Regular readers of this blog will know that I favour slow development of young swimmers, with a progression path that ultimately leads to preparing graduating high schoolers for university swimming. This especially makes sense considering the average age of elite swimmers is the early to middle 20s. Why grind a 10-year old when they won’t hit their peak for a dozen years or so?
This all sounds good in principle, and when discussing with parents at the start of a season. But the real test of this occurs at swim meets. That’s when heavily trained young swimmers from other teams can squash young swimmers on a slow development plan. It’s guaranteed to make coaches question the philosophy, and it’s certainly guaranteed to make parents question the training program.
In fact, in many, many ways it’s much easier to work young kids harder and avoid the inevitable comparisons and self-questioning. But that’s the easy way out.
Here’s why we stick to our philosophy.
If you’ve been around swimming for any amount of time, you’ve seen incredibly fast young swimmers. But check up on those kids 5 or 6 years later, and it’s amazing how many of them have quit the sport. If they’re young and fast because they matured early, then their advantage will only last a few years and the others catch up. Same thing if they’re fast because they’ve been heavily trained when young: others will eventually catch up when their training gets heavy. (The exceptions, the ones who will continue to improve, tend to be the genetically gifted ones – the ones you definitely don’t want to burn out).
The problem for those early phenoms is that it’s incredibly tough mentally to watch kids you’ve always beaten start catching you and passing you. They’re full of optimism and excitement, and you’re full of self doubt. And if your results start getting worse, it’s all too easy to pack it in.
To me, the answer is to provide a slower training progression that de-emphasizes early success, and provides more early fun and technique. This allows the swimmers to develop the necessary skills and a love for the sport, and enables them to continually improve as they get older. In fact, the ones who go on to swim in university tend to be the ones who didn’t have that early success, and gradually just got better and better.
This philosophy doesn’t come without problems though. I’ve had parents pull their young kids from our team because we wouldn’t push them hard enough. I’ve had parents aggressively question our program because our young ones weren’t as competitive as they’d like. And in all honesty I’ve had other coaches question our program. I can live with all of this because I know we’re taking the long view with our swimmers, one that will hopefully result in a life-long love of the sport.
So if I’m right, why do coaches train their young swimmers so hard?
My personal theory is as follows:
In the absence of a strong club philosophy to slowly develop young swimmers – to prioritize fun over hard training – a coach of young swimmers will naturally want their swimmers to be fast, and to get the all-important points at big meets. Not surprisingly, this can also result in peer acceptance, job security, and happy parents. Let’s face it, in a competitive atmosphere, nobody wants to be on the bottom.
This means that a slow development plan with a clear progression path MUST be a guiding team philosophy. And parents need to be aware of that when joining.
Just don’t be surprised if there are a lot of doubters along the way.