Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Volume 4, Number 1: 25 January, 1997


I have often been asked to justify coaching practices for young developing athletes because they mimic "what champions do." This request is based on the assumption that if mature champions train in a particular way and receive certain privileges/experiences, those circumstances should also be advantageous and appropriate for young people. Unfortunately, what is known about human development does not support such a contention.

In many areas of exercise science there are paradoxical principles of stimulation, each being appropriate for different phases of human development. Those paradoxes cover the three major performance areas of exercise science; skill function and learning (biomechanics), training and growth stimulation (physiology), and mental skills and control (psychology). In this brief address, I will give some examples of these paradoxes as a basis for proposing that the coaching of young developing swimmers is different to that which is appropriate for mature swimmers.

Skill Learning

Almost 50 years ago Frederic Bartlett (1) summarized what was known about teaching strategies for motor skill development. The evidences for some of his postulations were so powerful that they are no longer researched. There is one principle that stands out as being particularly relevant to this presentation, "Efficient learning and the normal range of its exercise are largely functions of aging" (1, p. 18).

It stipulates that the methodology for teaching skills to growing children and adolescents is different to that which is appropriate for mature individuals (i.e., senior swimmers). Several of my earlier works (2, 3) took this principle further and delineated a number of its basic tenets. For coaches, the following are important.

  1. Youngsters need variety in the skills practiced, seniors need to discriminate and specialize in particular skills.
  2. Youngsters need a large ratio of positive to negative reinforcements, seniors need a smaller ratio.
  3. Youngsters need a greater amount of external reinforcement than do seniors. Seniors tend to rely more on internal reinforcement.
  4. Youngsters need a greater frequency of external reinforcement than do seniors.

These features should be incorporated into the way young developing individuals are instructed in their sport. 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 25 m away are much easier to monitor than when at 50 m), should also increase the quality of feedback. In a 25 m setting, the quality of coach observation and monitoring is better and coaching activity is increased which facilitates improved 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. Of course, these opportunities are only beneficial if they are used appropriately and effectively by coaches.

To further substantiate the value of short-course training for the instruction of age-group swimmers, there is another instructional principle that is important. A major factor that governs skill/performance improvement in skill learning is the number of correct executions of the skill (4). Frequent stroke instructions (almost concurrent feedback), first emphasizing elements which are being done well followed by elements that can be improved, increases the likelihood of a greater volume of correct stroke executions. In long-course settings, too many strokes are executed without supervision or concurrent feedback.

It is possible to go on at length about different dynamics of skill instruction environments that should exist for age-group swimmers which are different to those required for mature and experienced swimmers. Suffice it to say, that the physical setting is important for it is a major modifying factor that governs the effectiveness of age-group coaching. One should realize that developing children and adolescents are not adults and therefore, should not be subjected to teaching and coaching strategies that are appropriate for adults.


It is my impression that among swimming coaches it is not realized that the exercise training responses of children and post-pubertal adolescents are different to those of adults. Although there are books that have been written on this subject (5), I believe they have largely been ignored in the sporting world.

Children who specialize in sports do not exhibit a specialized metabolic response. They appear to be "metabolic non-specialists." Programming aerobic, lactate tolerance, etc., forms of training for age-groupers does not produce the delineated responses that are observed in mature athletes. Children do not seem to display the wide variations in metabolic response capabilities seen among adults, nor do they appear to have high levels of response in any one metabolic system. Thus, the training programs for age-groupers should be different, possibly stressing variety over specialization. Similar programs for mature swimmers would not produce the specialized metabolic responses which seem to be very important in the eyes of today's coaches.

It has also been shown that the potential for physiological improvement of age-group swimmers is less than that which is possible in adults (6). This has much to do with the stage of growth development in each individual.

Other factors which differentiate age-group swimmers from seniors are:

Most of these factors were discussed in Training for sports and fitness, a text that I wrote with Dr. Frank Pyke (7).

Thus, the construction of training programs, and the way exercise stimuli are experienced in the water, is less important for age-group swimmers than for senior performers. The major training principle should be to swim a variety of strokes and distances at a level of effort that accommodates the stage of growth and daily disposition of each swimmer. That leads to the question of whether physical training is better in a short- or long-course setting for developing swimmers since I have proposed that short-course is better for instruction.

It is known that short-course is easier than long-course work (8), the differences being measured somewhere between 7 and 15%. The "easier" demand of short-course swimming has several benefits for age-groupers:

These factors offer some explanation of why age-group swimmers record faster converted times in short-course races than long-course.

Short-course training for developing swimmers offers a protective element against severe hard training. Its greater ease allows them to cover more distance, probably of a very beneficial aerobic nature, which serves to facilitate a tolerable training volume. Continual long-course work may be too demanding, producing faster fatigue and slower swimming speeds in age-group swimmers. One should realize that developing children and adolescents are not adults and therefore, should not be subjected to training programs that are appropriate for seniors.

Mental Skills and Control

The previous two topics have presented ideas that will make swimming training tolerable and motivational for age-groupers. Their effects will be to increase the amount of successful experiences, which in turn, will increase the individual's belief in being able to perform the challenges of swimming training and competition (the academic term for this is "self-efficacy").

The amount of positive feedback and frequency of self-perceived accomplishments is a large component of motivation in young people in sport. Research (9, 10) has shown that developing athletes need improvements in technique and training/competitive accomplishments more than other features to "enjoy" the sport of swimming. Short-course settings promote those experiences more than long-course arrangements.

If a coaching staff embraces the qualities and behaviors of good coaching (11), it should be possible to produce the best environment for developing swimmers in a 25 m, rather than 50 m, facility. One should realize that developing children and adolescents are not adults and therefore, should not be subjected to coaching settings and programs that are appropriate for adults.


I did not dwell as much as I should have on the area of psychology. That was deliberate because it is much more complex and difficult to discuss than the other two areas. I just could not do it justice in this short forum. I hope that I was able to convince you that there are paradoxes in the coaching of swimming when one contrasts age-group athletes to seniors. There were two main points that I wanted to communicate:

Paradox Number 1. 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 which are appropriate for older groups.

Paradox Number 2. The training setting for age-groupers is better in a short-course facility while for senior swimmers, it is better in a long-course setting.

Before I close, I must confess that there is an even deeper message in this address. Age-group coaches in their training 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. Our sport and its services to the youth of this country, will be diminished while we persist with the concept of a "general" coaching model for swimmers, no matter what their ages.

Thank you for your attention and the opportunity to speak to you.


  1. Bartlett, F. (1951). The experimental study of skill. Research, 4,217-221. Reproduced in R. N. Singer (Ed.), Readings in motor learning (pp. 12-19).Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Febiger.
  2. Rushall, B. S., & Pettinger, J. (1969). An evaluation of the effects of various reinforcers used as motivation in swimming. The Research Quarterly, 40, 540-545.
  3. Rushall, B. S., & Siedentop, D. (1972). The control and development of behavior in sports and physical education. Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Febiger.
  4. Ashy, M. H., Landin, D. K., & Lee, A. M. (1988). Relationship of practice using correct technique to achievement in a motor skill. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 7, 115-120.
  5. Bar-Or, O. (1983). Pediatric sports medicine for the practitioner (comprehensive manual in pediatrics). New York NY: Springer Verlag.
  6. Borms, J. (1986). The child and exercise: an overview. Journal of Sports Sciences, 4, 3-20.
  7. Rushall, B. S., & Pyke, F. S. (1990). Training for sports and fitness. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan Educational.
  8. Troup, J. (Ed.). (1990). International Center for Aquatic Research annual - Studies by the International Center for Aquatic Research, 1989-90. Colorado Springs, CO: United States Swimming Press.
  9. Rushall, B. S. (1991). Motivation and goal-setting. In F. S. Pyke (Ed.), Better coaching (pp. 151-173). Canberra, Australia: Australian Coaching Council.
  10. McPherson, B., Marteniuk, R., Tihanyi, J., & Clark, W. (1977). Analysis of the system of age group swimming in Ontario. Toronto, Canada: Ontario Section, Canadian Amateur Swimming Association.
  11. Pyke, F. S. (Ed.), Better coaching. Canberra, Australia: Australian Coaching Council.

* A presentation to students interested in swimming coaching at San Diego State University, 11 October, 1995.

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