Age Group (about 9-11 year olds) is probably the most fun group to coach. They will always get faster no matter what you do and they are finally old enough to actively make changes to their stroke. These kids also start to develop a taste for competition and begin to understand how competing makes them better. Do your job right as a coach and you can set up a swimmer for a lifetime of swimming success. Let’s get started by looking at this group’s training goals:
The list kind of explodes compared to the Novice Group, but luckily we have some more time for it throughout the week as well. The big changes to notice are that each stroke and kicking is now trained at two levels: sprint and endurance. Regardless of the actual speed of swimming, we are still going to have a heavy drill/teaching focus. In addition, we have added IM (individual medley) training, turns and dives from a block. The one thing we still won’t train yet is race strategy or pacing. These kiddos are still too young for that and we want to develop an attack mentality. That means we go all out from the get go and hang on!
Even though this group likely can swim all four strokes, we are still going to make technique a majority focus. We start every new season with about 2-4 weeks of “Novice” like training where we go over all the essential components of each stroke and each drill that helps train those components. The sets we write in the future will be based on these drills so we can train good strokes and not just learn them. Now that the kids are older, they can study the strokes and understand them on a fundamental level as well. Going over video of both professional swimmers and the swimmers in your group helps them learn what a “perfect” stroke looks like and what they need to focus on daily in order to make the changes in their own technique.
Here are some additional tips to running professional grade Age Group workouts:
Age Grouper sets start using the interval system, but that doesn't mean you (the coach) are running the set. It is the kid’s job to leave on time and know what they are doing. It’s your job to give constant feedback and encouragement. If you want kids to run a good set, you have to take the time to explain it and hold them accountable when it goes wrong. For instance, if you are doing a set of 6x100s @ 2:30 as 50 no arm breaststroke and 50 breaststroke to a streamline, you should never have to remind kids when to leave the wall, what drills they are doing or what each drill is meant to teach. All these discussions should happen before the kids get in the water to start the set. The kids should understand they leave on the top or bottom and they should know that no arm breaststroke focuses on timing (breath-kick-glide) and breaststroke to streamline focuses on cutting through the water. Your job is to yell things like “your kick is too wide” “you’re using your arms too much” “hold the streamline longer between strokes.”
If kids are not doing the drills right (and you know they can) or they are not paying attention and leaving on the wrong interval, then you should stop them as a group, re-explain, re-focus and restart the set. If the kids still struggle, then it’s probably the set and your expectations that need to change. That’s when you simplify the set, increase the interval or straight up move on to something else. Don’t be afraid to change your plans in the moment. Don’t do the set for the sake of doing the set, let the set work for you.
Tangent: “Don’t let your kids do anything that makes you hate them” - Dr. Jordan Peterson.
Kids in this age range have a super power. They can absolutely destroy themselves physically during training and be 100% recovered by the next day. That power won’t last forever which is why we need separate templates and training methodology for older swimmers (coming up.) What this means for our Age Groupers is that we can write the absolute most difficult workouts that put them right on the edge and we won’t have to worry about overtraining. There are no recovery days in Age Group! And if you are worried about mental burnout… well we took care of that in Parts 1 and 2. As long as the kids have purpose, build mastery and have a bit of autonomy (and fun), and they will come back to the pool every day. Also, most kids are involved in multiple activities and usually don’t make it to practice six days a week, so recovery time is naturally built in. Now that we know what we are training and how we are training, let’s take a look at a season of training for Age Groupers. To help us organize the season in our minds, we will divide it into early, majority, late and taper portions.
At the beginning of the season we don’t actually follow a template. Start by teaching the progression of drills for each stroke, freestyle, starts and turns we learned in Part 3. Treat the first few weeks as a condensed swim lesson program. Feel free to do some freestyle, IM and kicking sets during this time, but most of the first few weeks of the season should be focused on re-teaching the strokes from the ground up. This also makes sure everyone knows the drills inside and out and what each drill is supposed to focus on. Do this “swim clinic” every single season. Repetition will only benefit swimmers this age.
