incorrect way to do the strokes and events. Not politically correct.
• Positive self-image comes from REAL achievements!
• Pizza and cake and soda for all including parents at the end of the event.

What is the “Career Path” that we are preparing the athlete for?
• Ages 5-10 – Develop strokes, develop “whole athlete”. Learn philosophies of training and independence.
• Ages 11-14 – Develop endurance background, develop strokes, develop whole athlete. Learn Philosophies of competition.
• Ages 15-18 – Develop more specific endurance, do some event specialization and experimentation. When developmentally ready, do some initial speed development. Learn to race with sophistication. Practice resiliancy skills.
• Ages 18-22 – Full range of training experiences. Increased specialization. Strong dryland development. Peak competition ages for many.
• Ages over 22 – Professional swimming if practical, or get on with life and Masters Swimming for fitness!

Career Path Two.
• So, in the “world class beginnings” our goal is simply to prepare our athletes for the next stage…which is aerobic development.
• To accomplish this, we must:
A) Teach great stroke mechanics.
B) Develop better athletes. (limb speed capacity)
C) Develop training philosophies and understandings.
D) Establish the athlete as an “independent and responsible person, capable of resolving their own goals, challenges and issues.

The Program in Year One. (The Stroke School.)
• Start at 3 times a week.
• Start at 45 minutes a day.
• Ask for dependable attendance from parents and athlete.
• Dryland work to make better athletes.
• Run program 50 weeks a year. (at the same time each week.) Consistency.
• Dryland Skills Aid Development
• Pushups and Crawling are big…
• Establish and maintain same practice pattern each day. Why? To whose benefit?
• Concepts of “Mastery”.
• What does practice look like?
A) Breathing drills – 1 M.
B) Kick drills – add more each day 2 M to 8 M over time.
C) Teaching drills – review past week. (5M)
D) Teaching new drills. (10 M)
E) Practice, with feedback on whole stroke. (5 M)
F) Speed kick, or speed swim (at race tempos) (5 M)
G) Review new and old drills – PERFECT SWIMMING (5 M)
H) Dryland Training (5 M)
I) 1 M review and Team Cheer (2M)
The “Why’s”..
1. Breathing because it can never be good enough.
2. Kicking builds better athletes.
3. Review so you move from known to the unknown.
4. Teach new skills each day to keep it fresh and moving forward.
5. Do Whole stroke efforts so they know how the drills fit into the whole stroke picture.
6. Speed kick or swim at race tempo so neural connections are made to help athlete RACE!
7. After race speed deteriorates skills, rebuild before end of day with PERFECT STROKES.
8. Dryland training. Because strength and balance skills translate into better athletes today and tomorrow.
9. Review – verbal BRIEF discussion of “how they did”…”you all got an A on the backstroke turns, but a D on the breaststroke skill set” etc. Give grades….hard evaluations, EXPECT A LOT and let them know you expect a lot! High Expectations and challenging evaluations are a COMPLIMENT. The BEST COMPLIMENT from a coach.
10. Team Cheer – it’s a team sport. Learn it now. Act like it now. EVERYONE PARTICIPATES, EVERYONE LIKES THIS, IT IS A POSITIVE FOR ALL!

Year One – Competition.
• 1 competition per month.
• Competitions only in “good weather”.
• Competitions focused on learning opportunities. (how?)
• Competitions focused on comparing with oneself. (best times).
• Competitions focused on developing the relationship between quality practice and good results.
• Competitions in short distances, quality strokes.
• Perhaps competitions based on strokes, rather than competitive racing. (for some opportunities.)

Year One – Technique teaching.
Key Points of emphasis in teaching.
• Balance. Adjusting head position, hand positioning. Body shaping.
• Teaching free first as “training stroke”.
• Backstroke second.
• Fly and breast simultaneously.
• Consider 4 months of “just free and back”
• Then 4 months of 20% Free/back, 80% breast/fly.
• Then 4 months equal distribution of stroke.
• Turn teaching from the first day. (social importance.)
• Start teaching ONLY when coordination levels are sufficient.
• In every stroke, emphasis on best techniques for air exchange.

Year One – Teaching Starts.
• Our Progression…and our worries….
• Standing jump, hands at side. (quality control of balance)
• Standing jump, hands overhead. (both from side of pool.)
• Vertical entry. Controlled Jump, with eye/head control.
• Repeat from top of block.
• Kneeling dive from side with streamline.
• ½ squat dive (one leg) from side with streamline and breakout.
• Stand and bend dive from side, streamline and breakout.
• Starting position on the block.
• Dive from starting position on the block. (safety precautions.)
• Children progress ONLY at their own rate.

