What To Do When the Genetic Free Ride Ends

(Note, the original post was published to this blog on January 4th, 2017. I revisited the topic on October 29th, 2018)

Swimming has a free rider problem. In a sport where the only objective measurement of progress and development is the clock, a lot of swimmers are getting some of that regardless of what they put in. Which swimmers? Young swimmers, riding for free through puberty (and for boys, sometime beyond), getting better all the way.

Then, all of a sudden, the free ride stops. Swimmers can feel like they have literally hit a wall. They plateau, or get worse. They question: "why am I doing this?" and ponder "maybe I've reached the end of my talent". This is a crucial mental period for all swimmers to face. What do you do when the free ride ends?

The problem is more acutely felt by female swimmers, who get booted far more abruptly and at a younger age. Many female swimmers spend the rest of their swimming careers after age 14-15 trying to recreate what "worked" for them at that age. 

In this lies one of the biggest fallacies, that swimmers often learn (and are taught) what "works" for them during the free ride. When I coached in Denmark, many of the top "junior" swimmers, a category that features 14 year old girls, swam ten practices a week, plus dryland. Some more "enlightened" coaches had fewer practices but nevertheless put swimmers through a grind.

If you make young swimmers train "hard", they will go "fast". You are not teaching them what it takes to be successful. You are taking out a high interest loan on their swimming career. Sadly, coaches are not the ones left to pay off that loan, swimmers are.

The discussion of who pays the ultimate cost is for another post- what should a swimmer or coach do when faced with the sudden challenge of actually doing what it takes to get better?

1. Focus on Skills- It is never too late to focus on the skill of swimming. Is it harder to change stroke form with an older swimmer? Maybe. But far too many coaches (and swimmers) decide that the time for stroke and skill development has passed sometime before now.

They pass the buck: “If only somebody at some earlier time had worked on these skills”. The swimmer is right in front of you, teach them!

Time invested in skill development is the opposite of just "training hard", the payoff is much longer term, with interest.

2. Get specific- The genetic free ride has enabled many coaches and swimmers to implement very generalized training programs. After all, if swimmers get better regardless, then you can basically do whatever you want at young ages and look good as a coach.

This is the essential lie at the heart of another phrase that sort of drives me crazy in the sport. “Many ways up the mountain”. I guess that is technically true, but there is a reason that almost every Everest summit goes up a few routes: because they hold the greatest chance for success.

If it sounds like I’m criticizing “garbage yardage”, I’m actually far more critical of the reverse. If there is a much better way than generalized training programs, which I believe there is, then I have failed to adequately make the case for it.

A small percentage of swimmers with unique physiologies and mentalities are able to continue to thrive beyond puberty in general training styles. Because we tend to judge mostly on “successes”, we actually encourage training styles that benefit a narrow range of swimmers. In addition to making the argument, we have to find a way to change the way we evaluate coaches for this (and other reasons).

For those who advocate more specific work, it's time to get workouts that are thoughtful. Coaches and swimmers should consider every set, every “dry land” exercise, every piece of feedback. How and why does it make you improve? 

3. Less can be more- Consider the above 14 year old swimmer who trains ten practices per week. What would be the next natural progression for her in training? Eleven practices, then twelve? Or, could she swim six practices a week and still get better?

In most cases, I would argue that she could. I've tried it myself just to be sure. Do not be afraid to reset and redefine the quality level of practice. Do not get locked into a mindset of "more" practices, more hours spent before you have reached the absolute highest level of quality.

I am highly skeptical of coaches who assert that they cannot possibly run a high level youth program without doubles. I’ve gotten in some arguments with people I love and respect on this issue, and while I respect the urge to push for greater competitive success, I just disagree about how much time demand we should place on younger swimmers.

One of the “shocking” things I learned in Denmark was that in Danish rowing, youth athletes frequently went down in the amount of time they trained for the high school years. The thinking was that, with the high schools there almost totally uncooperative with sports clubs, they could keep athletes in the sport.

The change had another benefit for Danish rowing however: coaches had to find a way to keep competitive results strong during these years, and refined better training methods. Danish rowing is a consistent Olympic medal winner in a country of just five million people.

They also know that with athletes “peaking” later and later, a strategy that keeps more athletes in the sport for longer is a good one.

Swimming in general is far too reliant on training systems that don't take into account how few swimmers improve when their natural growth ends. Coaches and athletes need to reconsider what to do both before and after the free ride ends.