By Alan Dickson
As soon as a swimmer gets out the pool there are usually two things they want to ask me: “Did I get a PB?” Or “did I beat so-and-so?”
It’s not surprising.
As young athletes they’re constantly wondering how they’re measuring up against lots of things – the clock, their peers, our expectations of them as parents and, of course, their expectations of themselves.
But comparing yourself like this can be counterproductive, and I want to use this article to suggest a better way for our swimmers - and us as parents - to approach the sport.
Let’s start with the clock. It is, of course, the ultimate test in swimming, and it’s something I’ve written about before - here - but it can be destructive because it leads to a ‘faster at all and any cost’ mentality.
I often talk to swimmers who believe they have swum poorly because they miss a PB by a few 100ths of a second. What they’re forgetting is that a race is a one-off performance lasting at most a matter of minutes, or even less if it’s a 50m sprint.
As a coach I’m tracing their development over a much longer time frame – usually years.
It may not always be what they want to hear at that moment of disappointment, but it’s my job to drive home the importance of turning up at training, focusing on learning new skills and improving their existing ones.
Writing all of that off on the basis of a one-off performance just doesn’t make sense, and yet I see it all the time.
Comparing yourself to others can be similarly destructive.
Children are individuals and they all progress at different rates both in terms of their physicality and their emotional development.
Some children develop early and may leave their peers behind, but that early development is no guarantee of long term progress. Many outstanding athletes did not shine as a youngster.
Perhaps the best example of this is Adam Peaty.
At the age 14 he was the 88th fastest breaststroker in the English Midlands. I am not sure who is the 88th fastest 14-year-old breaststroker in the West District right now is, but my point is that with focus and attention to detail there is no saying where their journey might end.
All swimmers will all go through ups and downs in terms of improvement - it will never be a linear progression. The focus has to be on learning.
So how do I try to manage that on poolside as a coach?
Before every race I give each swimmer a briefing, almost always beginning with some technical advice focusing on some specific skill I want to see. It may even include a race plan – strong first hundred then build from there – that sort of thing.
What it won’t include is a target time because what I would be saying, in effect, is that if you don’t hit that time you have failed.
We have a chat again after each race – when I inevitably get the “Did I PB?” question – but I always steer the conversation back to the pre-race briefing and give feedback on the execution of those skills.
A recent study in America (of course) asked high school swimmers what they most wanted to hear from parents after a race. Overwhelmingly theses young athletes said they did not want or appreciate coaching advice from their parents – they just wanted to hear “well done – I love watching you race” regardless of the outcome.
That sounds like simple common sense but as a dad to three swimmers I know how difficult it can be to adopt that approach.
So how best can you as parents help your swimmer get where they want to go?
What we need them to understand is that the only targets they should be chasing are new skills and perfection of existing ones.
The only comparison come competition time should be against their pre-race brief - not against the clock - and not against the swimmer next to them.
So if you want to discuss the swim, and your swimmer is happy to do so, ask them about the pre-race briefing and the subsequent feedback.
Do that and you’ll be helping them – and helping me too!