Sunday, November 30, 2008

Perhaps Now Is The Time

...the time to rest, that is...This Saturday we went to the Old Mill Park in Mill Valley, California where the Quadruple Dipsea starts and finishes. There are actually three Dipsea races each year. In early June the Dipsea runs 7.1 miles from Mill Valley over Mt. Tamalpais to Stinson Beach, California. It is, along with the Boston Marathon, one of the oldest races in the United States. In late June they hold the Double Dipsea which is a round trip. Then every year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving about 250 hardy souls show up for the Quad Dipsea which is two Doubles. This course, whether you run it once, twice or four times in a given day has more vertical climb and descent per mile than the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. It is quite a challenge.

At this year's event we met runner and author John Morelock whose column appears below. Ultra Running Magazine, where Morelock's article appears, is the Bible for anyone who longs to run any distance that is beyond a marathon (26.2 miles). You can substitute the word "swim" or "bike" with the word "run" and see some value for yourself.

We hope you enjoy the Holiday season as much as we do. Read and rest. It might make all the difference to you. Let us know how it goes for you!

Run Gently Out There
by John Morelock
Ultra Running Magazine.

Mind Over Matter

Athletes tend to simplify things that they perceive relate to their performance. Many coaches and keen observers like to think that an athlete needs to be "tougher" to improve. Getting "tougher" is usually broken into the separate components of the body and the mind. Want to get faster? Train harder; it's that simple. Want to get to the top? Get your head together; that's the key.

Well. It is true that you need to train as diligently as possible; hopefully that capacity improves daily. It is also true that if your state of mind is centered, if you are focused and able to perform while distracted by any number of stimuli, you stand a much greater chance of success. However, there is more going on than meets the eye.

One of our swimmers came across a fascinating article on this subject written by two sports psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Education. Drs John Bartholomew and Esbelle Jowers write clearly and succinctly on this subject. Included in the article is a really good Q&A with Olympian Garrett Weber-Gale.

We hope you find this helpful. Let us know what you think!

Don't Even Think About It: Athlete’s mental toughness as important as physical strength

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Is the Grass Really Greener?

In the world of sports, at least the world of professional sports, it is all too common to read about the switching of teams by coaches and players. The reasons for changing are usually money though no one cops to that, at least not outright.

In our sport of swimming one of the most common reasons for athletes to change teams is the frustration that comes with a plateau or even a drop off in performance. All swimmers begin their career with steady, often meteoric improvement. This is natural since they are starting at zero as it were. Couple this with the growth factor and by 13 or 15 years of age the expectation has been set; namely that a swimmer "should" see some kind of regular drops in time.

What often goes unrecognized is the contribution the swimmer makes to the improvement. By this we do not mean the training, the laps swum or the weights lifted. We mean the intention that the swimmer has and how he/she acts based on those intentions. Parents are the ones who usually pull the plug on the current team. They see a swimmer or swimmers who their youngster used to beat in races who are now out performing their son/daughter. And so, they decide after some discussion that it must be the coaching or the program in general that is better on the other side of the fence.

The change is made and life goes on. What too few realize is that the swimmer who moves takes with them their "stuff"; namely stroke strengths and weaknesses, racing strategies, mental toughness (or lack thereof), focus ability (or lack thereof) and training habits. Until a swimmer is willing to honestly address their whole package the change itself will do little in the way of lasting improvement. It is common to see a quick bounce but lasting change is a whole other issue.

Since the inception of $500 racing suits and professional endorsement contracts swimming's profile has changed. In this week's mainstream sports media it was announced that two time Olympian Katie Hoff, who trains at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, has switched coaches. In a related story, Michael Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, formerly at NBAC then Michigan has returned to NBAC. Paul Yetter, also a coach at North Baltimore, coached Katie Hoff until this week. In the stories about the changes it tells us very little. The one comment that is worth noting is Hoff's when she talks about the intensity level that Bowman is famous for and how she thinks she is now ready for that. This is the "stuff" we referred to above.

We certainly do not know enough about the intricacies of this story to comment with certainty. What we do know is that all of the players, Hoff, Yetter and Bowman bring their own skills and weaknesses to the table.

This has happened to all three of us here at SwimCoachDirect. It isn't always a bad thing either. Sometimes a swimmer who switches gets and gives relief all at the same time. What we do know for sure is that before you switch you really need to make an honest assessment of your own set of tools. Do you really need new ones or can you sharpen the ones you have? If you need new ones and they are not available in your current program that is one thing. If they need sharpening perhaps you are the one who needs to do the work and not the coach.

Something to think about...

