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Investing for Swim Coaches

Coaching is all about investing.

We invest emotionally, we invest intellectually, we invest our energy, and we invest our time. As all of these investments come with an opportunity cost and there’s always another option to invest in, it makes sense to constantly be considering whether these investments are wise investments.

Whenever we invest in something, we are spending one resource in the hopes of getting a return on that expense over time. As a potential benefit is always being given up to pursue another benefit, we want to make sure we are get the most out of each investment we make. It’s not enough to make sure that improvement follows; we want to make sure the improvement created is the most improvement possible.

As discussed in Bleeding to Death and Slow Cook It, thinking over longer time frames is challenging for coaches to do, as the feedback loop is really delayed. Investing is another situation where it takes a long time to learn if our training choices were wise ones, and we typically find out the answer only when it’s too late to do anything about it.

While the topic of investment in coaching can cover any number of topics, I’d like to specifically address how investment relates training, and the choices we make about what will get done during practice.

The Problem

Swimmers have limited time and energy to train. There is only so much work that can be done. They also have limited resources to adapt to train. Even if there is unlimited time and energy to practice, there is only so much training that can be usefully adapted to before injury and performance stagnation become prevalent.

If you only have 10 hours of pool time per week, you only have 10 hours of pool time per week to invest, regardless of how much the swimmers could physically handle. These numbers will vary widely depending on each team’s situation. For your team, this is what it is. If the swimmers you coach can only handle 10 hours of week of training before problems of some type arise, regardless of available training time, you have 10 hours to work with. This will vary depending on individual swimmers.

This reality represents the resource side of the equation. There is only so much time and so much energy we have to invest. Some coaches and some swimmers have more to invest. While there are ways to expand our resources, there is always a limit, so the problem of resource allocation remains.

From the return perspective, based upon the goals of the swimmers and their current abilities levels, there are certain activities that will yield a higher return than others for a given resource investment.

Breaststroke kick for a sprint freestyler is probably not a great return on investment, nor is 6 hours per week of heavy strength training for a distance freestyler. In contrast, sprint work is going to be a great investment for the sprinter, as are various types of aerobic training for the distance swimmer.

With these two dynamics considered, we’re left with the fundamental question about what to do during practice-

Based upon the resources I have and the goals and abilities of the swimmers I am coaching, what training activities will yield the greatest return on that investment through improved performance?

Whenever coaches are uncertain or confused about what they should be doing during practice, they can return to this question, take a look at what’s possible as well as what’s productive, and make some decisions about how to move forward.

Effective Asset Allocation

Asset allocation is an investing term that describes how you’re choosing to invest your resources. You can choose to invest in different types of training and you can choose to develop different skills. For a given investment, there are a range of potential returns. It can be huge, it can be small, or anywhere in between. An investment can also yield a return quickly, or it can take time to be fully realized. Coaches are quick to lock in to those practice elements that make a big impact, particularly when that impact is immediate. It’s pretty hard to not to.

However, there are several skills and abilities that take a long time to develop, yet can create an even larger positive impact. The challenge is that immediate performance is often unchanged, or even made worse, making it much harder for coaches to appreciate the value, or commit to development. Investing in these skills and abilities are what can make the difference in long-term performance.

I’d like to take a look at some commonly overlooked training types that coaches tend to forget. These performance skills and abilities often determine race outcomes, yet we fail to adequately address them, either because they appear difficult to improve or they take away from valuable ‘training’ time.

If coaches are willing to make a significant and consistent investment in developing these skills, there can be a huge return on that investment. If you don’t feel you have the skillset to improve these skills, then a further investment may be required on the part of the coach to figure out how.

If you ever watch the news, there are always segments on great investment opportunities. These are my stock picks, often overlooked by coaches.


How many times have you heard coaches talk about a swimmer who is just getting KILLED on their breaststroke pullouts?

All the time.

How often is that same coach and swimmer consistently dedicating time and energy to actually fixing the problem?

Hardly ever.

As any coach and swimmer can tell you, facing an opponent with great pullouts is no fun. They are getting a head start on every turn, and no matter what you do, you can’t catch back up on the swim. While incredibly frustrating, there are solutions if you’re willing to invest.

