Archive for January, 2009

Swimming New Zealand, Email Spam and More Useless Exercise Idiocy

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

By David

Small things fascinate small minds. If that’s so, the next seven hundred words are going to confirm the author’s pea brain. But I don’t care. I don’t care at all. Why? Because there are a few things in life that just piss me off.

Take Swimming New Zealand’s new habit of sending out mass emails. Their headings are always a rather breathless – Bell swims to Gold in Junior Pan Pacs Opener – and, if true, must make Swimming New Zealand the world’s most exciting and tiring location. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the emails. They keep an expat like me up-to-date with the goings-on down there. I certainly don’t want to be taken off their distribution list. But the law’s the law.

Since June 2003, the Can-Spam Act requires all commercial mass emails offer a facility to opt-out of a mailing by a single action, which usually entains clicking an unsubscribe link. This act is usually enforced outside of the United States by local agencies, such as in this case, which involved a spam operation based in New Zealand and Australia. Swimming New Zealand doesn’t comply with these anti-spam measures. There is no link, nor any instruction, about how to remove oneself from the mailing list. An organization that spent years disqualifying my swimmers for the most minor infringements should make sure their own house is in order.

The Swimming New Zealand author of the emails is Lisa Conroy, the Performance and Pathways Support Manager. What a title that is. SPARC was always going to make sure its member associations produced names like that.

But onto actually swimming related topics: Our pool in Florida has just hosted several college teams for their winter training camp. This year I noticed a huge increase in the range of equipment carried to the pool by each swimmer. Those infamous team vans will soon need to charge extra for overweight gear bags. The value of some of the stuff is a bit suspect.

Those snorkels for example; I’ve heard they are supposed to train swimmers to keep their heads still. And yet the snorkels used in the past two weeks at our pool were moving around all over the place. Every honest swimmer I’ve met acknowledges that the main benefit of a snorkel is avoiding the need to turn their head to breathe. In other words, it allows swimmers to cruise up and down without a care in the world, which is fine, but let’s not pretend otherwise.

As long as breathing remains an important part of swimming in the Olympic final, I think I’ll keep my swimmers honing that skill and avoid snorkels. Like a lot of this sort of stuff, I suspect the main advantage of snorkels is convincing parents and swimmers that the coach is on top of the latest in swimming technology. Fortunately, the ASCA gives out their coaching qualifications based on how fast your swimmers swim, not by the size of their gear bag.

Then there are those small fins; the ones called Zoomers. They are swimming’s ultimate marketing dream. I’ve never understood their benefit; perhaps there isn’t any. If you want to kick with fins buy a decent sized pair of fins. If you want your kick to feel like no fins at all, wear nothing. There is no point in buying something that’s neither one nor the other. I know a number of triathletes who swim large portions of their training with Zoomers. Another name for that is cheating. Leave Zoomers on the store shelf. You’ll be doing your swimming and wallet a whole lot of good.

Pull buoys must be swimming’s biggest equipment con. Why on earth would anyone buy a piece of equipment that does something for you that you should be doing for yourself? Keeping your hips high is important to good swimming speed. Relying on a block of polystyrene to do it for you is called being lazy. “But,” I hear some say, “what say you don’t want to kick?” Then tie your ankles together and don’t kick but don’t indulge in a swimming nap by using pull buoy.

Hand paddles, proper size fins, a kick board and a swimming bungee cord; that’s about all the equipment you need. Much more than that and (to quote Jane’s last Swimwatch post), “you’re not an athlete, you’re just a douchebag.” You are relying on the cost of your gear bag for status. Let me remind athletes and sports participants of all levels that the amount you spend on your equipment is not equal to how good you are at using it.

Just remember this; many Kenyan and Moroccan runners don’t even own a pair of shoes. Sure as hell, they can beat the pants off most of our runners. Want to know their secret formula? Let me bring you in on the secret. They do a whole lot of running. That principle works best in swimming too.

I Quit: An Updated Guide To Swimming Retirement

Monday, January 12th, 2009

By Jane

I pride myself on quitting both when I’m ahead and at the right time, and I quit swimming on March 18, 2006. I’ve written one post already about how I stayed fit post-swimming (and I’m down to size 1 and 2 jeans now, thanks for asking), but two years after I began running and almost three years after I last set foot on a starting block, I have a new outlook on maintaining a functional life, post-elite athletics.

Hello, random reader. You think this is overly dramatic and out of touch. “Maintaining a functional life, post-elite athletics?” How hard is it? You quit and you move on. Show up at the YMCA every Sunday and knock out a few 100s and pretend you’re still being given new Fastskins. (LZRs. Sorry. I am showing my age.) Hello, former competitive swimmer. You guys know what I mean.