Have a great week and let us know how it is going for you!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Heartbreak and Inspiration

Each of us can relate to this story in many different ways: the athlete who works incredibly hard to do something no one thinks can be done, and then just when achieving it has it unjustly taken away; the coaches and parents who have devoted love and support but are powerless to change the outcome; and the inspiration of the athlete who finds his way through the flames of the bonfire to give back again over and over as a coach. So no matter who you are: athlete, coach, or parent in any combination, and no matter what your personal 'Olympics' are, we all can learn from "Gold Medal Lockdown".

Sunday, November 16, 2008

When Opportunity Knocks

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Nancy Gay covers the NFL for readers. She just profiled an interesting situation recapping how the Miami Dolphins are rebuilding their recently woeful team. In her recent article "The right way to rebuild" she talks about Chad Pennington the former Jets and now current Dolphins quarterback.

We found that several of her observations and Pennington's comments hit the proverbial nail right on the head. Sports often mirrors life in that one seemingly hopeless situation often morphs quickly into a wonderful opportunity. The key ingredient is usually the mindset of the people involved.

Some key points from Nancy Gay's story:
  • Pennington has quietly completed 66.5 percent of his passes this season (185 of 278) for 2,200 yards and eight touchdowns. Pennington has tossed five interceptions - a byproduct of Henning's gambling downfield style - but he's also had 24 completions of 20 yards or longer, which ties him with Peyton Manning, and is one more than his replacement with the Jets (Favre has 23 completions of 20 or more yards after getting two Thursday against the Patriots ).

  • "Well, I think the one thing that the NFL is about is opportunity. When one door closes, a lot of time another one opens and as long as you keep the right mind-set and stay confident in how you do things as a professional, I think you can really take advantage of the opportunities presented to you and that's what I've tried to do," Pennington said this week. "I've tried to come in to the Dolphins organization and be the best that I can be every day and work extremely hard and see what happens."

  • Tony Sparano was looking for a quarterback to whom the young players would gravitate, and Pennington established himself straight away as that guy - just as his front office envisioned. "Once we had the opportunity via the Brett Favre thing ... to, maybe, get a player like this, it was fortunate that Jeff (Ireland) and Bill (Parcells) felt strongly about this," Sparano said. "We went out, we got him, we brought him in here and, from Day 1, when he walked through the door, the players were following him around like he was the Pied Piper."

  • Pennington's history made the transition much easier. "I was familiar with the system because Bill Parcells drafted me in 2000 in New York and I knew what type of system it would be and how the organization would be run. They value smart, tough, disciplined football players and guys who not only know how to be professionals but really take pride in being a professional football player," said Pennington, who was told he would be expected to provide leadership and be a mentor to the younger players, a role he relished. "I knew that that would fit me and I felt really good about the situation."

Have a great week. Who knows, perhaps opportunity will come knocking on your door?!

The Value of Starting Blocks

A quick reminder this week about the value of "starting blocks". And those words are in quotes on purpose. By starting blocks we mean any event that puts you in a slightly more competitive situation than a regular training situation.

An intrasquad meet, a team time trial, an alumni meet, a recreation league sponsored open water swim, a local "Tri" that is really nothing more than a development type of competition all are examples of a slightly more competitive situation than a normal workout setting. Any of these formats will more accurately simulate the process you will go through in prepping for and actually racing in competitive situations than a workout. It is also a good way to mix up the emphasis.

We took our team this weekend to an "Invitational" meet. There were six teams invited and most of the usual events were offered. The swims rolled one upon another fairly quickly which meant the swimmers had short rest periods with little loosen down time. What is great about these meets is that while times count (Colorado scoreboard, fully sanctioned and officiated etc.) the emphasis is on doing your swims correctly. Each swimmer has a chance to practice the mental and physical approach all the while knowing that the times may not be the best.

Our team is going to one of two big meets in a month; the deciding factor is the qualifying times they have. Each meet will be a "shave and taper" meet. There is only one way to truly prep for such a competition; namely, getting up on the blocks and racing, specifically racing someone you do not ordinarily swim against every day in training.

So, we encourage you, regardless of your own particular level of competition, to seek out a local meet or racing opportunity, sign up and then go and see what happens. You wouldn't enter a course of study at school that had only one final exam, would you? These lower level racing opportunities are akin to weekly "pop" quizzes or mid terms.

Even if your response to this is that "I don't really do this to compete" we encourage you to give it a try. You may find that it opens your eyes a little or re-kindles a greater level of awareness about the value you place on your training.

Let us know how it goes!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Little Friendly Competition

Most of us enter races for the fun of it; for the personal sense of accomplishment; for the socialization aspects. Occasionally, the 'harder core' among us do so to actually race up in the front.

