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Play the Long Game: Incremental Improvement

Taking small steps to achieve long term success

David Clark | August 20, 2015

Coaching is not a single, monolithic profession. Age-group and high school swim coaches place a strong emphasis on starts, turns, and technique. Although these elements are important in Masters swimming, Masters coaches may not prioritize them as much as they do aerobic conditioning and other aspects of swim training. That’s because Masters swimmers are a diverse group with many different goals and aspirations, and they may need your patient, focused help to achieve their specific goals.

Many of our Masters swimmers don’t have a swimming background and often don’t have a competitive background in any sport. But that doesn’t mean they can’t adapt to become very good swimmers. You just have to be willing to play the Long Game with them and implement small changes over time.

The Long Game is all about making an individual successful by taking small, manageable steps. You and the swimmer determine a long-term goal and create a series of smaller steps to build up to the eventual larger goal. Once a step is achieved, the swimmer can decide when to reach for the next one. You can chat with the swimmer about the goals and steps, but don’t pressure. Most adults have a “success mechanism,” and will take steps when they are ready to make them.

For example, “Keith” (not his real name) could do flip turns, but didn’t ever practice them. He confessed that flip turns made him feel dizzy for the rest of the day. For the Long Game, we started him off with just one flip turn per practice, and there was no dizziness. The next week, he tried two flip turns per practice, a successful addition. In subsequent weeks, one turn was added to each practice until he reached twenty. At that time, Keith had adapted and eliminated open turns in all practice sessions. By making small changes over an extended period of time, Keith mastered flip turns and has gone on to achieve USMS Top 10 times in several relays.

Another swimmer, “Abby” (not her real name), was afraid to dive and would do push-offs from the wall when the team was practicing starts off the block. Over the course of a few months, Abby worked on using a sit-dive from the edge. Once she was comfortable with that, she moved on to a standing dive from the deck. After about 18 months, the big day came when she performed a dive from the starting blocks. This gave Abby the confidence to attend a meet, which resulted in a terrific payoff: Her relay achieved a USMS Top 10 ranking!

Playing the Long Game can be harder on coaches than swimmers sometimes. Making small steps available on a regular basis without pressuring swimmers to do something they don’t feel internally ready to do requires patience. It can be hard watching swimmers you know are ready for the next step bide their time, but this long term approach allows swimmers to have success at their own rate. In the long run, the success makes the Long Game a rewarding process for both swimmer and coach.

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About the Author—David Clark

Dave Clark has been a coach for about 40 years, nearly 30 of them at the NCAA Division 1 universities of Northern Illinois and UW-Milwaukee. In addition, he’s worked with USA Swimming clubs and Masters swimmers. He currently coaches the Whitefish Bay Masters workout group of Wisconsin Masters. Dave was a 2014 recipient of the Kerry O’Brien Coaches Award and received the Conoco Outstanding Service award from Wisconsin Swimming. He’s the current USA Swimming zone team director for Wisconsin and serves on the USMS Coaches Committee.

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