Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE PREPARATION AND CONDUCT OF INTERNATIONAL SWIMMING TEAMS
With the changes in support, expectations, and opportunities in modern swimming there is an increase in accountability for both swimmers and coaches.
When swimmers are selected on a team it is appropriate to expect them to apply themselves fully with a view to achieving perfection during the post-selection to games' completion period. The activities, attitudes, details, and focus of preparations have been defined in the book, Think and act like a champion (Rushall, 1995). The general expectations for acceptable behavior and performance are:
These are universal expectations for international team participation. No longer can irresponsibility in behavior be tolerated nor is it worthy of support. There is no way that swimmers should behave in a manner that threatens their health, the team's and individual's reputations, or the quality of training and competitive performances.
Not long ago when swimmers were amateurs, it may have been too demanding to place these expectations on them, although, morally they have always been justifiable. However, the situation now is very different. As opportunities and financial support are increased to provide better experiences to enhance performances, the ledger is balanced on the other side by decreases in freedom and tolerance of questionable behaviors. Exhibitionism and rebelliousness are examples of the type of activities that should not be displayed or tolerated in very visible games' settings.
When swimmers are selected to a representative team they assume responsibilities that often will require alterations in their behavior. They should be preoccupied with improving the quality of their performance and competition preparations so that eventual competitive efforts will be superior to their selection performances. This is the reality of modern representation and responsibility. Athletes are now accountable and should exhibit improvements in performance in international competitions. Athletes are also responsible for behavior problems and deviations from decorum and team expectations. When irresponsibility occurs, appropriate sanctions should be incurred.
Accountability is also appropriate for coaches. When plans are formulated, and opportunities and funding supplied to allow their execution, the sport delivery system is responsible for producing maintained or elevated performances in athletes in competitions. It is the responsibility of an international games coaching staff to provide an experience of such quality that selection performances will be improved upon in the ensuing games.
In swimming, it is possible to compare selection times with games' times to determine if improvements or regressions have occurred. If performances regress, then a large amount of responsibility for the deterioration has to be accepted by the coaching staff. The delivery of coaching has to be largely responsible for athletes' performances. Coaching and support staffs are quick to accept responsibility for successes and medals. It is equally important for them to accept responsibility for failures. That is accountability.
The simplest index of coaching performance success is the percentage of improved performances in a target competition. Because so many factors cannot be controlled, it is reasonable to expect less than perfection in swimmer accomplishments. I propose that 80% of swims being improved when compared to those that gained selection is a very acceptable level of accountability. When 50% improve and 50% deteriorate there is something very wrong with the delivery system that was provided for the competition. Table 1 includes the performances for both Australian and American swimmers at the Barcelona games using the improved or worsened criterion for heats and major final performances in individual events. Neither team performed well but the Australians were better than the Americans. It would seem to be a worthy expectation for swimmers to perform better at a games than in the selection trials because of the extra, and usually dedicated, time and resources that are enjoyed in the period between the two competitions.
One should also expect reigning world champions and record-holders to continue to maintain that status. Those athletes have already shown their ability so the coaching and sport delivery system should provide the resources to maintain such rankings and performance levels.
These are just examples of some methods of determining accountability in coaches. Others are available or can be developed. Accountability involves establishing performance goals for both swimmers and coaching staffs.
It should be recognized that coaches and athletes have to work together in a constructive manner to produce the best development and training system possible so that enhanced performances result. When that is not achieved, some determination of causes and appropriate corrective actions should be taken. Failures to achieve accountable goals in international competitions need to be analyzed to the same extent as are successes.
Post-games' evaluations are necessary although a contentious issue. They should involve athletes', coaches', and officials' inputs and are usually best performed by impartial parties.
