An essential part of being a swim coach is writing great workouts (obviously). But before we get into the meat of the process, let’s go back and remind ourselves of what is really important. Building a team with great culture and kids with great character is going to matter more in the long run than one single good workout. Don’t get bogged down with the details of sets and times and data crunching. These can easily take up hours a week, but the return on investment will be worth nothing if we don’t take care of the long term first.
In fact, if you master everything else before this point (building a team, managing the team, building character, instructing your assistant coaches and parents), it won’t matter what set is on the whiteboard, the kids will improve from it. That’s because the best workout is the one the kids believe in! Whether it is 10 x 25s or 3 x 1000, if the kids truly believe what they are doing is the best thing for their training that day, then they will put in 100% effort and it is the effort that makes them better.
Our goal in Part 4 is to learn how to write workouts that feed into the process of building mastery, autonomy and purpose while also making fast swimmers. These are the factors that keep kids around long term, and these are the factors that make swimmers better and better every day. The details we will present are not as important as the general guidelines and thinking process. We want to develop a way of thinking about training which translates to a way of writing workouts that can be shared with swimmers to make them believe in what they are doing.
The important thing is to be able to walk on deck with a plan and a good explanation for why you are doing things. Our goal in Part 4 is to give you the starting guidelines to sell each workout to the kids using a strategy they can understand. Once they understand, it won’t matter what’s on the board, they will put 100% effort which is more important than anything. Let’s get started!
What’s the End Goal?
Imagine you wanted to take a couch potato and make them a great 100 freestyler. Assuming you went through Part 3 and technique wasn’t an issue, the fastest way would be to start with 100 free repeats all out. The body will adapt most specifically and most quickly to that goal. But after a while, the improvements start to fade. They plateau. So, what next? Next, we break down the race in terms of endurance and sprint training. Improvement begins again and joy is had. But then they plateau again and you have to break it down further, training multiple sprint and endurance gears as well as training details of the race like the dive, turns, distance per stroke, tempo… and so on.
If we put together a list of swimming skills any 8–18-year-old should learn and master over the course of their swimming career (before moving on to college to super-specialize in a handful of races), we would come up with a list like this:
That is a very long list and probably incomplete! So how can we organize ourselves and structure our workouts to target all these facets of swimming individually? That is what we will tackle in Part 4. In addition, the goals change as the swimmer ages up or improves. That means every training group will have their personalized set of specific items they train for throughout the season. We are going to use our model of training described earlier in Part 2 and pretend we have three age-based groups: Novice Group (8 and unders), Age Group (9-12 ish) and Senior Group (13 and over). For each group, we will follow the same path and in the same order to develop their seasons and workouts:
It is almost impossible to get anywhere if you don’t know where you are going. That’s why we will start each section talking about the group goals each training group is supposed to focus on. Not all groups will focus on all things all the time. We want to separate out and simplify what each group is going to be working on. Doing all this work up front is going to help us write effective and trustworthy workouts for each group.
Next, we will outline how often the group trains and what the overall focus and feel for that level of training is going to be. This will become clearer as we describe it.
For each training group, we have a template that outlines every two weeks. These templates include what stroke we are working on, what speed, what kick… and so on. The reason for the template is to give us a repetitive structure of training so we can continually lead our swimmers step by step to better swimming. Each group has a different template that helps to outline and train the goals we stated for each group. We will use our templates as a sample and you are more than welcome to steal them. But, we encourage you to always work towards developing your own style that is unique to your situation and swimmers.
Setting group goals and using a template help us speed up how fast we can write effective workouts. Writing the workouts are merely the steps you take (individual sets) that take you down a path (templates) on your way to your destination (group goals). You need to work backwards starting at the destination in order to make your (and your swimmers’) lives easier.
Our templates cover about two weeks at a time and as we plan each week’s workouts, there is a theme for the whole week (especially for older kids). Distance per stroke (DPS), tempo, turns, underwaters, race strategy… whatever you want to focus on that week. Generally speaking, this should be a weakness the group has that you want to work on and turn into a strength. You will find the biggest group weaknesses at swim meets. That’s why we need to pay attention and take mental notes during a meet on what we all need to work on.
