The Five Essential Elements of a Great Swim Practice
Did we have a great practice today? Did we move the program forward? Did the team as a whole improve? On the individual level - did Jane have a great workout? What about John? Did they improve themselves as student-athletes? How do we know? Did the distance crew improve as a group today and if so, how can we be sure? Is it possible to objectively measure and gauge what we would consider a great practice? A mediocre one? A poor workout? Is it possible to measure, and if so, is it worth our time, energy, and effort to do so?
I believe it is possible to measure, yes, and I believe we should attempt to answer such questions after every workout. We can improve that which we measure, and by evaluating each workout to a set of standards we can attempt to determine whether we moved forward, backward, or made no progress whatsoever. As coaches know, two of those three outcomes are the wrong answer!
Over the past nine years here at Liberty, I developed a rudimentary system for evaluating and attempting to answer the aforementioned questions. In today’s article, I share with you my five essential elements of a great swim practice, with the goal of encouraging you to adopt a similar ritual of evaluating workouts. Your essentials may look different - these are by no means the only five elements of a great practice, and by all means, make your list your own. One should consider this as though the Code of Parley - “more like guidelines than actual rules.” The key is having a system - any system, to attempt to objectively measure whether or not we as a program moved forward and “got better today.” The following five elements work for us here at Liberty and our program and have helped me as a coach grow tremendously over the years.
In no particular order of importance, my five essential elements of a great swim practice:
1. Physical improvement - The physiology of training.
2. Psychological improvement - The mental game.
3. Learning/Growth - Did we learn something new?
4. Coach growth/mastery - What did I learn today? Did I improve?
5. The program as a whole - All encompassing - Did we move forward today?
The first three elements deal specifically with the student-athletes, while the fourth examines my personal growth as a coach. The fifth is an “X-Factor” or sorts - did the program move forward? Perhaps there was a defining moment that made us, we, a better program? As a general guideline, I consider it a poor workout if we hit just 1-2 of the essentials. A good workout 3-4...a great workout is rare (I am hard on myself), as it is my personal belief we must hit 5/5 to consider it a truly great workout. Having said as much, and invoking Parley once again...there are special circumstances where essential five, the “X-Factor,” negates the previous four and a great workout is absolutely the outcome. This is rare indeed, and I shall explain in depth when I tackle said X-Factor.
The Five Essential Elements
1. Physiological Improvement
What is the goal of the workout? Are we working the aerobic system? Anaerobic? Skills and drills? Power? Did we improve the physical body as it relates to the physiology or the physics of sport? There are various ways to measure such improvements. Perhaps we held a new best average for race pace repeats or broke through a previous ceiling for aerobic threshold training. Perhaps we hit a new maximum load for a Power Tower workout, or elevated blood lactate levels to a new high. Frank Busch at Arizona circa 2007 used to say “make pain your biggest pride factor” and would motivate the Wildcats to simply make it hurt more each day. Roland Schoeman took this to heart, measuring blood lactate levels during dive quality sets, with the goal of pushing through previous barriers.
Perhaps a recovery workout is planned, in which case the physiological improvement would look much different than a race pace workout, for example. Did we actively recover while maintaining our physiological baseline? I would consider this an improvement of the physical body and check it off as one of the five essential elements.
Again there are myriad possibilities when evaluating physical improvement. Our watches are a baseline and trusted tool, but we can go much deeper with blood testing, heart rate monitors, and the latest in tech gadgetry if so desired. Perhaps we keep it simple and use basic intuition to determine whether or not we improved. While not the most scientific of measurements, there are times when we “know” that we improved without specifically having to prove as much through specific scientific measurement. This is fine in my book - see Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and the story of the Greek statues specifically - I believe that seasoned coaches with well developed mental models of elite swimming can “sense” physiological improvements without having to measure them specifically. They just know, and I trust such a well-developed and expert system of models.
