View Full Version : Coaching swimmers to Coach themselves

March 17th, 2013, 04:54 PM
I thought this article was a helpful article for all swimmers and I hope you like it.

It was in 1973 when I intended my first ASCA World clinic in Chicago. All the greats were there, a virtual Who's Who of swimming, and it was everything I thought it would be. I remember the late, great swim coach, Dr. James Counsilman, telling the audience, "I train my swimmers not to need me." Set up swimming training so swimmers learn to coach themselves. I thought that empowering swimmers to a level where they could coach themselves was what real coaching was all about, or what it should be about.

I've attended many world clinics since then (four of the last five) and at every single one, I always managed to pick up pearls of wisdom that have shaped my coaching career, like the one from Dr. Counsilman. It's taken nearly forty years, but I finally wrote this article, and have changed how I coach, all because I went to that clinic in Chicago.

I arbitrarily rate swimmers' intelligence about stroke mechanics and swimming training, and the ability to effectively apply what they learn, on a one to ten scale. A one means the athlete seems to swim recreationally or just put in their laps and won't or can't apply the things they need to do to improve their stroke. Ranking them as a recreational swimmer doesn't mean they don't train hard, it simply means their stroke and how they train hasn't evolved. A ranking of a one doesn't mean a swimmer hasn't gained important experiences that truly enrich their lives; the ranking means that the swimmer may train very hard but not very smart.

A ten means the swimmer trains smart and comes to workouts daily, with a strategy on how to improve, and applies that strategy successfully. The ranking is, again, subjective, but the differences when you talk to a swimmer you rank as a one and the swimmer you rank as a ten becomes glaring. I think we can, as coaches, help all swimmers improve their ranking, or what I'm going to call their Training Intelligence Quotient (TIQ). The TIQ is a subjective way to evaluate swimmers' knowledge about how to correct their strokes. It's important to note that a small change for a swimmer with great stroke mechanics is just as important as a large change for a swimmer with poor stroke mechanics.

The way I work to improve their TIQ is by asking individuals before they start their drills what they need to work on to swim faster. Before they get in the water a swimmer must tell one of the coaches what they're going to work on. Like most coaches, I collectively teach everyone a lot of drills and tell them what stroke flaw they're designed to correct. As the season progresses and they understand how to correctly perform the drills, I start allowing them to choose the drills they think are most effective in correcting their particular stroke flaw(s).

The learning curve for swimmers is, of course, different, and patience on the coach's part becomes imperative. The building of a swimmer's TIQ begins with probing questions from the coach. When explanations by the swimmers about effective ways to improve their stroke get better, and they can apply that knowledge to bring about positive change, their TIQ goes up. It may go up from a one to a two, but the point is, it's going up.

At the beginning of the season, the answers from most swimmers, when I pose probing questions mimic what they've heard me preach about during practices. When I ask them questions like: "Show me the flaw you're trying to correct? Tell me what kind of drill are you going to do to correct your flaw? Besides dropping time, how are you going to measure improvement?" When I'm satisfied with their responses, I test their TIQ further by having them get in the water to see if they can apply their knowledge.

I've developed a list of technical swimming variables responsible for swimming fast. Swimmers who understand these variables and learn how to successfully manipulate them should be more successful. When swimmers learn the concept of training smarter and not just harder, they will begin to understand that they are ultimately responsible for their own destiny. The list of variables responsible for effective, efficient swimming could vary and expand from coach to coach, but the important thing is that you start with a (your) list.

