Talent: For When We Can't Explain

Talent. it's a word that we somehow cannot escape in sports. People define and use it a lot of different ways. It's meant to describe someone's "natural ability" for something, that when combined with a process of improvement, provides a crude formula for performance.

For the purposes of this post, I want to talk about a slice of that definition that is particularly troublesome. Talent is often assigned to individuals after the fact. We look at somebody who has already performed well and declare that they are "talented". Too often, this designation distracts us understanding the process by which that person gets better.

Take Anthony Ervin. Countless people have told me how "talented" Anthony is. He's a good example, because the talent description is more frequently given to sprint swimmers. If you read Anthony's book, you'll find a lot of frustrated swim coaches. They couldn't get Anthony to be "with the program".

The implication for many would be that Anthony Ervin did not work hard. In fact, his book lays bare that Anthony had a very different process for improving his swimming. I think many people did not understand this process, but I don't believe that talent takes you to a gold medal in the 50 free.

So, the next time you are considering a fast swimmer and their "talent", challenge your assumption of their natural ability. Admit that maybe, just maybe, there is something about the process by which they became fast that you do not yet understand. 

As coaches we have so much to learn from swimmers. All throughout coaching I hear the quote that "there are many ways up the mountain" to describe the different ways coaches coach and still have successful swimmers. What I believe is that swimmers can find many aways up the mountain, some of which we as coaches didn't even think were possible. 



Why I'm Coaching High School

Because it's fun.

I guess i could stop there. Not much more to say than that about one of the best, purest forms of our sport that is somehow mostly relegated to the fringes of what we consider "serious" swimming.

It's been almost a year since I moved back to the United States and started my own business doing private swim coaching and mental performance training along with some college recruiting consulting. Through that time I've made a ton of progress developing my business and my life. 

I started working out every day. I walk my daughter too and from school and we spend hours together every weekday. My family has something social going on most weekends. 

While that all sounds great, I did find something missing from my old life grinding up and down the side of a pool deck. I missed the tactile feel of day to day coaching. I missed the simple rhythm of showing up to a pool, getting into a coaching flow and having two hours slip by in what seems like a matter of minutes. 

So, to compliment what I was doing I went in search of a job. I didn't need a job, but I wanted one. One where I could get that swimming fix without having to give up a lot of what I'd worked so hard for. 

I tried my old familiar friend college swimming, my old familiar enemy club swimming. Nothing fit. Every time I got close I found myself compromising too much of the life I'd built.

So I went back to my roots. When I graduated from college, I thought that I would have to teach to support my swimming habit. I taught at a boarding school in Western Pennsylvania, the Kiski School, and coached the swim team. I also coached soccer despite never playing in my life, but that's for another blog. 

I'm going back to coach high school swimming at a boys school here in North Jersey. I found a place that shared a lot of values with me. I'm coming back to a part of swimming where the competitions are actually fun without any gimmicks.

I'm excited to see how it goes. 

Expect Weirdness in Budapest from Team USA

A friend of mine (for the sake of protecting his anonymity, let's call him G. McCaffrey) pointed out an anniversary of sorts the last time we talked. With the World Championships in Budapest (the pool portion) about to get underway, it was time for my annual bed-wetting about American swimming.

But nine years in, I've learned my lesson. In the year after the Olympics, the US team usually takes a dip from "extremely dominant" to "dominant" on the world stage. That is nothing to wet the bed over. However, if you don't follow your history, you might be tempted to get concerned as the results unfold next week in Hungary. 

That's why I'm hear with this message: expect weirdness in Budapest. What kind of weirdness? I'm glad you asked. I'll give you a historical example and then take some guesses.

The Relay Blunder of 2009

It's hard to fathom the US every missing a relay final in international competition. That very thing happened in 2009, when the Women's 4x100 Medley squad only managed 10th in the preliminary session

Yes, some of the swimmers on that relay didn't perform to their potential, but the US also elected to not use their fastest stroke swimmer in either backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke. For freestyle the coaches went with a swimmer who didn't even make the 4x100 night relay. Weird indeed.

More Than Just "No Phelps"

A US slip in the medal count will undoubtedly be attributed to "No Phelps" so I won't focus on that obvious narrative. There are other events in which the US all of a sudden finds it's position far less certain than 2016 and could lead to some Budapest Bed wetting:

1. The Men's 1500 Freestyle: The loss of Connor Jaeger puts the US well behind the world standard in this race, in fact our results from trials would have last looked promising for a medal even twenty years ago.

2. Women's Butterfly: Dana Vollmer's continued excellence is on pause to create life again, leaving the US without their most consistent butterfly Olympic medal threat. While the US has some promising swimmers in all distances, they need considerable improvement to make the medal stand in Budapest.

3. Women's IM: Likewise the women's IM are hurting for the kind of performances that Maya DiRado gave us in Rio. As good as Melanie Margalis and Leah Smith swam, there's another level for them to find to break through at this meet. 

4. Ryan Murphy is beatable: Ryan Murphy was the best non-Phelps male swimmer for the US Team in Rio. He crushed Australian Mitch Larkin's dreams and effectively ended the 4x100 Medley relay on the opening leg. But he looked far more human at Trials, He's a candidate for a "swoon" the same way that Phelps himself took a bit of a backwards step in 2005 Montreal

That said, most swimmers would probably kill for a disappointing Ryan Murphy swim.

Ultimately, the post Olympic World Championship meet is always good for a reshuffling of the world swimming deck, and even if the US team seems only normally dominant, any step back always seems to motivate them to crush the rest of the world by the end of the Olympic cycle. 

Why Your Swimmers are "Choosing" Backstroke

Let me set the scene for you. Your in the heat of a swim practice. Your the coach and you've written a set, a set where you dreamed that all the swimmers could work on their stroke (non-freestyle). It all seemed perfect in your head. You made it "choice", because you're smart and you know that the swimmers will be more motivated if they have some autonomy over what they do.

Except they all chose backstroke. "YOU CAN'T ALL BE BACKSTROKERS!" you scream, either internally or out loud. You look at lane two. There is Agatha. She complained to you last meet about how "we never train breaststroke". And she's swimming backstroke. Your blood starts to boil.

Take a deep breath. Count to ten if you need to. Here are some reasons why your swimmers might be making this choice, and what you can do about it.

1. They might be backstrokers- Have pity on them for being the most inferior sect of swimmers. Shots fired Garrett McCaffrey. 

2. The sendoffs could be wrong- One of the biggest rookie mistakes in constructing practice is to assign a single interval time for all three strokes as if they are equal. Backstroke and butterfly are much faster than breaststroke by an order of 3-4 seconds per 50m on the elite level.

Also, if you are not training race pace (why aren't you training race pace?), then backstroke will be much easier to do at below race pace, for longer distances. 

Swimmers instincts to avoid butterfly and breaststroke when sendoffs do not allow them to do the reps at quality are correct. Common technical problems in these two strokes are a result of "struggle" technique when forced to do repetitions with inadequate recovery or too long distances.

If I were designing a race pace set of 25s for butterflyers, backstrokers and breaststrokers to all do together, it might look something like this:

30x25 on :30/:35/:40

Backstrokers able to go under 1:00 should start on the :30. Backstrokers 1:00-:1:12 on :35. Breaststrokers up to 1:00 on :35, Breaststrokers up to 1:12 on :40. Butterflyers up to 1:00 on :35, up to 1:12 on :40

Any butterflyers or breaststrokers who struggle to string more than a few together at 100 pace, you could consider adding 1 sec to their 100 pace, focus on efficiency, or making every 4th one "easy"

3. Your swimmers are scared- Do you know the theory of learned helplessness? It's really important to understanding why people don't do things that would benefit them. Training hard, particularly in breaststroke and butterfly, is painful. 

As a coach, you need to build a bridge between this painful training and results. If your swimmers are scared and avoiding it, it is because they don't see the bridge. Yelling at them may scare them enough to take the leap, but will ultimately just be adding another painful thing to avoid.

Have empathy for your athletes, and connect with them on the level they are on. Figure out at what level they will be willing to risk themselves, let them go there and make sure they see the progress that results. 

4. Their backstroke technique is poor- I thought of backstroke as an easy stroke when I was a swimmer. Why? Because my backstroke technique was terribly. 

Specifically, I barely kicked when swimming backstroke. Kick is the most obvious thing that all coaches want swimmers to do, but much like breaststroke and butterfly, it makes things much more painful. But much like an appropriate risk in butterfly and breaststroke, this pain brings better results.

If swimmers are going to insist on swimming backstroke, you need to insist that they maintain a steady, narrow kick. Don't allow backstroke techniques that make the stroke "easy".

If you've tried all of the above and your swimmers still insist on swimming backstroke, don't give up hope. Someday, they may grow up to win an NBA title.