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by Terry Heggy

January 15, 2019

Variety is an important element in developing practices

Specificity in training is the key to excellent performance. Sprinters need to sprint, distance people require pace work, and breaststrokers absolutely must practice underwater technique for great breakouts. It’s easy to sell that message; athletes gladly embrace specificity because people naturally enjoy focusing on their strengths. It can be challenging, though, to get them to break out of their comfort zone to try something new.

Yes, I am talking about getting triathletes to swim something other than freestyle. But it’s more than that. Our greatest coaching breakthroughs come when our swimmers understand that variety opens doors to higher achievement.

  • Other strokes, sculling, and drills build awareness of the body’s relationship with the water, both in propulsion and drag reduction.
  • Training core and support musculature enhance stability and power delivery.
  • Variety prevents boredom, enabling the continuous engagement required for sustained improvement. In other words, mixing it up can be fun!

Continuous Communication

Repetition promotes retention. Don’t be afraid to say the same things over and over. Put on your evangelist hat for a segment of each practice, and talk about why it’s important to sharpen one’s feel for the water. Explain the benefit of constantly sensing body position within the liquid environment, and how performing unfamiliar movements enhances development of those senses. During recovery breaks, remind swimmers to remain aware of the pool’s currents against their skin, and how any movement made by lanemates changes that sensation. When you consistently preach drag reduction, it’s easy for athletes to understand how an unfamiliar stroke can help them learn about aquatic efficiency.

Explain the training benefits of each set. Training alternate movements enables recruitment of additional muscles into familiar strokes. For example:

  • Butterfly kick enhances core strength and builds leg power for finishing freestyle with a sprint.
  • Breaststroke develops hip and ankle flexibility that enhance stability in running, as well as strengthening the muscles used in open water sighting.
  • Backstroke builds muscular balance to offset shoulder problems that can accompany excessive, uninterrupted freestyle.

Use language that communicates your belief that each member of your team is capable of all strokes and distances.

  • Avoid labels such as “triathlete.” They are swimmers who happen to focus on triathlon, just as there are swimmers who focus on butterfly, sprinting, or channel crossings. They may even be swimmers who focus on running or biking, but always acknowledge that you think of them as swimmers.
  • Use positive language in describing sets that aren’t team favorites. Instead of saying “I know you stink at this, but do it anyway,” try “Here’s an opportunity to improve your ability to pace well. Enjoy this brief break from our normal routine while you savor the chance to master a new element of our sport.”

Make expansion of capability a consistent part of your message. Teach your athletes to expect and embrace the challenges of new horizons. Write team newsletter articles about the benefits of swimming other strokes, praise swimmers who try new events, and recognize anyone who puts forth a good effort in an uncomfortable set.

Clever Construction

Sneak other strokes into your practice by offering hybrid drills and stroke challenge sets.

  • Call it a kick set, but allow breaststroke pull or sculling to supplement the legs. Point out that the folks who have the most efficient pull are the ones who finish the set first.
  • Create interesting challenges that involve other strokes. Time a 125 freestyle, then challenge them to swim a 100 IM 10 seconds faster than their freestyle time. Give a relay team a time target and challenge them to see how many meters of nonfreestyle they can swim and still make the time (where each swimmer must do at least two strokes other than freestyle). Pull out the lane lines and swim widths of butterfly to make it seem easier.
  • Do “Fun Friday” sets that include nonstandard strokes such as inverted butterfly, elementary backstroke, sidestroke, and flutterby (freestyle arms with a dolphin kick.)

Use the boiling frog approach to incrementally increase the amount of stroke work you introduce into practices. Combined with your consistent sales efforts regarding the concept, you’ll eventually reach a point where everyone will cooperate—and be thankful they did.

Peer Pressure

One summer long ago, eight of our team’s age-groupers entered the 1500 and swam it all butterfly! When people start talking about doing something awesome, their friends get excited about it. We’ve seen this with the SmartyPants Vitamins USMS Fitness Series, and it also works with getting people to attend meets, compete in open water, and sign up for online or virtual events.

Nudge a few of your influential swimmers to talk up swimming other strokes. Incentives might include setting PRs for events you’ve never swum, joining relays, or even getting a special cap or T-shirt. You’ve seen the “13.1” or “70.3” window decals that are popular with runners; why not make up some inexpensive stickers for the “200 Fly Club” or bumper stickers that say, “I swam 10 x 400 IMs in one practice.”

Injuries or other physical limitations might prevent some folks from swimming certain strokes, and that’s OK. Your continual enthusiasm for helping each athlete become a complete swimmer will pay off with performance results as well as bringing a sense of accomplishment and even joy into their lives.


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