It’s All About the Training Progression Path

2018-02-26 20.49.26

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know that I have a real concern about training young swimmers too hard. I absolutely understand the temptation to get a really fast young swimmer in your squad. And in many cases, that fast young swimmer may be a coach’s job assurance. But the danger to the longevity of that swimmer should be of far more importance.

The problem with my stance, which others have helpfully pointed out,  is that there are no clear cut rules about how much is too much for any given swimmer. Physical maturity, joint resilience, family support, genetics, school stressors, stroke mechanics and many other things can factor into whether a given program is too much too young, or just the right amount to set them up for the future.

This is why I’ve shifted away from assessing any given training program, to thinking more about the necessity of ensuring that every swimmer has a structured and sound training progression path to take them through public school and high school.

The idea is simple. The older and stronger and more skilled a swimmer gets, the more training they should be able to handle.  Get older, train more. Makes sense, right?

But that also means that, just because a special 10-year old might be able to tolerate a very high training load, doesn’t mean that they can tolerate an insanely high training load when they’re 17. Something may very well fall apart before then, and it may be injury. Or it may be they just quit the sport.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation based loosely on various swimmers I’ve run across over the last few years. A non-elite 13-year old joins a new group with 8 training sessions per week, for a total of 16 hours.  Five of those sessions start before 6:00 am. I would consider this is a huge training load for a young swimmer, with far too many early morning practices. But perhaps this swimmer loves and can withstand the training. If so, what’s the harm?

The harm, as I see it, is that the training load just can’t increase very much more, and this swimmer hasn’t even had to deal with the stresses of high school, extended sleep deprivation from those morning practices, or any of life’s other stressors. How easy will it be to continue to improve as life gets more difficult, and school stresses increase? What if they reach a performance plateau and training is already at a realistically maximum level?

In other words, are we setting this swimmer up to experience significant pressure, and ultimately quit?

Now let’s look at another hypothetical. Same swimmer, but this time they’re in a program with 6 sessions a week, 12 hours of swimming, and only 2 mornings a week. This leaves room for a clear training progression path, reduces the negative effects of those morning practices, and leaves more time to handle school pressures. Then, as the swimmer gets older, they can be eased into a more aggressive training program while balancing the rest of their life.

This seems like a more reasonable approach for addressing the upcoming life and school pressures.

Ironically, this whole topic came into my head because I had unwittingly broken our own team’s training progression path last year. Five months in our main pool closed indefinitely.  And without stepping sufficiently back far enough to see the big picture, I just threw new pool hours at our various groups. As it turned out one group had almost identical training times as the next group up. That’s a broken path.  So for this year we had to lessen the training volume on the lower group, because increasing the volume for other group wasn’t an option.

There have been some expected and reasonable complaints, of course, but the training path needed to be re-established. As coaches, we’re the ones that need to be looking at the big picture.


Side Note:

In the past I’ve been the lower level competitive coach (on a different team) of multiple swimmers who went on to become young Canadian national age group medallists/finalists. Roughly half of those quit swimming by 16. Most of the others went on to successful university careers.  This clearly isn’t a black and white situation.

Although, there was one interesting correlation between early success and early retirement. Two swimmer/parent combinations in particular lobbied heavily for increased training time and training loads between ages of 10 and 13. Both of these swimmers became national age group medallists when young. Both quit by the age of 16.


4 thoughts on “It’s All About the Training Progression Path

  1. Great posting. We can’t see into the future well — especially if the future we hope to visualize is our own flesh and blood and offspring. Hence, experiences matter greatly, with a firm foot in reality of the situations and the people involved.

    One idea I’d pitch, how about more game-day activities with the younger ones as a way to be more smooth, yet exciting, with that progression. And, on a game-day situation, there can be a mix of those who are training often with some who might only join in with the game days.

    Can you designate one or two days a week, in the mornings especially, as SKWIM practices? Bring a friend. Get the ball-sport, team-sport, and siblings involved. Start out with an easy 300. Kick a bit. Pass the disks. No lane-lines. Wear fins, optionally. One day you might work on dives, the other on kicking with the brick or partner pulling down the pool with a mate hanging two hands onto one of your feet while you swim. Then get into teams and play. Take a half-time break. Tell a water safety story. Huddle on teamwork, sportsmanship, roles, passing lanes. Then get it one for another 20+ minute session. Wrap up with a discussion. Pick a MVP, highlight play, most improved, and favorite teammate. Pump those values and ideals. And coaches, you get in and play too. Get your fitness on as well, if you wish.

    The quickness, body fitness and teamwork might keep everyone fresh throughout the weeks, yet satisfy the heart-rate requirements and socialization needs of others.

    1. As usual, Mark, this is a great idea. The more socialization and fun we can incorporate without giving up training stimulus, the better and happier our swimmers will be. Which might mean they stick with swimming for longer, and get more enjoyment out of it.

  2. Should not it start from the long term goal of the swimmer her/himself? Or from helping the young swimmer to formulate that goal initially and then adapting the training accordingly?

    When I was young I had to quit “big” swimming because “normal” life temptations were stronger than my desire to make it Olympics or other top. And my swimming school (and most, if not all in USSR) was not interested to allocate resources to young swimmers who wanted to continue at lower pace, let’s say, 3 x 1.5 hours a week trying variety of styles and techniques instead of 6 x 3-5 hours (and often more) with rigid agenda.

    1. Thanks Dimlee, great point! I think it should start with fun, so the child can start off enjoying the process. And then when it starts getting tougher, goals can be discussed. But at some point, there may be a disconnect between what swimmer goals and team goals. We’ve structured our team to embrace as wide a selection of goals as possible. Some only want to swim once/week, and enjoy training. Others want to hit every practice hard. Both work within our program. But I also recognize that many teams have programs that don’t embrace anything less than 100% commitment. Ideally, swimmers should be able to choose their commitment level, instead of being forced to obey or quit.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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