Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Nature of Stroke Work

A sometimes concern among Moms and Dads is whether enough stroke work is being done.  “All they do is swim.  I don’t see any instruction at all,” is a typical refrain.  The purpose of this short article is to explain what to expect from stroke work and to describe the different ways we coaches do stroke work and when we do it.


What to expect from stroke work:  Do you remember teaching your children to tie their shoes?  Some get it sooner, some get it later, some get it when you are not even watching.  Each gets it in their own time regardless of your efforts.  Same deal on stroke work.  We hope to see immediate improvement but it is not always there.  Patience is the key.  Thorndike’s “laws” of learning come into play here:  Is the child ready to learn?  Does the child repeat the skill at the conscious level in order to move the skill from the conscious level to the automatic level?  (Are they even operating at the conscious level during repeats?)  With some children we notice a “delayed reaction” to teaching where they apparently make very little progress at the time and then some time later, sometimes even weeks later, magically get it.  There is trial and error learning going on at the subconscious, level and it may take many repeats for things to suddenly click.  So why do coaches allow swimmers to swim lap after lap with incorrect technique?  Because, the hope is that a seed planted by the coach suddenly blossoms through trial and error learning after many repeats.


Where do those seeds come from?  There are three basic types of stroke work.  The most obvious is formal teaching where the lane or the workout group is stopped from aerobic or race pace swimming conditioning for 10 to 20 minutes and the coach explains a technique, uses a demonstrator, and then will have the athletes attempt the skill, usually one at a time with immediate feedback from the coach.  This type of instruction is commonly used nearly every day with less advanced swimmers (novice), and less frequently with more advanced swimmers.  Early in the season the coach may have the more advanced swimmers involved with formal teaching nearly every day as well.


A second form of stroke work is the stroke drill.  Stroke drills are intended to isolate a part of the stroke so that the swimmer can focus on that particular skill.  Stroke drills are often done as repeats on a low to moderate rest interval so that there is a conditioning effect as well.


The third form of stroke work is the most common - to some coaches it is the most important - and it is the most misunderstood and underappreciated by some observers (parents).  This form of stroke work is the constant reminders coaches give to swimmers either verbally during the short rest periods between swims or visual cues demonstrated by the coach during the swims.  The purpose is to move swimmers from an automatically wrong movement to the consciously correct movement; and if done enough, and given enough time, will effect a change.  Some coaches are “always” doing stroke work of this type, even though it is not always easy to observe from the bleachers.


I meet with parent’s groups regularly and I like to do this little exercise with them:  “Imagine a successful swimmer at whatever level you chose – state level, regional, national, international.  Now, let’s list the factors that contribute to this swimmers success.  Ready go.”  When I do this exercise I get responses such as, “work ethic,” “discipline,” and “commitment” --  these are factors relating to the psychology of the athlete.  We usually get 8, 10, or maybe even 12 factors on the list before we get to…”technique.”  I am not saying that technique is not important – it is – but every Olympic gold medalist has defects in their stroke.  The pursuit of the impossibly perfect stroke is futile.  Yes, stroke work IS important, but I am not sure it is the most important thing for advanced swimmers.  When we observe a coach who doesn’t appear to be doing enough stroke work, step back and look at the larger picture.  Is the child happy and improving?  If so, then life is good.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Praise Craze

Even at age 12, Chris is a skilled basketball player. He scores at will for his recreational league team -- but he doesn't get many assists, because he's a ball hog. His teammates sulk during games, waiting for passes that never come. Parents watching from courtside aren't too pleased, either, except for Chris's stepfather, Mike, whose pleasure in the boy's performance is undimmed even when a parent complains to him about Chris's selfishness. Mike later confides to the father of another player that he's not going to talk to Chris about trying to be a more generous player. His stepson has a learning disability, Mike says, "and this is the only place where he can shine."


