Save the Season Part I
Sometimes, it’s just not going well. A swimmer isn’t progressing, they seem to be struggling, or they might even seem to be regressing.
The season is starting to fall apart.
We’ve seen this dynamic, and it can be a real frustration to swimmers and coaches alike. While there is no universally applicable solution, there’s definitely a decision-making framework that can be applied to identify potential causes of the problem, as well as the potential solutions.
When a season is not going as expected, or when significant struggle is present, there are 3 basic options we have available-
1. We can do nothing. We wait it out.
2. We can be patient, and adjust the process slightly.
3. We can re-boot, implement big changes, and hope for the best.
In this article, we’re going to explore these 3 options we have to navigate the challenge of resurrecting a season. We’ll explore why a given strategy makes sense, when you might want to use that strategy, as well as what to do.
Why Waiting It Out Makes Sense
You’ve seen the pattern before with this individual. Different swimmers have different adaptation timelines and profiles, and they tend to be pretty consistent over time. If the patterns are consistent, you can usually trust them to some extent, especially if the swimmer trusts them. If you’re seeing the same pattern, even if it’s a scary pattern, it can just be the way the swimmer is, and adjustments are going to make it worse.
I remember coaching 1 young lady who would consistently go 5 seconds faster in a championship setting than her best 100 butterfly dual meet time. She did it all 4 years. While panic ensued the first year, after that you knew it was going to be okay, so you just waited. It’s possible that nothing could have prevented that discrepancy, and attempting to do so would have left her grossly underprepared to race. I’ve had other swimmers display similar patterns.
While it may be a little uncomfortable, the best solution is to just ride it out.
It’s a new athlete, and you don’t want to panic. I was coaching a young man who had a lot of muscle and a lot of body hair. It was our first year together, and he was training pretty well, yet he was racing pretty poorly from my perspective as he was pretty far off his best times. I was a little concerned. He was not concerned at all because he felt he was ‘swimming out of his mind’, and he reassured me everything was going to be alright. As above, he recognized the pattern, even if I didn’t.
Sure enough, he was right, and he swam fast when it mattered.
Letting it play out, especially the first time around can help inform what to do next, even if the process isn’t a total success. You know what you did and you know what the outcome was, and this can inform future interventions. If you panic and change everything, you won’t necessarily have any idea what happened, and that isn’t very helpful for the subsequent season.
Now, ‘seeing how this plays out’ only really works when YOU’RE a little uncomfortable with the process. As we’ll see below, it’s not a great idea when the swimmer is freaking out, and when training and competition results are both poor. You have to know the difference, and this is hard to do. Asking the swimmer can be helpful. If THEY’RE confident, that’s as important as anything else.
You know it’s a solid, conservative plan. If you’re confident that the plan you’ve chosen is well balanced and conservative, it may be worth waiting. If your accurate in your assessment about the soundness of the plan, and the season still doesn’t turnaround, you may be working with a swimmer that has peculiar needs. To effectively manage future seasons, it can be really good to have a full season of information that you can understand. If you make a lot of changes, it’s more challenging to figure out what went down.
The other side is that if the plan is solid and conservative, it should be at least moderately effective the vast majority of the time. There should be enough ‘right’ to yield improvement. If a swimmer is struggling, it may be more a product of their reaction to training than a product of the training itself. In other words, they may react that way regardless of the training, and attempting to intervene may make it worse. It could be a rough patch in school, or something similar. Riding it out can work.
However, if the situation continues to erode, or it extends in duration, it may be time to intervene.
It might be life. If you suspect life is getting in the way, that might be the more important point of leverage. This is particularly true if these life issues are arising due to poor social and lifestyle choices. While the obvious include ‘non-performance-enhancing substances’, it could also include poor time management, poor academic management, too much entertainment (phone, TV, video games), or simply too much social time with friends.
If this is the case, changing training to accommodate bad decisions isn’t a long-term solution. Helping swimmers understand the impact of their choices is going to be more productive. Fortunately, it’s times of struggle that are most apt to spur change. Most people aren’t going to change when everything is rainbows and sunshine. They need some pain. Poor swimming might be the pain they need. Use the opportunity to facilitate the change process.
However, if there is a life stress that is uncontrollable and is not going away anytime soon (i.e. chronic family illnesses or relationship issues), adjustments may need to be made to accommodate that stress. More nuance still, if the life situation is bad enough, changing training isn’t going to make a difference. Life needs to get sorted out as the priority.
Time. If there is a lot of time, either in the current season or with the assumption of future seasons, it can make sense to continue down the path. You may learn more, and thus be able to further aid the swimmer in the future, by executing a familiar plan and then evaluating the process. However, this only really becomes an option when there is time to do so. If it is the beginning of a 4-year process (i.e. college/high school/senior club swimming/Olympic cycle), there is less pressure to perform today. If there is time, you may learn more by letting it play out, even if it comes at the expense of short-term performance.
Patience can definitely pay. There are many cases where problems simply resolve themselves, and attempts to intervene actually make the situation worse. If any of the above situations are applicable, it might be worth the wait.
However, there are situations where patience isn’t going to pay. In those situations, intervention is required.
What Went Wrong?
When there are training problems, there are a lot of potential mistakes that can occur in the training process. Fortunately, they can typically be grouped in to the following categories.
· Too much stuff
· Not enough stuff
· The wrong stuff
· A mix of stuff
Below, we’ll take a look at each of these categories to create a better sense of which potential issues may be sinking a swimmer’s season. Once the general problem has been identified, it’s easier to lock down the specific issues.
