Number 23

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University


Brent S. Rushall, Ph.D.,R.Psy.
San Diego State University

[A public symposium presented on April 3, 1998 for the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Greece.]


Some principles for the physiological, biomechanical, and psychological development of children in competitive swimming are discussed. It is contended that many performance factors are peculiar for this developmental age-group. They should not be confused with adult training principles or practices. Specialist swimming coaches steeped in specific knowledges for this age-group are essential for designing and implementing programs that stimulate appropriate physical and social development.


The coaching of pre-pubertal athletes is sufficiently different to the coaching of adults that it warrants its own sub-field of sport science. A large amount of sports science has resulted from the study of adults but much less is known about children. Although a very common practice, it is erroneous to generalize adult-findings to children in the absence of evidence for children.

There is a science of coaching children. Practitioners need to become familiar with that information if clients are to be served in the best possible manner.

Swimming coaches are among the greatest offenders in violating the axiom that "children are not young adults". This error is heightened when children show "potential." Often in those cases, children are elevated to adult-oriented training programs and guidelines to match their performance levels, that ploy often being an example of undesirable and harmful early specialization. It is imperative that children be allowed to follow childhood development in accordance with natural and inherited forces. An intrusion or disruption to those processes will result in later detrimental effects.

Modern swim coaching also is inundated with pseudo-scientific "misinformation" that further clouds the issues surrounding good coaching practices at all levels. Consequently, major threats to children's experiences come from the inappropriate generalization of adult science and the imposition of pseudo-science in coaching practices.

Specialized children's coaching requires the application of biomechanical, psychological, and physiological principles that are appropriate for pre-pubertal development. A considerable number of principles are paradoxical to those that are appropriate for adults.

Children's swimming should be programmed according to a hierarchy of tenets.

  1. The experience should be consistently enjoyable and foster frequent feelings of personal success and achievement.
  2. The nature and majority of activities should be oriented toward skill development.
  3. Physical conditioning should include a wide variety of activities aimed at developing the whole child. Specialized training is counter-productive to a child's long-term health.

The remainder of this presentation is devoted to explaining some, but not all, of the principles that should be applied to the design of competitive swimming experiences for children.


Since pre-pubertal growth occurs at individual rates and in peculiar bursts at different times sensory awareness and motor control in children continually change. The biological needs of growing children are coupled with growth. They need large amounts of continuous total-body activity to stimulate balanced growth in accord with the development of neural and musculo-skeletal systems. This state of persistent change deems the coaching of fine motor skills to be inappropriate. As a result of developmental growth:

Swimming technique instruction for children should focus on general factors of body alignment/posture, appropriate anatomical positions for direct force production, resistance reduction, and variety in skill experiences and elements.

Below is a description of skill instructional emphases for crawl stroke swimming that are appropriate for children. A similar detailed curriculum for all strokes is available on the Internet in a section of the Swimming Science Journal (1).

General movement characteristics

Features of a good entry

Arm recovery

Stroking characteristics

Do not get pre-occupied with cosmetic factors

General Implication

These descriptions have avoided talking about exact movements. Developmental psychology and physiology has shown clearly that teaching intricate technical skill elements is a waste of time in growing children and adolescents. Sudden growth in a limb will change movement positions and sensations. What is relevant before a growth spurt often is irrelevant after. Coaching skills in children is one long series of adjusting new body proportions to achieve overall functional effects, that is, forward propulsion, while accommodating the new dimensions of arms, legs, hands, and body. Intricate instruction is a waste of time because what is learned could well be irrelevant a very short time later.

Streamlining and force production that will propel swimmers in the direction in which they intend to go should result in performance improvements.


The physiology and physiological reactions to exercise of children are distinctly different to those of adults. When planning conditioning programs for children different principles and programming decisions are necessary. The underlying determinants of any physical training should be:

Children are primarily aerobic and respond to exercise stress in a non-differentiated manner.

Many swimming coaches find it hard to believe that children respond to both aerobic and anaerobic stimulation with both aerobic and anaerobic capacities, resulting in no distinct benefits from specialized training stimuli.

Children enter swimming and have to first proceed with physical and life-style adjustments until a stage when they can perform more intense training. Andrei Vorontsov (2) defined two stages of children's development. These should influence programming.

1. The Stage or Preliminary Sport Preparation

The optimal age to initiate multi-year training (MYT) for swimming is 7-9 years for girls and 8-10 years for boys. Beginning earlier will simply increase the total duration and cost of MYT without any significant eventual benefit because of the very slow physical growth and development of children within the age range of 5-8 years. Starting too early also may lead to an early loss of interest in swimming as a competitive sport. The duration of preliminary sport preparation is 1-2 years.

