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The Circus Part II

In part I, we started with the idea that each swimmers’ needs become more specialized as their performance levels and training histories grow. Over time, providing each individual with the same training structure is going to prove to become less and less optimal. The solution then is to provide more individualized training sessions.

However, that approach presents its own problems. While the logistical challenges are clear, it’s even more challenging to ensure that training sessions are executed at a very high level. In part I, we explored the following in detail-

  • Benefit- more individualization

  • Benefit- learned accountability

  • Benefit- independence, autonomy, ownership

  • Benefit- small group teamwork

  • Drawback- loss of external accountability and motivation

  • Drawback- decreased group energy

  • Drawback- impaired execution

Running the circus needs to be worth it. With appropriate design, it can not only be worth it, it can be better. We’re going to explore how to do so below.

Maximizing the Benefits and Minimizing the Drawbacks

While there are inherent strengths and benefits to this approach, that is not to say that certain actions can’t be leveraged to maximize the upside while minimizing the downside to running the circus. Coaches do have options that make a significant difference. In most cases, all that is required is foresight and planning.

Below are several strategies that are effective in creating better training scenarios. Some are logistical, some are cultural, and some require a shift in perspective. The more that all of these strategies can be organically integrated into the training process, the more effective the outcomes will be.

Set up training by time

Most coaches tend to organize by volume. We’re going to X meters of Y type of training. This is certainly productive and effective. When you want to change the stimulus, increase the volume or decrease the volume. Simple and effective.

The only potential issue is that most practices take place for a set amount of time, and those volumes must be managed to take place within that time frame. Of course, no coach is EVER going to cut practice short, so you need to be aware of how long sets are going to take.

At some point, I decided to actually organize some practices by time. Instead of doing 2000 yards of aerobic work, I allocate 30 minutes of aerobic work, and then design a set that takes that long. As most work types are governed by consistent work:rest ratios, changing the time proportionally changes the volume.

What does this have to do with the circus?

If you set up training by time, you’ll know what is going to happen when. You can structure practice in a way that you know what’s going to happen when almost to the minute. This is incredibly valuable in syncing up different practices, and the following two strategies are built upon this foundation. By setting up according to time, you can actually create different sets, serving very different purposes, that still follow the basic time structure.

We’ll look at some practical examples below.

Alternate low and high stress segments

Almost all practices are going to have high stress and low stress segments. There are portions of practice that are more difficult, and there are portions that are less difficult. We can use this ebb and flow of training to optimize how our coaching efforts are spent.

When running the Circus, you can strategically plan these portions so that they are occurring at different points in different practices, allowing coaches to be present and engaged in the important aspects of training for the majority of all of the practices.

These sample sets are quite simple for illustrative purposes, you could design them in any manner you choose, providing the timing works out. This is a situation where planning training via time can be an advantage.

Within set alternation

Set A


4x25@30 15 meter blast

Extra 15 seconds

1x50@1:45 Maximal Effort

Set B


2x100@1 Make it

1x100@2 EZ

Here, each set takes 32 minutes, composed of 8 rounds of 4 minutes. Within each set, half of the set is ‘more important’ than the other half. In Set A, the most important work takes place in the last 2 minutes, whereas it takes place in the front half during set B.

The extra 15 seconds allows you to physically transition from Set B to Set A, even if that’s only moving a couple lanes over. In both cases, you are witnessing the most important part of the set, while the swimmers are responsible for executing the secondary components. This optimizes your coaching time by allowing your presence for the critical portions of both sets.

Between set alternation

Practice Structure A

Loosen- 5 minutes

Progressive warm-up- 25 minutes

Main focus #1 20 minutes

Secondary focus #2- 20 minutes

Main focus #2- 20 minutes

Secondary focus #2- 20 minutes

Warm down- 10 minutes

Practice Structure B

Loosen- 5 minutes

Progressive warm-up- 15 minutes

Main focus #1- 10 minutes

Secondary focus #1- 20 minutes

Main focus #2- 20 minutes

Secondary focus #2- 20 minutes

Main focus #3- 20 minutes

Warm down- 10 minutes

In this case, the coach would move between the main work from group to group, always focusing on the main aspect of the practice. The ‘main’ portion can be whatever you decide for it to be. It can be completely different types of training, it could be training of similar type yet lesser intensity, or it can simply be training that leads less supervision.