The last day of my swimming career in Athens, Georgia

Random readers: don’t judge us for this. This sport consumed many of us for over a decade. We’d work studiously at it for three hours every morning and two hours every night. Once we left it, we had things to overcome. Swimming gave me some of the best moments of my life (but my no means all of them). The elation of my two best swims ever (December 2, 2001 and November 20, 2005) are only diminished by the fact that only one of them was caught on film. I didn’t have to look up those dates, either. Very little compares to swimming as fast as you can and feeling like you can swim ever faster.

Getting used to a life without that is tricky, and I was lucky in that I found something else I loved to do. However, I still have to remind myself of some things relatively often. I suggest you do the same:

  1. My former competitors no longer matter. To me.

    People I used to compete against have swum faster than I ever did in the two and a half years I’ve not been swimming. The longer I spend away from the sport, the more I understand that this doesn’t matter to me. Not only that, but the faster they swim, the more I recognise that their success means nothing to what I achieved. I can now be pleased for them. They went through as much pain and misery and hope and shit as I did.

  2. I’ll never shake my swimmer’s roots.

    Most people who run like to mix up their circuits. They like to take alternative roads. Running the same routes every day bores them. Whilst I can’t speak for all swimmers, this isn’t true for me. I run the same route every day. I know exactly where I am and, better still, I know how good or bad I’m feeling by how I feel at any given part of my run. I enjoy the consistency I learned by staring at the bottom of a swimming pool.

    Swimming teaches you an appreciation for the routines that other people call boredom. I think of them as the time I get to spend with myself, where I know exactly what should happen and where there are no surprises. This, undoubtedly, contributes to my unparalleled road rage when a cyclist runs a red light at one of my intersections. If you’re a cyclist, RED LIGHTS APPLY TO YOU, TOO. I enjoy pointing this out to you when you forget it.

  3. There is no point in resenting That Coach who committed That Crime.

    This said, I’m going to tell a story about a coach’s crime that pissed me off. It still does. I’m aware that there is no point in resenting it, and I’m trying not to. I’m not doing well.

    I swam badly at training camp, and at subsequent competitions, in the winter of 2005. Of course, by “badly”, I mean that I swam 14 seconds slower than my best time in the 200 breaststroke, and ended up in tears at the end of the UC Irvine Invitational. We’d driven from training camp in San Diego that morning. It was Fuck I’m Cold degrees Fahrenheit and I’ll never listen to Jesus of Suburbia without being in that van, content in the fact that at least we would be leaving Southern California that afternoon. My whole body had seized up and I could barely walk, let alone swim. I’d never been thinner, angrier, colder or more tired. My overriding memory of the week before my twenty-first birthday was of being freezing cold. The only thing I could do reasonably well was long aerobic work, such as 6 x 800m sets. I ate those up. Anything shorter and faster was beyond me.

    This does not look like Hell. It was.

    Later that year, I took a (previously approved) week away from my college town in between finishing my final exams and beginning a session of summer school. Upon returning, my coach was not pleased with me. The main problem, apparently, was that during the eight days I’d not been in town, the coaching staff had “had no idea where I was, nor if I was training.” Seriously: where the hell did they think I was? There were three options: at my boyfriend’s house (an hour away), in the Virgin Islands with my parents or in New Zealand. No bloody prizes for guessing that one correctly.

    Not only that, but when we began discussing specifics of my week’s absense, my poor performance at training camp that January was put down to my “not training over the Christmas break.” When I had. A lot. A lot. This hurt me badly. During my time as a swimmer, I’d be similarly accused of faking injuries to avoid certain parts of workouts. It killed me. All you can do when faced with accusations like that is violently object, which only makes you sound guiltier. It simply wasn’t true.

    But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Some coach’s idea as to how hard of a worker I was doesn’t reflect on how honest or hard working I actually was. I am still figuring this out for myself, but it’s really important to let go of those perceived coaching injustices. When I finally do (I did work out! I did I did I did I did!) I’ll be proud of myself.

  4. No, really. We do have to work out.

    As previously mentioned, I took up running to keep fit. You must exercise after you stop swimming. Every swimmer I’ve ever known who has thought they’ll effortlessly keep their physique post-athletics has put on a lot of weight. Not only that, but they get thick. They don’t lose their muscle mass, but fat piles up on top of it. It’s probably a worse look that regular fat. The worst examples turn into human brick walls. Avoiding this is pretty easy, pending genetics: stop eating as much and start doing something that burns calories on a regular basis. That LZR-ready body won’t last long if you don’t.

