Tuesday, January 29, 2013

2013: The Year I Abandoned Having a System

Every now and then on this blog, I feel compelled to write about coaching. This is one of those times. I believe that some day, when they wheel me off the pool deck for the final time, I'll look back on this season as one of the major milestones of my career. Here's what we have so far:

1998: Become completely obsessed with becoming a swim coach
2000: Coach my first summer league team
2002: Begin spending my summers coaching a USA Swimming club
2006: Graduate from college and get a teaching job to feed my coaching habit at a boarding school
2007: Despite, people, among them my head coach, trying to talk me out of it, volunteer on a college swim team
2009: Gain full time employment as a swim coach
2010: Gain autonomy over designing and implementing training for a group of swimmers. Immediately declare it a "low volume" zone.
2011: Ditch morning practice/doubles. (!!!!!!)

Which brings us to this season. This season I faced a lot of fresh challenges. In three years of coaching "my own group", the number of swimmers I was responsible for had gone from 10 to 18. If I were to put all their best events in order it would consist of every race in the NCAA program with the exception of the 1650. The group consisted of nine holdovers from the previous year, seven freshmen and two swimmers who had trained with another coach the last year.

Lest you think this was some maniacal plot to drive me crazy, realize that I asked for it. Better yet, I alternately demanded, pleaded and coerced my fellow coaches into it. I did so partly because my ego told me that I could help all of those swimmers to improve, partly because I got a tingle of excitement up my spine when I thought about how hard it would be for me.

As soon as I knew who the swimmers would be, I knew (or at least I thought I knew) that I had to figure out how I was going to coach them. What system would I devise to bring out the best possible results from what one of my co-workers once referred to as "the land of lost toys" when another coach asked "Who does Chris coach?". Every time I thought about it, I grew frustrated. I would come up with what I thought was a great plan for one of my sprinters. If I thought hard enough, I could stretch it out to include a handful or more of the members in the group. Beyond that, the cracks and imperfections would drive me crazy. My sprinter plan was absolutely no good for my 400 IMer.

Ultimately, I decided that I would just show up and try to make the best workout for each swimmer every day. Unable to find a "system" for making swimmers better, I abandoned having one altogether. Morning practices and doubles came back, but only for certain swimmers in the group. Some swimmers kicked when others pulled, or swam the backstroke on the breaststroke set. I had practices where I had as many as seven different workouts running simultaneously. Where once I was well known for weaving workouts off the top of my head, I now spent an hour or more planning each one, each time forcing myself to go down the list of each swimmer and ask myself whether the practice was the best I could do for them. Of course, you could do this ad infinitum, so I always had to find a stopping point. Some workouts were better and more organized than the others, and I'm still learning, and tuning, every day with each swimmer.

Along the way, I borrowed some knowledge. Over the holidays I read Jan Olbrecht's "The Science of Winning", a book that meticulously lays out how you should train swimmers (physically) and why. It only further convinced me that as much as I could force myself to individualize training I should. Rather than tell me that there is a recipe for coaching swimming, it convinced me further that every swimmer is a puzzle and that knowledge only helps you figure out what pieces they need.

I also recently rediscovered the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a modern thinker who is in vogue mainly for his prescient comments before the most recent financial crisis. I like him because he says a lot of things that I think apply well beyond finance. I realized recently I had missed a book of his, entitled "The Bed of Procrustes". It was a book of sayings, all based around a mythical greek figure, Procrustes. Procrustes' was a smith who would lure people into his house to spend the night, and then mutilate their bodies so they would fit his guest bed perfectly. Depending on whether they were too big or too small he would stretch them out or cut pieces of them off.

What does that have to do with swim coaching? Substitute the bed for your "system" and you have it. When you have a system you will inevitably try to force swimmers into it, whether or not it really fits them. Better to keep an open mind and keep trying to make something that fits them specifically a little better. Plan as much as you possibly can and then be willing to change everything in an instant.


  1. Very thought provoking!! As an age group coach, my question is at what age do you advocate with this more specilized approach? I know that the age group years is when the foundation is formed so to some extent they need exposure to everything during these years (IM, sprint, distance, etc.). Would love to hear your opinion.

  2. First off I will say that if you've coached more than 6 months you have more age group experience than I do! That said I do think some of this applies to age group and i'll tell you how.

    I think your intuition about forming a foundation at a younger age is absolutely correct. Trust your instincts about the swimmer you see in front of you: can you determine what their specialty is or, as with most young swimmers, is it unclear? Also, the Olbrecht book reinforces the science behind building their aerobic energy systems at the critical "age group" age, roughly 12-15 in boys and 13-16 girls. But what if you have a kid who really doesn't have much room for growth in their aerobic ability but can sprint like the wind? Don't train that sprinter out of the sport is my advice!

    In short, know the "rules" but be on the lookout for kids who do not fit them at all and try to make a great place for them to train also.

    1. I was gonna chime in with this one as well, and I agree with Chris. I coach age group, high school and senior USA. My philosophy is "get to know your athletes." Their technique quirks, what to fix and what to leave alone, what motivates them and demotivates them, and how to talk to them specifically. Each child is in a different place in their swimming and is there for different reasons. I typically make a general workout (and, yes we do IM and aerobic development but also race a lot because it is fun. we even have goal paces for the 12 & unders on sets of 50's, 75's and 100's,) and then try to give each swimmer something to focus on that is specific to them. It may be just on one set, may be for the day, or may be a prescription for a season that addresses their particular strengths and weaknesses. For instance, one of my swimmers who has always been a weak kicker will be pulled aside and asked to stretch ankles for 5 minutes extra because that will address something they need specifically. Sometimes we will work on the timing of the breath in fly and I will let the swimmers who especially need the work there ahead of time to let them know it is coming and help them remember what I am looking for.
      The hard part about this philosophy is making it work with so many athletes in an age group club!