Written By: Max Byers
My favorite professor in college was my Coaching Ethic’s professor, Paul Hefty once said, “There are a lot of smart people in this world with plenty of bright ideas, so stop trying to come up with your own, steal theirs, and make it work for your program.” Fairly sure I never heard a professor tell me to steal ideas before or after that day, but it stuck with me. Why go try and change the wheel?
A few years later I was talking to a coach about how they structure their season plan for skills. He talked about his progressions for turns and things of that nature, but he said the game changer for their club was their station days. Someone on their staff attended a USA hockey seminar and listened to one of the heads of development at USA hockey talk about their recommend practice structures – stations. I am sure every swim coach has explored some form of station workouts with their swimmers. It is often a necessity with limited equipment and a fun way to change up your typical practice. Below are recommendations from USA Hockey on how to make better use of your station workouts:
Athletes learn more through games – No surprise here. Make something a competition or a game and kids will be more engaged. This can seem challenging at first with swimming skills but if you keep things simple it ends up being just as much fun. Working on turns you can time swimmers from when their hands touch the wall until they push off the wall. Get out cones or water bottles and measure how far swimmers can get on their dive and glides to work on starts. If you have the space, put on fins, and play sharks and minnows for breath control work with underwater power work.
Repeat your stations – we typically set up 4-5 stations at 8-10 minutes each station. We want to keep each station brief so the kids stay engaged, but often 8 minutes is not enough to make real progress on a skill. Our coaches plan out stations so that the kids can figure out a piece of the skill in the first round, then when they come back around, the coach picks up where they left off or goes back a little for a refresher before diving into new material. USA Hockey recommends you even repeat entire workouts so kids can see their progress from week to week. We often cycle out different skills from week to week or move coaches around to teach different skills so the material stays the same but can be heard from a different voice.
Give them space to figure it out on their own – The most ironic piece of coaching advice from USA hockey is sometimes not coaching kids is the best way to learn a skill. We often have 1 station where a coach gives minimal guidelines and steps away from giving advice while watching over the station. A great one for this is handstands in the pool. How long can they hold a handstand or how far down the pool can they walk a handstand is a great challenge to learn body awareness and core control. Follow that up at the next station with streamline, turn, or start work and you might see some kids make connections from the handstands into the bodyline work, but at the very least will develop some problem solving and resiliency skills.
Make it fun – We combine two groups together on Saturdays for our station day. This gives us a group of 60-70 swimmers between 6th and 12th grade. We blast music, encourage swimmers to coach each other, mix up the different groups, and try to have as much fun teaching skills as possible. Saturday is the overwhelming majority of swimmers favorite day on our team and I think the most beneficial.
Swim coaches sometimes get stuck in the swimming bubble and forget to look around in the outside world for fresh ideas. Just remember, plenty of smart people in the world with great ideas worth stealing.
If anyone is interested in reading more about USA Hockey and their approach to practice planning, you can visit usahockey.com and under the “Coaches” Tab you will find “Small Area Games” and “Practice Planning” with tons of fun ideas for games or strategies to adapt to swimming.
Max is in his second year as Head Coach of North Bay Aquatics in Marin County, California. His coaching tenure over the last decade includes coaching age-group and senior level swimmers on multiple club teams on the West and East Coast. His experiences firmly demonstrate a wealth of responsibilities in areas that are important to the growth of the NBA youth swim team at all age levels. In his four years as Head Age Group Coach at WAVE Aquatics, Max has helped grow the WAVE team, where he oversaw the development of over 180 swimmers in the age-group program. Prior to WAVE, Max’s coaching experience included working at Nittany Lion Aquatics Club in Pennsylvania, where he coached State, Sectional, and Junior National Qualifiers for the teams’ Senior group. Max also spent two years with Metro Aquatics in Tacoma, Washington as the team’s Head Age Group Coach. At Metro, Max coached two groups of age-group swimmers and oversaw the growth of the age group program to over double its size.