  5. We should ignore the self-appointed experts.

    For the rest of my life, I’ll come across people who think they know more about sport than I do. This is primarily because I don’t exude sportiness. I find breakfast cereal to be a luxury worth giving up, but pricey vodka and Bumble and Bumble shampoo unavoidable necessities. Nope, that isn’t an affiliate link: I just like their stuff a lot. But if you’re interested, Bumble, I’m here.

    However, this makes people think that I don’t know anything about sport. Someone who hasn’t worn a flat-heeled shoe while they’re not running since 2005 doesn’t get much respect from the Lyrca-clad, triathlon brigade. They’ll tell me about their training. They’ll tell me about their doctors and their injuries. They’ll tell other people about their races and I’ll overhear them. They’re forever running to an appointment of some sort so that they can be better athletes. They know a lot about diets.

    Hi! When your gym and trainer are in a building that looks like this, you’re not an athlete, you’re just a douchebag!

    The night before I broke my New Zealand record, I ate my Mum’s pasta bake (asparagus and bacon… Jesus, it’s heaven. And I don’t even like bacon) and a gi-fucking-normous bowl of strawberry icecream and chocolate sauce. I may have also gotten drunk. It’s highly likely. However, I swam faster than any Kiwi female ever had for 200m breaststroke and that record stood for three years. Kelly Bentley, you broke my heart when you swam 2:29 but I’ve got a lot of respect for ya ;)

    You don’t need to be a qualified dietician or employ a personal trainer at a Seattle health club to be a good athlete, but you don’t have to listen to the people who do believe that this is necessary. Smile nicely. Go for a run while they visit their orthopedic surgeon. Buy them a chai tea.

  6. The things we liked while we competed will change.

    I always liked morning training while I swam, but I hated getting up in the morning. Make sense? No? I always swam well in the mornings, but the act of getting out of bed at 5am was torturous. Now, I like getting up that early and I imagine the primary reason is that I don’t have to. I like a lot of things now that I didn’t like when I was an athlete, and dislike a few things I used to enjoy as well. When I no longer had those immense stresses in my life, my perspective and demeanour changed. Retired swimmers should be aware that they’ll change mentally as well as physically.

I don’t write very often for Swimwatch, the main reason being that I don’t compete or train anymore. However, I believe that dealing with being “retired” (is it obvious that I hate that word? I find it pompous) is nearly as important as coping with being an active participant.

My ninety-percent-positive experience with sport was only heightened by my philosophy on quitting: don’t get fat, resent nothing (working on that) and get out while you’re still winning.

Uneasy Lies The Coaching Head

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

By David

Every now and then, coaches in every sport come in for criticism. I imagine the coach of the Dallas Cowboys is finding life a bit uncomfortable this week. Swimming is no exception. In my time as a coach I have noticed that those who are unhappy with my coaching tend to use a standard list of complaints. The list is the same the world over and is often used without regard for merit or fact. Here is a list of the most common swimming complaints every swim coach experiences at one time or another – and on some memorable occasions, all at the same time.

  1. The Coach spends all his time with the team’s senior swimmers
  2. The Coach’s methods are old hat and out of date
  3. The Coach is disrespectful to female swimmers
  4. The Coach yells too much

The balance of this article will consider each of these issues and present the philosophy I have followed in relation to the complaints.

THE COACH’S METHODS ARE OLD HAT AND OUT OF DATE – The formula for Coke is old. I doubt that means it should be changed. The race preparation I use is based on two Lydiard principles that are different from the training used in many other swim teams.

  1. Each stage of training is kept separate – what this means is that separate periods of time are set aside for aerobic training, anaerobic training and speed training. Most other plans differ in the lengths of time they allocate to developing each quality and the majority of coaches use shorter and repeated phases called micro-cycles, whereas Lydiard developed each quality separately over an extended period. Micro-cycle coaches divide their programs differently, with many including elements of build-up, anaerobic and speed training in their daily schedules.

    Micro-cycle supporters claim their programs are better; that by exercising a specific quality frequently and then leaving it alone for an equally short period before coming back to it, the quality will be better developed. At best, the argument is simplistic; at worst, it is wrong. It fails to recognise that the different physiological characteristics the swimmer is trying to develop progress at diverse speeds. For example aerobic conditioning develops differently and at a different pace to anaerobic fitness or speed. Lydiard’s single-cycle approach recognizes this and exercises each phase fully for a specific period of time before moving on to the next phase.

    Our schedule of 10, 4 and 10 weeks for the three main phases has not been arrived at by chance. Each recognizes proven physiological characteristics of the quality being developed. Working for lesser times will not develop that quality to the same extent and will not produce the same improvement.

  2. The program is based on Distance Conditioning – Since the Beijing Olympic Games it has been revealed that much of Phelps’ and Lochte’s preparation was spent swimming between 90 and 100 kilometers per week. To be included with this “out of date” group is something we can live with. Far from being “old hat” the trend world wide is towards swimming greater distances. While that idea may not have caught on yet in all local swim groups it certainly is true of the swimmers responsible for over 100 world records broken during 2008.