The following principles are things I want my swimmers to learn so well that they can manipulate them to unlock their true potential: Hand Position - The area of the hand, stiffness of the hand, angle the hand upon entry, and angle throughout the stroke and finish. Stroke Pattern - The pulling pattern or design that the hand travels throughout each quadrant of the stroke. Pull Length - The stride of short axis or long axis strokes. An effective extension of the beginning and end of each stroke. Stroke Depth - Understanding how an individual's somatotype can affect how one effectively leverages the water. Early Vertical Forearm Position - EVF and the length of time in EVF create one of the key components responsible for swimming speed. Speed of Hand Movement - Too fast or too slow compromises optimum drag potential. Kicking Efficiency - Decreasing the angle of the ankle is the best way to increase kicking speed. Athleticism - The building block of competitive sports. Adaptation to stress and specificity training, resulting in improved efficiency and power, comes from a stronger body. It's a difficult variable to trump. Timing - Knowing how a stroke works in each quadrant. Setting up a stroke, application of pressure, synchronization of movement. Body Position - In the water space know how your body and its parts can reduce drag and improve efficiency Test Sets - Know how test sets and records can evaluate everything from speed DPS, starts, turns, pain tolerance, pace, act. Muy Importante. When your swimmers tell you about their shortcomings, revelations and insights to improving their strokes, you're witnessing the evolution of the athletes you train.

June 8th, 2017, 08:42 AM
Do your swimmers now their SPOT?
By Coach Tom Topolski

I would like to take the mystique out of what coaches are calling Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT) or for short High Intensity Training (HIT). HIT is not a new idea and in fact is a concept that exercise physiologists have used for decades, even before the Doc Councilman era.

HIT, requires following the same truisms that are at the core of all successful sports training. These sports training maxims have and will always revolve around specificity, recovery, regularity and progressive overload. The difference of HIT from past and current training is the laser focus it has on specificity. The way coaches habitually train swimmers is the way their swimmers will perform. HIT coach’s habitually train their swimmers to acquire speed. The most important measuring parameter is a twenty-five sprint push-off time (25 SPOT).

Every season should begin with goal setting and every swimmer should have a set of short-term, seasonal and long-term goals. Once these goals are established and written down, swimmers should know what their twenty-five yard, sprint push-off time (SPOT) is for every stroke and at every distance. The only reason a swimmer does not know their SPOT, is that coaches do not measure it often enough. Coach must test for SPOT’s often, record them and post them.

Speed specificity training does not ignore the importance of skill sets that improve, endurance, pace, pain tolerance (lactate tolerance), strength / flexibility (becoming a better athlete), pulling pattern and stroke efficiency, mental acuity, as well as other important facets needed to become a faster swimmer. With that said, improving SPOT is the primary focus of USRPT / HIT, and to me, that is the difference between what coaches do now and coaches who use speed specificity training.

Until SPOT times are acquired, skill sets like lactate tolerance sets, endurance sets and pace sets take a back seat to training (not to be ignored but to be emphasized much much less). Until a swimmer’s twenty-five yard time is fast enough to reach their end-goal, everything else is a mute issue. To solidify this point, a swimmer who has a SPOT time of 15.3 seconds cannot break a five-minute five hundred until they that time becomes a 14.9 ( very little room for debate, right?).

Speed is an elusive skill set a swimmer can only improve upon by specifically training to get it. Here is the mystery, during the age of Mark Spitz, coaches espoused specificity training but did just the opposite and trained their athletes around “yardage” and more was always better. Today, a majority of great coaches still train swimmers and most of them will swim less that one minute per event, with miles of swimming and much of it at threshold race pace times. Training swimmers to drop times by adding recreational yardage sets throws speed specificity training out the window.

On the other hand the yardage using USRPT / HIT or speed specificity training is likely to cut yardage in half or more because it all but eliminates redundant or recreational swimming (long monotonous and arduous sets with little relevance).

A colleague of mine posted a sheet of paper that had on it: “6 points to a Meaningful Practice” by USC Head Coach David Salo. He acquired the list while attending a Michigan Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association Clinic and it looked like this:
1.) Race Pace
2.) Varied Stimuli
3.) Hard
4.) Fun
5.) Faster-Faster – More Faster
6.) Relevance

The 6 points made sense to me and to make sure that it was saying to me what I thought it was, I looked up some articles about Salo and tried to learn something about his coaching philosophy. The two articles I liked the best are listed below and you will probably enjoy them as much as I did. I look at coach Salo as one of the coaches who are helping change the way swimmers will be trained now and in the future.

