Take It Easy

I have spent far too much time discussing swimming politics. That can be a serious problem. I remember the great Nottingham Forest football manager, Brian Clough, being interviewed on the BBC. For half an hour he was asked about the qualifications of the England manager, the transfer fees being paid to the League’s best players and the attendance numbers at football matches. Finally Clough, who had clearly had enough, said, “We’ve been talking for half an hour and haven’t passed a football yet.”

Swimwatch may have fallen into the same trap; a mountain of talk about administration, hidden reports and wasted money and nothing about how best to swim a few lengths of a swimming pool. The best coaches I have known, Jelley, Lydiard, Laing and Schubert, would never make that mistake. Sure, they took an interest in the politics of sport but how to run or swim fast was or is always their principal concern.

And so let’s “pass a swimming football”. Many times I have called these four coaches to discuss a training problem. Many times when Jane had a training problem I would give Lydiard a call. When Toni was preparing for the World Championships I spoke to Laing every week. When I was in Saudi Arabia I called Schubert several times to ask his opinion on the training of a good 400 IM swimmer. A week ago I called Jelley for advice on Eyad’s preparation for the Auckland Short Course Championships. His advice clearly worked. Eyad won the Auckland 50 freestyle title in a personal best time.

But what I want to talk about is an interesting feature common to all four of these master coaches. It has been consistent over many years and is equally characteristic of all four.

Always, that means without exception, for over forty years, when I had a training problem or when I asked Jelley, Lydiard, Laing or Schubert for training advice they quietly ordered the same prescription.

In their own way they would say, “David, back off, take it easy.”

I have to confess many of my calls were made in the expectation of hearing how to make the team swim harder. Harder is better, right? Evidently not. Not if you believe these four world class coaches. A week ago, when I spoke to Jelley about Eyad’s training, I was concerned that Eyad was not sharpening up as quickly as we wanted. I explained the problem to Jelley who said he thought Eyad might need a rest.

“Wow,” I thought, “Here was I thinking about a few more sprint sessions and instead I’m being told to rest.”

However Jelley knew what he was talking about so I said Eyad would have that afternoon’s training off. “No,” said Jelley, “give him the rest of the week off.”

That blew my mind. But Jelley’s advice has always worked before. Eyad had the three days’ rest. And, as I have said, a week later he is the Auckland SC 50 freestyle champion. Thank you Arch Jelley.

But, isn’t it true? So much of coaching is made up of stories about how tough we are. According to the stories Lydiard was forever running around the Waitakere Ranges. Schubert was the master of 20x400IMs on some ridiculous interval. Even my coaching has been characterised as an endless procession of 100x100s on 1.25 or 10k straight swim time trials. I have no idea what Swimming New Zealand training camps are like today but several years ago they were journeys into a world where national coaches sought to prove how tough they were. I remember Toni Jeffs walking out of a Swimming New Zealand training camp when the national coach demanded she did a 400 butterfly warm up. Looking back on it, I think she was right.

So many coaches seem to forget that athletes get stronger during the recovery between training sessions. Anyone can kill an athlete. Not everyone can coach a champion.

When Alison first started running she went from being a university student with a packet of Benson & Hedges close at hand to ten weeks of 100 miles a week in just 7 weeks – one week of 40 miles, then 50, then 60 and so on up to 100 and then 10 weeks of 100. After that, no wonder she raced slowly. When Jelley added his coaching input it was to back-off from my harder-is-better policy. A few years later Alison was a NZ record holder and UK national champion. Thank you again Arch Jelley.

Lydiard enjoyed hearing about when I was 15 years old and was given his book, “Run to the Top” as a Christmas present. I thought this is easy, run 100 miles a week for ten weeks and the Olympic Games is mine. I’d never done any running before but set off and jogged through 14 miles. I did the same thing for 6 more days and then a longer run on Sunday – 100 miles on week one. I could barely walk at the end of it but that wasn’t the point. Being tough is what mattered.

Years later I also showed Lydiard my hand-written notes in “Run to the Top” where I had altered Lydiard’s schedules to make them longer, faster, tougher by far. He laughed.  I’m not so ridiculous these days. Thanks to the consistent patience of the four coaches, who have offered me their time and advice, I have learned the advantage of, “take it easy”.

And just as important it’s been good to kick a swimming football around for a change.

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