Number 13

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


Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Neil Ryan, Director of Coaching, NSW Swimming Inc.

At the recent State Age Championships (13-17 years) Dr. Brent Rushall talked to many swimmers and took note of events which occurred. He was conducting a number of research studies on championship performances and behaviors of various categories of young swimmers.

Success Rates

One of the most basic statistics that was computed was the percentage of individual swims that bettered submitted entry times. This was used as the general index of performance success since not all swimmers can be finalists or medal winners. Results are indicated in Table 1.


             1         2        3        4        5      Overall
Females    36.8      30.8     34.9     35.5     29.9       33.6
Males      47.0      54.9     51.2     51.6     42.4       49.3

There were several notable features in these percentages.

  1. The success rates were low.
  2. The success rate was lowest on the fifth day in both groups.
  3. The pattern of success rates across the days was different between the two groups.
  4. Females had a much lower success rate than males, failing to achieve entry times in approximately two of every three swims.


Success rates. The number of swims that exceeded submitted entry times was surprisingly low. Many coaches will point out that a large number of entry times were converted short-course times which usually make the long course time more difficult to achieve. However, competitors will have had considerable training, often in long course pools, since the previous short course season and as well, will have matured more. It is reasonable to expect swimmers' performances to improve because of the training and growth that has occurred since the last best short or long-course swim. These two factors alone should be more than enough to compensate for the time conversion difficulty.

It has been estimated that swimmers in this age range should exhibit an average annual improvement of 1.5% through maturation alone. Each successive year a swimmer should be bigger, stronger, and improved in endurance capacity. As well as growth, appropriate training should also contribute to improved skill and performance efficiency in all events. Thus, it is reasonable to assert that age-group championships should be marked by a very large number of performance improvements, something which did not occur on this occasion.

The low success rates have to be cause for concern about the general effectiveness of swimming coaching at this competition in New South Wales.

Performance declines. The last day exhibited the lowest success rates for both sexes. An obvious reason for this circumstance might be that swimmers were tired after long days of competing. If this is a viable explanation one has to question the value of excessively fatiguing young swimmers in what is, for many, the most important championships of the season. It does not allow them to display their best talent. The effect on swimmers' motivations to continue to participate in the sport when their performances are "worse" than at other times in the season should be considered seriously. Are swimmers set up with expectations they cannot achieve because of the duration and demands of the competition?

Success rate patterns. The sexes differed in the patterns of success across the days. Females were highest on the first day, were next best on the third and fourth days, and "collapsed" on the last day. Males were best on the second day and gradually fell away on succeeding days. For them, there were almost 25% fewer successful swims on the last day than on the second day when the highest rate was recorded.

Does this difference indicate that coaches need to handle females and males differently at such meets? Does it reflect strengths in only some events that are determined by the meet program? Are results better when the more preferred events are scheduled?

Given the current knowledge about tapering, recovery routines between sessions, and the importance of and procedures for energy replenishment, it can be expected that swimmers should sustain performance qualities for the duration of a competition of this nature. If declines did occur they should be less than those demonstrated.

Different rates for the sexes. A surprising result was that males were almost 50% more successful than females. One can only guess at the implications of this finding. Does it mean that females need to be trained for and/or handled at age-group championships in a manner different to males? There is mounting research evidence to suggest that physiological development rates and capacity differences across adolescent age groups warrant such a consideration. It also is possible that there is a cultural phenomenon in Australia that requires females to be handled differently to males at competitions. Given the large proportion of males in the coaching ranks at this level of competition, it is conceivable that a better understanding of female swimmers and the accommodation of their different needs has to be developed and implemented.

There are many other hypothetical reasons for the phenomena that were exhibited at these championships. Rather than accept the results as status quo, it is proposed that the success rates should have been much higher and more consistent. This state's coaches should look at this problem and determine methods to correct it. That challenge is supported by the following reasons.

  1. Higher performance expectations will produce higher levels of performance resulting in much improved success rates. Research findings in goal-setting suggest this possibility.
  2. There is a body of knowledge that indicates specific coaching practices and athlete behaviors which facilitate improved performances at serious competitions. NSW Swimming currently markets two books that indicate the applied principles to achieve this (How to develop healthy attitudes towards racing in age-group swimmers and Personal best). Perhaps the implementation of the guidelines contained in those resource materials will increase the success rates of swimmers at age-group championships.
  3. It is part of a coach's professional duty to upgrade knowledges and competencies to facilitate the best performances in serious competitive swimmers. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be happening in an effective manner with age-group swimmers in New South Wales.

Performances in Finals

Another statistic that was determined was the percentage of swimmers in finals races that improved times over those recorded in the heats. Table 2 lists the values for males and females on each day.


             1         2        3        4        5      Overall
Females    57.6      79.0     71.9     69.0     71.7        70.0
Males      69.9      73.8     75.0     76.6     83.5        75.6

These figures exhibit some obvious trends.

  1. On the average, one in four age-group finalists swam slower than in the qualifying heats.
  2. Female age-group swimmers generally had a lower rate of improvement over heat times in finals races than males.
  3. Male swimmers gradually increased the success rate as the meet continued.