TABLE 1. PERCENTAGE OF IMPROVED AND WORSENED PERFORMANCES IN OLYMPIC GAMES INDIVIDUAL EVENT HEATS AND MAJOR FINALS WHEN COMPARED TO SELECTION TRIALS QUALIFYING TIMES FOR AUSTRALIAN AND AMERICAN SWIMMERS. ========================================================================= Better Worse ========================================================================= Australia Males 44.0% (N = 11) 56.0% (N = 14) Females 46.1% (N = 12) 53.9% (N = 14) Total 45.0% (N = 23) 55.0% (N = 28) USA Males 34.6% (N = 9) 65.4% (N = 17) Females 34.6% (N = 9) 65.4% (N = 17) Total 34.6% (N = 18) 65.4% (N = 34) =========================================================================
Whether selection trials should be held a long or short time before a games or international competition has always been a matter of contention. Theoretically, a long time period may seem to have more beneficial aspects but, in reality, that is not likely. Each extreme has is advantages and disadvantages. Some of the major considerations and the impact of long and short preparatory periods are listed below.
A long time period can be considered to be in excess of one month from the completion of selection trials to the first day of competition. A short time period is less than one month.
1. The transition from home coaching to the games' team coaching staff can produce difficulties. If the first period of training in a long preparation is supervised by the personal coach that directed a swimmer's selection performances, the switch to a new coach at a critical time of preparation could be detrimental. This is heightened if the games' coach is not familiar with a swimmer's needs, reactions, or training responses. The adjustments needed are usually stressful, affect the athlete's self-confidence, and depending upon the competency of the assigned games' coach, may be inappropriate. Attempts to remove this problem are made when the swimmer's coach is also the games' coach. However, such an assignment does not guarantee a continued consistent form of handling. If that coach alters the way the swimmer is coached, often through pressures exerted by a head coach or coaching colleagues, the provision of appropriate services will deteriorate. The behavior change in the coaching staff when appointed to international teams is a problem that exists no matter what length is the games' preparation period. This problem is slightly less for short preparation periods. In that case the assigned coach has less chance of "doing damage" and the athlete may be able to "mask" such an effect because of attention to many rapidly changing life events. This problem can be alleviated by the national coach ensuring that the personal coach, assigned coach, and athlete agree upon a training program and method of supervision.
2. When coaches have primarily worked in isolation in their own club setting, they often alter their coaching behaviors and manners when they are thrust into high-performance environment with other coaches. Rivalries between swimming coaches are common and will continue even though all are members of the same staff. When coaches attempt to show their peers how good they are as coaches, usual coaching practices and swimmer needs are altered. This results in detrimental programs being formulated for swimmers. The most common form of reaction among western coaches (i.e., from Australia, USA, Canada) is to be overzealous in work assignment. Swimmers are often asked to do too much hard work at a time when volumes of hard work are unnecessary. This phenomenon is not unusual. In a study of a Canadian swimming team staff at a World Championships, it was shown that staff members were more stressed by the situation than were athletes. Such stress is a stimulus for behavior change. This "coach alteration" problem is of greater concern in long preparatory periods. The potential for the coach to do damage is magnified. Short duration preparations do not eliminate this problem but they do provide a limited time for effects and so, are marginally preferable.
3. During the time between the trials and competition, there is the possibility of swimmers who missed selection improving to the extent of being better than some of those on the selected team. This is particularly so for originally ill or injured athletes. For long preparation periods, this is a distinct problem and is cause for concern. However, the shorter the time period between trials and the competition, the more this problem is diminished.
4. A long preparatory period often produces a change in life-style, goals, and training application in selected swimmers. Those changes have the potential to be detrimental to target competition performances. If a swimmer's traditional preparations for national championships is consistent, that is, it follows a relatively stable routine established by the club coach, then the change to a completely unfamiliar long period of preparation for an international competition could serve to heighten programming uncertainty. In that situation, trial and error reasoning by the team coach usually prevails so that a swimmer's preparation is driven by chance rather than established known formulae. This problem is magnified during long preparatory periods and diminished in short ones.
