Saturday, August 6, 2011

Keeping it in Perspective

Before this National meet started, I stated unequivocally what I would be watching for- the young swimmers that would replace the current generation of US stars. Depending on who you ask, we have just seen it. I remain more doubtful. While we did see a legendary NAG record go down over the course of this meet, the swims are not keeping pace with international competition. Why do I keep hammering on this point?  Let me explain:

First, I've always made a point of compariing US results to international results. I've only had a blog for three years, so if it feels like I'm constantly pessimistic about swimming talent development in the United States, know that it's a recent trend. I write this blog as a way to engage with fellow coaches, swimmers and fans. So far no one's been able to give me a reasonable eomeback.

The most frequent arguments I get against what I write are on pool decks (I wish some of these guys would comment online). I will paraphrase them here -they range from semi-credible to ridiculous. The semi-credible retort is to show current results. We are certainly by far the strongest swimming country in the world and have proven that we only need a few stars to pan out to continue to do so. It is very possible that I am wrong and we will have swimmers comparable to Phelps/Lochte by Rio.

On the ludicrous end, I had the tired old argument that the 19-20 year old international swimmers that were so dominant in Shanghai are clearly products of doping. This is one of the most tired put downs we place on international results. The logic follows that if anyone is doing that much better than us, they must be cheating, because WE'RE THE BEST.

And therein lies the problem. I think that swim coaches in the United States do very little to study why pockets of success creep up around the world. We suppose that they are perhaps random, that in a few years Danish women's freestyle won't be really good and that this is the Faroe Islands one hurrah. I've tried to highlight those accomplishments in my blog to pique curiosity about just how those undermatched programs succeed where we do not.

Lastly, lest you think I am pointing the figure everywhere else, I know very much that I (and my cohort of college and club coaches) deserve a lot of the blame here. There is no lack of talent in the United States, nor is it that "kids these days" don't want to work hard. We have become stale and overconfident in our methods. It's time to look more outside the country, learn, and be better.


  1. Chris, What have we learned? What are the French men doing? What are the dutch women doing? What do we need to be better rather than just "be better?"

  2. Could it also be that our athletes that age are typically attending high school or college with a pretty decent workload and, in some cases, working to support themselves? I'm friends with a French swimmer who expressed amazement that we do this, because over there, she says typically you are either a student or an athlete, not both. Education gets kicked to the wayside and sometimes not returned to. That's not really a trend I'd like to see the U.S. emulate, to be honest. It worked great for Phelps but wouldn't for everybody.

  3. I think the athlete partnership agreement is a positive step that long term will result in much more depth on our national team. That is something we've learned I believe from countrys that had no other option than to support some athletes who aren't quite there yet.

    What do we have yet to learn? Biological basis for training. I think that the US is in general lacking in relation to European countries in their understanding of physical science as it relates to swimming performance. US age groupers in my opinion work extremely hard relative to European peers but gain less fitness because of inferior training methods. Yardage is still the most predominant measure for training difficulty in the US. Even though very few coaches would say they use yardage my perception is that most do.

    I think that we also need more professionalism in the coaching ranks. Thanks for pushing me to come up with a few things

  4. Robin,

    I think education is a great comparison. I think American children are under tremendous pressure in school relative to say, Finland, but Finnish children perform better academically.

  5. Or just stay in our own country and figure out how we can develop untapped talent that might not have access to swimming pools. I think they call that diversity.

  6. Finally I have found someone who is seeing the same problem I am seeing...what are we doing to fill in behind our current swim stars. This is a serious issue, especially on the men's side. Who is the next Phelps or Lochte? Who knows, but when was the last time we had a teenage to early 20's age male on the world scene? Which the exception of Missy Franklin, what about the women's scene. It is scary. Watching World's, the rest of the countries had a lot of teenage girls swimming in finals at the meet.

    I think it is because we are not properly motivating our younger "senior" swimmers. We have made it nearly impossible for a young swimmer with a dream to make it up to the next level. We need to install a new progression (or re-install the old progression) to save those swimmers.