Too Much Stuff. Human beings have a finite capacity to adapt to stress. They can only handle so much. While this certainly applies strictly to training loads, it also applies to everything experienced in a swimmer’s life. School stress, work stress, social stress, etc. all count. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of control we have in those areas. In many cases, the swimmer may not have very much control over these areas. To be clear, life matters. For the context of this discussion, we’re going to focus on training.
If we ask swimmers to perform more work than they are capable of adapting to, they’re not going to improve.
An important point-
The amount of work they can DO is greater than the amount of work they can successfully ADAPT to.
Read that again.
The amount of work they can DO is greater than the amount of work they can successfully ADAPT to.
Just because a swimmer can do the workout doesn’t mean it wasn’t too much, especially over time. If swimmers are failing to improve, there is a good possibility that they are simply doing too much work. While it is counterintuitive for many swimmers and coaches, the solution is often to do less.
It could be too much intensity, it could be too much volume, or it could be a combination of both. Regardless, the workload is too high and the swimmer is not going to respond.
The solution is to do less. They key is to figure out what to do less of. If you do less of the problematic work, they’ll respond. If you take away the work that’s important to them, it’s going to be a problem.
A nice heuristic that I have almost always found effective-
Maintain the volume of the aerobic work, but drop the intensity.
Maintain the intensity of the speed work, but drop the volume.
This assumes a relatively sane program. If you’re swimming 120k, you’ll need to drop volume. If you’re having a swim meet every day with super high intensity, that needs to change. If you have big problems, you’ll need to change more, and the adjustments may need to be significant.
The more aggressive the training program is, and the more fatigued swimmers appear to be, the more likely it is that too much is your problem. If there are problems everywhere, and everyone is exhausted, too much just might be the problem.
Too Little Stuff. Some swimmers can handle a lot of stress, sometimes a shocking amount of work. Some of these swimmers have done a ton of work in the past, and they need that work to be successful. This is situation is most likely to arise when coaching a new swimmer who comes from what you perceive as a ‘crazy training program’. You get rid of all the ‘crazy, unnecessary stuff’ and they proceed to swim slowly.
The more the swimmer is distance-oriented, this extra work tends to take the form of aerobic volume. For a more speed-based swimmer, this work may take the form of land work of any type.
As land work and aerobic swimming are inherently less specific than faster, race pace swimming, they can sometimes be perceived to be unnecessary. The term ‘garbage yardage’ has been thrown around and would apply to similar activities on land as well. For some swimmers, regardless of their primary racing distances, this type of work can be the glue that holds EVERYTHING together. If you take away the glue, the whole process falls apart.
For some swimmers, you just need more stuff, and you need time for the impact to be felt. This could be more aerobic work, it could be more strength work, or it could simply be that they need to move their body more, and it almost doesn’t matter what they do. These swimmers are accustomed to a certain amount of movement, and they need to get it somehow.
If you run a conservative program, and the swimmer’s general perception is that they feel great physically, but just can’t seem to be able to do it, they may need more work, probably in the supportive elements. While it usually doesn’t take much race specific work, some swimmers require a lot of non-specific work to make it all come together.
The Wrong Stuff. Unfortunately, swimmers are not clones. Give two swimmers the same stimulus and they respond very differently. If you have 30 swimmers and you’re running more or less the same training program with all of them, it’s not going to work with everyone. Some swimmers are doing the wrong stuff for them.
The challenge here is that it’s difficult to identify exactly what the right stuff is, and what the wrong stuff is.
As a general rule, the basis of the training program should be training activities that swimmers excel at. If a sprinter is terrible at aerobic work and they spend most of the time swimming aerobically, they’re probably going to swim terribly.
While the example I just provided fits a stereotype, that’s not always the case. There are some swimmers that thrive on work types you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Alex Popov was a quadruple Olympic Champion in the sprints that performed more or less distance training with some speed work (I am simplifying Touretski fans!). While you could argue he’d have been ever faster by training differently, I’m not taking that bet.
This is where it gets challenging. Stereotypes and common sense can be useful for identifying what swimmers thrive on. However, there are definitely exceptions. Further, two swimmers competing in the same event may need very different approaches to training.
The solution is to pay attention in training. Where do they thrive? Where to do they struggle? Give them what they’re good at, and supplement that with a little of everything else.
If you suspect they’ve been doing the wrong stuff, make a significant change and see what the response it. While there is a notion that ‘change takes time’, in this case, the impact of your decision should be pretty immediate. If you’ve made the right one, there should be a noticeable difference. That doesn’t mean the problem goes away. It just means a change for the better. Change should be pretty immediate if you’ve made the right choice.
A Mix of Stuff. The problem can be a combination of the above. The wrong stuff is the focus of training AND it’s being done in the wrong amounts. This is obviously not a good situation to be in. If this is the case, the swimmer is probably not performing particularly well.
The solution is to independently reflect on whether the swimmer is performing too much, too little, or the wrong work. If the answer is yes in more than one area, it’s likely a combination of issues, and those areas are all going to need be addressed. Adjust in one area, gauge the response, and then make further adjustments. Avoid changing too much at once, as it becomes challenging to evaluate what has happened.
So far, we’ve examined why it makes sense to be patient and let the process play out. However, there are situations where training has gone down an unproductive path. Understanding WHY training may have unraveled is critical to turning the process around.
In general, swimmers are either doing too much work, too little work, and the wrong types of work. Determining which of these errors is likely the cause of the situation you’re witnessing will be critical in deciding how to proceed with an intervention.
We’ll explore when to intervene, as well as our intervention options, in Part II.