Tangent: Train your weakness, race your strength!
We like to write our workouts in advance one whole week at a time. We don’t like showing up with nothing and making it up on the spot. Kids see that and even if you are good at maintaining overarching goals throughout the season, you won’t sell it to the kids. After the week’s workouts are written, it is important to mentally walk through every day of the week and try to feel day-to-day what your swimmers might feel. This gives you a good sense of overdoing a certain training tool, race, muscle group...etc. Adjust and adjust until you are happy with the week (at least how it’s set up!) We will go through some sample workouts to show how this is done.
Lastly, we will touch on what taper and seasonal changes look like for each group. These concepts get more complex as the swimmers age up in years and improve their ability. We want to set up milestones throughout the season so that you, the coach, can remind the swimmers what they are trying to achieve. Having a mid-season and end of season goal helps create those milestones. While weekly themes are geared towards focusing the group on fixing a problem (process goal), mid/end of season goals are specific sets or times you want the group to achieve (results goal). A way to do this is to create a challenge set the kids know about from the start of the season and work towards. 10x100s on the 1:30, a 3000 yard butterfly set, 20x50s on the 1:00 holding under 30s… whatever you like.
Tangent: Record boards are kind of like generational goals. The older generation sets the mark and the younger generation beats it.
At the very end, we will take a look at dryland training as well. Now that the introductions are over, let’s make some fast swimmers!
Remember our 8-year-old who wanted to join the swim team all the way back on page one? Let’s get back to him and his friends who are just joining our Novice Group. As we said before, this group is defined by age, not ability and generally we have 8 and unders in this group. Ideally, these kids have had some exposure to swimming and can at least get across the pool without stopping… or drowning. Anything less complicated like blowing bubbles, putting your head in the water and survival skills is not going to be taught in this group. Here, the kids are comfortable in the water and we want to make them comfortable swimming all four strokes and get them ready to race.
With this group, we are very limited on training time and attention time. The minute kids get on deck, the clock is ticking until you lose their attention. Trying to teach them anything after that point is going to go out the window. That’s why this group’s goals are very short and sweet:
Novice Group is basically a glorified swim lesson every practice. We want to teach the strokes every time, as well as work on lots of kicking. Most important is what NOT to train: Diving from the blocks, turns, sprint/endurance training, race strategy, IM and warmup. These are unnecessary at this time and will just eat up your time without a return on investment. For example if you only have a 45min practice and spend 15min on warmup, we are throwing away 33% of our teaching time.
Specifically, we recommend not working on dives from a block and not working on turns. Kids this age have enough trouble wrapping their arms around their oversized heads to get into a good streamline. We would rather they skip the flip turn and push off the wall in a good streamline to do a few dolphin kicks rather than try to master a complicated motion their bodies and nerves are not developed enough to master quickly. Sure, if you spent a couple hours a week working on turns and dives, they could probably get it. Or you can wait until they are older (in Age Group) where they can learn these skills more quickly and efficiently (and more safely for dives).
Tangent: If you really think higher level skills like turns should be taught, try to reserve it for one-on-one lessons and reserve it for kids who have mastered the remaining skills in Novice. If you are in the water and helping them perform all the motions, you might have a chance.
When it comes to writing workouts for this group, it also helps to have more guidelines to rely on:
This group only practices the drills we spoke of in Part 3 over and over and over again. There are no real goals other than to master the strokes. Every set should be geared towards teaching a stroke and you need to take your time to explain the drills, their purpose, demonstrate, re-explain and practice on land before getting in the water. TAKE YOUR TIME! Don’t chase yards, don’t chase times, don’t chase sets. This is all worthless. If these kids left the pool deck and didn’t swim for three years they would come back faster than when they left because they are continually growing and maturing. Our focus is to create a stroke that is pretty to watch and gives the kids every opportunity to maximize their potential when they are 18, not 8.
