All 4 Years Part I
This article series is going to be long and it will be long for a good reason.
The most challenging task for coaches is to create the best opportunity for swimmers to improve over time, particularly post-adolescence. This is hard to do, and it is REALLY hard to do consistently all types of swimmers. We’ll discuss some of the barriers to long-term improvement, as well as some strategies to help the process, with the understanding that I have certainly not figure this out.
It’s rare to see college swimmers consistently improve over the course of their 4 years. The same can be said of most senior swimmers when considering the same timeframe, particularly when they are part of a larger group. We often see 1 major breakthrough season over the course of their 4-year career. This breakthrough season is typically buffered by seasons of nominal improvement, stagnation, or even regression.
That’s the question I’d like to explore briefly, and then focus on some potential strategies we can choose to do something about it. For college coaches, or anyone working with the senior swimmers over similar time periods, this dynamic presents a huge opportunity because if we are able to facilitate consistent improves each year, A LOT can happen over the course of 4 years.
This article may seem like an overly complex examination of a relatively simple phenomenon, getting swimmers to go faster. However, I feel that if we are going to CONSISTENTLY help swimmers improve, we need to consider all of the factors that are affecting whether they continue to improve or not. For those factors that we can control, we need to appreciate what we can do to most positively influence these factors. This article will focus on understanding one of those factors in particular.
It’s a relatively nuanced subject, with a lot of subjectivity. Developing an appreciation for this nuance will allow us to better navigate the problem of helping swimmers improve. And while the topic itself may be complex, this complexity is best managed through simple strategies and solutions. I will work towards expressing that simplicity in the latter stages of this series.
While our understanding of the complexity needs to be deep, our strategies for action must remain simple if we are going to be effectively. When the detail begins to seem unnecessary, it’s useful to remember that if we are going to improve as coaches, it’s critical that we don’t do what’s easy, we do what’s best.
So why don’t swimmers continue to improve consistently once they enter the senior ranks?
Here’s my take.
They Get Distracted
Life beckons to many, as it should. From love interests, to professional development, to other activities, the college years provide many attractive alternatives, particularly for those where swimming was the focus of their adolescence. High level competitive sports aren’t for everyone, and that’s something that needs to be expected and respected, especially when other options are available.
Once swimmers get distracted, commitment starts to waver, and performances start to suffer, which ultimately make outside distraction even more attractive. This facilitates a feedforward cycle where distraction leads to less improvement which leads to more distraction and so on.
This isn’t really a huge point of intervention beyond ensuring the swimming experience is as enjoyable as possible, which coaches should already be doing. If the process is rewarding, there is a greater likelihood that swimmers will remain engaged. If swimmers are struggling to improve, and vocalizing their frustrations, coaches can point out the potential distractions in a swimmer’s life, presenting options that the swimmer is ultimately free to choose.
At the same time, providing an engaging, enjoyable experience is a central role of coaching. While beyond the scope of this article, it should definitely be a consideration when planning any and all activities a team will perform. This concept will be explored in a future article.
They Stop Growing
As swimmers mature, they get taller and they get stronger. Taller swimmers are faster. Stronger swimmers are faster. This is free speed during the developmental years. However, once swimmers reach the senior or college ranks, this source of improvement evaporates. There is no more free speed. They have to work for all of it now.
Obviously, there’s not much coaches can do in this area. At the same time, an awareness of this dynamic can inform the decisions we make as coaches. If we have a natural source of improvement (maturation), doesn’t it make to allow these changes to drive improvement, as opposed to overly relying on training-related improvements? This will allow coaches to retain training potential, a concept will explore in depth below.
They Get Hurt
If you get hurt, you can’t practice. If you can’t practice, you can’t develop your skills or your fitness. Not only can are skills and fitness not improving, they’re actually getting worse. Needless to say, any extended periods of missed training are detrimental to long-term improvement. Staying healthy should be the priority of every training program. First, do no harm! Fortunately, the strategies to maintain training potential and the strategies for staying healthy are similar.
Their Skills Don’t Improve
Swimming is a skill sport. Continued improvements in skill allow for continued improvements in racing performance. In the swimming community, there is a bias towards creating physiological adaptations to facilitate improvement, with much less of an emphasis on technique, particularly once swimmers move beyond the beginning stages. Most practice structures reflect this bias and there is a significant focus on training as opposed to learning skills.
As I’ve described elsewhere on this website, including a few drills does not constitute an effective skill development plan. There must be a concerted and cohesive attempt to improve skills to race performance through improved technique. Improving skills should be an integral component of every training set and training session. While skill does not have to be the primary component at all times, there should be an ongoing expectation that skills improve with time.
As swim coaches, it’s easy to fall into the belief that mature swimmers don’t need to develop their skills, particularly because they have become consolidated. However, it is at this stage that continued to skill development is critically important because physical abilities improve less and less as swimmers are no longer growing (see above) and training becomes less effective (see below). From day 1, skill development should be the priority, regardless of where swimmers currently reside on the developmental spectrum.
They’ve Reached Their Potential
Let’s be honest. This doesn’t happen. I would expect that just about every swimmer could have raced faster. They could have stayed healthier, they could have further improved their skills, they could have better managed their training, or they could have found novel training stimuli. Likely, all of these factors could have been improved.
If all of the swimmers you have coached have reached their potential, you don’t need to read this!
They Run Out of Training Potential
This is a concept that is less often considered by coaches. As any coach can attest, swimmers tend to respond well to new training stimuli. For the most part, if start to add volume to a younger swimmer’s program, performance improves. Start doing doubles? Performance improves. Add sprint work, performance improves. Incorporate strength work, performance improves.
Training potential can take many different forms-
Intensity (more intensity has greater training potential)
Volume (more intensity has greater training potential)
Density (more density has greater training potential)
Frequency (more frequency has greater training potential)
Resistance (more resistance has greater training potential)
Specificity (more specificity has greater training potential)
In short, the harder training is, the more specific training is, and the more novel training is, the higher training potential is.
However, once exposed to a given stimulus, each subsequent exposure has less and less of an impact. The more a stimulus is used, the less effective it is. To illustrate this concept, I’ll use the introduction of weight training to describe this process, as it’s quantifiable and familiar to most.
Say an individual begins strength training and they start bench pressing. At first, every time the go to the gym they can add 2-3 pounds to how much they lift. This continues on for a weeks and months. At the same time, the rate of increase begins to get slower and slower. Soon enough, it’s 2-3 pounds per week, then per month, then eventually per year. Improvements become slower and slower.
What’s changed? The training potential of bench pressing has gone down. To continue to improve, training potential needs to preserved. In part II, we’ll take a look at how training potential can be lost unnecessarily, and later, what we can do to preserve training potential.
Swimmers train and compete with the intention of improving performance over time. At the senior level, swimmers often commit 20 hours or so of time per week undertaking intensive training to better their performances. In spite of that commitment in time and energy, many swimmers fail to consistently improve their performances. While this can occur for a variety of reasons, some under our influence as coaches more so than others, I believe a significant portion of this lack of improvement is due to a failure to control training potential.
As coaches, how we prescribe training over time can greatly influence how our swimmers improve. It will impact their skills, their injury rates, as well as the extent to which they enjoy the process. Most importantly, a judicious and well-planned application of training loads and types ensure that swimmers are consistently exposed to training stimuli that are sufficient to facilitate improvement. We’ll continue to look into how this can be accomplished in part two.