Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Season Planning is For Dopes

Hopefully by now you've realized that the title's of my posts are far more inflammatory then what's inside. I'm going to argue in this space against what seems to be a universally accepted part of coaching swimming: the season plan. I was reminded to write this yesterday as I listened to the president of Georgia Tech discuss his 25 year plan for the University. He asked us to look into the past 25 years, and in doing so  inadvertently pointed out the folly in such long term planning. The future is just too unpredictable.

After all, 25 years ago, personal computers were just barely catching on. They were bulky, impractical and far more expensive then they were today. I'm sure that there were individuals who at the time predicted certain ways in which the world would change to be what it is now. Retroactively they are hailed as visionaries and genius. But the truth of the matter is that the world is highly unpredictable. None of us know what is going to happen and we should accept it to a certain degree.

Take recent swimming history. Who could have predicted that in 2008 suit technology would appear that was far better than its predecessors, that the world record in the men's 100 free would drop almost a full second in one year, and then in a flash they would be gone again, all while Craig Lord broke his keyboard complaining about it. Ok that last part was eminently predictable, but the rest?

The problem with planning is that as soon as you have built your beautiful sand castle, the world  can easily conjure up a tidal wave and smashes it to pieces. Nothing ever goes to plan! Having a plan can make you extremely slow to react to change and inflexible. Or maybe you are flexible and deviate from your plan often- what was the point of all that work you put into the plan again? Let me go through a couple of common objections I here when I say I don't believe in season planning:

1. "I don't work that way, I need to have something organized before the season/practice or it will drive me crazy"

This is probably the most frequent objection. It's frequent because so many people have been raised within the swimming system, which is typically heavily structured and organized. In contrast, they have not been trained to work with no prior organization. Imagine a person with a left arm twice the size of their right. They're going to want to do all the heavy lifting with their left arm. Thinking on your feet and reacting rather than sticking to a plan requires purposeful training. It drives me crazy to have something planned because everything that follows deviates so strongly from what the plan was made for that I can literally watch my plan's effectiveness deteriorate

2. "Swimmers need a plan to be successful and know where they're going"

Again, some of the same arguments as above apply. But also think about what you are preparing for. How many coaches reading this have coached swimmers that are great in practice and not so great at meets? Swimmers get labeled as "head cases" often in this circumstance. I disagree. Most often I see a swimmer who has mastered operating within structure while being unprepared for random chance. Think of the weak right arm analogy again. Practice is far more predictable than a meet. Swimmers can learn to control practice. However, the tighter you try and control a race in a meet, the more it slips through your fingers. So again, I would argue that swimmers' training needs to prepare them for the dynamic environment they will encounter in meets. Their training needs to strengthen their ability to remain composed in an uncontrolled environment, rather than preparing them for a controlled one that doesn't exist.

3. "Aren't you just lazy?"

I've heard this often when I come to practice with absolutely nothing written down or prepared for the workout. The truth is, coaching a workout without a plan is the opposite of lazy. It demands a tremendous amount of attention. Since I during one set I don't have the next layed out, I have to be very attentive to what is happening in the water and know instinctively what to do next, repeatedly. The results aren't perfect of course, but no method is, and only by doing do I feel like I can better for the next time.

If you've read all the way through, are a planner, and still don't want to kill me, I'm glad. If you want some advice on where to start, I might suggest leaving little pieces of what you do unplanned and build from there. Just enough to get that right arm sore a little, but not so much that you can't move it for a few days.


  1. Desantis, you seem like a nice guy, but there's no way in hell I could have swum for you. No morning workout? Tech Suits? No plan (not even a little idea of where you're going?)? Yikes.

  2. Love this. I come in the door with an idea in my head for the "type" of main set i want to do based on how my swimmer's looked yetserday or meet performance "We really need some more distance work" or "their turns are terrible. We're going to spend 20 minutes working on correct turn technique and then i'm going to make them do 4-turn 100's 5x in a row where no one comes up before the flags and everyone takes three strokes before they breathe off every turn"

    I think it allows for SOME structure, but allows creativity in coaching. And, it forces the coach to be more attentive. The first year I coached college, I was an assistant, and the pre-planned workouts drove me crazy. I was bored just standing there and watching them swim laps.

    Great piece.

  3. This is quite a concept. To some it might seem like a bad idea, but I am pretty Eddie Reese does not write down a workout. I tend to do the same thing sometimes because I would rather look back or see how they look in the water than to plan for something I will change anyway.

