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.
7 thoughts on “Testing a Team’s Guiding Philosophy”
Really love this article. As usual, clearly thought out and presented. It describes perfectly the predicament I face when coaching kids swimming. All the glory goes to the whiz kids and I’m persuading the rest to be patient and acquire skills. Sometimes you lose kids from the sport because they can’t see the long game and can never imagine themselves challenging these early maturing athletes. Is this as big a problem as early maturing swimmers dropping out later if they plateau ? Thanks Joe
Thanks Joe. You ask a great question, and unfortunately I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure if the bigger problem is losing potentially great late maturing swimmers, or losing early maturing swimmers due to an extended plateau. From our point of view, by starting slow and with little pressure, the swimmers become emotionally invested in the sport. This means their results matter less to them simply because they love swimming.
Great article. As coach of a small, provincial club in the uk, I can see exactly what you are saying, and have swimmers who peaked too early leaving club at 13, whereas my senior swimmer is now showing real progress, having been an also ran amongst his peers.
It is really difficult as a coach justifying to parents releasing pressure on young swimmers when they appear to be losing ground against their peers, but I try to present the end game as a concept, and have sent a letter out detailing my philosophy regarding ADSP and the problems encountered by young athletes particularly just before and during PHV. Thanks for your continued support to fellow coaches.
Thanks Sandra. Yes, the pressure from kids, parents and sometimes other coaches to get immediate results can seem overwhelming. We’ve lost quite a few kids to other programs because we won’t push their 10-year hard enough. But in all honesty, we’ve probably gained more swimmers who appreciate our long term view. Keep up the great work!
I’ve been headcoach of a small club for about 3 years now, and i’ve noticed that the pressure from parents and swimmers comes as they reach higher levels of performance. It was all fun and games until a few of them won medals on the provincial stage (Quebec), and now my every moves are questionned and expectations never been higher.
And what you say is true, its hard for swimmers to see everyone catch-up to them as they grow up at 14-15-16, and it’s also a great challenge for me to find ways to maintain them at the level they expect to be.
None of my swimmers left the Club yet thought, since we have a wonderful team spirit and connection. We’ll see what the future holds.
Thanks for the comment Antoine. That’s excellent that you’re maintaining your team as swimmers/parents want and expect more. Stay the course!
You did mention one thing though. “…it’s also a great challenge for me to find ways to maintain them at the level they expect to be”. The expectations of swimmers and parents is often unrealistic and impatient. I have a feeling you meant that it’s a challenge for you to find ways to keep them growing as swimmers. We’ve lost good swimmers from our team simply because they want more and then want it now. And that can hurt, but it’s part of our team’s guiding philosophy. As my mentor coach told me, it’s our job to deliver them to the next level (college) with all the tools so that they can become great.
I’m very proud of the achievement of my swimmers even if they go to another team. We were part of their swimming life, and if they go on to do well, then we did our job.