Objectives of this stage are:

The important content of this stage is learning basic swimming techniques while employing a large number of preparatory and special exercises with a major accent on enjoyment. The frequency of practices should gradually increase from 3 to 5-6 sessions per week automatically leading to an increase in the total training load and an increase in both swimming and general physical fitness.

2. The Stage of Basic Training

The average age to begin the Stage of Basic Training is 9-10 years for girls and 10-11 years for boys. Normally, this stage lasts from 3-4 years up to puberty.

Objectives of this stage are:

This stage of MYT is the most important for the development of aerobic capabilities of young swimmers. It is characterized by a progressive annual increase in total swimming volume and general physical land-exercises. The total swimming volume in the last year of this stage may reach 1200-1400 km for girls and 1000-1200 km for boys. An analysis of the most successful coaches reveals that optimal workloads in the total training volume include 70-75% aerobic exercises, 25-30% of "mixed" aerobic-anaerobic activities, and 2-3% of anaerobic glycolytic and alactic work.

As swimmers grow, pulling power and speed of swimming during workouts should increase. This is assisted by using additional resistance (e.g., belts, paddles) and stretch cords. Despite a notable increase in aerobic capacity and efficiency, the ability to perform training workloads at the level of maximal oxygen uptake and anaerobic abilities are very limited when compared to older swimmers.

The development of anaerobic abilities is achieved mostly by periodic use of glycolytic and alactic training exercises and an annual increase in the number of competitions. Extensive volumes of high-speed interval training at this stage of MYT are very often accompanied by stress symptoms such as a decrease of general and specific immunity and a higher-than-normal frequency of minor and major illnesses.

Near the end of this stage of MYT it is important to introduce land training exercises with both high and submaximal resistances.

The development of specific pulling force in the water in young swimmers is a very influential factor for forming effective swimming techniques. It is achieved by teaching conscious control of the optimal ratio between stroke rate and stroke distance with an accent on stroke distance.

General principles that underlie these prescriptions are:

Physical conditioning emphases favor children at more advanced stages of maturation. Their strength and body size provides a distinct advantage over less-developed children. In the short term, performance superiority is achieved through these physical attributes. Lesser-developed individuals will have to rely on superior skill to counter-balance the physical advantage. In time, as maturation equalizes across individuals, those who stressed skill in their early swimming experiences will surpass those who "shone" early because of physical maturation advantages. Swimming research supports this finding. In US national swimming teams it has been shown that few swimmers are early-maturers, the majority being normal or late (3).


Skill Learning

The methodology for teaching skills to growing children is different to that which is appropriate for mature individuals (4). The following are important for instructing skills in children.

  1. Children need a wide variety of skill practices; seniors need to discriminate and specialize in particular skills.
  2. Children need a large ratio of positive to negative reinforcers; seniors need a smaller ratio.
  3. Children need greater amounts of external reinforcement than do seniors.
  4. Children need greater frequencies of external reinforcement than do seniors.

Frequent stroke instructions (almost concurrent feedback), first emphasizing elements that are being done well followed by elements that can be improved, increase the likelihood of a greater volume of correct stroke executions, the most important factor in skill acquisition. Coaching that emphasizes errors should be avoided.

Good instructional organization should look for ways to facilitate greater frequencies and opportunities to provide feedback. Training young people in a 25-m (short-course) pool arrangement, rather than 50-m (long-course), is an obvious physical manipulation of the environment that presents increased opportunities to effect good instructional practices.

The greater frequency of turning provides more opportunities to interrupt swimmers to provide concurrent performance feedback and stroke modification. The continued closer proximity of the swimmers (athletes at 25 m are much easier to monitor than at 50 m) should also increase the quality of feedback. Short-course training, not long-course, is a better physical set-up for the coaching of age-group swimmers if the instructional aspect of coaching is to be enhanced. It provides better logistics for providing feedback and reinforcement. These opportunities are only beneficial if used appropriately and effectively by coaches.


Factors that motivate children to participate frequently and fully in swimming are likely to be moderated by cultures. One should be hesitant in generalizing from culture-specific studies but some research results that indicate events that serve as motivators for children in swimming environments (5) will be presented.

Enjoyment (fun) is the most frequently cited motivational factor. The overall experience in children's swimming should be viewed as being rewarding and enjoyable. Specific factors that contribute to the positiveness of a swimming experience are: frequent indications of success in completing program tasks, public recognition of successes, and self-appraisals of success in skill improvements. Fun is fostered by: participating in events where parental involvement is not evident (e.g., going to away competitions), experiencing close associations with other swimmers but not necessarily in swimming activities, participating in new activities which are intrinsically motivating to the child, and playing in and out of the water.