  4. Chris, I'm just not sure what you mean by a meet being a dynamic enivronment. Sure, there could be a delay that pops up on occasion, but other than that swim meets are some of the most controlled and structured sporting events in existence. There are not random defenders popping up in your way and the ball doesn't bounce funny. A 100 freestyle is a 100 freestyle every single time.

    The goal of training is for the body to adapt and get better at whatever activity it is training for. A structured and organized system that allows for a systematic overload and apppropriate recovery helps to make sure the appropriate stimulus is taking place in order for this to happen. It also allows one to stay focused with their goal on the end of the season. Obviously things change and circumstances arise that can cause one to deviate from the plan from time to time. That doesn't mean you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Variety is great and something I believe in 100%, but that can fit and be accounted for within a season plan. Playing a whole season by ear is a recipe for inconsistent results and really leaves one without much in the way of learning going into the next season. If you don't have a plan, how do you know what needs to be tweaked in order for even better performances?

  5. This makes me smile. So many people in swimming think in terms of dichotomies. Plan v No Plan; Good v. Bad. In defference to my college stats professor who used to say "the world can be reduced to a 2 x 2 table"... it can't.

    Rigidly sticking to a plan without feedback and evaluation and adjusting the plan when necessary is as foolish as having no plan at all.

    Please coaches everywhere... adopt a no plan approach, or rigidly stick to one... you will make those of us who think outside the 2x2 table you see the world look that much better!

  6. Corey Coon-CassilyAugust 30, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    I once had a 12 week practice plan all layed out with every set for every practice and even meets all included. Made it to practice #2 before I made changes. Having an over-all idea with season planning is important but things change and we have to be able to change with it.

  7. Chris,

    I think that most folks who fall into the "non-planner" category are those who keep the plan in their head. They do have an idea, based on previous experience, of what their season should/will look like. The same is true for each practice.

    The bottom line is that the plan vs no-plan idea does really not exist. It is very unlikely that it is so black & white for anyone. Anyone who does play it, strictly either way, is a fool.

    I have had seasons where I mapped out the entire season with energy systems, bench mark sets, etc. These seasons were almost always in my early years of coaching. Now, however, I have those plans figured out in my head. I only relate them verbally to my staff/athletes....but the plan is still there. It is a soft, moldable plan...not a rigid brick of a plan.

    The same is true for individual practices. I write my workouts ahead of time, but I reserve the right to practice "the law of the jungle" at any time, and either change or abandon a practice. I think it all comes down to critical thinking.

    Whether you write your season plans/practices ahead of time, don't be so foolish as to stick to them unwaveringly...unless you don't trust yourself.

  8. I agree with the idea of a general plan, but the ability to adapt is critical as is the ability to see the swimmers as individuals who will have different needs. E. g., a distance swimmer will need a different kind of workout than will a sprinter.

  9. Fair commentary Cliff. I do keep a big plan that constantly changes in my head (what specific skills/energy systems I want to train, how I want to do it). To say I have "no plan" is a lie. The post is a little over the top provocative but I do want people to think critically about season planning.

    To the anon who was very critical, I hope the above satisfies you a little. Let's agree to disagree on meets. If you don't see how meets are far more dynamic for the swimmers then I probably can't convince you otherwise.

  10. Gasp! Why it would be total chaos, anarchy, at every practice across the country! Distance swimmers would aspire to be 50 guys, 50 guys would still be 50 guys, breaststrokers would rule the world. Pff.. Right.

    As long as the coach has an underlying plan, as Chris states, this is where the art of coaching is really at. Take it from someone who has nights during the week where we go from 40 kids to 30 to 15 to 35 to 20 in one weeks time for a particular group. How about the ominous call that a SPEd class has had an accident in the pool and you have just a few hours to find water so you can relay it to your membership. You must be able to adapt to any situation.

    People like Mike Bottom and Dave Salo come to mind. Furthermore, when you lock your self into yardage, you are handcuffed and often write sets just to finish off a workout that is probably great as it is, just to hit your EN1 quota. Sounds just silly to me.

  11. I see NBAC is hiring coaches. Maybe you should apply?

  12. coacherick,

    you hit the nail right on the head. The art of coaching is that blending of science and using your gut.

    I think younger coaches need to focus on the science to start with, but then use their critical thinking skills to hone in on what is working. Presumably, older coaches have already done this and have developed into the artist that is a swim coach.

  13. Noticing two things by their absence: it is the objectives that should not change without careful consideration, not the plan. Taking 5 secs off a 500 in 8 weeks is an objective (or goal). That should not change but the plan can. Also, re: the head case, too few people practice mentally. There should be mental training and objectives in practice. Practice removing doubt before a new pace time or having one positive thought on eac length of an extensive set etc.