Challenging Coaching Dogma

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    Hey everyone! I haven’t been super active on this forum, but wanted you all to know that I follow it religiously. I have been using a full-on USRPT program for 1 year now with my club team since I took over as Head Coach. Some results:

    Male, 17 YO 200 Free SCY 1:43 (State Champ); 1 year ago was 1:53-high (9% improvement)
    Female, 10 YO 100 Fly SCY 1:03; 1 year ago was 1:11 (11% improvement)
    Male, 12 YO 50 Free SCY 24.94; 1 year ago was 27.58 (9.5% improvement)
    Female, 14 YO 100 Back SCY 1:09; 1 year ago was 1:18 (11.5% improvement)
    Male, 16 YO 50 Free SCY 24.60; 1 year ago was 28.68 (14% improvement)
    Female, 15 YO 100 Free SCY 54.52; 1 year ago was 58 (6% improvement)
    Male, 18 YO 200 Breast SCY 2:31; 1 year ago was 2:54 (13.2% improvement)

    I’ve read that physical growth contributes something like 3-4% improvement per year on average. Even subtracting that, we got great results–and they keep getting better. Also, I think it’s prudent to say that 4 of these athletes above had severe shoulder problems when I got them (2 of which had surgery, including 1 torn labrum). Aside from some occasional aches and pains (to which we stop their workout and send them home), they have had zero recurrence.

    We have done absolutely no kicking or pulling sets (spare warm-ups, or just for fun). I’ve done virtually zero stroke drills, just focusing on correcting technique while at race pace. None of them bring an equipment bag to practice (only water bottles and noseclips on deck). Most workouts average 2,000 yards, but I don’t think we’ve ever exceeded 4,500 on a day where we maxed at 30x mile-pace Freestyle 100’s. I don’t really track yardage anymore, although we just started tracking each set result.

    So this stuff definitely works! And here is where it gets REALLY interesting!

    This morning for Thanksgiving workout (yes, I am THAT coach), we rewarded the athletes who turned up with a “choose your own adventure” USRPT workout. This took 90 minutes. Usually we only do 60 minutes each morning! After typical dryland warmup (~10 mins) and 300 Fs/200 IM warmup, we went the following:

    –200 Pace, Choice Stroke, Choice Repetition Distance (25, 50 or 75). 25’s were :15 rest; 50’s and 75’s were :20 rest. Minimum of 6 “no-fail” reps to acclimate to the set, max of 5x the race distance (40×25, 20×50 or 13×75). 2 fails in a row or 3 total to be out.
    –Choice Easy to Prepare for the next set (most did between 100-300, plus some chatting on the wall)
    –100 Pace, Choice Stroke (different than the 1st set), Choice Repetition Distance (25 or 50). Same parameters as above for rest interval and failure rules.
    –Choice Easy again, until everyone finished the set
    –10x “15m” Underwaters width-wise in the pool (across 6x 7-foot lanes really is 13m, but it’s close, and gives a definite start/end point). This was mostly for fun, and because I figured out I could do it that way in our 10-lane pool. Nice to do dead-start underwaters on every other rep too.
    –Pulled covers as our warm-down activity

    The kids did great, and a lot of them really challenged themselves. Now here comes the punchline:

    Why do coaches direct the content of every single workout?

    I am not saying this tongue-in-cheek, either. My primary training squad consists of Senior athletes; we decide their events focus together; they already pick out their meet events, usually correctly; their attendance at all 10 practices offered is not compulsory (even if it was we wouldn’t get 100%).

    I have tried many different ways to come up with “ideal” microcycle periodizations — sprinters, mid distance, distance; stroke swimmers; IM training; progressive periodizations of different paces and distances. None of these work 100% of the time because of several reasons:

    1) We never get 100% attendance. Someone is always sick, out of town, taking an AP test or just sleeping in. Even in a collegiate setting with compulsory attendance, I would bet somebody is off the training path most workouts.
    2) Each athlete has very different goals. Even between 2 Breaststrokers of same age/gender and similar ability, 1 of them is also a Flyer; the other is more of an IMer. Very hard to plan for that appropriately.
    3) Some kids HATE to swim certain events. I cannot make everyone a 200 Flyer, even though I believe it is very helpful for learning Fly technique (lots of reps), and especially for IMers and Flyers. Even Freestylers find some benefit there.
    4) Each athlete experiences very individualized results from training stimuli. For instance, Breaststrokers are notorious for saying, “it just doesn’t feel right today,” and missing pace. Other days, they are more recovered, and absolutely crush their sets. Maybe it takes 12 hours to recover sufficiently; maybe 24. Or 36. Or 48! How do we plan for that natural variation?

    So unless you’re Peter Andrew and have only 1 athlete to worry about, this leaves us with 2 options:

    1) Status Quo. Plan everything yourself as the coach, and be okay with some generalized training effects. Also, take 80% of the responsibility for results since you planned the training and “made” the kids do it.
    2) Take the opposite of the status quo position. Work with the athletes to determine what should be the focus events, then allow them to “choose their own adventure,” during each workout. Give the athletes 80% or more of the responsibility for their training and their individual results, with the coach providing feedback, guidance and mentoring.

    There is 1 big hitch that should be easily overcome in a group setting–multiple paces and repetition distances. Here is what an example workout might look like in this paradigm:

    –Dryland Warm-Ups (~10 mins)
    –Water Warm-Ups (~10 mins…just FYI, I don’t believe it is totally necessary to do this, but it helps everyone get started together after changing over from dryland work)
    –Set #1 = 50’s (choice of event) (~20 mins)
    –Recovery activities until all finish set #1 (~10 mins…could include easy swimming, kicking, treading, getting water, using bathroom, etc)
    –Set #2 = 25’s (choice of 2nd event) (~20 mins)
    –Recovery activities until all finish set #2 (~10 mins)
    –Set #3 = 75’s (choice of 3rd event) (~20 mins)
    –Recovery activities until all finish set #3 (~10 mins)
    –Pull covers and pack it up

    Total Time: ~1 hr, 50 minutes, with some cushion.

    I think most swimmers would not exceed 4,000 yards at very most here. This would be a challenging workout for most Senior-level athletes. By giving them the WHOLE workout from the get-go, they can pick what is the most appropriate stimuli for the session. I may give guidance like, “you need to swim a different strokes in each set,” or, “Set #1 and Set #2 will be the same event.” I will also focus athletes on particular technical or mental features to be focused on as a group, and then give feedback on an individual level beyond that. Standard stuff.

    Swimmers would organize lanes by pace only, regardless of skill level, stroke, or event. This could have a quick 1,000 swimmer doing 75’s at the same pace as a lesser 200 Freestyler. My only exception would usually be Fly, which I usually keep to 25’s to limit the carnage from knocking arms. Sometimes in the early morning workouts we get enough lane space to go longer on the Fly (50’s and 75’s), which we almost always take advantage of when it happens.

    Finally, I would say the spectrum here is from 100% coach-controlled workouts to 100% swimmer-controlled workouts. I think the extremes here inform the mean.

    In the case of young and developmental swimmers, I think it needs to be 100% coach-directed (or rather, coach taught). In advanced and especially Senior athletes, I think it needs to be nearly 100% swimmer-directed, with the coach setting basic group parameters to keep things orderly in limited pool space.

    Heresy? Maybe. But I think our [oversized] egos as coaches shouldn’t get in the way of getting the best results possible.


    That’s some dramatic improvement across a wide variety of events. Nice work!


    I followed your advice and let my swimmers decide the stroke for all sets now except butterfly. The first week was a little bit rough but now it works like a charm. Thanks.

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