There is no need to map out times, yards or intervals. Just focus on the drills you want to practice that day. You could even repeat the same workout over and over. The kids won’t notice and their bodies and subconscious will benefit from practicing the same thing over and over. For instance, the first month of the season you can solely perform streamline kicking and 6nRoll for freestyle in order to master head and arm position. The next month you can solely focus on triangle drill and catch up to focus on high elbow recovery and holding long strokes.
When it comes to getting these kids to have fun and swim fast, giving a goal time to hit is not as effective as giving them someone to race against or with. That means a lot of partnered side by side races and a lot of relays. The kids eat these kinds of sets up and love it! To make it doubly effective, you can have the kids race the drills you want them to master. This forces them to think a bit during their sprint and to carry over their perfected slow swimming into their racing swimming.
Now that we know why we are teaching Novice Group the way we want to, we can talk about the how. Here is our template of workouts:
Using a template to schedule your workouts for one, two or three weeks at a time may be new to many so let’s take a minute to talk through it. These templates are not based on days of the week like Monday, Tuesday… Instead we just call them Day 1 and Day 2...etc. That’s because schedules continually change and if your Wednesday is always being cancelled for some odd reason, you will never do the sets scheduled for Wednesday. This is why our template cycle is just numbered by days.
The template may seem confusing, but there is a pattern! The main goal for our Novice Template is to train everything on a regular basis and make sure we don’t miss anything. If you notice, every three day period includes all four strokes, free kicking and dolphin kicking. The only difference in each three day period is the order. We also want to give roughly equal time between all four strokes. We don’t want to be too freestyle heavy and we want to give dolphin kicking its dedicated time too.
For each day there are two main sets which are designated by the color-coded boxes in the template. This will be true with Novice, Age Group and Senior templates. We don’t want to do eight mini-sets a day. We want to limit the number of sets we do and focus on just a couple of things per day. For instance, on Day 1, we are going to do a Freestyle set and a Kicking set. Each will be about 15-20 minutes long and give us plenty of time to have the kids hop out of the water for explanations and demonstrations. On Day 2 we do one backstroke set and one dolphin kicking set.
Here are a couple of examples of what Novice sets look like:
Before starting the set, the kids should be out of the water and around the whiteboard. Explain each line of the set and what the focus of each drill is. Again, there are no intervals here. Kids will just leave on your go and when you are satisfied they know what they are doing. If you get four 25s into the triangle drill and it just looks like regular freestyle, stop the kids, explain again and restart that line to make sure things are done right. Don’t be a passive coach as the set is happening. Be involved and continually give feedback to individuals at the end of each 25 as the kids swim in.
The goal of the set is to go through our freestyle drills, carrying over the lessons of each drill into the next and finally building into a sprint catch up freestyle the kids use to race each other. As the set goes on, continually remind the kids what each drill is meant for: 6nRoll is arm position, triangle drill is high elbows and catch up is long strokes.
Even though this is a kicking set, we don’t want to waste the opportunity to teach, especially freestyle since that will be what kids swim most of their career yards in. Instead of just grabbing a board, we have the kids start with holding their triangles for a whole hundred and only switching arms at each 25. This is a very difficult drill to perform, so we add fins to help kids focus on using their legs to do the drill properly. Then we go into a couple 25s of overkick freestyle. This is where the arms are in slow motion and the legs are sprint kicking. The goal is to feed good high elbow swimming (aka good alignment swimming) with a kick driven freestyle (overkicking).
If every set you write has this kind of focus and teaching behind it, those 8-year-olds will be swimming laps around the pool in no time. And if you like a set and believe it is effective, do it again… and again! Don’t feel the need to be creative with Novice swimmers. When you practice your ABCs, you don’t practice cursive one day and print the next. You master one style then move onto the next. Same with learning a song on the piano. You don’t learn your favorite song by playing other songs. You have to have some repetition, especially in this age group.
Here is what a filled in template looks like with sample workouts:
Following our outline set forth earlier, it’s time to talk about seasonal changes for the Novice Group and their taper.
Yep, nothing changes. Their entire season looks the exact same from start to end. Maybe at the end, you practice relay starts and do a bit more sprinting. In reality these kids benefit most from just working to master the basics and it will take months and years to do so.