Finals failures. It is reasonable to assume that age-group swimmers who qualify for state championship finals are more serious, experienced, and skilled than most non-qualifiers. At finals sessions, swimmers are able to focus and prepare in a less distracted and more accommodating manner than during heats. Between heats and finals periods also allow better opportunities for heightened preparations. One could expect almost universal performance improvements in finals over the standards demonstrated in heats. This did not occur and is cause for concern. In the heightened atmosphere of finals swimming, when the competitive "lift" factor is more in evidence, the figures of 30% of females and 25% of males performing worse is unacceptable.

Female performances. As was shown with success rates in achieving entry times, female age-group swimmers performed differently in finals than males. The percentage of finals swims that exceeded heat times was less. This once again hints at different competitive handling requirements for females than males. That differential need was noted in Canada as far back as 1976 and more recently was confirmed in the USA. Australian, or at least NSW, swimming should embark on a program to discover and implement factors and handling techniques that will increase the competitive success rates of female age-group swimmers.

Male success rate increases. As the days progressed, male final time improvements also increased. That phenomenon was not related to the percentage of improved swims in the heats except on the last day when the heats success rate was lowest and the finals rate was highest. One would expect that the opportunity to improve in finals would be greater if heat performances were slower. But the other days' performances do not suggest such a relationship. Once again the hypothesis of the need for different competitive requirements of NSW age-group female swimmers and males is supported.

Closing Comments

Australian international swimmers have a reputation of not performing well in morning heats but well in consolation finals at important swimming competitions. At the 1995 NSW Age Championships (13-17 years) the failure to produce high levels of performance in heats was most marked. Could it be that eventual national performers learn their lack of morning application in the nurseries of Australian swimming? Does either the:

It is obvious that the responsiveness of female age-group swimmers to competition is different to that of males. How to accommodate the factors that produce that difference and the steps needed to alter the negative impact on competing needs to be determined.

One could contemplate the proposed and many other reasons for the observations on the quality of competitive performances demonstrated by NSW age-group swimmers. What cannot be denied is the phenomenon that neither in heats nor finals could one rely on performers to improve in competitive standards. How to rectify that weakness is known. Perhaps now is the time to alter this less than desirable aspect of NSW swimming.


Age  Sex    Day 1    Day 2    Day 3    Day 4    Day 5     Overall
 13   M      56.0     64.4     60.0     60.2     56.7       59.3
      F      33.3     47.0     33.3     42.1     39.3       39.2

 14   M      52.3     46.2     58.3     55.2     42.2       51.0
      F      37.3     38.5     17.6     25.8     21.6       28.9

 15   M      54.7     66.6     56.5     51.7     36.1       53.6
      F      41.2     28.4     33.8     28.6     20.0       30.5

 16   M      36.4     48.7     48.7     45.6     49.3       46.0
      F      34.2     39.5     35.7     42.1     35.4       37.3

 17   M      21.6     34.2     34.7     33.3     18.2       28.9
      F      38.8     61.1     45.9     34.3     33.3       41.9


  1. Both 13-yr groups showed no decline over the five days of competition. 13-yr males performed better than females.
  2. Both 14-yr groups declined over the competition period. Females declined markedly on the third day and did not recover. Males performed better than females.
  3. Both 15-yr groups declined over the competition period. Males performed better than did females.
  4. Both 16-yr groups showed no decline over the competition period. The difference between males and females was not as marked as it was for other age-groups.
  5. 17-yr male performances declined but 17-yr females did not over the competition period. Females performed better than males.
  6. Could the marked performance drop in the 17-yr male group be caused by a lack of taper?


Age Group           13        14        15        16        17
Males               304#1     363       362       237       242
% of Maximum#3     83.8     100.0      99.7      65.3      66.7
Number of events     11        11        13#2      11        13#2
Swims/events#4     27.6      33.0      28.0      21.6      18.6
Females             378#1     346       387       204       129
% of Maximum#3     97.7      89.4     100.0      52.7      33.3
Number of events     11        11        13#2      11        13#2
Swims/events#4     34.4      31.5      29.8      18.6       9.9

#1 The younger age groups did not have as many events as older age
#2 The 15 and 17-yr age groups included events that were not available
for younger swimmers. Consequently, these numbers are inflated because
younger swimmers moved up in age classifications to swim in certain
#3 The percentage is derived by taking the number of completed swims and
dividing it by the largest number of swims for any of the age-groups in
the sex classification (M = 363 and F = 387).
#4 The number of swims is divided by the number of events to derive an
average event participation rate that can be compared across all groups,
accepting the premise that the 15 and 17-yr groups also have some
younger competitors in their counts.


  1. Participation rates for males declined steadily after the 14-yr classification.
  2. In the older age groups (16 and 17-yr), participation rates were notably higher for males than females.
  3. Female participation rates declined steadily after the 13-yr classification with a sudden, very marked drop occurring between both 15-16 and 16-17 years.
  4. Female participation rates were higher than male age classifications in the 13 and 15-yr age-groups.
  5. The participation rates for the 15 and 17-yr age-groups were inflated because of the younger swimmers who swam up to avail themselves of the extra events.

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