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All 4 Years Part IV

Previous articles in this series are linked below-

All 4 Years Part I

All 4 Years Part II

All 4 Years Part III

This article is going to be written in the context of college swim coaching in the United States Collegiate environment. There is a fixed timeframe that coaches and swimmers will be operating on. There’s 4 years to work with in the vast majority of situations.

While the specific solutions suggested below are written in this context, the concepts are applicable to all coaching situations. If the timeframe is known, simply stretch or contract any timeline mentioned below to fit your own. If it’s an unknown timeline (i.e. senior/professional swimmer who may leave at any time), the concepts are still valid and can be applied generally, or attached to an anticipated timeline surrounding a major championship.

Previously, we’ve explored why swimmers might not improve, the concept of training potential, how training potential can be maintained, as well as many of the considerations when determining training potential. In this article, we’re going to examine HOW to make it happen in a large team setting without going crazy.

Getting It Done

If we don’t plan, we will repeat the same season over and over, or make drastic changes and haphazardly bounce around from season to season. We’ll get the same results each year, or we’ll get unpredictable results.

If we fail to consider the needs of each individual swimmer, we’ll continuously try to put square pegs in a round hole. If we fail to consider how we’re going to progress training from month to month, year to year, we won’t provide the appropriate stimulus when it’s needed, causing problems sooner or later. Finally, if don’t effectively execute these plans and modify them as needed, the plans are simply a waste of time.

Below, I’ll provide some concrete ideas as to how make this all happen for each of these three major tasks. The goal is always to take complex ideas and distill them into simple, practical strategies. It is through simple strategies that we can manage the significant challenge of facilitating long-term improvement for all of our swimmers

Bucket Swimmers

Bucketing swimmers, or placing them into distinct groups based upon predefined terms, is a simple way to begin to break down the process of maintaining training potential into manageable chunks. Most coaches already ‘bucket’ their swimmers by placing them into event groups (ie. sprint, middle distance, distance). The concept should be familiar and we’ll explore how we can use that concept to enhance our coaching.

Bucket the Different Entry Points

Generally speaking, you will have swimmers that come into your program with similar training backgrounds. We can start the process of managing the logistical challenges by first grouping individuals based upon what they’ve done up to this point. This provides a starting point for determining what types of training will provide the appropriate stimulus for improvement, without performing unnecessary challenges.

Creating these buckets also helps coaches establish what training has led to the results they experienced before joining your program. It can be a good indication of what was successful, as well as what gaps may exist in their preparation.

Bucket Based Upon Years in the Program

The length of time a swimmer has been in your program should influence what they are doing on a daily basis. They should have progressed further along than an individual just entering the program. There should be a clearer understanding of what that older individual is capable, and they should have a better understanding of what’s expected of them. As the older swimmer’s career is approaching its end, there should be a greater emphasis on pushing the limits.

This is particularly true of the strength side, as most swimmers enter the process at a similar point. They should have been exposed to a progressive program and a senior’s land training should look much different than a freshmen’s program.

Bucket Based Upon Event Demands AND Upon Individual Needs

While grouping swimmers into training groups based upon the events they swim is certainly a good start, it fails to take into consider what each swimmer needs to meet the demands of the events they swim.

Clearly, competing in a 50m race has different demands than competing in a 1500m race, and different types of training will be required to meet those demands. For this reason, bucketing based upon racing requirements is certainly warranted.

At the same time, very different approaches can be successful for developing the ability to race over any distance. No approach is necessarily ‘better’, but it may be much more suited for a given individuals natural tendencies and/or their training history.

There will be situations where two individuals swimming the same events will require very different training to be successful. In this case, simply bucketing based upon event group will be insufficient. There will need to be further differentiation if we are to provide the best opportunity for enhanced performance.

Differentiate Within the Buckets

Once we have established the major buckets in which specific individuals are placed, we need to examine the small tweaks that will help provide each individual with the optimal situation for improvement. The bucket system creates a framework that groups similar individuals, and take cares of the majority of the needs for those individuals.

However, this system is simply a framework, and each individual will still require modifications to provide them with the best opportunity. In the majority of cases, these modifications are quite simple. It typically requires small changes that make a big difference. Establishing what these changes need to be is simply a case of repeated cycles of observation and intervention, staying tuned into to what each individual needs to succeed.

As opposed to writing and implementing individual approaches for all swimmers, the concept of buckets can be very useful for managing the differences between athletes by identifying the common traits and requirement individuals have. Once identified, we can provide general approaches that address the majority of needs, and then make minor adjustments as necessary to full accommodate each individual.


While individualization is a critical aspect of this process, it doesn’t imply that each swimmer needs their own specific training program, designed just for them. In almost all cases, there will be swimmers with similar needs that will need to perform similar tasks. It’s a matter of identifying what those commonalities are, and then combining individuals based upon those commonalities.

Importantly, individuals can fit into different buckets for different components. A swimmer might be in one bucket for strength and one bucket for aerobic. This keeps the total number of buckets small (perhaps 3 for aerobic work), while providing a lot of flexibility to further individualize. Once we have those buckets established, we can further individualize within those buckets. This requires subtle adjustments instead of significant changes, making the process of individualization much simpler.

Now that we’ve addressed how to identify and group swimmers based upon their needs, we’ll address how to create appropriate progressions in the next article. This allows us to use our buckets, and give swimmers what they need, when they need it.

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