If you've been involved with swimming, you probably know one or more swimmers that has been labeled a "headcase". It's possible that term hasn't been used, that they've been described as someone who crumbles under pressure at the end of the season, or doesn't race up to the potential of their training. Their coach might say "if only he/she could get out of his/her own way she would do well". I've been playing around with a theory regarding this for the last few weeks. I think, in many cases, describing a swimmer as a "headcase" belies a total misunderstanding of how they got that way. Let me explain
There is near universal acceptance in the coaching community about the importance of psychological preparation for racing. We say "the sport is 90% mental" or maybe even "95% mental". We talk about "mental toughness". Most coaches know a mentally prepared swimmer when they see one, but how many know exactly how they got there?
I believe a great many swimmers labor under a system that is designed to make them "headcases". The biggest culprit in my mind is progressive overload training. What do I mean by "progressive overload"? I mean the process of working through a cycle that puts a swimmer through progressively more and more training (loading) before finally allowing them to fully recover or taper in this instance. If everything goes right, faster performance will follow.
Progressive overload works very well with swimmers with high recovery levels and abilities to process blood lactate. That is why we have seen swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte be incredibly successful by training with progressive overload. Their ability to recover allows them to continuously adapt while putting themselves through training that would otherwise break them.
The problem I see is that many swimmers do not take to progressive overload training as well. They cannot adapt and perform increasingly worse over the period of training. Psychologically, they have to overcome declining or stagnating performance over the course of an entire season and then believe that they can swim much faster. That belief is achievable but fairly irrational. That's where you find a lot of swimmers struggling to do well at the end of the season.
Many coaches probably want swimmers to make a connection between their practice training and meet performance. The problem is that almost all training models don't correlate directly with performance. When I swam in college, we did 10x300 on :20 rest as a "test set" for our conditioning. But the set didn't correlate directly to any swimming race we actually competed in. At best it was a measure of our ability to swim a 3000 for time. I think many swimmers understand innately that they are making an apples to oranges comparison between practice and meets.
Therefore, it's incumbent upon coaches to give swimmers a chance to perform well during the season. This gives them a performance to base their belief on. I actually think that multiple chances are better. Swimmers don't have to "best times" in their first meet of the year, but they should be prepared to swim better than they did at that same point the previous year and improve on that over the course of the season before they ultimately taper. In a college setting, this means for me that I want my swimmers to perform well in the first dual meet and better in each subsequent meet, which is no easy task. What "well" and "better" are for each swimmer should be defined by the coach and the swimmer.
And that, folks, is what I'm ranting about at the moment.