The holidays are approaching, and all across the country coaches are getting excited. Not for presents underneath the tree, mind you, but for the opportunity that is afforded by the vast majority of American swimmers, who are in some form of school, having a break.
Freed from the shackles of day to day schoolwork, there's an opportunity to train: more, faster, harder. To what extremes varies from coach to coach, but it's often this time of year that I see the type of sets that have no place in the modern swimming world:
12000 IMs (seen in person as recently as 2013)
100x100 (discussed ad nauseum on the internet with plenty of back-slapping)
You don't need more than a couple sets to get my drift do you? My high school swim coach, a person I love and admire, does the dreaded 100x100s around this time of year. I've never been able to convince her not to. I try to keep an open mind to new people I meet who feel these are productive swimming sets, even though I disagree.
There exists absolutely no quantitative evidence for this training whatsoever. Its defenders often fall back on anecdotal or wholly subjective evidence for continuing it.
One of the most frequent anecdotes passed around is the story of Erik Vendt swimming 30x1000 in 2000. While many take away from this story that there is value in insanely long swimming sets, I see it completely differently. To me, this story and the accompanying picture hammers home three things:
1) This type of swimming set can only be justified for the elite of the elite, the .0001 percent of athletes in the sport like Erik Vendt. I have never coached one of those people and very few of us have.
2) Consent is incredibly important. Erik Vendt did this set when he was 19 years old. He was old enough to ask for it from his coach and do it willingly. I do not believe that 14 year olds can willingly ask for this type of training
3) Phil Spiniello, despite having a very well-shaped bald head, still looks better with hair.
The most maddening and frequent reasoning I see for these types of sets is as follows : that the shared misery of these sets builds "mental toughness".
First, let us rid ourselves of the term "mental toughness" altogether. It's meaning has been so warped and misshapen by false sports masculinity that it has lost most of its tether in reality.
It is used as a catch-all for processes both real and imagined. Swimmers who win are often described as "mentally tough" after the fact. When they're winning, they are "tough". When they lose, all of a sudden not they are not so tough.
When I was a little kid, Mike Tyson looked extremely "mentally tough" until Buster Douglas punched him in the face.
A New Definition
What is it we really want from athletes in our sport? We want resilience in the face of adversity, we want them to thrive and feel real purpose and meaning in what they do. We want them to love to swim.
There are so many ways to build resilience, purpose and positive emotions that do not involve scientifically unsound training that may be effective for only the superhuman outliers on your team.
Rather than an opportunity for pushing crazy training, the holidays are an opportunity to make more modest adjustments. Swimmers can recover better, and if you do it right, they can emerge from the holiday break refreshed, swimming faster than ever, and with joy to take them through the hard times to come.
As my colleague Rick Madge and others have pointed out, swimming suffers from a huge survivor bias when it comes to this type of training. The swimmers that can "survive" these types of sets are, like Mike Tyson, described as mentally tough after the fact when they succeed.
We hear about Erik Vendt because he survived. This is another reason to avoid doing this type of training with young kids. Younger kids are very resilient in many ways- that doesn't mean we should force crazy training on them just because they can bounce back.
The biggest problem with building this false sense of resilience is that once the swimmer cannot "survive" this type of training anymore, which comes for many with age, it's absolutely crushing. All across the country, hundreds of college swim coaches, particularly of women, are nodding their heads at that last sentence.
This holiday season, as you head to the pool to train swimmers, think hard about what you are going to do with the opportunity afforded to you.
Give swimmers something challenging, of course, but give them something that lays just beyond their sense of what they can accomplish. Give them something based in scientific evidence so that they can better understand the purpose. Coach them like you would coach yourself.