5. Games' coaching staffs are usually anxious to get on with the job of coaching. It is a great temptation for a coach to take someone else's swimmer under their wing and coach them "better." When a swimmer does very well at an important games, a coach's reputation, and often income through incentive bonuses, can be enhanced. This anxiousness to "get on with the job" often results in poor programming and judgments. When a long games' preparation period exists, programming often ignores the need to return to basic preparatory or even transition training after the selection trials. The usual error is to prescribe too much specialized training. Coaches commonly operate on the belief that a lot of quality hard work will somehow improve swimmers even further. This belief is particularly dangerous. It is more than likely swimmers will have been in maximum physical condition when they qualified for the team. The persistence of coaches in thinking that athletes' performances can be improved by more hard work is probably the single most contributory factor to poor games' performances. When too much specialized training is undertaken, athletes are not able to improve. They are either overtrained or are incapable of differentiating a competitive performance from training performances because they have not had a chance to experience a less than adequate physical state. Short preparatory time periods restrict the phases of training that need to be periodized. That limits the number and magnitude of detrimental program errors that can be made.
6. A long preparatory period is complex in terms of its developmental requirements. The training parameters that need to be determined involve skill (biomechanics), self-control (psychology), and conditioning (physiology). The potential for programming errors or omissions is high because of the great number of coaching decisions that have to be made, usually without adequate data. A short preparatory period lessens the importance of conditioning and skill change, and thus, limits the potential for erroneous coaching decisions.
7. Isolation from life stresses and distractions is a good feature of specialized preparations. Long preparatory periods make this almost impossible. Short preparatory periods provide the opportunity for tolerable amounts of isolation.
8. For an athlete to prepare for a maximum performance, it is necessary that only performance parameters be stimulated, the rest of that person's life remaining stable (as long as it is not detrimental). There is the possibility that long preparatory periods may provide too much time in altered states. For example, swimmers who drop out of school or work may have a life-style that has reduced life-stresses. If those stresses are not replaced by similar life demands, there is the possibility that swimmers will become lazy. Despite ideal training circumstances, the hole left by the removal of life demands acts as a dampener on performance potential. A swimmer's lifestyle needs to maintain a normal level of demand in terms of energy and psychological stimulation. A reduction in either causes detrimental stress. The older the swimmer, the greater is this problem. Long preparations increase the likelihood of this occurring, short ones reduce it.
9. Improved performances is one of the goals of specialized preparations. The longer the period of preparation, assuming that training is totally beneficial, the greater is the potential for achievement. Short periods allow little opportunity for large improvements to occur. However, it is proposed that the difficulties associated with long periods more than offset potential benefits.
10. A commonly espoused drawback of a short preparatory period is that it requires athletes to "peak" twice in close proximity. The truth of that assertion is determined by whether or not a swimmer really peaked for the first performance. It would seem that such an assumption often is not the case. There is documented evidence that national swimming teams have improved during close successive important competitions (Rushall & Pyke, 1990, pp. 56-58). In short periods if conditioning is limited to unloading and maintenance training, there still is the possibility for further performance improvement. That occurrence is dependent upon the coaching staff adopting the correct form of periodization.
11. A final modifying variable concerns the motivation of selected athletes. There often is a number of athletes whose sole aim is to make the representative team. Performing well when representing is not a major goal. These swimmers have the potential to "pollute" other athletes who have aspirations to train conscientiously and achieve in competitions. A long preparation period does not help these individuals. Faced with further extensive and rigorous training, they often "go through the motions" of training which results in poorer performances. It is difficult to keep up a facade of seriousness given the many opportunities to evaluate performance progress when a long period of preparatory training is required. These "tourists" are usually known to the coaching staff before traveling. On the other hand, a short preparatory period, because of its potentially spirited conduct, can sustain brief periods of recovered enthusiasm in such individuals. Transitory motivational programs that cannot be sustained for long periods can be effective for shorter intervals. It is proposed that these individuals can be better handled in short preparations than in long.
It would seem that long preparatory periods are more complex and difficult to control than are short preparatory periods. The potential for improvement is greatest for long preparations. The potential for detrimental factors to emerge is also greatest for long preparations. Short preparations appear to be simpler, associated with less difficulties, and depending upon the trained state of the athlete at the selection trials, might also have the potential to produce improved performances. This writer's recommendation is that preparatory time periods be short rather than long.
Modern coaching theory provides a number of principles for the conduct of training and preparations for international contests. Some of the major concerns for programming the last month of preparations are explained below.