The following information is not from Coach Salo, it’s from me. I have simply looked at his list and put into words what I think they mean to me. The first is;

1.) Race Pace
I use the term “Race Pace” as a baseline from which swimmers and coaches should create their training programs. I believe the most important baseline time is a push-off twenty-five (swim, kick, pull). I do not allow swimmers to use a kickboards or allow them to scull or use any propulsive motions with their hands when they record a kick or pull time. I want to isolate their kick and pull times to gain a true account of their effort.
If you want fast swimmers then your practices must concentrate on lowering their twenty-five yard times. If you can’t break fifteen seconds in a twenty-five yard freestyle, you are forever stuck at that multiple forever; A sub five minute five hundred – Not!; A sub two minute two-hundred – Not!, A sub one-minute one-hundred free – Well with a good start a fifty-eight (you get my point).

2.) Varied Stimuli
I use the term Varied Stimuli to describe the concept of measurable stress and adaptation to stress. The ability to effectively manipulate stress during a season is knowledge that both coach and swimmer must understand to become successful. The word “Plateau” is usually looked at by athletes as a painful thorn in a season but it shouldn’t be. A plateau is an important announcement that training stimuli or methods must be altered to break through it.
These methods may include but are not limited to: taking time off to rest, increasing yardage, shortening rest periods, increasing intensity, increasing resistance, restricting breathing patterns, improving the strength / resistance baseline.

It is easy to increase stress but it cannot be arbitrary / subjective. If you measure everything you do and establish a baseline for everything you do, effectively varying stimuli to increase stress becomes possible.
Most swimmers judge the success of a practice on how they feel after it. I have had swimmers praise the workout I gave them because it made them throw-up (it’s true). If “throwing-up” is what a great practice is all about; I told them I could make them throw-up all the time. It is ironic to me that swimmers who tell me they had a great practice because of the pain they feel, cannot tell me the most important thing that makes a practice great.

The most important measurement of a great practice should be improved baseline times. Pain and nausea are subjective feelings and cannot be relied on to measure the effectiveness of a practice. So, if you are a coach and measure your practices on how your swimmers tell you they feel, you are fooling yourself.

Training sets without baseline times are often a waste of a swimmer’s time. Why introduce a set that does not measure something? Varying stimuli for the sake of breaking monotony is almost a guaranteed waste of a swimmer’s time. If you want to break monotony, have your swimmers listen to music or train with different swimmers.

3.) Hard
To me “Hard” is all about measured intensity. You can make a set hard but is the intensity measureable and specific? A set of 5 x 500 on a difficult interval is hard but they do not become necessarily intense until the set is repeated with improved times. This is where I think many coaches get confused and make their practices monotonous and unproductive. Sets that do not allow swimmers to measure intensity are simply sets that keep them busy and tired.

This idea of “Hard” also applies to exercise and strength training. Dry-land programs should not be a list of things to do but a list of goals or things to accomplish. Attaining failure is a goal; a specific number of repetitions and then adding another repetition is a goal; adding resistance and maintaining a set standard or number of repetitions is a goal. A list of exercises needs to mean more than just keeping athletes busy. Dry-land practices that are hard do not mean they’re intense. Get the most out of your dry-land program by setting goals within them.

4.) Fun
To me “Fun” is all about keeping swimmers in a caring, positive and productive environment.
Athletes perform better when they are surrounded by people who genuinely care about them on many levels.

Great coaches are great for many reasons but all of them know how to foster a positive and inclusive training environment. One of the best things an athletic program has to offer is an opportunity for athletes to make friends and friendships. When the coach creates an environment that encourages swimmers to make friends or life-long connections, fun becomes an integral part of fundamentals. A coach creates the “Fun” in a practice and it is a refinable and incredible motivational coaching tool.

The last piece in pursuit of fun is a component that cannot be overlooked and that component is safety. If swimmers do not feel safe, their performance will be compromised. Coaches must do everything in their power to eliminate hazing, bullying, inappropriate rituals “rites of passage”, and inappropriate behavior in the locker room, on the pool deck and away from the pool deck. I am convinced that attrition rates in swimming programs are primarily due to swimmers feeling unsafe in some way with other members of the team.

When intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are given for individual training, swim meets and personal improvements / achievements, attitudes get better. If you want them to have “Fun,” establish baseline sets that measure endurance, pain tolerance, pace, speed, technical improvement (DPS), recovery, strength, and find ways to make them “Fun.”

5.) Faster-Faster- More Faster
To me Faster-Faster-More Faster means that speed is the most elusive component in swimming and all training should revolve around it. If you cannot swim a twenty-five fast will you ever swim a hundred fast? Endurance is not elusive but speed is!
To swim any race faster, a swimmer must improve his sprinting capability. Again, it’s hard to get fast, so don’t do things that will impede that goal. The focus on speed does not mean you neglect other objectives: Pace / Endurance / Pain Tolerance / Technique – Efficiency / Strength / Flexibility. Speed should be viewed as the center of a wheel and the other components are the spokes of that wheel.

6.) Relevance
To me “Relevance” joins the six points. Relevance relates to yardage and sets that are clearly defined, measurable and have a specific purpose. If your practices are relevant, they revolve around the first five points and they accomplish something to help your swimmers swim faster. If the things you do to train your swimmers can be supported with objective data that in turn supports faster times, your training regimen is relevant.

Case in point; Coaches of other sports are bewildered with morning practices and I too question the relevance of them in a majority of high school swimming programs. There are few high school sports that require their athletes to train in the morning and after school. Two-a-days should be used as a “last resort” stress-increasing method. Anytime you take away the opportunity for high school students to sleep, you risk compromising their immune systems. Science and common sense should override a coach’s rationalization for the need to subject their athletes to this sleep-depriving practice but this is another tired historical practice that will be hard to kill.

New and novice coaches who start coaching teams with a tradition of two-a-days, will find it difficult to wean their high school away from the ritual (getting up in the morning is tough and tough means faster? -Not!). When majorities of your swimmers are improving times, an extra morning practice is not necessary. Increasing effective technical training should be attempted first and then other plateau breakers. A coach should only add a morning practice (s) to increase stress and it should be used as a last resort.

All swimming coaches write and use workout or training sets. When workouts have goals that can be objectively evaluated, they become relevant. Relevance becomes a driving force in writing workouts and adds focus, motivation and fun.

The question I get most from swimmers is; how can I get faster? I tell them, become a better athlete and focus on dropping your SPOT, everything else will come together after that. So, improve body type (weight and strength), ankle flexibility, pulling pattern effectiveness (Timed DPS), lactate tolerance (pain). As coaches create a baseline of objective measurements, which are accumulated and recorded, swimmers should be responsible for following the prescribed course of action given by the coach. When a swimmer is doing everything the coach is telling them and they are not dropping time, the responsibility for finding an answer as to why a swimmer is not improving now falls on the shoulder of the coach.

Dropping times, using specificity speed training is the most effective and fun way to train and I hope you use it. Good luck swimmers and coaches.

June 8th, 2017, 10:25 AM
Thanks Tom, but did you really need to post this in three separate threads? Also you've got a typo in the title "Do your swimmers now their SPOT?" I think you meant to say "know."

June 8th, 2017, 03:25 PM
Thanks Tom, but did you really need to post this in three separate threads? Also you've got a typo in the title "Do your swimmers now their SPOT?" I think you meant to say "know."

Probably not but it's been such a long time since I've been on the Forum that, I thought I'd hit a different audience. Sorry about that.

June 8th, 2017, 06:01 PM
[QUOTE=knelson;321336]Thanks Tom, but did you really need to post this in three separate threads? Also you've got a typo in the title "Do your swimmers now their SPOT?" I think you meant to say "know."[/QUOTE

Ha! I started reading the post, and then looked at the date. I then looked at the calendar confirming that today is indeed June 8. Then why did it seem like I had read that post already? Am I going out of my mind?? Was I remembering something REAL or was my mind making it up? :afraid:

Thanks, Kirk. It's good to know that I still have my sanity. :agree: