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The Stopwatch

As technology has progressed, there are more and more options available to coaches and swimmers that claim to be the answer to everyone’s performance problems. From training aids to recovery aids to devices that will tell you when to train and how to train. The options seem to endless.

Yet there is one device that has been around for since the very beginning, a device that will always be the superior choice for swim coaches- the stopwatch.

The stopwatch informs us about the bottom line. It informs us about what matters. In just about every situation, if all of the metrics are telling us ‘A’, and the stopwatch is telling us ‘B’, you’d better believe that ‘B’ is reality.

There are no gold medals for effort, aesthetically pleasing technique, efficiency, fitness, or any other attribute one might ascribe to a good swimmer. While these qualities can and do contribute to performance, they are a means to an end, not an end themselves. TIME is what matters.

You can win ugly, and it happens fairly often. If you win the Olympics, no one cares about your work ethic. Nor do they care what your lactate values are. It’s all about speed.

If time is what matters, it makes sense that time is the metric we are orienting all of our efforts around. If timed performances are moving in the direction we would like to see, life is good. If not, performance problems are headed our way.

Training should be oriented towards the metrics upon which racing performance is ultimately judged- speed. The way to measure this metric is with a watch.

Training Implications

What does this mean for training?

  • Time everything that matters.

  • Compare everything that matters.

  • Record everything that matters.

  • Evaluate everything that matters.

  • Adjust the process based upon what the numbers are telling you over time.


Human beings are goal driven and goal-directed. They calibrate their behaviors and their choices based upon what their goals are, and the outcomes they do or do not achieve. They will adjust in conscious and subconscious ways based upon the feedback they receive.

When swimmers receive consistent performance feedback, and they value the acquisition of their goals, they will change their behaviors.

Sometimes this is conscious- ‘I need to take 2 more dolphin kicks off the turn’.

Sometimes this is subconscious in that there are subtle changes in skilled movement, effort, or focus to accomplish a goal.

Regardless of HOW these changes are achieved, they are always oriented towards the desired outcome. If we consistently provide information and motivation geared towards speed, swimmers will organize their strategies to accomplish this goal.

If the changes work, they’ll be repeated. If they continue to work, they’ll become habits. If the changes don’t work, they won’t stick around.

If you expect performances, swimmers will adjust their behaviors to meet those expectations. They are goal-driven and they will find a way to meet those goals, particularly when they value those expectations. As just about every swimmer wants to go fast, it’s an easy sell for swimmers to organize their behaviors around TIME.


The same concepts apply to coaches. We are also goal-directed and our behaviors are organized to help us achieve those goals, in this case faster swimming for those we coach. While we might not alter our behaviors from a movement perspective, the same principles apply.

When designing practice sessions and training interventions, we are consciously and subconsciously oriented towards our goals- faster swimming. By monitoring and measuring whether swimmers are moving closer to those goals, we are SHOULD be adjusting how training is being delivered based on that reality.

That’s not to say that massive changes should be implemented based on any one day or performance. There will be bad days that are outliers. However, we are reacting to the general performance trends. Of course, that is only possible if we are consistently keeping training of what is actually happening. Waiting for ‘test sets’ is not going to work. It happens much too infrequently. What is happening daily?


Using the stopwatch is a powerful tool. It guides behaviors. As such, tt’s critical to be aware if we are being guided towards the APPROPRIATE outcomes. There is no such thing as absolute versatility and trade-offs exist in training. While all swimmers need to perform all types of training to some extent, the function these different types of training serve will differ for different swimmers.

If there is too much emphasis placed on performance in the wrong area, problems can arise. It’s not simply that these types of training are not relevant in the context described, it’s more when they are given undue emphasis, as swimmers WILL seek to match the standards put forth-

  • There is a consistent emphasis on absolute performance during aerobic training sets with sprinters

  • There is a consistent emphasis on absolute performance during speed-based training sets with distance swimmers

In both these cases, the training described is an important part of the training process. However, they do not represent the primary training objectives. While it still needs to be done, it only needs to be done ‘well enough’, and misplaced emphasis on performance, or performance standards that are too high, is going to move the process away from where it needs to go.

This also leads to more surprises come competition. If a sprinter is focused mostly on their 10x200@3 freestyle performance, they may be in for a surprise when they swim a 50 freestyle. Likewise, the distance swimmer might be surprised by their mile performance if they’re focused on 5x50@5 freestyle in training.

As time can be a very powerful motivator, we have to be careful how closely we monitor and drive performance through the stopwatch.


As technology progresses, and this progress is applied more and more to the sporting world, it can become frustrating to see all sorts of new devices and applications being used by competitors. It can seem that they have an advantage due to the resources that they have.

While there is certainly some utility in many of these technologies, they are ultimately measuring surrogate measures of performance, or performance readiness. TIME will tell the real tale, and coaches that are consistently able to manage the one variable that matters will win.

If coaches are able to do a better job of closely monitoring performance in a variety of contexts, understanding what that information is telling them, and effectively making decisions based upon that information, they already have all the resources they need- their stopwatch.

If you let performance guide the process, and adjust accordingly, you likely have all the technology you need to succeed in the vast majority of situations. Further tools may provide some assistance if you are ALREADY doing this really well. If not, they won’t make much of a difference at all.


It should be noted that there are limitations to exclusive and excessive use of timing swimmers. There are situations where it is valuable to swim ‘slower’ provided that swimmers are swimming ‘better’, or paying attention to the subtleties of what they are doing.

As an example, there are trade-offs. If a swimmer takes 3 extra strokes per 25 to swim 1 second faster over 200 yards, that’s not a good trade-off. That’s poor swimming. You need to manage the 3 Es. However, a coach and swimmer can only know that if they’re measuring speed.

Further, there is a lot of value in tuning in, and this process can be a lot more effective if there is NOT the pressure of time and performance. However, this type of work does not need to represent a significant portion of the training program. Further, tuning in is a not an end in and of itself. It is a means to an end- SPEED.


Managing the training process can be overwhelming. There are a lot of different factors and there is a lot of variability on a day-to-day basis. It can be tough to manage.

With complex situations, simplicity is often the solution.

Let the stopwatch guide the process. Here are some simple suggestions-

  • Time daily, and record as necessary.

  • Time anything that matters and communicate those performances to the extent that they are relevant.

  • For the important training components, make performance a priority. Emphasize it.

  • For the less important training components, performance can be less of a priority.

  • If everything is moving in the right direction, stay the course.

  • If performance is not moving in the right direction, figure out why, and do something about it.

If coaches and swimmers are consistently aware of how they are performing in relevant training, they have the ability to manage that process. With a well-managed process, swimmers can get to where they want to be.


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