1. Athletes should be fully conditioned and well into the competition phase of training at least one month prior to the start of an international games. The questionable procedure of fatiguing athletes continuously and then instituting a "taper" phase is outmoded. If correct overload stimuli are applied, athletes should accrue training effects and experience improvements in every microcycle. When the conditioned state is maximized, maintenance training and its altered parameters should be instituted. The application of maintenance training allows for different training content and aims to be entertained. It fosters the refined specific coordination of exact training stimuli to be coordinated with the biomechanical functions of exact race pace. This "fine tuning" is what takes performance from being energized by a "general" trained state to being energized by a "specific" trained state. Physiological testing and monitoring at this stage is a very questionable practice.
2. There should be no attempt to alter stroking technique in the last month of preparation. Coaches frequently attempt to "justify their presence" by suggesting improvements in stroke. Unfortunately, in skilled athletes, skill alterations produce a period of deteriorated performance. In a critical preparatory stage, performing worse does not foster the appropriate psychological state which is of paramount importance at that time. For a technique alteration to become permanent, it has to be executed a great number of times until it becomes dominant over the skill element it is to replace. That number will depend on the strength of the technique error. In international athletes it is highly unlikely that skill changes can be achieved in one month. Athletes may be able to consciously control technique in training. In stressful competitions they regress back to the strongest conditioned element because they are not able to exert the same non-stressed conscious control.
3. Attempts to condition and alter techniques disrupt performance efficiency. It is important for athletes to prepare for a competition with no disruptions or negative experiences. If a swimmer spends the last month of preparation with a consistent technique and conditioned state, then refinements can be made to performance efficiency. Those refinements are primarily due to cognitive reorganization, not a change in physical state. The brain needs time to fully coordinate the resources in the body to produce a refined performance. That is not possible if excessive fatigue and stroke alterations are programmed. In that case an athlete would have to accommodate change and continual upheaval in the experience. That is not an adaptive condition. It is primarily one of coping, a response that is not associated with performance enhancement. For at least a month before important competitions athletes need to experience consistency in their appraisals of fitness and feelings of technique. The provision of the exact energy requirements and skill mechanics for a targeted performance needs to be practiced at this time.
4. The performance of auxiliary training should be minimal. Participation in strength training and other-sport activities should be minimal. For athletes who "believe" they need to do this type of work, once a week is as much as should be entertained. Non-specific training stimuli will not promote improved specific performances at this time. The role of this work to satisfy "beliefs" is that of being a placebo. If any such work produces fatigue that interferes with any specific practice it will reduce improvement potential.
5. Training which produces a general fatigue state should be avoided. There is no value in having workouts that cause athletes to experience general fatigue. Apart from disrupting specific training adaptations, between training session recovery is lengthened. The rule-of-thumb that should be entertained is that when a training segment is being performed, it should be terminated when, despite extra effort, technique and performance deteriorate. At that time, the provision of energy, the movement patterns, and psychological experiences do not coincide with the experiences of an intended specific performance. General fatigue is one of the most dangerous contaminants of preparations. It is usually supported because of the mistaken belief that being able to perform a "hard" training session indicates that an athlete is in "shape." What that really shows is that athletes can push themselves into high levels of exhaustion for a total training session. However, the ability to do that for specific performances is not demonstrated.
6. The emphasis of training should be on recovery, not fatigue. The one state that must be avoided is having any athlete compete with any evidence of residual general or specific fatigue. Any fatigue reduces the capacity to perform. This caution should be monitored over the final month's training. It means that athletes should only experience training stimuli which produce specific fatigue until the training threshold is achieved.
7. The last month's program should stress psychological skill refinement and mental skill training. The scope of training activities should include team-building (necessary for establishing a climate that will generate heroic performances), performance enhancement imagery, goal-setting, positive interactions, pressure and stress analysis, pre-competition and competition strategy development, stress management, and some social skills training (particularly handling the media). If coaches are primarily conditioning oriented, it is likely that a team's performances will not reach an admirable level.
8. Rest and recovery procedures need to be practiced. Procedures to accelerate recovery between competition events, sessions, and days need to be learned, planned, and practiced.