Let’s take a look at the template we will be using to help us cover all our bases when training for so many strokes, speeds and technical focuses.
This looks very complicated, but let’s break it down and group the similar days together. Again we don’t designate days of the cycle by specific weekdays like Monday, Tuesday and so on. These are just days that follow each other in the same order. Day 8 could be a Sunday, Day 9 could be Monday and Day 10 can be Wednesday if you have Tuesday off.
Each color coded box is a separate set aimed at focusing on a specific goal. To attain this goal, we will make sure every set answers three questions:
We want kids to spend about 20-30 minutes focusing on one stroke or kick or IM set at a time. We don’t want them to bounce around from stroke to stroke, different speed gears and drills. We want their attention focused and we want them to get done with the set feeling like they really made an improvement to their racing abilities. One last note, “sprinting” in this group is an exaggeration. Any place that says sprint really means a 1:1 swim to rest ratio. For example, 10x25s @:30 second interval holding 15s on each repeat. No such thing as 6x100s on 6:00… you will just end up with kids bouncing off the walls in between 100s.
Let’s take a closer look at similar days that are grouped together and go through the mental exercise of what each set of days is aiming for.
One of our pet peeves and reasons for writing this book is watching other coaches hand out “mindless yards” to young swimmers. Classic “swim, pull, kick” or “SKIPS” warmups can be argued as valuable for older swimmers or even college level athletes, but not for kids still working on their technique. Every day starts with a standardized warm-up that doesn't change for weeks, months or an entire season. As we said in Part 2, this helps swimmers and coaches in multiple ways and we won’t re-hash it.
In real life, a good Age Group warmup should be 100% drill based, work all strokes individually (no IM) and can include a component that works on the group’s weakness, like turns. This way, even if there is no butterfly set that day, the kids get a few yards of fly in during warm up to help keep their muscle memory. Lastly, it forces kids to work on a weakness they have at least once that day and every single day. Here is an example:
Tangent: Firestone drill is where kids start with their arms on the walls, bodies floating and legs kicking behind them. A few seconds before they have to go, they kick hard (spinning their wheels like Firestone tires on drag racers) and then go straight into a flip and push off to start their swimming. Great way to get in turn work!
Notice there is no IM, no kicking and no equipment. That’s because we want to keep things as simple as possible and we want to be able to do this warmup at a swim meet. The reason we don’t do independent kicking is because we want our swimming drills to force kids to kick hard. Kicking with a board is for conditioning the legs, not teaching technique. Conditioning comes later! Also, we won’t get kickboards during a meet, so we can’t use them during warmups at practice.
You can also use warmup as a glorified progression set that changes every 4-6 weeks where the drill for each stroke progresses from kicking (learning body position) to drilling (learning arms/components of strokes) to stroke counting (full stroke with a DPS purpose):
Now that we can get each day started properly, let’s take a look at the days themselves.
Most training for young swimmers is mental. Their bodies can probably do almost any reasonable set, but they just don’t believe it or they aren’t mentally strong enough to push their bodies that hard. The progression sets (in red) are meant to build this mental toughness every two weeks and slowly ease kids into faster and faster intervals. We alternate between swimming and kicking progression sets. These are the only sets during the week where there are no drills, no counting strokes, no technique requirements, just... make… the time! We like to do a team cheer before the set to get the swimmers psyched up and ready to attack the set! Here is our favorite swim progression set:
Cycle 1: 5x100 @ 2:00 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 2: 8x100 @ 2:00 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 3: 10x100 @ 2:00 JMI (just make it)
After the third cycle, the yards go down, but the interval gets faster. Usually, we plan some games if the kids successfully finish 10x100s on a tight interval. That’s their reward for completing about 6 weeks of hard work. And that’s the only time we play!