End of Year One Goals.
1. Competence in free and back.
2. Beginnings of breast and fly.
3. Ability to swim a 100 IM Legally.
4. Ability to swim 100 free, 100 back.
5. Beginnings of good turns, all four.
6. Ability to start from the block.
7. “Improved” athletic skills.
8. Understanding of basic team competencies.
(social and philosophical).
9. Parents in tune, on board and confident of success.

Year Two. Competency.
Key Things to Accomplish in Year Two.
1. Introduce and Constant improvement on the Secrets of Speed, Rhythm, Range, Relaxation.
2. Improve Endurance capacity, both aerobic and muscular.
3. Focus on effective Racing Rhythms.
4. Continued refinement of technique in strokes, starts and turns.

Year Two – Practices
• Key Concept- Why do we practice? “we practice to succeed in races.”
• First time that practices are not “the same” every day. Introduce cyclical work.
• How does each thing contribute to race success?
• DONE DIFFERENTLY than 10-20-30 years ago because athletes start from a much worse athletic position than they did then.

Year Two – Practices
• 75-90 minutes a day.
• Begin the year with stroke work and “tempo” or rhythm training.
• Perhaps 25-35% of the year in this mode until “successful” with majority of group.
• Second, cardiovascular endurance – build sets around ability to keep swimming with good technique and good air exchange. (Relaxation training)
• Again, perhaps 25-35% of the year in this mode.
• Decide on specific age related “aerobic endurance goals” i.e. 10 year olds under 7 minutes in the 500 free.) Make this a “big deal” with tee-shirts, etc.
• Third, muscular endurance phase. – Build sets around ability to maintain RANGE (distance per stroke) and rhythm in each stroke.
• Again, perhaps 25-35% of the year in this mode.
• Decide on specific “per individual” stroke counts for specific races. IE 10 under
• 100 fly – 12 strokes per 25 yard length.

Year Two – Expectations.
• Five practices a week.
• 75-90 minutes a practice.
• “a couple” of mornings over the whole year.
• First exposure to longer and more formal swim meet experiences.
• Opportunity to increase number of training sessions in the summer.
• Learn measurable ways to self-study own improvement. DPS, understand tempo training, understand own performance times, etc.
• Learn about the swim meet procedures for best performances.
• Parents contribute to support of the team.
• Swimmers develop leadership for Year One new athletes. Opportunities for leadership formally offered and provided.

Time out…why is this a different paradigm?
• Because Rhythm, or stroke rate is developed first.
• Why?
• We have lousy athletes compared to 10-20-30 years ago.
• Why?
• Many children today cannot “move their limbs” fast enough to get to successful stroke rates, even for their young ages.
• Have to teach increased limb speed FIRST, in a variety of ways in and out of the water.
• Many children are simply unfamiliar with making a “physical effort” today.
• Really not a terribly different concept. (East European model from the 60’s-70’s-80’s.)

Year Two – Verbal-Physical.
• Technique teaching becomes different in Year Two.
• Expect athletes to learn the language of each stroke.
• How? What?
• Once language is learned, corrections and comments are expedited and can be delivered in the middle of “Training”.
• Thus, technique work and training work “become one”.
• Use question and answer technique to teach stroke language.
• Have athletes teach each other, critique each other and “coach” each other to better performances.
• “The best way to learn, is to teach.”

A Year Two Practice – Rhythm Phase
• 10-12 minute warmup – easy swimming and stroke drills. Vary daily.
• Short, fast kick set. (10 x 25 on 35 seconds.)
• Rhythm set – easy speed – (10 x 50 free on 1:00) hold within 5 sec of best time.
• Technique set – 20 x 25 fly various drills on 10 SR. Constant comments. Constant reminders.
• Rhythm set – easy speed – 4 (25-50-75-100) on 30 sec base. Coaches choice of strokes. Check stroke rates for range “close” to race rhythm.
• Endurance kick set – 10 x 100 free with fins on 1:40
• Speed – 12 x 25 free on 3 heats at race tempos.
• Cool-down 400 IM Stroke Drill.
• Some fast free/back turn drills.

Year Two – Visual
• “”
• “There are 100 million ten year old Brittany Spears out there…why?”