Mike didn't know it, but he was providing grist for his interlocutor's next book. Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard's School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, recounts the anecdote about Chris's over solicitous stepfather in "The Parents We Mean to Be." ("The Parents We Mean to Be," By Richard Weissbourd, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 241 pages, $25)  It is just one of many illustrative stories that Mr. Weissbourd has gathered over the past two decades. He and his assistants -- including two high-school students, who presumably had good rapport with other teenagers -- surveyed three Boston-area high schools, conducted focus groups, made "informal observations" of families in cities across the country, and interviewed sports coaches, teachers and mental-health professionals.


What did Mr. Weissbourd's research tell him? That nowadays "well-intentioned adults undermine children's moral and emotional development."  Parents have abandoned the "moral task" of rearing children, he says, and are more concerned about fostering their happiness than their goodness. Therapeutic interaction takes precedence over moral instruction; intimacy is maintained at the cost of authority.


"Blaming peers and popular culture lets adults off the hook," Mr. Weissbourd writes. "The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for important principles."


Among the trends that Mr. Weissbourd finds particularly harmful is the fixation of parents on building "self-esteem" (the "praise craze," as he calls it). A psychologist he talks to tells him that by age 12 some children have been so over praised that they regard compliments as implicit criticism: Empty flattery must be compensating for their lack of talent or be meeting a need for extra encouragement. Other children become "praise sponges," Mr. Weissbourd says. In either case, he wonders, what's so great about self-esteem? "Though some violent children have high self-esteem, the self that is being esteemed is immature, incapable of empathy."


“Children's moral development is decided by many factors, including not only media and peer influences but their genetic endowment, birth order, gender, and how these different factors interact.”

Excerpt from "The Parents We Mean to Be"

Mr. Weissbourd is also dismayed by many parents who put subtle but unrelenting pressure on their children for academic and extracurricular achievement. He talks to a 16-year-old who says that his parents make an elaborate display of saying that his getting into a "high-status school" is not important to them, that they just want him to learn and be happy. "But then they pay for SAT prep courses and expensive college counselors," the boy says. "There's already huge pressure on me to achieve." Parental hypocrisy and insincerity do not constitute moral guidance.


Mr. Weissbourd rightly identifies the praise craze and the achievement obsession as a reflection of parental status anxiety. It seems that the more successful parents are, the more likely they are to worry about their children's possible failure to live up to that success. One of the author's most arresting contentions is that the children of immigrants "fare better than their American-born counterparts" in almost every measure of mental and moral health. American-born parents would have a lot to learn from immigrants, Mr. Weissbourd insists. They are comfortable with imposing authority and discipline, and they are optimistic about their children's future.


As a psychologist, Mr. Weissbourd is at his best when he analyzes the all too familiar phenomenon of the overzealous sports parent. In a high-school cafeteria, the author sat in on a meeting between about 30 parents and a sports consultant, who was warning them about becoming over involved. A parent raised his hand and made a confession: "I remember my son's last day playing youth soccer. The game was over, and I remember standing out on the field and thinking to myself: 'What am I going to do with my life?' " The first step toward moral education for kids, Mr. Weissbourd says, is for parents to separate their own needs from their children's and to start regarding parenthood as an opportunity for their own moral growth.


Good advice. But parental self-awareness is hardly more than a baby step on the path toward producing tomorrow's productive and caring adults. Mr. Weissbourd identifies some of the more daunting barriers to healthy enculturation -- among them the breakdown of the two-parent family and the decay of standards for public and private behavior -- but he never really gets beyond superficial solutions to these vexing social problems. Urging pediatricians to encourage fathers to attend their children's check-ups, or suggesting that ministers "ask noncustodial fathers how many times they have seen their child in the last month," is unlikely to convert legions of estranged fathers into engaged parents.


The methodology employed in "The Parents We Mean to Be" similarly does not inspire confidence. We hear about Mr. Weissbourd's interviews and surveys, but the book offers few quantitative results or analyses. Much of the evidence of parental incompetence is anecdotal -- even, as with the story of ball-hogging Chris and his stepfather, based on people that Mr. Weissbourd happened to run into. His stories will no doubt resonate with many readers -- who among us has not encountered an oppressively sports-minded father or an Ivy League-obsessed mother? -- but such vignettes do not add up to a firm sociological thesis.