The point is to organize BOTH practices so you are able to present for the work you want or need to present for. This needs to be PLANNED. If you simply design two separate practices and hope for the best, there will be much more compromise and you will need to make unpleasant choices. Instead, make those choices ahead of time so that you are comfortable with them.

Planning with TIME allows for this to be possible. You know how long everything is going to take, and you know where you need to be when you need to be there.

Periodically re-group for high level efforts

Group A- Sprint focus

5x rounds

50@1 Maximum effort swim

4x50@55 Low aerobic effort

Extra minute rest

50@1 Maximum effort swim

50 EZ

Group B- Kick focus

5x rounds

50@1 Maximum effort swim

4x50@1:10 Kick; how fast can you hold?

50@1 Maximum effort swim

50 EZ

Group C- Distance focus

5x rounds

50@1 Maximum effort swim

4x100@1:10 High aerobic effort

50@1 Maximum effort swim

50 EZ

Group D- Breaststroke pull focus

5x rounds

50@1 Maximum effort swim

8x25@35 Breaststroke swim with light dolphin kick; fast

50@1 Maximum effort swim

50 EZ

Group E- Backstroke pull focus

5x rounds

50@1 Maximum effort swim

4x75@1:10 Backstroke swim with a band; tight des 1-4

50@1 Maximum effort swim

50 EZ

In this version, all 5 groups are cycling through 5 rounds of a set, and the total time per round is the same. In that way, the groups can all start the work together with something appropriate for everyone, as well as end the set on an effort that is also appropriate for everyone.

While the structure of each set is very similar, the experience and the outcomes will be very different. Group A and Group C are receiving a very different stimulus. This can be expanded to include much longer cycles. In this example, there is only 4 minutes and 40 seconds per round. This duration can be extended as long as you desire.

Not only does this setup allow the coach to see the most important work at the same time, it allows for the group dynamic to be retained, as well as the energy associated with that dynamic. In between the different groups are able to get the work that they need as either individuals or event specialists.

The coach can then rotate their attention during the middle set to where they feel it is needed, while retaining a sense of how the whole group is performing during the fast 50s. This allows for individualization while also retaining group dynamics and external accountability. The upside is maximized and the downside is minimized.

Expect personal accountability

Your biggest weapon in effectively managing multiple practices is to expect personal accountability in training. If swimmers are consistently expected to know their times, know their strokes counts, and have specific skills they’re working on, they’re going to be a lot more independent and effective. When you’re running the circus, any one swimmer is not going to get a lot of your attention. For training to be productive, they need to be self-sufficient.

While constantly providing times and feedback can be useful coaching strategies, they also have the unintended consequence of removing that responsibility from swimmers. Because that information is provided externally, they no longer feel the need to determine it for themselves.

This is not much of a problem when there are a lot of coaches relative to the number of swimmers. However, as soon as that ratio is reversed, it can become a very large problem. Swimmers won’t know what to do without the constant external accountability, and what they then decide to do is usually what we’re looking for.

The solution is to make sure that they have the skill of personal accountability. Require that they get their times and strokes count. Ask them for the information. Through your consistent actions, convey the expectation that they will know that information and know what to do with it. If it’s expected of them, they’ll change their behaviors.

Context is important here as well. If a swimmer is doing a single maximum speed 50-meter swim, the tenths of a second matter and coaches should time those. If a swimmer is performing aerobic 300-meter swims, they can get their own time. They also need to have the personal accountability to use that information appropriately. They will if it is expected of them.

Use individualization to leverage engagement

When we’re in the midst of the circus, what we really need is for swimmers to be engaged in their training without that engagement needing to be facilitated by a coach. Because coaches will have their attention divided on several fronts, they won’t be able to give too much focus to any one individual. Depending on the individual, that can lead to less engagement.

However, the whole point of running the Circus is to provide individuals with the training THEY need to be successful, rather than simply having a single training session that marginally addresses the needs of the group. Leverage this.

When swimmers know that training sessions have been specifically written for THEM, they’re going to be more engaged in what they’re doing. While it should be pretty obvious why the training is of benefit, make it explicit. Tell them directly. Get buy in. Moreover, actually solicit their feedback about what to do and include their suggestions as appropriate. When you give them what they ask for, they’re going to do it will.

Most swimmers are aware that you’re making your life more difficult to accommodate them. In turn, they will return the gesture by taking their training more seriously. Make it explicit as to why they’re doing something different, and explain that it only will continue to happen with their cooperation. This usually makes a big difference.

