I have just read this:.

“Eventually Swimming NZ staffers will wake up and ask why Wellingtonians, who have a decent long course pool in the region, have no decent long course times and why so many qualifying times for new NAGs swimmers in the region are short course conversions.”

I have no idea of the author’s name, occupation, or location. Possibly, it’s a lady called Mildred from Hokitika on the West Coast of the South Island. I’m told she may swim a 1000m double lap of the Hokitika River every day.

The author goes on to blame declining numbers of young swimmers in Wellington on not enough racing, not enough long course records, not enough competition. Now normally I would not comment on opinions like that. However, Mildred’s call is so dangerous, something just has to be said.

If Swimming New Zealand paid any attention to Mildred’s advice this is what would happen. It is a long and heavily edited quote from my most recent book on swimming, “Shaping Successful Junior Swimmers”.

Most of us would accept that the leading example of a swimmer capable of swimming multiple events is Michael Phelps. In the Beijing Olympic Games, he entered and won eight events.

Eight events in a week is an incredible feat of application, training and commitment. By the time he swam in Beijing Phelps had been swimming at an Olympic level for eight years. He was an internationally hardened competitor. He was also a grown man, aged 23.

But, as it turns out, the Phelps’ Beijing schedule was an easy week compared to the race programme followed by many junior swimmers. For example, in two recent meets, Susan, the swimmer mentioned earlier in this book swam in ten races in two days and six races in one day. Her schedule makes Phelps look positively lazy.   

But in case you are thinking Susan might be an unrepresentative anomaly I looked at the 2017 New Zealand Age Group Championships and the 2017 New Zealand Junior Championships. I noted the number of races entered by every swimmer and made a record of the number of swimmers who entered and swam eight or more events. In other words, swimmers who matched or exceeded Michael Phelps Beijing schedule. The results were stunning and are recorded in the table below.

Each column shows the number of swimmers entered in between eight and sixteen events. 

8 Events Enter 9 Events Enter 10 Events Enter 11 Events Enter 12 Events Enter 13 Events Enter 14 Events Enter 15 Events Enter 16 Events Enter Total Events Enter
  New Zealand 2017 Age Group Championships
55 29 17 2 2 1 0 0 0 106
  New Zealand 2017 Age Group and Junior Championships Combined Total
226 154 111 54 24 4 1 1 0 575

So, what does this table say?

It tells us that at the combined Age Group Championships and the Junior Championships a total of 575 swimmers swam in programmes the same as or harder than Phelps’ Beijing programme. Two swimmers came within one event of doubling Phelp’s Beijing total.

This is a stunning number of young people flogged through an impossible number of events and facing an early exit from the sport. Phelps was a hardened international competitor. The 575 swimmers in this group are all at school: many of them at primary school.

It is ironic that at the same time as Mildred is acclaiming the deeds of swimmers competing in multiple events world tennis authorities have imposed a limit on the number of tournaments players under eighteen years of age can play in a year. Limiting the number of tournaments young tennis players can enter is credited with an 85% drop in premature retirements prior to age 22 and careers lasting 24% longer. Tennis players are 73% more likely to enjoy a 15 year career today compared to 1994.

Mildred actually sees merit in the news that a teenager has been flogged through a dozen races in two days. And as for the clubs that participate; that too is a scandal.

Scientists at the American Aquatic Research Centre agree. In one study they scanned the hand joints of every member of the American Olympic swimming team. Their purpose was to determine what portion of the swimmers had been early developers, on time and late developers. Of the forty athletes tested only two had matured early, five had matured on time and the majority were late developers.

The American scientists concluded that the probable explanation for the stunning failure of swimmers who develop early is the almost impossible burden of handling their early success, followed by the struggle to stay ahead of late developers who were such easy beats a few years earlier. Interpreting it all as a failure on their part the early superstars go off to the local surf patrol or to a water polo team.

Take Ashley Rupapera for example. In 2006/07 she was amazing; at 14 years old she claimed her second New Zealand national age group record with a 100IM time of 1:05.30. In the Junior Championships she entered 13 individual events, swam in 22 races and won four gold medals and two silver medals. That’s ten more races than Phelps in six fewer days. I don’t know what Ashley is doing today. However, sadly, it does not include elite New Zealand swimming.  