Year Two Practice Aerobic Phase
• Warmup 400 IM Drill
• 5 x 200 free on 3:00 (reduce intervals 3-5 sec per week for 10 weeks)
• 20 x 25 stroke choice one fast, one easy 10 SR. Technique comments.
• 4 x 150 free on 2:20 (reduce intervals accordingly)
• Kick 4 x 100 free on 1:35 with fins.
• 4 x 100 free on 1:30 fast.
• 20 x 50 back on 1:00 race tempo.
• 400 free drill loosen.
• Free and back turn drills.

Year Two Practice – Muscular endurance phase. (DPS or Range)
• 400 IM Loosen drills.
• 10 x 50 free on 50 steady stroke count
• 4 x 300 backstroke – on 5:30 – steady stroke count.
• 4 x 200 breast on 4:00 – decreasing stroke count.
• 4 x 100 fly on 1:55 – Hold stroke count.
• 20 x 25 free alt fast/easy on 30 seconds.
• 10 x 50 back – Technique only on 15 SR.
• Fast turn work – breast, fly.
• 400 Back drills – loosen down.


Construction of the Daily Program.
• What do children want?
• What do children Need?
• Is there a difference? What is it?
• Young ladies want/need Mastery.
• Young gentlemen want/need freedom within boundaries.
• Can we provide both groups with what they want/need?
• Different by structure, or different by attitude of the coach?
• Changing the structure too often makes chaos.
• Changing the attitude is somewhat easier.

Construction of the daily program.
• In year one – structure provides for mastery. (and sets boundaries).
• In year two – structure and design must allow for more independent choice or the boys will disappear.
• By year three – enough differentiation should be available to cater to each.

Daily Program – Year One.
• Time Before Practice – “what’s your story?”
• How to Start Practice. Methodology matters!
• Initial Stroke Set – reviews
• Very limited time between activities. Fast paced tempo of the session. Demanding, close to impossible. Adaptation is largely psychological.
• New Teaching Set. Take tempo down a notch. Get it right. Critical nature of honest feedback here.
• Doing some “training work”.
• Some dryland work. Simple, but challenging.
• Finish with short critique and team cheer. Who leads?
• The critical post-practice moments…what happens?

Daily Program – Year Two.
• Pre-practice time – same routine. “what’s your story?”
• Into the water….more of a warmup set. Choices: Intervals or some longer swims with some choices? Why? Boys.
• Short Training set.
• Teaching set.
• Short Training set.
• Teaching review set.
• Some speed….on heats…why? Boys.
• Some skill work – starts and turns.
• Dryland – more challenging in amount and difficulty.
• Critique – draw it in close, huddle. Little people in front, big people in the back. Team Cheer. (What does the cheer say?) IMPORTANT!

Key Teaching Philosophies.
• Must Educate BOTH parents and athletes.
• Must repeat the messages consistently and constantly.
• Must make sure your actions are consistent with stated philosophies.
• Now, what is the message?
1. Your child is capable of more independent action than you think. (or than you think you can.)
2. Our goal is independent children, at least within the sport context.
3. The sport belongs to the child. Not the parent, not the coach.
The Message, Con’t.
4. Discipline is good for people. All people.
5. First you prove competence, then you get artistic. (more freedom)
6. Children benefit most from honest feedback. (as long as they know you care.)
7. Children need to be corrected and fixed.
8. Children may know what they want, but they don’t know what they need. Up to a certain age, coach and parent determine that. And they DO what they NEED, not what they want.
9. Politeness and respect are EXPECTED.
10. First you learn, then you train.
The Message, Con’t.
11. Swim meets are experiments in learning. Nothing more.
12. Variety in meets experiences are crucial.
13. Mistakes are great teachers.
14. Repeated mistakes require strong correction.
15. Praise is at least as dangerous as criticism. Maybe more so.
16. The role of analysis versus the role of emotion.
17. Resilience
18. Learn to take on what you can, and accept what you can’t. (cold water, etc. etc. etc.)
19. You compete with yourself primarily. (comparions.)
20. Parents parent, coaches coach.

Sometimes parents ask about “training”. The answer is:
1. We work on technique first. Explain why.
2. We work on limb speed second. Explain why.
3. We work on aerobic endurance third. Explain why.
4. We work on muscular endurance fourth. Explain why.
5. In the first two years, we don’t work on Speed. Explain why.

Thanks for Listening! I hope you gained something you can use!

Comments? Contact John Leonard at

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