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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Thoughts on Practice Construction

In the USA, we have a lot of coaches and teams training athletes in a lot of different ways.  Although our methods are quite different, great results come from everywhere.  This not-to-be-debated fact is generally explained simply:  as a Coach, it’s not WHAT your training style is, it’s HOW you do deliver that training style to your athletes.

I agree with this concept – to a point.  The Coach’s enthusiasm and ability to get the athlete to either buckle down or swim technically well is a huge factor when considering the success of an athlete.  Additionally, the Coach’s ability to help the athlete equip him/herself with the tool of self-sufficiency is also a major key to higher level performance.  But if the Coach’s enthusiasm/expertise and skill as a teacher/mentor was all there was to it, I believe the path to outstanding performance would be easily attained (easier than it currently is, at least). 

I believe proper practice construction to be of great importance when developing athletes, and it’s my belief that all of the above traits can be perfectly in place and aligned with the athletes – but without proper practice construction we will miss the boat at some point in an athlete’s development.

To me, proper practice construction takes into consideration at least four major ideas in athletic development:

1)      The Physiological needs of an athlete, as it pertains to his/her top swimming events.

2)      The Physiological needs of an athlete, as it pertains to his/her stage of development (considering factors like age, gender, phase of season, phase of career).

3)      The Psychological needs of an athlete, as it pertains to his/her top swimming events.

4)      The Psychological needs of an athlete, as it pertains to his/her stage of development (considering factors like age, gender, phase of season, phase of career).

To be clear, my belief is that a practice must be built around an athlete.  As a coach, we should always form a hypothesis regarding an athlete’s practice performance – and as well, regarding an athlete’s ability to recover from a practice performance.  We miss the point of a practice if we just throw a workout at a group of athletes, and see how they do.  These athletes are people we see every day!   We can train them better than that.  Here are a few mistakes I think we make, and my suggestions for correction:

A)     The practice is too hard or too easy.  I find the boys/men need the real hard stuff… the big threshold practices, more than the girls/women.  The women need the strength, and the applied strength of properly managed workouts.  Distance-Oriented women and Sprint-Oriented men tend to need training that is shaded a bit in the other direction.  Psychologically-speaking, each of these different types of people are affected by all of the physical things we ask them to do as coaches – so we have to understand that dynamic.  We have to know our athletes, figure out where their “line” is – and coach them just over that line.

B)      The practice is geared toward overall “crowd management” instead of geared toward higher end performance.  We have to consider the top athletes in the training group, give them what they need on a daily, weekly, yearly basis.  Workouts are about athletes and their specific physical needs/limitations as well as their specific psychological needs.  Great workouts are not only about percentages of certain types of work, or phases in a season, or energy systems (although certainly these things are important).  We have to do things that allow for high-level practice performance on a daily basis. 

C)      The practice is conceptually too confusing for the athletes to understand without having to go over it multiple times.  If an athlete is spending energy trying to figure out what is going on, their energy is not being directed into training and performance.  Sets should have a basic pattern to them, and should be easily memorized based on its easy-to-follow pattern.  How do you know if your set has a pattern?  Write down two-thirds of your set and see if another coach or athlete can figure out the last third.  For instance, yesterday I had a group of athletes swim a fly set.  Here is the first two thirds:


3x:  75 Free (120) + 75 Free-Free-Fly (120)* + 75 Free (120) + 75 Fly (120)*

3x: 75 Free (130) + 75 Free-Fly-Free (130)* + 75 Free (130) + 75 Fly (130)**

                …..so, can you tell what is next?

                3x: 75 Free (140) + 75 Fly-Free-Free (140)* + 75 Free (140) + 75 Fly (140)***

My belief is that too often we try to give the athletes a set that “mixes things up”.  We consider the mixing to be a good thing.  Why is it good to be mixed up?!? 

Athletes do better with sets that have a mathematically-based pattern.  Give them this set, and not only will their mind be confused, but so too will their physical body:

5x: {2x50 Free (45) + 3x75 Free-Fly-Free (130) + 3x25 easy (30) + 1x75 Fly (130)* + 100 easy (2)}

They will spend the first 3 rounds just trying to figure out what is going on!  The body and mind perform better when working within a certain rhythm.


To conclude:  I remember looking over a practice log of a great coach, and reading at the top of a page from weeks earlier in the season: “Poor Set Design”.  This coach had written this note at the top of the page to himself….for future consideration.  This coach knew, based off seeing the practice actually happen, that it wasn’t the athlete’s fault that they performed poorly – it was his fault as the coach.  Kudos to that coach for tuning in to this fact (certainly poor set design was a rare occurrence in the program); the next time around when looking for this type of work the coach had learned what had NOT worked – and was able to use the information from the previous weeks to design a set that had some impact in allowing the athletes to work well within the framework of the set.  Oftentimes, we ask for too many hard repeats with too little of a ratio of active or passive recovery – or we simply ask for too many repeats, period, in the name of “getting in some yards” or “being tough”.  There is something to be said for tolerating some discomfort – and I do believe there is a place for that – but to me, a program can’t be built around this type of activity.  It’s easy to fry an athlete in a physical or a mental way, and once they’re fried they lose their confidence – and it takes a ton of energy and focus just to get them back to square one.

Please feel free to comment your thoughts below this blog.  Thanks for reading this far!  These are just my thoughts – not anything more than that, and I know what I’m saying may not fit into certain program’s belief system.  I feel that by thinking like this I can continue to keep my program moving in the right direction.

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