Pullouts are so unlike the remainder of swimming skills, and the nature of how they are performed (once per 25) creates a very low volume of practice. If we expect pullouts to improve, we’re going to need to increase the number of repetitions performed, as well as the effectiveness of the learning environment.

How can you increase the number of pullouts in a training session? How can you increase the amount of feedback that lets swimmers know if their pullouts are effective? Added resistance, measure the distance travelled? Are poor pullouts the result of limits in technique, strength, or the ability to hold the breath? Are technical issues the result of poor alignment or poor propulsion? Once swimmers can execute effective pullouts, how will you put pullouts under pressure so they can consistently execute pullouts in race like situations?

These are all elements of performing effective pullouts that need to be considered, answered, and implemented with consistency if we’re really going to expect this skill to improve. It takes investment.

Now there are some swimmers that are so bad at pullouts, and so good at swimming, that it can be worth it to NOT do a pullout, especially in long course. That can be an effective strategy and figuring out how to do this well is still working on the same issue, the transition off the wall. Even if the solution is to not do a pullout, you still have to practice and get better at it. Just cutting the pullout isn’t the answer. In situations where this is an option, you still have to PRACTICE not doing a pullout and figure out how to make it work really well. Not performing a pullout is still a skill.

Dolphin Kicking

In short course swimming, particularly backstroke and butterfly, underwater dolphin kicking comprises HALF of the race distance, with many swimmers using the majority of the 15-meter distance available to them. For these races, the ability to kick underwater is arguably MORE important than the ability to swim these strokes effectively.

One of the first swimmers to really dominate the underwater domain was Natalie Coughlin. At one point, her American Record in the 100-yard backstroke was over 2 seconds(!) faster than the 2nd fastest performer. In a 100-yard race! While perhaps slightly less valuable a weapon in long course, Natalie’s walls would still provide her with a body length lead off of the start and turn. This proved to be a margin that even better surface swimmers could not overcome.

While the impact of dolphin kicking is clearly significant, how much time and energy are typically invested in improving underwater kicking? How much of the time and energy that invested done so in a way that is going to significantly impact performance. If we aim to improve underwater ability, and I feel it’s pretty clear we should, the investment needs to match the importance of the skill.

As outline previously HERE, there are critical skills that must be mastered and there are a lot of contexts that need to be mastered to help ensure these skills show up in races. If swimmers are going to compete underwater, SIGNIFICANT investments in time and energy need to be made. I’m talking about major portions of multiple practices per week dedicated exclusively to underwater kicking. Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways to train dolphin kicking.

If it wins races, shouldn’t our training investments reflect the importance of the skill? If half of a race takes place underwater, devoting a quarter of our pool time to that skill doesn’t seem that extreme. While that commitment isn’t necessarily required, it emphasizes the type of investment in dolphin kicking that is both possible and productive.

At the same time, dolphin kicking can be a bad investment for some swimmers. Those that are later in their career and show zero aptitude for the skill will likely not benefit from a significant amount of dolphin kicking in their training, particularly if the opportunity cost becomes training with an obvious benefit. With any investment, it’s important to weigh the potential benefits versus the potential drawbacks. Working on dolphin kicking, won’t make any swimmers slower, but it may take away from activities that could be making them fast.

Distance Per Stroke

Better swimmers take fewer strokes, and this is more and more true as performance levels rise and race distances shorten. When considering, there is no room for inefficiency in the 50 freestyle. You can only move your arms so fast! It’s important to be aware that individual differences between swimmers can exist. If we take a look at the Olympic Final, there will be variance in the number of strokes taken. However, if we compare the Olympic Final to a National or Regional final, the average stroke count will be lower at the Olympics.

It matters.

Yet, how much time is actually being invested in distance per stroke? When is it an explicit focus of training? Let’s take aerobic conditioning as an example. This is the perfect opportunity to work on distance per stroke. However, if you make an initial investment in stroke count development by placing restrictions on swimmers, aerobic training speeds may be slower at first. This can be uncomfortable for swimmers and coaches alike.