Mr. Weissbourd also tends to gloss over the institutional failures that have driven many parents to passionate advocacy for their children: the failure of public schools, for example, to uphold high academic and behavioral standards. The influence of the media and celebrity culture on children's mores and material expectations is also far more profound than Mr. Weissbourd would admit. And just who is ultimately responsible for the excesses of the self-esteem craze -- parents or the psychologists and educators whose books parents read for advice?


One effect of parents' over-involvement in their children's' lives has been the demise of those arenas of childhood that were once inviolably the province of children themselves: unsupervised play, neighborhood baseball games and other settings where children first exercised their moral imaginations and were forced to cope independently with their own shortcomings. Parents who lament this turn of events may welcome Lenore Skenazy's "Free-Range Kids," which, like Mr. Weissbourd's book, argues that adults should not always try to protect children from failure. (“Free-Range Kids," By Lenore Skenazy, Jossey-Bass, 225 pages, $24.95)


Ms. Skenazy, a humor columnist, believes we should give "our children the freedom we had without going nuts with worry." She lampoons safety-obsessed parents who see a threat-filled world, from metal baseball bats and raw cookie dough to Halloween-candy poisoners and kidnappers. She advises turning off the news, avoiding experts and boycotting baby knee pads "and the rest of the kiddie safety-industrial complex."


“I really think I'm someone like you: A parent who is afraid of some things (bears, cars) and less afraid of others (subways, strangers). But mostly I'm afraid that I, too, have been swept up in the impossible obsession of our era: total safety for our children every second of every day.”

Excerpt from "Free-Range Kids"


Ms. Skenazy gained a certain national notoriety after she wrote a column about allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subways by himself. Even parents fed up with our child-coddling culture might blanch at the thought of turning a third-grader loose on public transportation. But Ms. Skenazy will find plenty of supporters for her contention that, in a world where the rights of chickens to roam freely are championed, it's time to liberate the kids.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Meet Summary AG State SC 2011

Greetings to everyone and congratulations to all the swimmers that participated in the 2011 Age Group SC Championships at Chatham County Swim Facility this year.  Georgia Coastal Aquatics hosted the meet this year.  This meet was a full 3 day competition where prelims and finals are on the same day and the 10 and unders perform in between sessions.   These meets are very challenging and our swimmers as usual performed up to the task as we saw big improvements from most the kids all the way up to the final session on the 3rd day.  Meets like these are very mentally draining on everyone and require a healthy perspective on this as our experiences build up over the years and we draw on these when big competitions arrive and are called on to perform. 

10 and under girls

Joining us for her first state meet, Mattison Frank made the trip to SAV and swam in 4 events.  She dropped time in all events including a 6 second drop in her 200 free and a 5 second reduction in her 100 fly while hanging in the top 30 for these events.  Another new swimmer joining us at state the first time this year is Kensley Morris.  She qualified in 6 events and dropped in every one.  She had an impressive showing in the 500 free as she knocked off over half a minute in this race to rally into 7th place overall.  9 year old Maggie Pokorny has been improving steadily since she joined the team last year.  Showing up for 10 events this year she dropped in 6 of those while scoring 3 top 10 finishes in the state for the Marlins this year.  Also qualifying for the max number of events was Sophie Taylor.   With only 1 finish in the 5th position Sophie won 2 events and scored 2nd and 3rd in all the rest of her swims earning her one of highest scoring athletes for the Marlins at State this year with over 100 points scored for the team.  Grace Yund is another swimmer we are fortunate to have this year as she qualified in 5 events and dropped over 5 seconds in her 200 free, she continues to improve.

10 and under boys

Same Braid joined us for 3 events this year at state.  He qualified in the 100 free, fly and sprint free events while dropping over 8 seconds in his fly to reach the top 20.  Riley Croker made it to SAV for state for the first time and qualified in 3 events and dropping over 6 seconds in his 200 free.  In his first state meet at 8 years old Brendan Hausdorf made the trip while qualifying in 4 events, and had a ton of fun doing it, while improving at every meet he has swam in this year.  Making it to state in 9 events, 10 year old Ananda Lim busted through the top 15 5 times and made time reductions across the board.

