Are You A Racer Or A Swimming Spectator?
Well done, coach! You qualified several athletes for the big meet, and you're excited to end your season on a high note. It could be a high school state championship, USA or NCSA Juniors, NCAA's, or any other meet that required a season's worth of planning, preparation, and work in order to qualify. But hopefully, you are not satisfied with just getting there, no, you want to compete with the best, measure yourself against your peers, and see your athletes perform at their peak at the fastest meet of the year. But how? For many coaches and athletes, a complete taper and shave was necessary just to qualify, and maintaining or improving performance at the subsequent "big meet" will be a challenge, to say the least. It is in the push/pull that is simply making the meet, vs. swimming fast at the meet, where I will spend my time today. Are we racers, or spectators? Are we satisfied with just making the meet, or are we there to race and swim fast(er)? And if racing, not just spectating, is the goal...how do we do it?
Disclaimer: By no means do I have all the answers here, and I have been on both ends in my 10 years at the Division I level. In some cases, I've had athletes swim well at NCAA's, in other years, not so much. My goal today is to provide a few tips and tricks (of many that we employ here at Liberty) to help fellow coaches at all levels swim fast at the meet, whether at the summer league, high school, club, or the NCAA level. This advice is not the only way, nor is it the best way; you will have to find what works for you and your athletes and adjust accordingly.
First, A Case Study
Jess Reinhardt entered her freshman year here at Liberty in the fall of 2012 with a 54.33 in the 100-yard fly. After qualifying for the NCAA Championships with a 52.87, I was excited for "the meet" as I thought she had an outside shot to score if she could drop a few more tenths. The meet didn't go as planned, however, and we finished 46th in prelims with a 54.23, well outside of scoring and well off our qualifying time.
The 2013-2014 season was a different story. Jess again qualified for NCAA's, this time with a 52.14, and she was excited for "the meet" as she thought she had a good chance to score if she could maintain her time or drop a few more tenths. As it were, she placed 13th in prelims of the fly with a 52.07, and followed up with a 10th place finish at finals with a time of 51.72. There were smiles and hugs all around, and it was a joyous moment for our program, as at the time we were just four years into our young history, having started Liberty Swimming & Diving from scratch in 2010.
What Made The Difference?
The seasoned coaches will see what I did there. I was excited for Jess her freshman year, as I thought she had a chance to score if she could drop a few more tenths at the meet. She was excited for her sophomore year, as she thought she could score if she could maintain her time or drop a few tenths.
And so it is, my first guideline for swimming fast (in no particular order of importance) at THE meet, is that your athletes have to want to swim fast. Yes, some of the outcome must rest on the shoulders of our athletes, as they must take ownership of their performances.
The mental game is of the highest importance, as we know, and there are two types of NCAA, Trials, high school state, or "XYZ" meet qualifiers - those who are there to race, and those who are there to spectate. In many cases, simply qualifying for the big meet is a milestone, and swimming faster or at least maintaining a certain performance level is an afterthought. After going as a spectator freshman year, Jess' sophomore year was a complete 180-degree shift in mental approach; it was as though she was a different athlete altogether. Jess didn't just approach the meet with a racing mentality her sophomore year, she approached the NCAA Championships with the mindset that she was going to score.
Coaches Must Have A Plan
Certainly it goes without saying that not all of the responsibility lies with our athletes. We as coaches must have a plan for swimming faster at the meet, or at least maintaining a certain level of performance. For elite athletes, this could mean not resting through the qualifying meet(s), or not resting fully for said meets. In other cases, a full rest may be required to qualify, as previously mentioned, and in these cases, the coach must have a plan for how to attack the weeks (or days) between qualifying and racing. In the Reinhardt example, we tapered fully and shaved for our conference meet both years in order to qualify for NCAA's. Our preparation for NCAA's changed quite a bit sophomore year however, as I learned from what did and didn't work during Jess' freshman year campaign. A coach must know his or her athletes, and great communication between coach and athlete is obviously of the highest importance when looking to swim faster at the second meet.
Guideline 2...Have a plan, sell the plan, and execute the plan. The mental game is important here once again; if your athletes don't believe in the plan to swim faster, good luck swimming faster. While it might be the perfect prescription from a physiological standpoint, without belief, it is just physiological principles from a textbook, and nothing more.
Rule #41...Do The....Work
If anyone follows NCAP coach Bruce Gemmell on Twitter, you will get this one right away. Swimming Science pulled "40 Katie Ledecky Training Secrets" from an ASCA World Clinic talk that Bruce gave back in 2016, and you can read the article here:
Clearly not satisfied with the list of 40, Bruce followed up the tweet from Swimming Science with this gem -
and if you've ever heard Bruce speak, you can picture/hear him saying it. If that weren't enough, he later followed with more:
This is classic Gemmell, and it is safe to say that he believes that a simple, old-school, blue-collar work ethic is a major, perhaps the major factor, in Katie's success. Often times there are no secrets, and rule #41 is a reminder that hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. Combine the work with talent, and Ledecky's dominance is the result.
And Bruce is 100% correct. I love the bluntness with which he presents rule #41 to the masses. As I grew up on a farm and come from a manual labor background, I appreciate this frank, straightforward speech, and while I don't have the credentials to speak the way Bruce does, I secretly admire his ability to do so, and believe in this mentality 100%.
Guideline 3...you have to make sure your athletes put in the work during the season to swim fast at the end of the year.
Miss a taper? Many other coaches would debate that you missed the season. Your athletes swimming fast and/or faster at a subsequent meet AFTER their initial shave and taper is as much about what they put in the bank as it is about belief, mindset, mentality, and the plan between meets. Back to the Reinhardt example, not only did she approach her sophomore year NCAA meet with a racing mentality, she trained that way all year as well. Her transformation happened well before the four weeks between our conference meet and NCAA's, it was evident in her training day in and day out over the previous six months.
Communication Is Powerful
My final thought...What are you saying in regards to the end of the year championship meets? What is your tone? What message are you sending? Through your speech, actions, body language, etc...are your athletes hearing that just getting to the meet is enough, or are they hearing that swimming fast at the meet is also a high priority? I'll admit, during Jess' freshman year, I spoke much about the possibility of getting to the meet, and didn't speak much to performing at the meet. Sophomore year was a 180 turnaround on my part; I didn't speak much about qualifying for NCAA's...more so I spoke about what I believed we needed to do in order to get a second swim, and asked for her input as well. This mindset shift was present from the first day of practice until the last, and the cumulative effect over the course of the season was strong, indeed.
Guideline 4...expect racing, not spectating, and let that mantra guide you in decisions you make, words you say, and actions you take throughout the season.
Swimming fast at the final meet of the year is as much art as it is science. Our athletes have to want to swim fast or faster. We as coaches need a sound plan to tackle the time between meets. We have to adhere to rule #41 and put in the work during the year to give our athletes the chance, and we have to communicate in such a way that leads to the expectation of going to the meet as racers, not spectators.
Hopefully you are able to glean a few nuggets from this article, and I wish you much fast swimming at your upcoming championship meets. NCAA's are upon us, and many states that sponsor swimming as a winter high school sport are starting their championship seasons. Go and be racers, not spectators!