Fast Swimming Is The Goal, Not Hard Swimming
I remember those days vividly. It was the fall of 2006, and I found myself thrust into big-time NCAA Division I Swimming & Diving as the new sprint coach at Penn State University. Up until that point, my experience as an athlete in the sport consisted of the normal club and high school circuit, combined with four years of collegiate experience at Division II Shippensburg University, part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. As for coaching, summer league during my college years was the start, with a bit of high school and club mixed in throughout. I came to PSU from Division II Millersville University, where I was the head coach, but tend not to count that experience for much, as I left Millersville three weeks into my first season to make the move to Happy Valley. Little did I know, I was in for the education of a lifetime, with Penn State acting as the springboard for my career that saw time in Arizona before being hired in the summer of 2009 as the first head coach in program history here at Liberty. My Penn State and Arizona experiences taught me much about the sport, and it is a lesson learned while a rookie at PSU that I want to share with you today.
Bill Dorenkott, now the head women's coach at Ohio State, was the Penn State men's and women's head coach at the time, and I will forever be grateful for his willingness to take a chance on me as a young, unproven Division II coach with little to no true college coaching experience. Bill taught me the ropes of elite level swimming, and my first lesson dealt with the semantics of workout lingo. It was a theory that I immediately embraced, with earnest, and one that I still use to this day (and more than likely always will).
It was the first sprint workout I ever wrote for Penn State, and the pre-set featured some "mixed sprint" 25's to the tune of:
4 (4 x 25) @:30
1 = 12.5 HARD, 12.5 EZ
2 = 12.5 EZ, 12.5 HARD
3 = All EZ
4 = All HARD
After the workout, Bill took me aside and said:
"Jake, that was a great workout, but we don't take hard strokes, we take fast strokes."
and the rest, as they say, is history.
What a simple concept, and one that seems so obvious now when I look back...but at the time I just did not know any better. I grew up with hard practices, hard weight sessions, hard dryland, hard 100 repeats, and hard efforts in general. Again, I know...so simple...and obvious...why go hard when you can go fast instead? Hard bodies? Yes. Hard strokes? No. Looking back at my career in the pool, I spent much time fighting the water with hard strokes instead of focusing on finesse and speed, and I would have been much faster had I had focused on said speed instead of hard swimming.
The psychological effects of this mindset shift are strong, indeed. Swimming is already a mental battle as is...writing HARD several times on a workout only serves to reinforce a negative association with challenging practices. We all want our athletes to work hard, but we don't necessarily want them to swim hard. If you can figure out the difference between the two, you are well on your way to developing elite athletes, and again, many thanks to Bill for teaching me the difference all those years ago.
Speaking of challenging vs. hard workouts, I wrote an article in September about another psychological hack that can drastically change the way we (athletes, coaches, everyone) attack obstacles in our lives. Here at Liberty, we teach that there are no problems, only challenges to overcome, and you can read more on my thoughts here.
And so it is, we do not take any hard strokes here at Liberty, but we do ask our women to swim fast, and swim fast quite often. Are you teaching hard swimming or fast swimming? Do you ask for hard efforts or fast efforts? Perhaps you try writing "fast" or "maximum" in place of "hard" on your next workout, and see if you notice a difference in the psychology of your athletes. While their effort should be the same, their internal approach should differ. You'll have to look closely to see it, but with a keen eye, the cerebral coach can spot the subtle differences.