Cycle 4: 5x100 @ 1:50 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 5: 8x100 @ 1:50 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 6: 10x100 @ 1:50 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 7: 5x100 @ 1:40 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 8: 8x100 @ 1:40 JMI (just make it)
Cycle 9: 10x100 @ 1:40 JMI (just make it)
And keep repeating the pattern until the end of the season for both swimming and kicking. If the kids fail to make the interval a certain day, that’s ok! Failure is part of growing and kids will learn that. Just take a step back and try to do the set another day or even leave it for the next time it comes around in the cycle. Whatever you do, don’t keep moving down the progression as if nothing happened. Failure needs to be dealt with directly and not overlooked. Repeat and repeat until the kids get the interval. Each attempt is not punishment, but a chance to redeem ourselves. We don’t give out participation ribbons here…
Another favorite test set would be 10x50s with a 10s rest at each 50. Then repeat the entire set with fins after a short break. Track total times (or subtract out the 10 second rests to get 500 times). Give the kids half a lane to themselves, counters at the far end, and the remaining kids cheer! If you make big sets a big deal, you will get big results. The goal is to keep dropping total time every time you do the set. If kids start to struggle to drop time, increase to 75s or 100s.
Big freestyle set to start the day off which is always drill based whether it is endurance or sprint focused. The kick set on Day 2 can be a second "turn/dive" set as well, but Day 7 should be dedicated to TEACHING turns and dives.
What’s the difference between sprint freestyle and sprint freestyle kick? Probably nothing if you do a drill heavy set for both types of training. But if you feel like you need some dedicated sprint dolphin kicking time, the sprint kicking set is a great place to do it.
For the stroke sets, feel free to combine the back/free (long axis strokes) fly/breast (short axis strokes) into one set instead of two. But we think taking the time to focus and spend about 1000 yards doing the same stroke is very valuable to teaching technique. You don’t have to write two completely different sets for each stroke. You can simplify and save time by writing one set with your desired drills for one stroke and on round two just switch the drills to the second stroke. Examples listed.
Building a base in freestyle is essential to the successful career of a swimmer, and so these training days are dedicated towards hitting the yards. This also builds a little toughness and pride in the kids who can see their abilities to eat yards increase, and therefore increase their confidence. We don't like to do this more than once a week in order to maintain versatility, teach all strokes, and prevent overuse injuries even at this age. Don't just swim mindless yards please!! Build the sets on drills and technique.
Free/back and kicking go together. So, Day 5 is a good place to make a single big freestyle set and single big backstroke set. Stroke kicking and breast/fly also go together and make a good place for a single big fly set and big breaststroke set. Or… you can keep it all separate. Depends on what needs you are working on.
In the examples, we just listed one interval for simplicity’s sake. But let’s say you have 30 kids show up for practice and only get three lanes to work out of. And because you set your training group up by age, you have a wide range of abilities. Some of your swimmers are state qualifiers and can do a 50 freestyle in under 30 seconds, while others take over a minute. How do we manage such a wide range, keep everything organized and still give everyone their training needs? We do it by giving each lane a separate interval. This only applies to endurance sets. Sprint and warmup sets should have a single interval that is easy enough for 90% of the group to make.
By giving each lane a separate interval, the large group of 30 subdivides by ability into the lanes that best fit them. There is a short learning curve as kids try to figure out where they belong. You may have to help guide kids to where they belong by either pushing timid but fast kids to the faster lanes or moving other kids down to slower lanes if they are being run over. This “hierarchy” of lanes seems crude and unfair which is why most programs divide their swim team up by ability instead of age in order to avoid this scenario. However, we discussed in Parts 1 and 2 why this is a bad idea for team culture.
We would argue that this system of having a single large group of kids that subdivides into different lanes by ability is better for both training and swimmer happiness. The biggest fear Age Group swimmers have when coming to practice is being outperformed and run over by the other kids. They need to have a safe space (their designated lane) where they can focus on the set and its goals rather than survival. By putting them in a lane with kids that have similar abilities but also having them do the same workout as everyone else, we get the best of both worlds.
