A while back, I watched an interview with Steve Jobs on netflix. Released in the buzz of his autobiography and his lionization in death, it was a glimpse into the past and one of the few recorded interviews he ever did. One part of the interview has stuck with me ever since. Jobs brings up the topic of "taste". In this context, "taste" is all about liking the best in any number of things: cars, food, movies and, of course, user friendly electronics. I think about this definition of "taste" when I coach swimming. I think we can all agree as coaches we want to see good quality practice. But what is "quality", in a swim practice? Well, it's a matter of taste.
I found myself thinking about this last week as I was on training camp. As a swimmer, I mostly hated training camps. Admittedly, I am still and was in the past a creature of habit. The disturbance of being away from home always made me a little crankier than it should have. But I also found myself disturbed by the jump in expectation from my coaches that often accompanied a training camp. I was always confused- wasn't I always supposed to be training at my best level? Wasn't I always supposed to be maximizing my rest and recovery?
As a coach, I've always been a little different in terms of training camps. I don't subscribe to the notion that training camps are a chance to go crazy with significantly harder training than back home. I always turn the difficulty nob up a little, so much so that you can tell the difference, but hopefully not so much that you feel you are at a "torture" camp instead of a training camp. Over the years at Georgia Tech, some of my swimmers came to do their best dual meet performances at our training camps for this reason.
One of the opportunities I think that training camps offers is the chance for kids, who are often being pulled in many directions, to put a more singular focus on swimming. For many, this is an opportunity to dramatically increase the quantity of training. For me, it's always about increasing the quality of training. It's a shift no less important and one I hope can be sustained when they return to a distracting environment.
I think about this a lot because I'm in a country where it's generally assumed that somewhere from 14-15 years old (girls) and 15-16 years old (boys), swimmers will start to attend 10 swimming practices a week. The most any of my swimmers train is eight times per week, although one of them has been pestering me for weeks to "allow" her to do nine practices per week.
To many people in the US, that would probably seem like a lot of practices for young swimmers, although its not unheard of for elite teams in the US to press the swimmers into several morning trainings. This is swimming after all, it takes hard work to be good!
The question that I find is asked far too little, however, and one which I have been posing to my swimmer begging for nine whenever she makes a long face, is when you should progress to more training and more meters. For me, it is a question of quality. Is the swimmer really maximizing what they can get out of eight practices, or six, or even four practices? How high is the coach's standard for a quality practice? At what point does he/she say to themselves "well that's the best I can expect" and just turn their mind to "more" instead of better? I coach swimmers who come to a lot of trainings but hardly ever deliver the quality that I expect from practice. What is the point of increasing training until they figure that out?
For me, a quality practice is one in which swimmers are actively involved in their own improvement. They are not just receiving sets and completing the cursory amount of laps. They are engaged in improving something technical in every stroke/drill/kick/pull they do, no matter if it is fast, medium or slow. They are carrying information learned from the previous practice, and the one before that, so that they can start moving forward instead of all over again. They are listening, and remembering the expert advice they are getting. A quality practice is one in which swimmers push themselves to explore areas that they previously found impossible.
On my most recent training camp, nearly every swimmer reached a breaking point where they felt they had been taxed beyond their limits. And yet every single one of them was able to step up on the blocks on some part of the trip and record a lifetime best swim. That's the kind of quality I'm looking for.