Make skills a focus

This is something of a shortcut. In terms of practice organization, the biggest challenge is when swimmers need different types of physiological stress. When one group needs a significant endurance stimulus and the other requires a significant speed stimulus, they’re clearly going to be swimming different distances with different recovery periods.

They’re not going to be doing the same thing at the same time. This requires a lot of management from a logistical perspective, and coaches will have to work different set-ups at the same time. When physiology is the focus, this is a requirement. When performance is driven primarily by physiological development, training must be geared to provide the appropriate physiological stimulus.

This necessarily requires different training structures (i.e. distance, intervals, intensities, volumes, etc). Different swimmers will be swimmer different sets.

In contrast, if technical improvement drives the performance development process, the REQUIREMENT that training set-ups are significantly different is lessened. Different swimmers can use similar practice structures more often, allowing for easier management of the circus.

This is not to say that the solution is to ‘just do drills’. What I am suggesting is that by ensuring that technical development drives the performance, it provides more flexibility than when focusing on physiology. Physiological development requires more exacting training structures, whereas technical development does not. Swimmers can ALWAYS be working on their skills, regardless of the context or content of the training.

As with above, swimmers need to learn how to train in this manner, and value the engagement that it requires. The more this is the case, the more they can develop their skills in all contexts.

Of course, it is an either/or situation. BOTH physical and technical development are required to improve performance, and the two processes are intricately linked. However, shifting some of the focus away from purely physical development can make managing a large number of swimmers more feasible.

Change the groups

One of the main challenges of dividing a team in any manner is that the group dynamic can be lost. Further, a lot of team bonding occurs through shared challenge. If a team is constantly fragmented, these processes can be compromised. Another potential issue is that it can get very stale training with the same individuals, day in and day out. The smaller the group is, the more this will be true. There is no novelty.

The solution is to try to have as many subgroups as possible, with the composition of those subgroups being as varied as possible, and make these groups as fluid as possible. This will allow for as many bonding experiences as possible, will create more group energy through novel situations, and provide more competitive experiences for each swimmer.

If groups become too isolated and segregated, swimmers may literally never train with some of their teammates. Ensuring that there is rotation amongst the groups in a manner that aligns with individual needs can overcome this challenge.

While it may seem like there would never be situations where it would be productive for a distance swimmer and a sprinter to train together, I assure you that they have common needs at some level, and if it only happens once per week for half of a practice, it makes a difference. It is worth the effort to make it work.


At some point, swimmers are going to require more than generic training prescription to maximize their potential. Standard group training isn’t going to get the job done. This means multiple practices are going to need to be on offer, or significant modifications within a practice will need to take place.

Regardless of the route that’s chosen, logistical problems become apparent as coaches are going to need to divide their attention between various practices. The question then becomes how to accomplish this goal so that ensure that swimmers receive the coaching that they need, while they’re also provided the opportunity to take ownership of their swimming.

For the vast majority of coaches, they’re not going to have a staff of 10 coaches to individually supervise each training session. They’re going to have to manage the process with limited or no help. The following strategies are a great starting point for creating an environment where swimmers are able to excel.

  • Set up training by time- Running the circus is all about being in the right place at the right time. Manage time to manage attention.

  • Alternate low and high stress segments- Design training so that you can shift your focus from set to set, watching as much of the important training as possible.

  • Periodically re-group for high level efforts- Whenever there is a re-grouping between the various practices, it harnesses team energy and minimizes the distribution of the coach’s focus.

  • Expect personal accountability- Regardless of the situation, swimmers will spend some time without supervision. If we want accountability, it must be consistently expected.

  • Use individualization to leverage engagement- When swimmers know that you are placing extra effort into enhancing their performance, they reciprocate with superior effort.

  • Make skills a focus- Training ‘errors’ can be minimized when skill development is a priority.

  • Change the groups- Novelty brings energy as well as improving team dynamics.

As you can see, there are a lot of leverage points, and becoming effective at different using each leverage point requires a different set of coaching skills. We can take advantage of our own personal strengths to make the circus run smoothly.

If we love planning, design intricate sets that allow us to be at the right place at the right time. If we’re an expert at skill adaptation, place your focus there. If you are great at helping swimmers develop accountability, focus there.

While running the Circus can be overwhelming at first, it’s a skill. Like every other skill, it can be learned and it can be improved. The benefits? Swimmers who get what they need and swim faster than they ever have.


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