2. Psychological Improvement
Did we improve our mental game from a sports psychology standpoint? Were we challenged mentally? Did we break through perceived psychological barriers of effort, time, pain, etc.? Mental toughness, confidence, fun, passion, purpose, etc...Did we improve in these areas? The mind game is harder to measure than the physical, but we know it when we see it and our athletes can certainly sense when they’ve made psychological breakthroughs. Did we smash previously perceived limits? Did we gain a greater sense of purpose? Did we develop a greater appreciation for the craft? A greater sense of accomplishment, personal satisfaction, and growth...all count towards a psychological improvement in my book.
Of note - I don’t leave these moments of mental growth and change to chance. Just as we design a workout to achieve physiological improvement, I believe we can design workouts to achieve and promote mental breakthroughs and growth as well. We do this instinctively by writing challenging workouts; I intentionally incorporate other opportunities for psychological growth into workouts on a daily basis. I do not simply let a “hard” workout hit or miss in regards to valuable essential.
In regards to fun, excitement, etc...while the old-school in me loathes to admit as much, the fun factor is wildly important in today’s coaching game. A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer, and we would be wise to incorporate such truths into the psychological aim of our workouts. To the college coaches reading this...you know the disaster that can happen when a group of unhappy student-athletes marches into the AD’s office...Consider the ways of the summer league coach and be wise.
Here at Liberty, we believe you can work hard, achieve the aforementioned desired physical goals, achieve success at the elite level of our sport, AND have fun in the process; We incorporate such a mindset into our workouts. Did we have fun today? It is a question that I ask after every workout and goes far in determining whether or not we’ve made improvements to the psychological side of our sport. Choose to ignore this essential element at your own risk; coaches not in tune with the fun factor in today’s game will surely find themselves out of coaching.
3. Learning & Growth
The best swimmers are students of the sport. We’ve known this throughout time and this truth will continue in our sports ad infinitum. This simply must be the case, for swimming, perhaps more than any other (I could be biased), is the most cerebral of sports. Consider the incredible complications of a body moving through water; physics, human physiology, and psychology all converge at the elite level to produce beautiful, choreographed performances that defy even the experts understanding of their nature. Because our sport is so complicated, I don’t know that one can reach the elite level without a deep knowledge of the intricacies of fast swimming (even if subconsciously). One simply must be a student of the sport to achieve expert status, more often than not. It’s been said that Dressel is a student of the sport...keeping a logbook of workouts and journaling on ways to improve and so forth. I would debate that 17.63 - read that again - 17.63, is only possible from someone with such a mindset and understanding.
Thus, here at Liberty we put a premium on the learning and growth of our women and consider this one of the five essentials of a great workout. We want our women to become masters of the sport. We don’t want them to think too much, but we do want them to learn and grow and do so a little bit every day, every workout. Did we grow in our understanding of the ways in which a body moves through the water faster? Physics, technique, etc...did we “figure out where that stuff is that makes you go faster” as Rick DeMont used to say at Arizona (in only the way Rick DeMont can say). Talking with Matt Kredich on deck at US Nationals this past week, I commented on how Molly Hannis improved her breaststroke technique quite a bit over the years, and Matt’s first response was to praise Molly for her acute awareness of the technical aspects of her stroke, and how she is in fact, a student of the sport. Matt said he’s never coached an athlete who had a greater understanding of the technical aspects of her stroke. Considering Matt’s illustrious career, that is quite an honor, indeed!
An athlete should know their stroke and be in tune with areas of technical advancement “better” than their coach. That’s not a negative for coaches - no - it is only logical that you the athlete, in the first person consciousness - know your body and your stroke better than “the other.” Here at Liberty, we encourage our women to become masters of their own technique - to find that stuff that makes them go faster, as Rick said, and to become students of the sport. We check the “essential element” box after practice if we’ve made advancements in our understanding of the physics, physiology, and the psychology of fast swimming. Did we learn? Did we gain understanding? Did we move closer to expert status in our sport?
