6 Points to a Meaningful Practice by Dave Salo
What they mean to me
Coach Thomas Topolski
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
5.) Faster-Faster – More Faster
It immediately 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’ll probably enjoy them as much as I did. I look at coach Salo is one of the coaches who are helping change the way swimmers will be trained now and in the future.
The following information isn’t from Coach Salo, it’s from me. I’ve 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 don’t 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’s easy to increase stress but it can’t 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’ve 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 can make them throw-up all the time. It’s ironic to me that swimmers who tell me they had a great practice because of the pain they feel, can’t 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 can’t be relied on to measure the effectiveness of a practice. So, if you’re a coach and measure your practices on how your swimmers tell you they feel, you’re fooling yourself.
Training sets without baseline times are often a waste of a swimmer’s time. Why introduce a set that doesn’t 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.
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 don’t become necessarily intense until the set is repeated with improved times. This is where I think a lot of coaches get confused and make their practices monotonous and unproductive. Sets that don’t 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 shouldn’t 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 don’t mean they’re intense. Get the most out of your dry-land program by setting goals within them.
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’s 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 don’t 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’m 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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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.
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 a majority of your swimmers are improving times, an extra morning practice isn’t 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.
I really enjoyed Dave Salo’s “6 Points to a Meaningful Practice” and hope you do. You may look at them to gain a different perspective and I think they’ll help everyone reflect on how they run their practices. Good luck my friends. Coach Topolski