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by Terry Heggy

August 9, 2016

Coaching strategies to leverage workout opportunities

When swimmers talk about flexibility, they’re usually referring to exercises that increase range of motion, such as those discussed in the January-February 2014 issue of SWIMMER magazine. But coaches can benefit from flexibility, too, especially in workout planning and delivery. Here are a few thoughts to consider as you create your club’s workouts.

Start from a Solid Foundation

Workout planning begins with understanding your team and its objectives, such as:

  1. Individual specialties and goals (identification of sprinters, triathletes, breaststrokers, etc.)
  2. Overall training philosophies (intensity, drills, clinics, social events, etc.)
  3. Seasonal structure and dates of major competitions (training cycles, tapers, championships, etc.)
  4. Objectives for the organization (membership growth and retention, community outreach, etc.)

Once you’ve established your team’s master plan for the season, you can design individual workouts that propel the team in a logical progression toward target competitions. At the same time, the best coaches also prepare for the inevitable challenges and opportunities that arise throughout the year.

Derail Disruptions

In 2015, several of our athletes had targeted the Lake Tahoe triathlon as their goal race for the season. In 2016, many aimed toward an early-season triathlon in Boulder. Both events were cancelled because of wildfires. In situations like that (or when a swimmer may not make a qualifying time, suffers an illness right before their big race, etc.), be ready with backup suggestions. You should also plan for:

  • Facility closures—Weather, maintenance issues, holidays, and a host of other issues can cause workout cancellations. Develop a plan to communicate with swimmers, and if possible, find alternate workout venues.
  • Coaching absences—Illness, family emergencies, vacations, and even other job opportunities might create a gap in your workout coverage. Potential backup plans might include printing or posting a cache of workouts the swimmers can access, designating a team leader who’s assigned to run the workout if the coach doesn’t appear, or ensuring that the facility staff has contact phone numbers for another coach who can get there quickly.

Exploit Opportunities

If you’re fortunate enough to have pool time for specialized workout groups (i.e., one practice for triathletes, another for sprinters, etc.), it’s relatively easy to design workouts that precisely meet the needs of those swimmers. Most Masters clubs don’t have this luxury, though, so coaches are often forced to compromise through hybrid approaches such as:

  • Designated lanes—Separate lanes for sprinters, strokers, and distance swimmers provide each group the opportunity to focus on their specialty. This works well if swimmers in those lanes have compatible speeds, or if the distances are short enough (or the pool long enough) to prevent excessive lapping. Of course, the coach must design and monitor separate workouts for each lane.
  • Designated days—You can designate particular days of the week for specific kinds of workouts (e.g., Mondays are distance days, Tuesdays are sprints, etc.), or you can designate the days more randomly by posting the workout designations on a team calendar. The downside of this approach is that people tend to avoid the workouts they don’t like, or may not be able to attend the workouts they really do want because of family or work schedules.
  • Conglomeration—Designing your workout plan so that distance, sprint, triathlon, and stroke workouts are spread throughout the month ensures that every swimmer will get some of what they need. The problem is that the approach isn’t specific enough to bring individual athletes to their peak performance.

Whichever approach (or combination of approaches) you use, be sure to monitor your success through team feedback and attendance records. When we implemented the designated days approach at Foothills Masters, attendance fell across the board. And although the conglomeration approach won’t satisfy elite athletes, our feedback shows that an overwhelming majority of our swimmers prefer it. Do what works best for your team.

Prepare Variations

For many Masters clubs, attendance can vary greatly from day to day. If that’s the case with your squad, you should prepare multiple versions of your main set for each practice. Regardless of what I write as my primary workout, I always give myself permission to alter things to take advantage of any attendance or performance anomalies that occur.

  • Specialty sets—Our swimmers tend to be predominately distance swimmers and backstrokers. But when all of the breaststrokers show up on the same day, I’ll change the main set to give everyone a good breaststroke workout. If there are more sprinters than usual, then we’ll add more sprint sets.
  • Guest stars—If you notice someone performing a drill with exceptional skill, or someone whose turns are outstanding, then take the opportunity to have them demonstrate those skills for the rest of the team. This is especially important if you notice the majority of the team struggling with a particular technique.

Observe and Alter

Be prepared to adapt the workout based on what you see as you observe the group.

  • Bonus drills—Hold your team to high standards. If your swimmers are doing one-handed touches on breaststroke or butterfly, not flipping their turns, or getting sloppy with their catch, it’s your job to intervene and correct those problems. Rather than continue with what you had written, offer specific drills to correct the errors you’ve seen. Proper form is always more important than hammering out yardage.
  • Interval adjustment—While we expect and demand high performance, we also need to watch for overtraining. As athletes age, they need more recovery time than they did in their youth. Make sure your swimmers are getting the correct rest for achieving the goal of each set.

With just a little bit of planning and flexibility, you can ensure that your team will have the best opportunity to improve in every situation.


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