11-12 Girls

New swimmer Abbey Barrett is joining the Marlins for the first time this year at state.  She swam in 4 events while dropping time in all of those she scored a top 20 time for the 200 breast while also having some fun in the relay events.  Another new swimmer for the team that had a great meets this year is Kamryn Carter.  Kamryn made it back to finals in 3 events and scored 2 top 10 finishes while dropping time in nearly every event.  While scoring 3 top 15 finishes Katie Heilman also had a great meet while dropping time across the board and swimming some impressive back to back finals swims her butterfly is now almost as fast her freestyle – watch out.   Swimming in two events and dropping whopping amounts of time in her performance was Molly Layde; in the 200 Breast and 400 IM.  Making the trip to SAV for the first time was a new swimmer, Nicole Licciardello.  She shaved several seconds off her old 200 fly time and helped complete some more relays for the girls as well.   While shedding time in her distance events, Grace Nekrasas joined us again at state this year, this time as an 11 year old.  With 3 top 10 finishes Caitlin Oh made her mark at state this year for the team while scoring the most points for her group and reducing time in all but one event – she never placed lower than 16th overall.  Another fresh 11 year old this year to swim in state was Mariah Prendes.  She qualified in the longer events and dropped massive time in all her swims and busted the top 20 in the 1000 free.   Making the trip for 4 events this year is a now solid backstroker Taylor Tishendorf.  While Taylor dropped time in her long events she helped shore up some relays for the Marlins and score some points for the team.  Swimming I believe more events than anyone else at this meet was Britheny Joassaint.  She swam up in the 13-14 group in all the relays and also had to hold down all her own age groups swims.  With 7 top 10 finishes she had some impressive freestyle swims at this meet and started to race some people when she stepped up into finals.

11-12 Boys

Cooper Brownwell is an up and coming Marlin while he made state this year in 3 events.  He broke the top 30 for his 200 breast and brought in a new best time reduction of 3 seconds.  Resident fly guy Cullen Fields hung on to a strong finals swim in the 50 to come from behind and win the event while also bringing in several top 3 finishes and scoring a bunch of points for the team.  Pulling out a top 10 finish in the 200, breastroker Nick Hatch dropped over 8 seconds in that event to score some much needed points in this division.  Parker Johnson joined us again for state this year while dropping in 3 events he shredded 10 seconds in his 500 free swim.  Busting the 3 minute barrier in the 200 fly James Johnston made the trip to score a top 30 finish in that event while dropping time in all but one swim.  The always improving Ryan Marino made to state this year in 3 events and dropped time in his 100 fly for break into the top 30.  Scoring bunches of points for the team this year was Alex Mayfield who dropped time across the board and sat in the top 5 for nearly every race.  With a time of 1:00.00 Alex dropped into 2nd while coming from behind in finals in an awesome 100 fly swim.  Colin Riley had a great meet at state this year with some awesome new times and exciting events to watch like when he got scratched in consoles and ended up winning the heat with a 3 second drop from his prelims time.

13-14 Girls

Our solo girl in this age group is Jane Watts.  She is 14 years old and about to age up so well look forward to seeing her in more senior meets soon.  Jane scored 3 top 10 swims as she dropped time nearly across the board and also was quite the inspiration for many 11-12 year old girls that got to swim up and lend a hand in a relay for the team.

13-14 Boys

Coming down to SAV this year joining his brother was Griffin Braid.  Just turning 13 he swam a nice 200 fly time and lowered his best as a result.  Dropping time in all but one event David Dingess had a nice showing this year as he pushed into the top 30 in his 200 back.  Winning 5 events and having some really nice swims was Griffin Garratt.  Continuing to drop time he impressed with many come from behind races and stellar usage of the walls with his turns.  With some huge time reductions Stephen Johnston had a good meet this year and got into the top 30 a few times in his longer events including a 27 second drop in his 1000 free.  Garrett Layde hooked up with us again for state this year while swimming some new best times and bettering our time on the 200 free relay.  New swimmer Thomas Locke swam in the max events this year while better some of his times had some great finals performances while gutting out a few extra places for the team to score some more points.  Finishing 2nd in the 100 and 50 free Thomas is looking to have a good meet at Divisionals.  With 5 times qualified for state this year Ryan Peck turned in a huge swim in the 1000 and also dropped into the top 30 in his 200 breast, he scored best times in all but one event.  Alex Riley scored 2 top 10 finishes in his backstroke events while pulling some points for the team he had to do a swim off for the 100 back and pulled out a best time and move one spot in consoles to score points for the team.  Qualifying in the max amount allowed Andrew Tang joined us for state this year and dropped in several events while scoring in the top 10 for 50 free.

