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.
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.