    In 2008 the Aqua Crest Board approved and assisted the team’s coach (me) travel to Europe twice, China once and the US National Championships twice. One of the prime objectives of these trips was to search out and determine new methods of swimming and training being used around the world. In the case of our loyalty to a Lydiard program the suggestion of “old hat” is without substance – “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

THE COACH SPENDS ALL HIS TIME WITH THE TEAM’S SENIOR SWIMMERS – This is a favourite barb of the disgruntled. That should not surprise anyone. It is one of the few things the dissatisfied can say that will always be true. Did Phelps’ coach spend more time coaching Phelps prior to Beijing than he spent coaching the Baltimore Chocolate Fish squad? Yes, of course he did. Does that mean Bob Bowman is a bad coach, guilty of neglecting his young swimmers? No of course it doesn’t.

It means Bowman and other successful senior coaches recognise the commitment required to win open events in the World and the United States. It means Bowman and other successful senior coaches respond to the commitment of their senior swimmers with an equal commitment of their own. That is only fair. Those who swim for thirty hours each week and lift weights for another three deserve no less.

It is difficult to understand what the critics want. Do they want the team’s senior swimmers coached less? Do they want senior swimmers to lose? Do they think senior swimmers don’t need as much training – because they are good, senior swimmers don’t need to practice as much? Possibly they think the juniors should practice more. If the Head Coach is spending too much time coaching senior swimmers, he must be spending not enough time on the juniors.

The critics are full of contradictions. They say seniors get too much attention but are quite happy to bask in the reflected glory of their successes. They want to see more attention paid to the juniors but are first in line to jump all over any coach who pushes the team’s juniors. They complain about the time spent coaching the team’s seniors but are quick to point to the success of other team’s seniors as a sign of a successful club.

Some people are hard to please. I think our team has the balance about right. Swimming is a notoriously over-coached sport. Senior swimmers should be able to do large potions of their training on their own. Junior swimmers do need more supervision. Everyday I take our team’s junior squad for their stroke correction drills. In a swimmer’s early career teaching good technique is very important. It is only right that juniors get fifteen or twenty minutes of the Head Coach’s attention each day for this portion of their training. With the exception of the most zealous critic this characteristic of our program should negate any suggestion of senior bias.

THE COACH IS DISRESPECTFUL TO FEMALE SWIMMERS – Playing the sex card is a sure fire way of gaining attention. The real problem is that critics making accusations of gender bias are seldom called upon to verify their claims and worse they tend to be believed. In that environment the irresponsible can roam free, instigating whatever damage they like.

Until recently most of the best athletes I have coached have been female. These women influenced my attitude to their sport. In my first book on swimming I included this description: “Athletes are capable of only what they are capable of, irrespective of their sex, which is a non-relevant variable.

The average female athlete may be capable of greater work-loads than the average male; everyone knows the stories of women who live longer than men when lost at sea in lifeboats. They have greater physiological reserves which might enable them to train longer and harder; say, 120km a week when the average international male can do 100km. But the point is that all this theorising is pointless. Each athlete has to be taken as an individual, not because they are male or female, but because they are individuals.

The moment you say, “She can’t do as much because she’s a female”, you join the ranks of coaches and administrators who used to say women could not run 800 meters without physiological damage. I have no difficulty believing that, at some future Olympics, a woman will win an open 400 meters freestyle. It will happen. How soon depends primarily on how successful coaches and athletes are in ignoring gender as a training or competition variable.”

Some may call this disrespectful. Certainly women who enjoy their “little women” status may not like it. They want their gender to be a training variable. It makes life easier. But the best female athletes do not hide behind their gender. They stand as strong, independent people and athletes. And that’s how they should be treated. [Editor’s note: Boys are lazy. – J ;) ]

THE COACH YELLS TOO MUCH – I yell at someone about something once every month or so. If that’s too much then the verdict is, “Guilty as charged.” Before passing sentence, however, the problem is a common one. Bill Parcells, and he’s a pretty bloody good coach, says, “Something goes wrong, I yell at them. You can only really yell at players you trust.”

There are a million experts who will tell you that any yell is a yell too many. They are sport’s version of the parents who never smack their children – bleeding heart liberals [Editor’s note: Oi! Um… can I be a liberal and still see nothing wrong with a slap on the wrist or a bit of coach-yelling? – J]. Used sparingly and only when justified the occasional yell does no harm at all. If it is deserved, no swimmer I’ve met holds a grudge. They know when they’ve overstepped the mark. All that’s not very PC, some may even call it “old hat” but it works.