9. Idle time needs to be planned and active. It is important for swimmers to keep their circadian rhythms somewhat similar to those established through normal living. Equally important is maintaining a familiar level of metabolism. Often, idle time in ideal living conditions serves as a stress and fosters sluggishness. Rest is important but it should be derived as much as possible from night sleep. Activities that promote positive attitudes, general activity, feelings of contributing to the team, etc. should be promoted to maintain the athletes' vitality.
10. The competition schedule should be driven by athlete developed goals that are associated with performance preparation and execution. For this principle to be executed, it requires athletes to have considerable input into the decisions concerning their training and preparations. That responsibility should increase the reliability of the athlete to complete all sport tasks in a competent and enthusiastic manner.
The general principles stated above require a change from commonly followed coaching procedures and team conduct. The outmoded control hierarchy of the coaches making all decisions and believing that they hold all wisdom should no longer be tolerated. The dynamics of situations that will better motivate athletes to be serious about their preparations and more focused on achieving excellence, as well as being better suited to meet the individual needs of each swimmer are now understood to a much greater degree than was known a decade ago. The realization of the importance and roles of the three basic sports performance sciences also requires a change in training emphases and content. Programming games' training and preparations now has to involve scientifically verified principles and their implications.
When a team arrives at a staging or games' site, the opportunity to consider programming activities that will further enhance performance is very restricted. Only through the psychological domain is it possible to further performance potential. Other activities should aim at minimizing factors which could detract from performance (e.g., travel fatigue, jet-lag, distractions, idleness). The nature of the training program and its content emphasis should be very different in this setting to that enjoyed in earlier stages of competition phase training. Some basic principles that are essential for appropriate planning at this time are described below.
1. Normal levels of metabolism and activity need to be established. The potential for athletes to train and for the rest of the time to be very idle (e.g., laze in the sun, take abnormal afternoon rests, spend a large amount of time sitting and lying down) is great at a staging or games' site. This will result in a less than normal level of metabolic stimulation. Such a change will reduce the physical and mental potential of athletes. It will cause the repeatability and power of performances to deteriorate. It is important to keep athletes' daily activity requirements at levels that are at least similar in volume and duration to those which supported the attainment of qualifying performances for team selection.
2. Site lifestyles should be challenging. Elite swimmers lead very active and time-restricted lifestyles. A similar level of demand needs to be maintained at games' sites up to the starting day of competition. Activities and opportunities need to be planned to perpetuate a normal challenging lifestyle. This activity will prepare athletes for the grueling demands of a multiday competition. If the lifestyle prior to a competition has been anything but challenging, the sudden alteration to very demanding days once the competition begins will require a period of adjustment. Performances are likely to be reduced for several days into the competition. Normal levels of mental and physical stimulation are important prior to games' competitions.
3. Athletes need to be isolated to guard against distractions. Distractions and emotional encounters need to be prevented. Many successful teams arrive at a games' site at the latest possible time. It was once thought that an early arrival was best because it allowed "settling-in." It has now been recognized that early arrivals heighten distraction and produce a non-beneficial form of adaptation. A long stay in a games' village produces a feeling of ordinariness for the environment. A late arrival preserves the mystique and excitement of the situation, factors which can be transferred into performance by providing a competition "lift." Without situational "magic" it is difficult to produce extraordinary efforts and performances.
4. Coaching decisions should be driven by performance. Swimmers' preparedness should be judged by performance. A performance is controlled by three domains, psychology, physiology, and biomechanics. The latter two are not able to be altered to any beneficial degree at this late stage of preparation. The factors which are important are diet, recovery, psychology, and specific refined training stimuli. Training should not be driven by unrelated physiological tests. Performances reflect the interaction of all modifying factors and is the best index of preparedness. When a swimmer swims well, he/she should compete well.
5. Mental skills training should be a major activity. Developing mental and coping skills are activities which can stimulate athletes while keeping their focus on the ensuing competition. An increase in attention to these pursuits will serve as a substitution for other diminished life-demands to keep athletes' activity levels normal. Heightened team-building activities are particularly valuable if they create an atmosphere that will elicit heroic performances in team members. At important games, improving athletes' abilities to interact and cope with the press is an essential activity (Rushall, 1987).
