Small Pool Advantage: Why Bigger Isn't Always Better

I recently returned to the pool where I swam in high school. The six lane pool at Babson College had narrower lanes than I remembered. When we practiced there, we would have four lanes available for swimming, while the 1M Diving practice took up lanes four and five, and swimmers in adjacent lanes absorbed the wake of every reverse or forward pike as they trained.

Yet we were successful, at least in a local sense. But practically no one in Massachusetts high school swimming has access to adequate facilities, creating sort of a miserably level playing field. It wasn't until college.

I swam in the NESCAC Conference, a league that was dominated then and now by Williams College. Williams has had an 8 lane 50 meter pool, the standard "good pool" setup, for quite some time, and at least half the conference cannot come close to that amount of water.

Yet in those days, Amherst, a school with 6 short course lanes, was consistently competitive. Last year, Tufts University, another school with a massive team and only six short course lanes to train them in, came in 2nd to Williams. Meanwhile, the two schools with comparable facilities to Williams (Wesleyan and Middlebury) finished 7th and 8th, respectively.

Kenyon College and Denison College now posses two of the finest tanks in college swimming. But for long period of time, the two schools battled for D3 National titles in the most modest of facilities. 

Even in Division 1 swimming, the pool poor are doing just fine. NC State's facilities were seen as a liability until the current coaching staff came in. But could having a small or old or impractical pool situation really be an advantage? Yes! Here's why:

It forces you to focus on what you can control- Swimmers and coaches quickly adapt to having a big, nice pool. Take it from someone who coached at the 1996 Olympic pool and routinely heard swimmers complain about going three to a lane. This adaptation meant that nearly every other swimming situation was adverse for our swimmers.

But swimmers who come from a small, crowded pool, can feel inspired when they get a chance to swim in a nicer facility.

Having a small pool can also mean less swimmers in the water with the same amount of coaches on deck, and more attention for the swimmers. Although this can put a big physical strain on coaches, it can also get them to be more efficient with their "dry" work because of the hours they spend coaching. 

Like who is in the pool- People are the most important resource in any competitive situation. Kenyon College won two decades of uninterrupted NCAA titles in a small pool because they had an all- time great coach (Jim Steen) leading them. During the same time period, not only Denison but Johns Hopkins was very successful without a clear advantage in water space. 

The cost and maintenance on a huge, shiny new pool are way more than attracting and keeping a top notch coach, but somehow a calculation that far too few schools make with their swimming program. Athletic directors should be wary of coaches who use a pool as an excuse- it's fine to advocate for better conditions but ultimately the water plays a much smaller part than most really think.