What about the competitive go getter kid? Are they just left behind? Absolutely not! The stratified lane set up is perfect for the kid who wants more. Each lane now becomes the next level in a game. If you work hard, show up consistently and improve your performance, you get to move up a lane. Once in the top lane, you get to move up the line until you are the lane leader. This hierarchy seems cruel to implement with kids, but this is how the real world works! If you work hard, show up consistently and show your value, then you get promoted and/or build a successful career. We don’t hide the world from our kids, we prepare them for it.
Of course, kids are not set in stone when it comes to being divided into different lanes. Some kids are fast kickers and slow breastrokers. When a kick set comes up, they move to the fast lane. When a breaststroke set comes up, they move down. This teaches everyone in the group that each person has their gifts and their weaknesses and it’s each person’s job to work on all aspects of their training. It’s your job as coach to teach them these life fundamentals in order to avoid jealousy and self-pity in the group. You have to bring the kids together as a team… but that was all talked about before, so let’s move on to seeing how these ideas work in real life.
Tangent: You can also play with the yards instead of the intervals if you prefer to have kids leave at the same time.
Endurance backstroke set example:
Instead of just doing 100s of regular backstroke mindlessly over and over, make each 25 a thought driven progression to building a good looking (and fast) backstroke. Each lane has their own interval and because the kids run the set, they will keep track of when their lane’s time to go again is. When the fastest lane is done with the set, the other two lanes will have a little left. You can choose to have them complete everything, or stop them short and move on to the next set. Don’t worry about getting all the “yards” in. Training time is more important. So if you stopped the whole group at the same time whether they finished 800, 700 or 600 yards of the set, they all swam about 16 min of backstroke and that is the more important and consistent number.
Endurance freestyle set example:
In this example, we modified the yards instead of the interval just to show another way of giving each kid their needed training. 6TC is a combo drill all our kids know which stands for 6nRoll-Triangle drill-Catch up. The first line of the set is a drill combo aimed at getting kids to hit the fundamentals of freestyle as a refresher for their brain. The next three lines are essentially build where the 100s/75s get faster and faster. But, instead of just writing up “build” or “descend,” we map it out for the kids and require them to hold a stroke count. As the interval gets faster, they are allowed more strokes per 25. This forces them to stay mentally engaged and think about their swimming.
Many coaches have kids perform stroke counts, but never hold them accountable. Kids will just swim mindlessly and coaches tend not to bother (been there). Coaches instead justify their behavior saying things like “it’s up to the kids to own their swimming.” While that’s true and we agree, a bit of balance and accountability in coaching is also a good thing. We have the kids shout out their stroke count to the group at the end of each 100. The funny thing is you don’t actually have to listen or care what the count was. As long as the kids think someone is paying attention, they will try to do their best.
Towards the end of the season (the last 4 weeks or so), feel free to spend the “stroke” sets focusing on each kid’s “best” stroke. A couple of times a week you could create a butterfly lane, a backstroke lane and a breaststroke lane. Separate out kids into their respective strokes, focus their time on their best stroke and give them a dedicated stroke set. The kids feel special that they have a stroke that they belong to and builds some confidence as they go into their championship races.
Obviously, the majority of the season is NOT spent specializing and trying to become as good as possible at all four/five strokes. But, a little dedicated time at the end of the season keeps things fun and gives a confidence boost as kids see themselves performing well in what they are naturally best at. Besides, isn’t that what all us adults do? Don’t we choose career paths we are naturally gifted at? After building a good base, let the kids have their moment too.
Tangent: The swimmer does not choose the event, the event chooses the swimmer.
Age group taper is more of a mental game than a physical need. Kids this small and young recover so fast their bodies are essentially “tapered” all the time. This is why kids this age go best times almost every single meet. Therefore, taper for this group is mostly a tapering of the mind. Here are a few ways you can get kids’ minds ready for race day: