Why The Short Course Explosion Hasn't Gone Long

Caeleb Dressel's swimming is so fast you can't believe it. Already an NCAA record holder after just his sophomore season, he pushed it to a whole new level this past spring, with new records in the 50 free (18.20), 100 free (40.00) and 100 butterfly (43.58).

That's right, as if his mind boggling 100 freestyle that put him on the doorstep of 39 wasn't enough, he also beat the man (Joseph Schooling) who beat Michael Phelps, in Schooling's best event.

For all his mind-blowing swimming, Dressel wasn't even on the US Olympic team in the 50 free and put up a couple solid 100 freestyles (47.9 and 48.1) on the 4x100 Freestyle relay. What demands explanation is, how can a swimmer like Dressel be so much faster in short course than an all-timer like Matt Biondi.

Biondi's best short course 100 was 41.87, giving Dressel a nearly two second advantage in that race. In the 100m, where a margin should theoretically be bigger due to the longer race, Dressel is just .9 faster (47.5 to 48.4).

Dressel is just one glaring example of a trend. Short course swimming (especially yards swimming) has seen an explosion in improvement over the last two decades. That improvement hasn't translated to long course meters, the Olympic format. So it begs the question: why?

The Skill Explosion

Basketball fans: have you ever watched highlights of Bob Cousy? The greatest ball-handler of his generation doesn't exactly blow people's minds with his moves in 2017. Yes, I know they allow more palming now- blah blah blah. Basketball has seen a skill explosion.

In swimming, skills are all the stuff that's not pure swimming (starts, turns, underwater kicking/pullouts)

Take a look at Matt Biondi swimming, at his peak (race starts around 3:24):

Here's Caeleb Dressel (shown in long course for accurate comparison)

There are some obvious differences that stand out right away. Dressel's start is worlds better than what Biondi or anyone was doing in a bygone era. 

Even more so than the aerial theatrics is what happens when they enter the water. I've watched enough Biondi races to know that this wasn't a particularly bad breakout. Seen with modern eyes, Biondi always had a bad breakout. 

He surfaces on too steep of an angle, his head lurching awkwardly up to the surface and looking straight forward. I went frame by frame at the turn, and it appears Biondi doesn't even fully streamline, and his legs are loose and unconnected behind him. 

Meanwhile, on the surface, Biondi seems like he could be swimming today. In fact, I would venture to say that if we could de-age Biondi and teach him a proper start, turn, and how to kick underwater, he might still be the world's best over 100m. 

The Short Of It

A focus on short course swimming can account for this skill explosion. Short course swimming rewards skills, as does higher intensity and measured race pace training. In three years coaching in Europe, I noticed that the majority of European countries placed a much higher focus on long course swimming. 

While that led them to have fit athletes, overall you can see a broad deficiency in skill especially at junior levels in European swimming. This, broadly, is why many European athletes have a lot of NCAA success- they pair a strong fitness with increased skill development and make a performance leap.

A leap in long course performance is possible- but it rests on two huge developments. The first will be some significant innovation in overwater stroke technique. Adam Peaty is a good example of a swimmer who has made massive improvements in the world standard of long course performance despite below-average skills.

The second innovation will come with a continued evolution of race pace training to prepare swimmers better for long course racing. There are some inherent conflicts in the race pace theories- with one of the biggest ones being that specificity is given a ton of value, but somehow you should swim repeat short course 25y or 25m to prepare for a long course 100m.

Any coach can tell you that where swimmers struggle to translate their performance in long course is from 25-50m, maintaining their stroke technique, speed and efficiency. I saw it first hand when I used race pace and skill to get a swimmer who had never broken 1:00 in 100 breaststroke to a 55 in short course yards. That swimmer promptly went to Summer Nationals and swam a 1:09 in LCM, which is a nice argument for Long Course only Olympic Trial standards.

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Swimming Is Too Cheap and Too Expensive

Swimming is a sport of privilege in the United States. That is not to say that everyone in swimming is rich, in fact quite the opposite (especially the coaches). The sport as presently constructed is extremely expensive. 

It is important to note that when I say "expensive" in this context, I'm not just talking about the almighty dollar. In fact, the expenses you can't put in a savings account far outweigh those that you can. Let's take a look at a few of the ways that swimming bears a huge cost for so many of the people that pursue it seriously:

The Swimmers

What is a "swimmer" in the United States? The vast majority are school age children. Therefore we can't talk about them without considering them as part of a family unit. Also, since they aren't in most cases expected to be full-time earners, we don't quantify their time in terms of the money they could "make".

But their time is valuable. We put public resources into their education for that very reason. So, every hour that they spend in the pool is time that cannot be spent doing something else. Every minute spent commuting to and from practice and to meets near and far costs valuable time.

Their participation is also extremely demanding on their families. Unlike a country, say like Denmark, where I used to coach, that has a wonderfully functional public transportation system and is generally safe to ride your bike from place to place in, Americans depend on cars for transportation. Parents of swimmers will therefore often spend inordinate amounts of time in cars. That time is another expense.

The Coaches

If many coaches seem unsympathetic to those costs, there is a reason for that too. Somehow despite the crazy expenses of swimming, many coaches draw very modest salaries. In exchange for those salaries, they are often expected in many cases to do the jobs of two or more people.

Consider your best local club swimming program. In order to pay their coaches even a modest salary they need to fill their lanes. As a college coach, it was not atypical for me to attend club practices at some of the best club teams in America where one coach presided over 30 or more swimmers. This is far from a club problem, in fact "elite" college teams stockpile huge rosters of swimmers as if some of them have an expiration date.