Here at Liberty, we use a “test” to determine our success as coaches in this area - upon graduation, after four years in our program, could our women walk onto any pool deck in the country and talk shop with the best and brightest minds in our sport? Could they go into elite-level coaching if they so desired? If we can answer yes to both of these questions, we know we’ve done a great job in fostering a culture of learning and growth in our program.
4. Coach Growth/Mastery
As mentioned, the previous three essentials dealt with student-athletes specifically, the fourth - we as coaches. Ideally, a great swim practice involves not only improvement from athletes but from their coaches as well. While our realm is no longer in human physiology and the physical body, there are myriad ways in which coaches can improve from workout to workout and from year to year, and if we have a growth mindset, we should certainly measure and track our improvements (or the lack thereof).
What did we learn? And specifically about each individual athlete and from our team as a whole? How could we write a better workout in the future? Is our season plan on point? Do we need an adjustment? In the area of human physiology as it relates to our athletes - where are we? Where can we improve? Do we have a pulse on everyone in our program? How can we be sure? In terms of the psychology of our team and the individuals therein - where are we? Do we have a finger on the psychological pulse of our program? Are we looking for ways to improve our coaching before, during, and after every workout?
I am a proponent of journaling, Dressel style, and I believe every coach should log their own individual thoughts, areas for improvement, and ideas for future reference. I keep a logbook of workouts here at Liberty and go back often over the eight years of our program’s existence to refresh myself on what worked in the past, what didn’t, and where I thought I could improve. Below every workout, in the logbook, I reserve a section for “thoughts,” in which I journal about the workout after the fact. I’ll jot down notes, perhaps key times achieved by individuals in the workouts, or areas for improvement. I take time to evaluate the workout, and this time of introspection helps me improve for future workouts within a year and from year to year. Over the course of eight years, one can cover quite a bit of ground, and this process helps me stay fresh, ahead of the game, and improving over time.
As an example, perhaps we have a current student-athlete with specific psychological tendencies that I’ve seen before...I’ll go back and look at what worked for similar psychological makeups in the past, and use that information for the current student-athlete moving forward. While yes, each individual is different, with a great journaling practice you can spot trends over time and can avoid previous mistakes while remembering what worked in the past. Do you have a current sprinter who loathes the aerobic yardage? Nothing new here...what worked for a similar sprinter five years ago and how did you navigate through that psychological hurdle?
Fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology of personal productivity will remember this saying: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” And so it is, the art and science of journaling post workouts allows me to get ideas and thoughts out of my head, down on paper, and limits the possibility of making the same mistakes twice, and increases the odds that I’ll get things right more often in the future.
I’ve found there are three types of coaches in this regard:
- Those who do not log any workouts
- Those who log workouts and workouts only
- Those who log workouts and then evaluate the workout, logging the results and ways to improve in the future
While I am not here to tell you what you should do...I can say with certainty that the last model is what works best for me. There is no right or wrong answer here - but I don’t trust my memory. After eight years the workouts tend to blend together, and by logging said workouts and journaling on the results after the fact I know I am improving myself as a coach.
Having said as much, one can certainly reach elite level status in the coaching game without logging workouts or keeping a journal. I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at Arizona in the summer of 2007 and worked closely with the aforementioned Rick DeMont and the Wildcat sprint crew. I, of course, logged every one of Rick’s workouts, and jotted down the notes afterward, as is my preferred model. After the season ended I “published” the season in a “book” entitled A Tucson Summer, and gave it to Rick as a thank you present for allowing me to tag along. He was amazed, as he had not written down a workout in the previous 18 years, and was happy to have the book.
Rick and Frank’s success speaks for itself - he clearly was on another coaching level, and did not need to log workouts or journal afterward to produce incredible results year after year (Olympic gold, world records, NCAA titles, NCAA records, etc. etc. etc..). But I am not Rick DeMont, and you aren’t either, so perhaps logging workouts and jotting your notes down after the fact will help you (and I) become a better coach.