Friendship contributes to motivation. Although children might not have only swimming friends, associations in the swimming setting should be enjoyable. Coaches often have to teach how to interact constructively and positively to ensure pleasant and rewarding social activities. This socialization aspect is often overlooked in swimming programs but is a key element to making the sport and its activities attractive.

Achievement indicates self-worth to children. Competing against bigger and more experienced individuals is not enjoyed. Any competitions should be "fair." Self-improvements in skill activities should be emphasized as the major focus of assessing achievement. Involving children in responsibilities other than swimming (e.g., distributing and collecting equipment, assisting in managerial task, etc.) can also expand achievement.

The most significant de-motivator in children's swimming is inactivity. Activity should be almost constant to avoid opportunities for disruptive behavior, involve considerable variety to avoid boredom and expand aquatic skills beyond competitive swimming, and have clearly defined goals and self-assessment criteria.

Competitive Experiences

Rushall (1994) explained in detail the nature of events that should surround a child's experience in swimming to lead to an approach response to competing. Some of the more significant events are listed below.

  1. Competitions should only be interpreted as positive experiences.
  2. In early competitions, the focus should be on reproducing in races what has been done in training.
  3. Competitive stress is minimized if swimmers are required to perform activities with which they are familiar, comfortable, and over which they have control.
  4. The conditions surrounding what is done in races should be practiced as part of simulation training.
  5. The total competitive experience, races and all the other activities that occur leading up to and following them, have to be considered and planned to produce positive effects.
  6. The less familiar a swimmer is with what is to be done in a race, even though it may be easy to verbalize, the greater will be the situational stress caused by the competitive experience.
  7. Swimmers should be taught how to handle disruptive events at competitions.
  8. The coach should model emotional control and an absence of stress in the competitive setting.
  9. Age-group swimmers should focus on keeping to plans prepared for competitions.
  10. Competition goals and preparations should be predictable.
  11. Swimmers should always look for what is done well and what can be improved as a way of maintaining a positive orientation to competing.
  12. The goals of competing should be many rather than few.
  13. The package of competitive goals should be challenging.
  14. Pre-race events and activities should be practiced.
  15. The performance features of racing should be practiced.
  16. Vague goals increase uncertainty and increase the probability of misinterpretation.
  17. The athlete and coach should establish racing goals as a collaborative activity.
  18. Physical activity should be emphasized in the pre-race period.
  19. Self-talk focusing on the goals of the race assists swimmers to stay on task.
  20. As the race nears, the inexperienced swimmer should imagine how the start will feel so the race will be initiated correctly.
  21. Having the swimmer isolate him/herself prior to a race allows time for planned activities to be executed under self-control.
  22. The experience of a race should be used to guide future training content.
  23. Races should involve successful activities.
  24. Racing performances should be expected to improve if sufficient training time has been made available for improvement to occur.
  25. Racing should be viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate to new swimmers their improvements and progress in the sport.


Age-group swimmers have different needs, training responses, and characteristics of performance to senior swimmers. Those differences require different coaching tactics and behaviors than those that are appropriate for older groups. Some of those differences have been presented here.

Age-group coaches need a different curriculum to senior-swimmer coaches. It has often been observed that good age-group coaches do not make good college/senior/international coaches and vice versa. This sport and its services to children will be diminished while there is persistence with the concept of a "general" coaching model for swimmers, no matter what their ages.


  1. Rushall, B. S. (1997). A Curriculum for three levels of age-group swimming. Swimming Science Bulletin, 17. [https://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/coachsci/swimming/index.html]
  2. Vorontsov, A. R. (1997). Development of basic and special endurance in age-group swimmers: A Russian perspective. Swimming Science Bulletin, 16. [https://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/coachsci/swimming/index.html]
  3. Rushall, B. S. (1996). Growth and developmental changes of the age-group swimmer. In Extracted Principles and Implications from the International Center for Aquatic Research Annual-1990-1991, Swimming Science Bulletin, 9. [https://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/coachsci/swimming/index.html]
  4. Bartlett, F. (1951). The experimental study of skill. Research, 4, 217-221. Reproduced in R. N. Singer (Ed.), (1972) Readings in motor learning (pp. 12-19). Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Febiger.
  5. McPherson, B., Marteniuk, R., Tihanyi, J., & Clark, W. (1977). An analysis of the system of age group swimming in Ontario. Toronto, Canada: The Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation.
  6. Rushall, B. S. (1994). How to develop healthy attitudes towards racing in age-group swimmers. Sports Science Associates, 4225 Orchard Drive Spring Valley, California 91977.

Return to Table of Contents for Swimming Science Bulletin.