RECENT TRENDS IN COACHING ELITE SWIMMERS
[A public symposium presented on April 3, 1998 for the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece.]
Swimming is the only international sport where performances are stagnant or regressing. Possible reasons for this inertia are discussed using examples of current elite athlete coaching practices. Suggestions for once again improving elite swimming performances are provided.
It is neither easy nor pleasant to convey a negative and critical message about a sport with which I have been involved for more than 50 years. However, I believe it is imperative to critically evaluate current practices in the coaching of elite swimmers.
Swimming is the only international sport where performances are stagnant or regressing. Performances of more than 20 years ago would have won medals in 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and events at the recent world championships in Perth. Perth was the first world championships where no world records were broken. The greater majority of gold medal performances at Atlanta would not have won the same event at either the Barcelona (1992) or Seoul (1988) Olympic Games.
World records have been established in swimming over the past decade. However, many improvements have resulted from rule changes (e.g., front crawl turn in backstroke, complete submersion in breaststroke), innovations that reduce the number of strokes in an event (e.g., underwater swimming in backstroke and butterfly), and/or the use of performance-enhancing drugs (e.g., East Germany, China, Russia). Occasionally, there have been "clean" swimmers who have demonstrated a new level of athleticism (e.g., Kieren Perkins in distance crawl stroke, Michael Klim in 100 m butterfly).
Many of today's "great" champions are still winning despite a lack of improvement. For example, Alexandre Popov won the 100-m crawl at Barcelona and Atlanta but still does not hold the Olympic record established in 1988. Jenny Thompson won the World Championship 100-m crawl this year in a time that was slower than her 1992 world record. This stagnation is further evidenced by the 15 years old Ian Thorpe's world-championship in 1998 in men's 400-m crawl. Thorpe is a magnificent talent who beat the world's best while an age-grouper. Despite the fact that average ages of Olympic and World championships are increasing, performances are not. Continual improvement should be expected if coaching is effective and what is being taught and trained is associated with performance improvements. Despite all the coaching education that occurs across the world and the advent of prominent coaching associations that are dedicated to the improvement of swim coaching, their effects on performance have not been positive. Swimming, and in a large part its coaching, is in trouble.
What is contained below is a list of some current elite swim coaching practices that are erroneous and counter-productive in their effects on swimming performance. This list is incomplete. The items are not necessarily the most significant, but are examples of how a profession can lose its concept of standards for accepting the validity and reliability of behavior change practices. That this situation has occurred when an ever-expanding research base of exercise science exists is cause for concern.
Counter-productive Trends in Elite Swimming Coaching
Swimming Science Fantasies
Many coaching discussions are based on incomplete, inadequate, or erroneous knowledge of basic exercise science. Most activities that are appropriate for swimming have been investigated, to varying degrees. Today credence is giving to ideas and proposals if an author establishes an Internet World Wide Web site and uses that as a platform to promote fictions and pseudo science.
Self-promotion is a staple characteristic of many swimming coaches. Original ideas and concepts are developed as part of a promotional package to advertise why swimmers should join a particular coach's squad. Some ridiculous products and practices emerge as a claim to a coaching "edge." Videos using high-level swimmers as subjects are developed to explain how coaching has affected the performers. The major component of these "instructional vehicles" is name-dropping as opposed to evidence of why improvements, if any, have occurred because of coaching.
Other individuals have gone out and sold "new ideas" without producing any swimmers of note. Stroking patterns, technique maneuvers, and positions are described as being desirable even though champion swimmers in races do not display them. In making these postulations, basic science, such as Newton's Third Law, and principles of fluid dynamics are ignored. A willing, but largely ignorant public embraces these ideas and pays exorbitant amounts for "snake-oil" concepts at clinics and in media products.
A third avenue for coaching regression is the development of products that "enhance training and eventual competitive performance." Oxymoronic devices are promoted to be worn on the hands and arms to increase "feel" for the water, on the feet to improve kicking, and on the body to slow or speed the body. No objective studies of beneficial effect are provided although all the hallmarks of effective marketing are. It is not uncommon to see today's elite swimmers walk onto a pool deck with a bag full of "training toys" and perform exercises in the water using all of them. It is easy to witness training programs of elite coaches where little "free swimming" is performed.
There are other examples of this trend to get away from real science and valid training practices. Occasionally, there are good signs that not everyone has lost the way. Recently, a very high-profile coach, author, and swimming scientist publicly acknowledged that for the past 25 years his advocacy of lift forces and curving hand patterns as being the bases for propulsion was wrong! The justification for such a reversal has been endorsed (1, 2).
However, the major implication behind this general concern is this; most activities that are appropriate for swimming coaching have been investigated to varying degrees by the exercise sciences.