Now, would you consider it a good educational environment for a child if a math teacher had to preside over a class of 30 or more students? Many would not. What if your math teacher also responsible for teaching that huge group in an environment where she might need to leap in to save someones life. 

Why do teams charge the same fee for membership even as groups grow to huge sizes? The quality a coach can deliver to a particular athlete drops off exponentially past a certain point. if I were to guess, this point is around 12:1 athletes to coaches, but thats probably being generous and it could be 10:1 or 8:1.

So let's do some math on a single group of 30 athletes being coached for two hours by one coach. If the coach is delivering personalized feedback for the entire two hours (an impossibility, but let's just run with it anyway), and somehow spreads herself evenly, every athlete gets four minutes of personalized instruction.

What are you paying for?

The reality is that on many swim teams, despite the huge costs in time from swimmers, families and coaches, there is too little value making it through to either side. Both sides bear responsibility for how to fix this broken model.

On the swimmer side, families need to think about what they actually want to get out of participating in swimming, and how much that should cost. In many cases, there is likely too much of that cost equation that comes in the form of time and too little in the form of actual currency.

For coaches their is a need for re-calibration as well. Too often coaches pile on another practice, another competition, another week of the year without thinking about how incredibly expensive each of those things are for everyone involved. As coaches we need to demand and deliver efficient, valuable training, instead of always more.

We also need to stop agreeing to be the swim coach, the strength and conditioning coach, the sport psychologist, or even the director of operations (the list sometime goes on) for a team. Because no human being can do all these jobs really well. 

Swimming can reach even greater heights if we come together and realize that we are both spending too much and too little on it. 

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When Should You Do Double Practices?

Here's a question I see coaches asking all the time: "What is the right age for swimmers to start doubles?". Or "What level of swimmer should be doing doubles?". These are questions worth asking, for sure, but they miss the real question. Because the decision for swimmers to do "doubles", or train twice a day, has to do with a lot more factors than age or ability level.

Double practices are extremely popular at high levels of swimming, and in many cases seen as a bare necessity to be competitive at those levels. However, there are a minority of coaches who even at the highest levels eschew at least two swimming sessions a day. So how do you decide? Here are the biggest factors:

1. Are the swimmers making the best use of once daily practices? An easy indicator that you may have swimmers ready for doubles is that you feel as a coach that the swimmer or swimmers are practicing with good quality on the once daily training sessions.

There is no point at all in adding practice times if you don't have quality on single training sessions. Your job as a coach is to ensure quality in these once daily sessions first and foremost.

2. Are you training in a way that the swimmers can recover from a morning practice to an afternoon practice? The vast majority of coaches are training swimmers that attend school. Therefore you must consider that between a morning and an afternoon practice, there will be little time for passive recovery (like sleep). Can your swimmers bounce back and put in a quality training.

Training programs that need to put in regularly scheduled "recovery practices" are very inefficient. Why waste everybody's time like this? Rather, make your training such that swimmers can push their fitness at each training.

3. Do you have swimmers that want to train twice a day? This is probably the one I find most disagreement with other coaches on. I mean, who "wants" to come to morning practice?

In my experience, plenty of swimmers do, but only if you give them space to make the choice. In my career I have dropped morning practice altogether (at the NCAA Division 1 level, training a swimmer who won the ACC in a 200). When I brought it back, it was only for swimmers that wanted it.

Having swimmers bring a sullen attitude to morning training is a killer for the competitive climate of your team. Swimmers that choose morning practice are seldom sullen, because no one is forcing them to be there. You need to insist on creating an environment for this level of motivation.

As a coach, you need to look at the psychological and physiological big picture when considering double practices. Too often, coaches make a simple decision based on limited factors, to their own competitive disadvantage.

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Why I don't Swim for a Masters Team

It has now been more than a decade since I swam for a team. My last honest attempt came in 2009, when I swam a few practices for a team I was also coaching over the summer.

I've never found that the benefits of joining up with a team outweigh the costs. I love the idea of Masters swimming, and I can see the value that many people get from being on Masters teams. I have never found that it is for me.

To be fair, before I get overly critical of the way many Masters teams are run, I am an odd bird. I am a coach with very strong opinions on how I should train. Those opinions exist still at the fringe of popular opinion in the swimming world. I'm at peace with that.

The reality is that many Masters teams are not a natural next rung from the competitive college and club programs that proceed them. Many are stocked with swimmers that have no interest in competing and just want to stay in shape. Another significant block are triathletes, looking to make sure they are prepared for a long distance open water swim.

Everyone in the sport knows that triathletes, who can often come from non-competitive swimming backgrounds, typically have big pocketbooks and are eager for help, so it makes sense for Masters teams to cater to them. 

Competitive swimmers, especially ones that want to compete in sprint races, are rare. Because of this, training is not designed around them.

To compound this, many Masters swimming teams employ a "coach by committee" design, meaning that if you show up on a consistent basis you may have a different coach standing on deck for each practice you attend. This makes it challenging to expect any kind of continuity for practice style, or stroke corrections, or any of the basic pieces you need to get better.

With my life, working on my own business, volunteering and raising a young kid, I don't have the time to waste on this kind of training. 

So, while it is not ideal, I coach myself and ask coaching friends for help. I video myself and analyze it later. I tailor workouts specifically to my own needs and do them on my own time. I do the same for Masters swimming athletes that could benefit from the same kind of specialization in their training. 

For me, training this way has allowed both me and my clients to get in the best shape of our adult lives, all while finding better balance in our work and personal lives. While I still would like someone to swim with me from time to time, the cost is worth it.

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