Updated: Mar 28
Written By: Peter Verhoef
Our coaches have been looking forward to Junior Nationals this week for a long time and we are excited for your athlete to compete at this level. In talking about the meet we realized we never share some of our thoughts and goals with parents, and watching this meet from the stands can be a new experience! We wanted to send some thoughts for you to process as we head to Greensboro that may help you enjoy the meet with your athlete.
This meet is the first National level meet in USA Swimming’s progression. Futures is still a regional competition and while there may be some fast swimmers in attendance the purpose of this level of meet enables the best in the country to race head-to-head. Even split East/West, some of the best 18 & under athletes in the WORLD dive into the pool and perform at an amazing level. It is important to realize these swimmers are not celebrities or special talents – they will be the primary competitors for student-athletes through college. The athletes will see each other on recruiting trips, in college meets and at NCAAs and National championships. It is important to arrive this meet with the mindset to COMPETE not just participate - the experience is important, but how we learn from this experience and elevate our racing is even more valuable.
This meet mimics the NCAA Division I championship format (fun fact: Division II & III are different as they run combined formats!). The relays, event orders, and finals sessions will be the closest experience an athlete has to an NCAA or conference championship prior to college; even Summer Junior or Senior Nationals are not designed this way. Learning how to swim the WHOLE meet is paramount as that will be expected at the college level – that’s why we ask kids to be at the pool for finals and through the last day of competition.
That expectation requires a different, more sophisticated approach to managing the meet focusing on process over performance. Age group invitationals or championships emphasize number of swims and outcomes - impact performances become the priority at this meet. This level challenges how an athlete swims & manages their performances over the course of the meet asks for athletes to develop a new level of maturity in races.
For example, learning to attack prelims to secure a nighttime swim and return at night to swim for team points is a different point of reference for many athletes. Even if an athlete may feel "out of contention," there is great value towards learning to race to a higher finishing spot, but may not necessarily result in a faster time. Sometimes, the momentum created by a swim that may not make finals, but has a large breakthrough for an individual, can be a catalyst for overall team performances and ignite energy on deck. Or perhaps the athlete learns how to swim multiple races and effectively manage recovery and fueling which can resonate in the next competition. All these results constitute success and a desire to master & enjoy the process of the sport that is so vital for future accomplishments.
From this point forward in swimming, times are merely a measuring tool for where athletes can compete, the real focus is on the process of competition and preparing to win your heat to generate additional opportunities to race. Often an athlete will need to perform the same time multiple times to be ready to advance to the next level - implementing new techniques/training along their individual journey. This takes some practice and a shift in mindset, and for some, a single swim can feel much more intense than a 3-day meet with two swims per day. The work we do in our mental muscle gym and with Samantha Livingstone around our thoughts emotions and responses becomes so powerful in this setting, but only if we've worked to that long before stepping on deck at National competition.
During the meet, the responsibility of the coach shifts as we are allowed more intentional time with athletes on deck. We discuss warm up specifics, working through technical tweaks, managing mental hiccups - all while thinking one or two sessions ahead with an athlete. That time spent before & after races is a key point of connection for coaches, even after less optimal races (one might argue even more so) as often in workout we only have seconds to communicate complex concepts. That's why at high-level multi-session meets, we strive to have a lower coach to swimmer ratio. Our job is to guide them through this and remind them that they are here to do what they have always done - sometimes that can be a difficult but powerful conversation. We've collected years of experience from conversations with athletes, coaches and other professionals that helps us navigate those moments. It's something we all cherish and take great pride in our work as we help athletes find their space in the sport.
So where can parents & teammates help? It helps to have a positive and excited team and parents who are excited for their swimmer’s participation and growth. While we know how to work through these meets, it is common to see a first or second time National-level athletes struggle in ‘different’ ways than they would at an invite. We need parents to be excited and proud! Relaying serious concerns (health, emotional conflict, external issues) can help coaches communicate more effectively. Often, they just need parents there for a dose of “normalcy” and to ground them – a lunch date, a conversation about holiday travel, sharing an update about a sibling at home - something that connects the athlete to who they are as a human - unrelated to their performance in the pool - whether good or bad.
In short, we work as a team to support each athlete - teammates, coaches, parents, family and athletes - all of us must work together while occupying our own space of expertise to allow for the greatest potential return. By respecting both each other and the process of the sport, our athletes can achieve great things - in and out of the pool.
Coach Peter Verhoef served as the head coach of the 2022 Women’s Select Camp in Colorado Springs, falling on the heels of a successful venture with 6 Bolles athletes at the 2022 International Team Trials. His leadership has brought the school program on the men’s side to a 2021 National High School Championship and continuing the defense of the FHSSA titles on both the men’s & women’s program. Bolles School Sharks Club program also earned the two-time defending men’s team champion for Junior Nationals-East in 2021 & 2022. His coaching philosophy includes working with student-athletes to nurture the entire person to tap into their maximum potential, in and out of the pool. Prior to Bolles, Coach Peter spent time at SwimMac after working with David Marsh at TeamElite, where their athletes won 8 medals at the 2016 Olympics. He concurrently served as an assistant coach at Division II Queens University including during their 2015 NCAA Championship season.Coach Peter’s personal competitive background helps him guide athletes to unlock their potential. He had a stellar college career at the University of Georgia, where he earned a double degree in Management and MIS in 2007. He was a finalist at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Trials and swam as a team captain at the 2007 World Championships. His biggest international success was a silver at the 2005 World University Games. He lives in Jacksonville with his wife Kristin & his two sons and enjoys the active lifestyle that only Florida can provide!