A great workout demands improvement from our student-athletes, sure, and I believe a great workout demands the same from coaches as well. If I learned something and grew as a coach after the workout, I’ll check the box and count it towards a great workout.
5. The program as a whole...the mysterious “X-Factor”
This essential is more theory than science, more mystery than physiology. This is the stuff you cannot measure, but every coach knows it is as real as any principle found in a physics or physiology textbook. Did the program move forward today? Did we as a team improve? As a whole? And how can we be sure? Again this is more theory than science, but again I must submit to yo that it is real. This is the realm of get out swims, special moments, mind-altering breakthroughs, and those rare circumstances where you just know “we got better today” without the ability to measure as much empirically. It could be a team meeting that touched the group at a soul level, a get out swim that produced a euphoric team bonding moment, or a tough workout over Christmas break that reinforced the why and how of what we’re doing here.
These “X-Factor” moments are rare, but with some practice and planning, you can improve the chances that they occur. Three examples of many over the eight years of our program’s history:
- Here at Liberty, we have a tradition where every November we do a practice of what we call “one more,” inspired by the movie Miracle and adapted to the swimming world. After a good 3,000 warmup, we’ll dive 50’s max from the block, on about a 3:00 send-off. I have a certain number of 50’s in mind, but only my assistant Jessica Barnes and I know the number. The team, not so much. The juniors and seniors always try to guess, but of course, we change the number every year. How many 50’s we dive depends on two factors - how hard the team is working, and their attitude during the set. Poor attitudes? Certain individuals not going max? One more! Great attitudes? Everyone cheering wildly for their teammates while still gasping for air from their effort? One more! And so on and so forth it goes until that moment, that “X-Factor” moment when the team gives it up and goes all in, diving max for the program’s sake, for Liberty, and then and only then does the set end. If you’ve seen Miracle you know the moment of which I speak. It’s not physical, and it isn’t quite psychological either...it’s the mysterious X-Factor, and it is a beautiful thing to watch a team come together and bond through their shared pain.
- Often the sprint group ends practice before the distance lane (shocking!). Suppose the distance crew is going a set of repeat 300’s max. Instead of the sprinters going to the locker room to shower and change, I’ll have them join me in walking the deck with the D lane, cheering them on and helping them through the set.
- Liberty is the largest Christian University in the world, and the spiritual aspect of our education is THE foundation on which our university thrives. We don’t pray together as a team after every practice, but when we do, it is always a special moment, certainly an X-Factor moment, when we come together and give thanks and praise (practice gratitude) for all that we have. Perhaps we have someone going through a tough time personally, whether it be with family, friends, etc...we’ll pray for them, lifting them up, and at that moment I know we’ve improved as a group, as a unit.
And those are just three of many examples of situations where the X-Factor reveals itself. You know it - we’ve all had those moments, and I submit to you that the X-Factor is so strong that regardless of the previous four essentials, it can often trump all. Perhaps we didn’t hit our physiological goals for the day...perhaps as a team, we weren’t quite as sharp from a mental standpoint, or perhaps I could have written the main set differently to better allow for a more successful workout...but the X-Factor can overcome those negatives, it can save an otherwise poor workout.
This is the art of coaching...knowing the how, where, and when to allow the X-Factor to reveal itself, and the coach that masters this art is well on her way to fostering great workouts on a consistent basis.
And there you have it, my system for measuring the greatness of workouts. If we can consistently hit three of the five I know the program is moving forward, with the goal, of course, to hit four and all five of the essentials as often as possible. I should note - one can apply these principles to individuals as well as to the team as a whole, and you can still “win” the day if your leaders and key scorers are hitting four and five on a consistent basis.
What are your essentials? Have you given adequate thought to a list and ways to measure said list? Perhaps you’re a Rick DeMont type and go by feel alone, or more my style with square-ruled Moleskines and Bullet Journals to jot down your thoughts? How do you determine a great workout for your team? On the individual level? Do you believe it important do so in the first place? Why? What if? How might you? Did you improve as a coach today and if so, how? And how can you be sure?