Age group championship meets are the scene of too much hurt. At the beginning of the week keen, enthusiastic, happy young people arrive full of anticipation, coached and honed to a competitive edge. Parents dash around the pool checking that their charge’s start list seed times have been properly entered and locating the town’s best source of pasta. Coaches patrol the pre-meet practice with all the intensity of an Olympic warm up.

By the end of the first morning’s heats, you can detect the mood beginning to change. The problem is thirty swimmers enter an event, eight make a final, three get medals and one wins. Potentially there are twenty-nine disappointed swimmers and fifty-eight disappointed parents who can’t wait to get back to the motel for their treble gin and tonic to ease the pain. It is disappointment born out of expectations set far too high.

As each day goes by the mood darkens and deepens. An adult’s most valuable skill is providing comfort to another sobbing teenager. The transformation is stunning. The tremendous high of the first morning slumps during the day; is momentarily revived at the beginning of day two, only to slump even further. By day four all I want to do is get out of the place and make sure no swimmer of mine ever goes back.

Several years ago there was a good article on the USA Junior Nationals in the magazine “Splash”. In it USA Swimming seems to be aware that their event needed to avoid the problems promoted by Mildred. This is what they said:

“Along the way, however, many coaches and others within USA Swimming saw a disturbing trend. Instead of a whistle stop on the way to senior national and international competition the Junior nationals were embedding themselves as a destination.”

 The Americans have done some good things to avoid damaging the nation’s youth. First, their junior event is not a normal age group meet. There are no separate annual age groups. Everyone up to a relatively old 18 years of age can swim in the event. This avoids youngsters being over exposed at too young an age. Second, the qualifying standards are really tough. They reflect the “older” cut off age. An athlete has to be pretty quick just to make the cut. Third, names included on the meet’s list of alumni suggest their “Juniors” are working as a transition between Sectional and International swimming. “Splash” tells me that Gary Hall, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps all swam here. That’s a pretty impressive list. It appears that winning is not essential either. For example, Phelps never won the event, but he seems to have come through unscathed.

In an earlier chapter we discussed the distances swum by Jane Copland Pavlovich through her career from junior to international competitor. In this chapter we have cautioned against entering swimmers in too many races and have recommended a limit, for senior swimmers, of 50 races in a season, 100 races a year. Junior swimmers should swim fewer races than these senior maximum numbers. The table below shows how many races Jane swam before she left New Zealand to attend Washington State University.

Season Age No. Races Races Per Annum
1 12 16  
2 12 16 32
3 13 26  
4 13 19 45
5 14 19  
6 14 68 87
7 15 55  
8 15 42 97
9 16 46  
10 16 36 82
11 17 45  
12 17 37 82
13 18 36  
14 18 32 68

You can see how we kept the racing load quite light when Jane was young; only 32 races in her first year. Great self-control is needed to keep the number down and avoid early career drop-out. Over seven years Jane averaged 70 races each year. As a comparison I entered Olympic Gold Medalist, Rhi Jeffrey, in an average of 58 races each year. Fifty second 100 meter swimmer, Joe Scuba swam an average of 40 races a year. Remember these three swimmers were world class, adult athletes. Now let’s compare their annual number of races with the race numbers swum by some junior swimmers. 

Emma is an example of a swimmer whose racing program illustrates the point. In her early career I entered Emma in about 30 races a year. She then left to swim in a Mildred program. The number of races immediately more than doubled to 70 and then doubled again to 137. For Emma’s swimming career it was to prove lethal. I imagine her parents could not understand why Emma’s career began to struggle. Three years later she gave the whole thing away.

Phase Year Age Time Time Discussion No. Races
Balanced Aerobic 2006 10 1:33 A period of aerobic training and steady but not spectacular improvement. Emma improved by an average of 7% per annum in the 100 and 4% in the 200. 10
2007 11 1:16 2.45 25
2008 12 1:11 2.35 27
2009 13 1:06 2.23 25
Exploitation 2010 14 1:03 2.14 Emma changed clubs and quickly dropped by about 5% per annum. 70
2011 15 1.01 2.10 137
Struggle and Drop-out 2012 16 1:02 2.12 For three years Emma struggled to improve. At the end of 2014 she dropped out 87
2013 17 1:00 2.10 70
2014 18 1:00 2.09 67

In the case of Emma, her training was reflected in her competition program. Competition hurts. When a person gets hurt often enough, they eventually go off to do something else. The rule of thumb for a senior swimmer is a maximum of 100 races a year and for junior swimmers a lot less. Stick to that rule. Your swimmer’s future probably depends on it.

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