    I love this blog. I am glad I found it.

  7. Great point, livefreeswimhard! How many European countries have free access to community swimming pools and swim lessons included as part of regular schooling for their children, while we are steadily losing that access for ours and never had swim lessons in school for most kids? Not an excuse, but a place to start looking at making changes.

  8. Chris, I think the athlete partnership only helps post-grads...Being a student-athlete is tough without a full ride and lots of NCAA teams have international we are often developing other nations' elite swimmers...

  9. A) We are training a lot of our competition.

    B) "The logic follows that if anyone is doing that much better than us, they must be cheating, because WE'RE THE BEST."

    Well in the case of China, I have to be suspicious. I mean, look how they cheated in Gymnastics during the Beijing games. Falsified ages, etc. The Chinese have an agenda and will do *whatever it takes* to push it.

  10. Robin: I know a lot of french swimmers who are students and athletes. There are some that are more athletes than anything else, but I guess that goes for most countries.


    Anonymous & Jeff: How many of this years finalists from Europe train (did train) in the US?

    I'm just wondering...

    In the case of Denmark (Chris can back me up here), there are a few danes training in the US, one of them was good enough to make the national team, but did not do that well. The rest, and this goes for most of the successful (people who make the finals at worlds) Scandinavians, are training in Europe. There are 18 million people in Scandinavia, that gave us 4 golds, none of those train in the US. There are 450 million people in the US, and you got 16 gold. Maybe US swimmers need to get "over here" ;)

    I'm kidding of course, but do those numbers tell us something?

    And regarding China, I think you are wrong.

    Remember, they are 3 times as many people in China than in the US, and swimming has developed into a big sport. They are all working very hard doing only what we know is working today, they are not stuck in old ways, nor in the ugly ways of the 90's eithter. That's just my opinion after visiting China, and asking a lot of questions.


    If you ask me why many of the Europeans are doing so well, it's because they are working 1 coach and 1-3 swimmers. That goes for a lot of then, and it does make a whole lot of difference.
    Many of the french sprinters did very well this way a few years ago, and now the teams are so much bigger because a lot of people want a piece of that success (and the coaches more money), but it does not work that way. Not when you work on those small details every day that could make you just that little better than your oponent.

    Could this be a Trojan problem this year? I have no idea, just asking.

    But remember, that failure isn’t an end game for our hopes and desires. Failure is, in fact, a part of success. Those who won in Shanghai could very well get their ***** kicked in London.

  11. Bjarnason,

    Thanks for the backup. Only figure that is incorrect is US population. We are closer to around 300 million.

    I think that you make a great point about foreign swimmers training in the US. I think over the last few years there have been even more foreign swimmers coming to the US while at the same time we are "developing" less of them for foreign countries. We are also seeing foreign athletes return home to train after spending time at US colleges.

    To your point, just three of the foreign medalists at the most recent world's trained in the US at any point in there careers- Cesar Cielo, Matt Targett and Wu Peng. I think Peng is the only one who trains in the US currently.

  12. Ohh, yeah, must be because we count in Mexico as US.
    SORRY! bad joke.
    I read 450 on the danish swimnews webpage, and did not check it out.

    This, I realize, makes China more than 4 times bigger than the US. And with only 15 medals in swimming, where 5 are gold, one cant be suspicious.

    Regarding the US swim team, present and future, I would not worrie to much. There is only a handful of events at the moment, where it's hard to see a gold medal in London. The rest for sure is achievable ;-)

  13. I think part of the reason why we don't see as many 19-20 year olds on the international stage as some other countries is that we don't put the same pressure on our 14-15 year olds that they do. In a lot of places, it's international level competition by the time you finish secondary school or bust, and you're ramping it up at an earlier age to hit that milestone. Here, you're 'only' typically going for national level at age 18, especially on the men's side, and we gear swimmer development accordingly.

