We went to the races this weekend and did we ever learn some stuff...as in a ton! As coaches we are a lot like teachers. If there were never any tests we wouldn't know how much the students were learning. Racing is the absolute best feedback mechanism for measuring our effectiveness as coaches and swimmers.
When we finish a training block with a series of meets that matter to the swimmers we really get a chance to evaluate our progress. When things go well it is tempting to think we have it all figured out. And conversely when they don't go well it is equally tempting to toss everything out the window and start from zero again.
As is often the case, we believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The additional challenge as coaches is that we must evaluate for an entire group of swimmers. The easiest way for us is to make lists...what we did well so that we keep doing those things and what we need to improve upon so we can look for solutions. We issue a "report card" to each swimmer and that gives them specifics they can work on in the context of the general workouts.
As an example, the following are two case studies from swimmers we train with a focus on the need to change what they are doing. (They do many things correctly but in the interest of space and time we will limit this discussion to the changes we want).
George (not his real name) swims the 200 and 500. He swam lifetime best times in the just concluded training block. When he races he swims with his head too high which means his body position is not as flat as we would like. Also, off each turn he pulls first with his breathing side arm which means he gets very little forward pull on the first stroke.
Solution: We will have George swim more in practice with a snorkel so he and his body learn what it feels like to swim flatter in the pool. While swimming with a snorkel he will get more aerobically fit in addition to having his correct body position reinforced. We will have him pull of each turn first with his non-breathing side arm so that his muscle memory knows that he pulls first with his left arm (non-breathing side arm) and then with his right arm (his breathing side arm). We will allow him to swim with fins for added speed assistance so he can make more challenging intervals and still swim correctly. Laps swum incorrectly are not only a waste of time; they build more poor muscle memory.
Rachel (not her real name) had a couple of tough weeks leading up to the big meets and for several reasons did not swim her best times. We think her primary event is the 200 free. She was very disappointed and frustrated. Even more critical, she has lost her confidence. She loves swimming but feels a little lost as many of her teammates had lots of success.
Solution: What we as coaches and she as the swimmer have been doing obviously is not working. It is time to admit that and find a new direction. She has excellent stroke mechanics so we don't need wholesale changes there. We are going to drop her dry land program of lifting and have her work out with a local boxing coach. This will keep her aerobic fitness level high, give her some one on one athleticism work (this coach really puts his clients through the paces in a positive no nonsense way - we already have three swimmers working with him), we will challenge her more in workouts with different sets than she usually uses (this will keep her from being able to compare too much with what she already knows about) and we will have her train with the sprint group two days a week or even three vs. the 200 group. On kicking days will have her use fins and even a snorkel occasionally so she can kick on faster intervals so she knows what it is like to move faster in the water. We also will no longer use her lifetime best times as a reference point. Rather we will use her season's best times and work from there. We don't really know if this will work. What we do know is that our current path is not working. Her confidence will grow from the work with the boxing coach and her faster swimming in workouts with fins. We may find that she needs more sprint work even though her best event is the 200. We may even discover we were wrong and her best event will be the 100 free. She also can swim fly so that may emerge as another event for her.
We encourage all coaches and swimmers to use meet performances as feedback mechanisms. Keep doing what is working well and drop that which isn't. The best coaches - measured by their effectiveness - adapt to their athletes...not the other way around...in our opinion. What is yours?