At SwimCoachDirect our hats go off to all of you regardless of your motives. We applaud participation vs. the art of spectating!

Now and then some interesting twists occur when events are held that cater to both groups. At the recent San Francisco Nike Women's Marathon an unusual but not unheard of conclusion occurred - the winner of the Women's Elite field - the one awarded the money and receiving the accolades didn't actually post the fastest time. Yikes! You read correctly - Arien O'Connell, an elementary teacher from New York City running in the general runners group and not the Elite group, posted the fastest time.

Nike overlooked this detail and awarded the the first place recognition and trophy to Nora Colligan. When O'Connell asked the race officials about it Nike told her that "we've declared our winner." With the subsequent media attention Reebok, Nike's competitor, jumped all over the opportunity. Reebok awarded O'Connell a trophy, a free pair of shoes every month for a year, T-shirts for all her students and a $2500 donation to her school. Nike, then back peddling as fast as its shoes would go, gave her a crystal Tiffany plaque.

Often in swimming and triathlons weekend warriors get to race with the pros. It is fun and stimulating, especially for the weekend warriors. At swim meets across the country there are many youngsters who get to compete in events that also include some of the fastest swimmers in the country or even the world. If occasionally some of the 'pros' get their comupance then so be it. It doesn't happen very often but when it does it should be noticed accordingly.

Congrats to O'Connell for lifting the spirits of us all!

The Two Keys to Speed

The science of faster swimming can be broken into the two most basic components of tempo and distance per stroke. By working on each of these separately and then collectively you can really improve your speed. This works for both pool swimming and open water events.

Tempo is simply the measurement of the number of arm strokes. The unit of measure is in seconds and the number of arm strokes is an arbitrary one. We measure with a stop watch the amount of time it takes to complete 8 (4 left and 4 right) strokes on freestyle and backstroke. On breast and fly we count for 5 strokes.

As an example, this weekend at a meet we had two girls swimming the 100 yard breaststroke. The first girl had a tempo of 5.7 on lap 1, 6.1 on lap 2, 6.6 on lap 3 and 6.6 on lap 4. Her stroke counts (which is the other component - distance per stroke) were 9,9,10 for laps 2,3,and 4. (We generally don't concern ourselves too much with lap one since it has the dive) The second girl was 8.4,8.1,8.7 and 7.4 with stroke counts of 8,8,9.

It will come as no surprise to you that the first girl swam 1:09.0 and the second girl was 1:14.8. The key difference was the tempo. For the first girl to swim faster she needs to get her stroke count down to 8,8, and 8 while keeping her tempo up. The second girl's tempo is too slow and she needs to reduce her number of strokes as well (improving her distance per stroke).

By comparison, the woman who won the gold in Beijing had a tempo of 5.1!

So, play around with your tempo - your own personal rpm (revolutions per minute - or in this case, per second). You could swim a 75 having three different tempos. That is a good drill to increase your awareness. Then you can do laps counting your strokes trying to reduce the number of total strokes you take - thereby increasing your distance per stroke.

You will find that as you master the concept you will swim faster and more efficiently. In the swimming world, just as in the running world, there are jack rabbits and plodders. The fastest folks (and by this we mean in the absolute sense as well as the relative sense) are the ones who have fast tempos combined with excellent distance per stroke.

So, have some fun with this and let us know how it goes!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Debbie Meyer

Debbie Meyer's story is a fascinating tale of youthful innocence. Her interview on Swimming World's Morning Swim Show is worth the time as she explores a variety of topics pertinent to today. Highlights include 12-25-64, California flip turns, swim-offs as a 13 year old, swimming fast in practice, 2 beat and 4 beat crossover kicks, "I love to swim, I love to race, I love the challenge", and a lot more. There is so much in this interview with one of America's truly great women swimmers that we recommend you viewing it. And it would be an awesome interview to share with other youngsters, even if they are not on a swim team! Please let us know what you think.

Playing Favorites

A while back we came across this article written by John Leonard. John has coached at all levels of swimming; indeed he still coaches some these days. However, his main focus is the American Swim Coaches Association. He is the Executive Director of ASCA which is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, FL. In a recent conversation with him we learned that while the economy is certainly a challenge these days, ASCA is stronger than ever. Membership is at an all time high as is attendance at their various clinics. They host annually the World Swim Coaches Clinic which is attended by coaches from literally all over the world. Under John's extremely capable leadership ASCA continues to be a positive force in swim coaching. He is a forward thinker and a very capable communicator. We especially liked his article on the ever present subject of coaches and playing favorites.

Please let us know what you think! - John Leonard's Playing Favorites.