    The result is that while we don't always have the most precocious team, we also pick up a number of late bloomers who have quite nice international careers who would have been told they were too old to get started in swimming. Ed Moses and Kristy Kowal come to mind in that category. And if Dax Hill had been asked to pick between swimming and basketball at age 13, would he have made the same decision that he did at 18? Same goes for Breeja Larson and softball ro track or whatever her other big sport was in high school.

  14. Our men's national team has gotten 3.5 years older, on average, since the 2000 Olympics (21.3 years old to 24.8 years old). We have gone from 8 teens on the men's team to zero over the same time period. I don't think it's about the pressure, I think it is that we are not bringing our younger senior swimmers along. Instead we are hanging our success on our veteran swimmers.

    Don't get me wrong, these guys (and gals) work incredibly hard for their success, but this is a pretty drastic turnaround since 2000. One of the biggest changes has been our progression of championship meets. We are underemphasizing the more "developmental" senior swimmer with the changes implemented in 2001.

    To quote the great Ron Burgundy "It's Science".

  15. Here's the list of foreign swimmers CURRENTLY training in Australia:
    Sun Yang (golds in 800 and 1500 and silver in 400)
    Park Tae Hwan (gold in 400 free)
    Therese Alshammar (gold in 50 free and silver in 50 fly)
    Zhao Jing (gold in 100 back)
    Ellen Gandy (silver in 200 fly)
    Liu Zige (bronze in 200 fly)
    the entire members of China's men 4x200 (bronze)

    How many current US-trained foreign swimmer won gold in Shangai? ZERO.

    I don't understand all these petty complaints about foreign swimmers.

  16. Aswimfan,

    Don't you understand that three of those swimmers you listed are Chinese so in American eyes they are most definitely cheating? I joke but that's not an unpopular sentiment here. We also like to pretend that the swimmers come out of nowhere because we can't be bothered to learn their names. I had someone who I thought was pretty knowledgeable approach me during Worlds and go "I'm suspicious of this James Magnussen- where did he come from?" and I said "you didn't follow Pan-Pacs last year? He was barely 19 and pretty darn good"

    Swimmers like Magnussen and Yang sort of blow out of the water any argument that the US swimmers are on some sort of longer term developmental scale. Swimming itself hasn't changed so that athletes that age can be the best, but the US has changed.

  17. DeSantis: "Swimming itself hasn't changed so that athletes that age can be the best, but the US has changed."

    In Europe we see that swimmers who medal at the European Juniors, or get close, they have a great chance of making it as seniors. I cant think of anyone who is "pretty darn good" at the moment, who did not medal or get close at Juniors. And you know what it takes to medal at European Juniors.

    And I'm very sure, that 18 yo boys who medal at European Juniors, were really good at age 16-17. The same goes for the 14-15 yo girls.

    At World Junior Champs, the US with 311 million people, have to be at least as dominant, if not even more so, than the seniors in order to stay ahead. That is, if you regard those championships as an important stepping stone from junior to senior.

    I do not know it this is the case, but that is my opinion on this matter. I would try to make it so if I was asked ;)

    Now imagine if China does what it takes to top this every year until Rio. 16-18 gold medals in swimming alone ;)

    Hmm coaching in China.. how about it Chris? ;)

  18. I'll go if you go first.

    It is not as often in the US that the best swimmers coming up the ranks are the best down the line. I often suspect that the reason these swimmers succeed in Europe is because Denmark, for instance, has no choice but to do the best with what little talent they have. In America, if somebody doesn't pan out there's always somebody else.

    You made an interesting point about coaching to swimmer rations earlier that I think also applies here. We think that the best coaches in the US should have unlimited great swimmers with them. Its a very coach centered approach and not an athlete centered approach. In my opinion it would be better for more coaches to be working with smaller groups of elite swimmers but I don't see it happening.

  19. Look no further than the top university programs who are getting all the top 17/18 year old men and women. Stop blaming Age Group and start look ing at mid major and top tier Div 1 school coaches who need to take our AG talent to the next level.
    Alot of our Club coaches could get those swimmers to the next level, however, they do not have that option.

  20. A well known problem all over the world, Anonymous.

    Ok Chris, I'll surprise you ;)