The world is not fair!
Nowhere is this more apparent than in age group swimming. Human beings follow a predictable pattern of physical growth but the rate at which children and youths go through this growth varies from individual to individual.
During the childhood phase of physical development, children grow on average 6.5 cms per year and gain approximately 2.5kgs per year. The fast growth spurts occur during puberty/adolescence. As a consequence swimmers of the same chronological age can vary by as much as 5 biological years, especially during adolescence. Therefore, with two 11 year old swimmers, one may be 10 and the other 15, biologically. The world is not fair! In age group rugby, this problem is overcome by youngsters playing against others of similar weight, not age.
With this biological difference in mind, it is obvious that performance will be influenced by maturity. This is completely out of the swimmer’s control. Some young swimmers, therefore, have a distinct performance advantage over others! Initially, early maturers have a physical size advantage and often appear to perform better than the late developer. These swimmers experience more early success because of this physical growth advantage and not necessarily through better skills or ability. On the other hand, late maturers often experience a certain failure and frustration because they are physically ‘behind’ (chronologically) their team mates. These swimmers should not despair.
Parents play a vital role in supporting their youngsters through these difficult times. Late developers often catch up or even exceed the performance of early maturers by the mid-teen years, but only if they have stayed in the sport. Unfortunately, some drop out because of a lack of success. An experiment undertaken in the USA tracked a number of swimmers over a long period of time and concluded that only 25% of those youngsters who achieved early success in the pool were still outstanding in later years. This suggests that early success in the water does not predict later success. Paul Palmer (a Pentaqua member), who swam with me for 15 years and won medals at Olympic, World and European Championships, did not win his first National Age Group title until he was 15 years of age! Adam Peaty, who has trained here with many of you, did not even start swimming competitively until age 14, and now at age 19, is a world record holder.
It is up to parents to encourage and support their children if they fall into either of these two categories. Early maturers have to keep success in perspective as late maturers may well catch them up in terms of performance, and success will be harder to achieve. On the other hand, late maturers must be encouraged to stay involved in the sport and not become disillusioned because of low self confidence due to the lack of early success.
There are massive differences in the physical growth rates and body shapes of females and males. Girls reach ‘peak height velocity’ (growth spurt) between the ages of 11-13, with boys between the ages of 13-15. Hormonal differences in males and females cause body composition changes in adolescence. These changes are out of the swimmer’s control but will impact on performance. I have found that females have greater recovery powers than males and are more aerobic. Some of this is due to the fact that in many cases males are approximately 10% stronger and heavier than females.
With all this stacked against the young swimmer how can they maximise their performance and get better? Here are a few ideas that may well help.
1. SWIM FAST & HAVE FUN Swimming is perhaps the most demanding sport that you could have chosen. Not only is your face submerged in water for long periods (sensory deprivation) but there are few opportunities to talk to your team mates. There are a number of occasions that you feel tired due to a combination of early mornings and the volume you are asked to swim. Yet you still keep coming! Why? I think it is to swim fast and have fun. These two reasons are intertwined. You will not swim fast unless you enjoy the sport. I don’t think you will have much fun unless you can get some success. Remember, success can be measured in different ways. You will make friendships that will last forever and you will develop values that will stay with you long after you have ‘hung up your togs to dry’ for the last time. You will learn to order your life as there isn’t much of the day left outside of studying, eating, swimming and sleeping. You will soon realise that you are different from your class mates. You will have more confidence in your own ability and believe it or not, you will do well academically. You will become part of a very small group of British swimmers that can swim fast. This makes you special!
2. KEEP A POSITIVE ATTITUDE. This is not always easy at 6.00am but these are natural feelings that you have to accept and move on. Throughout the world there are thousands of swimmers doing just the same as you! They share the same ideals and goals as you. They too are waking at the crack of dawn to attend training sessions. I have a saying that sums up the situation, ‘Is my greatest rival training this morning’? Of course they are! Are they training harder and smarter? If you don’t attend the session you are disadvantaged. Many Pentaqua swimmers never do morning workouts. You will struggle to make an impact and almost certainly not fulfil your potential.
3. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH POSITIVE THINKERS This is clearly connected to point 2. Never mix with swimmers who are always moaning. This will eventually rub off. Remember, if you mix with negative people, it is very difficult to break the mould and detach yourself. Befriend positive and like-minded swimmers that have the same drive and determination as you. Try picking a role model out that you would like to style yourself on.
4. BE A LEADER! Not a follower. Have the confidence to lead the lane. The person at the front of the training lane does it harder than anyone else. Others can draft off the swimmers in front and training becomes easier. Take your turn to lead. There are times that the coach likes you to go 10/15 seconds apart. This makes it harder for the whole lane. In the early stages of your swimming career you will not know whether you are a leader or a follower but remember, to be a great athlete means developing leadership tendencies. Try and lead through example. Always have the correct kit, listen to the coach, don’t talk when they are talking to the group, be positive in your approach, tell the coach when you cannot make training and help your team-mates when they are going through a difficult spell. One of the most difficult things for me as a coach to comprehend, is the swimmer that intentionally arrives late for training. They spend longer in the changing rooms and some even just wet their towel and costume and kid their parents that they have been at a session. My advice to you, if this is you would be to start playing cricket as swimming is too tough for you!
5. COMMUNICATE with your parents, coach and team-mates about what your thoughts are and how training is going. You do not have to train in isolation. Certainly swimming is an individual sport but the ‘team’ plays a bigger role than we realise. It acts as a support network for you when things are not going well but at the same time you have to support your team-mates when they are going through difficult times.
6. BE CONSISTENT IN YOUR EMOTIONS. Don’t get too carried away when you have a great swim and don’t be too upset if things go wrong. I learnt a long time ago that if I was to survive in coaching then it was no good getting too excited at a particular result. Something usually comes along two minutes later to ‘screw things up’. Keep yourself on an even keel as it is far less emotionally draining. There are always good days and bad days in swimming. Put the bad days down to another day at the office. Dealing with the ups and downs will not only make you a better swimmer but also a better person.
7. WORK ON THE TECHNICAL side of swimming. The best swimmers are always working on their stroke technique. Find out what is meant by stroke length, distance per stroke, core strength, break out and streamlining. These are the vital ingredients required to be a good swimmer. There is no substitute for working on your technique. It can be argued that no one has the perfect stroke. Everyone has flaws. However, great swimmers work hard on minimising the number of these flaws. Great swimmers are usually the ones with the fewest stroke errors – and always the best kick!
8. CONSISTENCY IN YOUR APPROACH. Swimming is a demanding sport. It is a sport that demands consistency in all its parts, in the water with technique/volumes, in the gym, in the number of times you attend training throughout the year, in bringing the correct kit and in racing. Remember we ‘train to race’. The only reason swimmers get out of bed so early every morning is to be able to swim fast at the next meet. Many swimmers simply ‘train to train’ as the racing aspect of the sport frightens them.
Ian Thorpe, when asked to sum up his career in two words answered, ‘consistency and passion’.
Good luck in your swimming career and remember that everyone has dark days!