6. External pressures should be reduced as a counter to increased internal pressures. Each athlete has a certain amount of stress tolerance. Prior to major competitions, they develop expectations and appraisals which increase internally generated pressure. Unfortunately, external entities such as the press, parents, and coaches also increase the level of external pressure. In games situations, the sum of both forms of pressure often overwhelms athletes' coping capacities. That excessive level causes performances to deteriorate. It is now possible to monitor pressure levels and sources daily in games' circumstances (Rushall & Sherman, 1985). That information can then be used to make appropriate coaching and handling adjustments on a daily basis. As a general rule, planning should be instituted to minimize external pressures and to maximize internal pressures. Thus, the nature of athlete interactions, coaching staff behaviors, and other external sources of influence need to be controlled and modified when appropriate.
7. The media needs to be controlled. The media should be asked to accommodate the athletes. To a large extent, many media persons need to be educated about interviewing young athletes who are confronted with an extremely demanding competitive task. At Sarajevo my team had a rule: if any media person asked a question whose answer could be found in the media guide, the press conference was terminated immediately. This caused a change in media activities and question types. The interview experience also changed for the athletes primarily because of the reduction in mundane repetitive questions. It is helpful to have a member of the staff attend every press conference with the responsibility of screening questions for sensitivity and potential negative effects. When media "sessions" are frequent, they have the potential to become a major concern (i.e., distraction) for athletes. Media interactions should be minimized as much as possible.
8. Increase internal control. In competitions athletes have only themselves as resources. It is important at this time of preparation to elevate to a maximum, each athlete's ability to accept responsibility for and control of performances. There are a variety of mental skill exercises that can be executed at this critical time to increase internal control, for example, the quality of self-talk, self-appraisal, and critical task analysis (Rushall, 1992). This is the "stuff" of developing mental and competitive toughness. It serves as another life-demand activity that will preserve athletes' mental vitality at competition sites.
9. Coping procedures should be developed for as many competition related activities as possible. Individuals who have coping skills perform more consistently and to greater levels of achievement. For athletes to have this capacity they have to be given the opportunity to develop coping skills, to practice them, and to accentuate this focus of preparation as a competition nears. This ensures that athletes will have no doubts about their ability to perform or handle problems. That directly affects their self-efficacy, a characteristic which is essential for maximum performance. Heightening awareness and confidence in this capacity makes any task less daunting (Rushall, 1992).
10. Reduce uncertainty. A major contaminant of preparation is concern about the existence of unknown facts (a state of uncertainty). Uncertainty can be reduced by detailed active planning and involvement in practice and competition strategy development. Situational stress is also reduced by these activities. Procedures and exercises for heightening confidence and reducing uncertainty that are appropriate for use at games' sites have been produced (Rushall, 1992).
The principles which have been described propose actions that are very different to traditional existing practices involved with the preparation of international teams. They primarily emphasize that there is a time well before an important competition when i) maximum fitness should be achieved so that no further "hard" training will produce any beneficial effect, ii) skill alterations should cease because there is no possibility of developing changes of sufficient conditioned strength that could be used in a stressful competition, and iii) psychological training and emphases increasingly become more important as the competition approaches. This latter feature requires coaches to become skilled at presenting activities and exercises to develop appropriate mind sets and degrees of focus that will allow efficient movement skills and highly tuned energy systems to be employed in the most appropriate manner in a competitive effort. Finely-tuned enhanced levels of performance rarely happen by chance. The technology is now available to elevate swimmers to these new levels so that they will have the satisfaction of performing their best when they are supposed to.
This is a discussion paper. It is meant to stimulate discussion, research, and applied testing in appropriate circumstances. When NSW sends teams to international meets it has to be responsible for fostering appropriate experiences for its swimmers so they will benefit as much as possible from the experiences. The factors which have been presented should serve as the basis for planning tours and the upgrading of coaching services and conduct. After selection, it should be possible to provide training and preparatory experiences which will allow athletes to perform at an improved level over that which gained selection.
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