Written By: Alex Baxter
At the start of my coaching career I was a swimming junkie. I spent most of precious free time watching technique videos and searching the web for new training ideas. I was always willing to try something new and to experiment, probably too much so. I hadn’t yet found my voice as a coach and I was willing to borrow heavily from those who had at the top of our sport. It made for some jumbled practices and season planning early on. Over the years I’ve come to better know my strengths and weaknesses as a coach. I’ve learned to occasionally step away from the pool and visit the parts of my life that aren’t related to swimming, but I still enjoy educating myself about our sport. I’ve had to learn to streamline my searches for new ideas and to more seamlessly incorporate those thoughts which fit within the style of our program. Over the last year, as pools were temporarily shuttered, we’ve seen many coaches direct their energies online to share and to learn. Between this new shared knowledge, and the years of available talks and presentations from the legends of our profession, sifting through the gigabytes of available information can be a serious challenge. These are some strategies I use to take interesting ideas from others in the coaching world and adapt them to my own coaching style.
Know Yourself and Know Your Team
Some of my favorite follows on social media are elite coaches who work daily with Olympic athletes. These coaches often share snippets of their practices showing creative challenges for their swimmers. These videos might show impressive power work with racks, or towers, or pulleys. They might show epic sprints, and turns, or finishes, all requiring extended breath holding by these highly experienced athletes. I get a kick out of these shares and would have liked to have done some of these things back in my own swimming career. But, I spend most of my days working with swimmers who need to improve their streamlines. I’ve got many swimmers who are still learning how to really use their arms and legs in the water, let alone how to use fins and paddles.
The challenges these coaches gave their athletes wouldn’t be appropriate for my team. What I can borrow from these coaches is their creativity. We can focus on the catch and the distance per stroke gained from the power work but approach it using sculling or stroke counts. We can focus on the same clean turns and finishes without requiring the breath-holding by doing swims from the near 15m marker to the wall.
Borrow Themes Not Sets
There are some large teams out there, with very successful coaches, able to form practice groups that give them full pools of swimmers able to do some epic training. Most of us might have 1-2 swimmers in a group of 20-30 who can handle near what the entirety of those best practice squads can. Still, we can borrow main goals from what these coaches share. If they haven’t flat out said what their theme was for a set, they’ve likely made it pretty evident. I might find a set focused on streamlines and underwater that I really like the looks of. By the time I share it with my squad, the distances, repetitions and send offs might be completely different from the inspiration, but the goal of great streamlines and underwater will still be there.
Communicate, Delegate and Allow for Adaptation
None of us is alone on the pool deck in the pursuit of faster swimming. Hopefully we all have an assistant coach or two who understand our vision for our program. When I come across an idea I wish to incorporate into our training I’ll share the resource with our coaching staff and then explain my thought process for why I’d like to introduce it to our squads. I’ll have a set in hand and that’s where we’ll start. Oftentimes, each coach will end up having adapted the set a bit to better accomplish the goal with the swimmers they are working with. Sometimes that means changing intervals or distances, repeating portions or stopping to explain. In the end, the goal is not to accomplish the numbers written on the page, the goal is to hone a skill.
If we don’t have assistant coaches to help us, we all have lane leaders who are ready and eager to take on additional responsibility. Many times my best lane leaders will ask me if they can adapt a set on their own once they understand the goal. Perhaps the interval I wrote was a bit off, perhaps they like a portion and want to expand on it. So long as the changes help in the acquisition of the skill, let the swimmers take some ownership.
Coach Alex is the Head Age Group Coach of the South Lake Aquatic Club in Clermont, FL. Coach Alex is an ASCA Level 4 Coach who’s been with the Lightning since 2019. Prior to that he spent 5 ½ years as the Head Age Group Coach and Associate Head Coach of the Wilton Y Wahoos in Wilton, CT. In Wilton, Coach Alex helped the USA Swimming Silver Medal Club Wahoos to one overall team title at the Connecticut Swimming Age Group Championships and 3 boys team Connecticut Age Group Championships. Coach Alex began his coaching career as the Head Coach at the Lionville Community YMCA in Exton, PA. Coach Alex spent 4 years at LCY developing a strong age group program which has seen numerous swimmers go on to compete at the collegiate level. Coach Alex grew up in Boise, ID and is a graduate of Linfield College in McMinnville, OR.