The Acceptance of Overtraining
Swimming has blithely accepted hard work as being part of its training demands. Equally, more and harder work has been seen as the only avenue for improvement. Today's coaching is obsessed with the type of physical conditioning that is programmed and sees it as the major avenue for performance improvement (which has not been forthcoming) despite the fact that improvements in swimming are easier to achieve through technique changes than fitness changes. A traditional belief of swimming coaches has been: even though swimmers are always tired, training hard, and their performances not changing or even getting worse, good things are still happening to them. That is wrong! Constant fatigue states do not make a better swimmer. Better swimmers come from continual improvement derived from training effects.
This "institutionalization" of overtraining as an acceptable feature of the sport is worrisome. It fosters neither participatory enjoyment nor performance improvement. Some basic exercise science principles that are not embraced by most elite swimming coaches are:
Overloaded, fatiguing practices without adequate subsequent recovery opportunities are wasted practices.
Some non-performance-improving training is justified. Annual physical training should be divided between the following:
There is a valuable place for basic preparatory, transitional, and specific preparatory physical conditioning. However, unless peak conditioning is achieved prior to the pre-competitive phase of training, performance improvements in elite competitions cannot always be expected.
Misguided Motor Learning
Perhaps one of the most ignored areas of elite swim coaching has been motor learning. Because of the dominant importance of skill in the sport, it would be reasonable to expect this feature to be one of the most emphasized features of sport science. Three current erroneous trends in coaching that ignore basic motor learning knowledge will be discussed.
Drills are used excessively in the belief that they will improve stroke technique. Drills play a minor role in the early stages of teaching swimming and stroke correction. They have no part in programs aimed at performance enhancement in elite swimmers. Drills do not improve competitive strokes. If the belief is high that similarity/benefits exist in drills for speed swimming, but in reality the tasks are dissimilar, the competitive task will be depreciated because of negative transfer, that is, too many wrong/inappropriate elements will be introduced into competitive performances.
There is no beneficial transfer of training effects from drills to competitive performances in elite swimmers. They are harmful for they promote the practice of competing biomechanical actions, neuromuscular patterns, and movement representations. They stifle continued refinement of "correct" patterns that need to be evoked in competitive settings.
The belief that one can "re-educate" drill practice effects into established skills is unfounded. In its later stages, human learning is dominated by discrimination, not generalization and so transfer does not occur. Drill practices are wasted practices.
Training equipment does not strengthen or embellish training effects. Training equipment (e.g., kickboards, tether cords, paddles, pull-buoys, flippers) distorts effective swimming patterns. Each item alters stroke timing, body alignment, and stimulates counter-productive movement patterns. Some activities overload the wrong action segments making them significant competitors to economical swimming (e.g., swimming with the arm patterns and suppressed shoulder rotation that is the trademark of swim bench training effects) and underload others (e.g., pull buoys make swimming easier, not harder). Training equipment alters the mechanical properties of swimming movements and confounds the kinesthesis that is paramount for developing the "feel" of efficient and productive movement patterns.
Claims of benefits from equipment use are largely unsupported or uncorroborated. Existing supportive evidence often is highly selected, distorted, or unreliable. Although equipment activities provide "variation," they do not contribute to racing performance enhancement.
Swimming is a fully supported, complex skill that needs to be refined continuously for performances to improve. Equipment activities do not contribute to that end. They disrupt and/or compete with the developed skill repertoire as well as create an artificial performance environment that has no transfer value to racing.
Weights and out-of-water work do not enhance performance. Weight and cross training are performed in the belief that specific physical benefits will be produced and in turn, those benefits will be incorporated into swimming techniques. Muscles trained in isolation do not transfer benefits to whole-body activities such as swimming. Specific exercise improvements cannot be "re-educated" into complex swimming strokes.
Exercising with weights or other land activities promotes fitness and improvements that cannot be used in swimming. If they are followed at the expense of pool time or inhibit recovery from beneficial pool experiences, they are detrimental practices. High frequency and high resistance weight exercises are a common cause of swimming injury.
There is probably a place for weight and cross-training in swimming. Land work is only valuable in the early stages of physical capacity training and should be completed prior to the commencement of specific technique training. Resistance training and exercising should occur no more than once a week in an elite program and preferably, it should only employ exercises that use the whole body at a time (e.g., medicine ball work and gymnastics).
Appropriate valid practice should be maximized. The removal of irrelevant or counter-productive activities should facilitate performance enhancement.
The above opinions are contrary to beliefs expressed by many swimming coaches in today's public forums. They are steeped in evidence and science, much of which has been available for decades, which is more than can be said about many popular coaching notions in the sport today.
A very broad "rule-of-thumb" that should underlie decisions about program content for elite swimmers is:
For every inappropriate training activity, a beneficial one has to be programmed simply to cancel out the other's detrimental effects. This usually results in performance maintenance NOT enhancement.
To ignore and discredit these warnings is to place swimmers at risk. Since they can be supported extensively by evidence to establish their "truth," a coach who opts to continue erroneous practices could be charged with MALPRACTICE.
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