The same can be said for race development sets. When first exposed to stroke count restrictions in this context, most swimmers will swim slower. However, it is a long-term investment that when done well can result in improved performances over time. It’s an investment that has a cost of time and energy, but also a short-term training performance cost, the latter of which scares most coaches and swimmers. We all want fast now.

In addition, some of the technical work required to facilitate and assist improvements in stroke count development also required time and energy. The positive impact here is also delayed. It’s a long-term investment.

Please note- we are trying to OPTIMIZE distance per stroke, not MAXIMIZE it. There are individual differences that need to be respected. The goal is to improve distance per stroke without disrupting the rhythm of the stroke.

For some individuals, they may have achieved stroke lengths that are appropriate for their structure and skills. Further enhancement may disrupt rhythm or simply be ineffective. These individuals may benefit from working to increase their stroke rate or their conditioning to maintain their stroke length and stroke rate. It CAN be a bad investment for some.


Trying to fix a swimmer’s start at a meet is probably not going to work too well. Any positive change is unlikely to be made and now the swimmer is going to be thinking about it. For some swimmers, a compromised start will be a limiting factor in performance. If you have a sprinter and their start is terrible, ignoring this reality during practice is not going to help anyone. It will become quite obvious in a meet when the swimmer is half a body length behind 3 seconds into the race. If they’re giving up half a second in a 50 that could be improved through a better start, it’s going to be pretty difficult to find that same improvement any other way, particularly through training.

Spending 5 minutes every day working on starts, paired with a reasonable land program (which will have a lot of other benefits), can remediate this issue over time. It doesn’t take much, but a bad start will not fix itself. It’s a small investment of time that can result in major changes over time. However, it’s the consistent investment that will count. Not much will change on any given day.

At the same time, having distances swimmer spend a lot of time trying to gain .5 seconds on the start when they’re giving up 15 seconds on the end of a mile due to poor conditioning and race management doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In this case, the benefit is not necessarily worth the investment, and any investment in starting would need to be much less significant.


We’ve all coached swimmers that lost races because of poor turns and we’ve all proceeded to do nothing about it. If we expect swimmers to improve their turns, we need to provide swimmers the opportunity to improve their turns with consistent work over time. This work could take any form, provided that any improvements made will transfer to performance.

The counter-argument is ‘we work on turns every lap. It’s up to the swimmers to execute them well.’ While I understand this perspective, I would argue that the vast majority of these turns are performed with zero intention and zero pressure to get better. If there is no standard of excellence, very few swimmers will strive to make these changes themselves.

While spending time working on turns in isolation can be valuable, particularly in the beginning, the goal is to work on performing excellent turns within the context of training. As referenced before, swimmers are performing a turn every lap. This is the perfect opportunity to work on these skills, provided it is done with intention, with specific standards of performance, and with accountability.

Unlike starts, as all swimmers perform the same number of turns proportionally to their race distance, all swimmers will benefit from improving their turns. It is a great investment for most. Where coaches can run into problems is HOW they choose to work on turns. Spending half an hour doing in and out turns on a 1-minute interval, regardless of the quality of feedback, might not be the best move, particularly if your swimmers aren’t fit enough to hold those skills over the course of a race.

Turns can win races. The critical challenge is how to develop those skills within the context of training, and do so in a manner that transfers to performance. That requires a significant investment in creating clear standards, and holding swimmers accountable to those standards, even when it’s really hard to do so.


When we start thinking about coaching from a financial perspective, it allows us to consider how the choices we make in training are actually an investment in time and energy, with a hope on getting great return on that investment. In swimming, there are a lot of investments that can be made. While investing in a given improvement may makes sense for the majority of swimmers, there are always exceptions and coaches should carefully consider whether these exceptions apply to their swimmers. In every case, while a given investment may yield a positive return, there may be another investment that yields a bigger one.

Some investments have more substantial returns and some have more immediate returns. The hidden investments are those which have substantial returns WITHOUT immediate returns. Because the payout is not immediate, coaches tend to overlook these investments. Pullouts, dolphin kicking, starts, and turns win races. However, it’s difficult to create race-winning change quickly. It needs to be addressed consistently over time. For those willing to be committed to the investment, the return can be huge.

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