Coach Matt

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Two A Day Workouts for 12 and Unders?

Should age groupers (age 12 and unders) be going to double workouts?  There isn’t an absolute answer to this issue, and there are no studies or surveys on the topic.  What we are left with is our good judgment.

Is it a technical issue and therefore becomes the decision of the coach?  Or is it an eat/sleep/school/family issue and the responsibility of the parent?

The coach’s role is to look at the time of the year, the quality of the swimmer, the needs of the swimmer, and the long term development of the swimmer.  The parent’s role is to make sure the child is healthy.  Difficulties arise when coach or parent overstep their roles.

What is the bottom line?  We (parents and coaches) use our good judgment to create an environment and opportunities for swimmers where they are improving, happy, and in it for the long haul.

Here are some of the factors to consider and some of my thoughts on each:

Age of the swimmer.  8 and unders?  Are you kidding me?  9 year olds, probably not.  10 year olds, maybe.  Highly motivated 10 year olds might come to doubles during the summer and perhaps to an occasional stroke session every two or three weeks during the school year.  11 year olds can do doubles in the summer and once or twice a week in the school year.  12 year olds can do doubles in the summer and, if they are very good, might go 3 doubles during the school year.

What does “might” mean?  It means that in some programs where coaching and parental philosophies match up and where the swimmer has the background and ability, it does happen.

What is the motivation of the swimmer?  This may be the most important factor.  If the age group child is not motivated for double workouts then don’t push it.  (Remember, we are talking about 12 and unders here.)

Time of the Year (school year versus summer).  School is more important than swimming.  Getting enough sleep to do well in school is mandatory.  During the school year, parents need to make the call on this… but, parents should not be pushing the children to doubles if the coach doesn’t feel they are ready for it.

Biological maturity of the swimmer.  Because girls mature earlier and because girls tend to be better at the national level much earlier than boys, with 12 year old mature girls who can handle school on less sleep, they might be coming to 2 or 3 doubles a week.

Individual or group.  Sometimes, even when the swimmer is capable (physically, mentally, emotionally) of double workouts, there is a level of hesitation or anxiety – simply an “uncomfortableness” of being singled out and being different from teammates.  For that reason sometimes it makes sense to bring at least two swimmers together into the school year double workout environment.

In any case, progressive is the key word.  Speak with the coach about the progression for moving your age group swimmer into double workouts, especially during the school year.  Starting with maybe one stroke session every two weeks and building to 1, then 2, and maybe 3 doubles a week for the very advanced 12 year old.

Now, I have not used the word “guidelines” here.  The above is a mixture of personal opinion mixed with observations of a wide range of programs over the past 35 years.  The difficulty with issuing “guidelines” is that they put boundaries on those who coach at the edges and often times those who coach at the edges end up leading the way.

Bottom line revisited:  Use good judgment.


End note:  Just in case you are wondering…What did I do when I was a full time age group coach?  The best age group team I coached were multiyear state champions and we had one nationally ranked 10 year old and 5 nationally ranked 11-12 year olds, all girls.  Our better 10 and unders were restricted to one workout a day all year around with the exception of the nationally ranked girl who came to morning sessions once every two weeks for start, turn, or stroke work.  All our 11-12’s were invited to 3 morning workouts plus 5 afternoon workouts in the summer.  During the school year they had the option to come in for start, turn or stroke work once every 2 weeks.  A couple of our 12 year old nationally ranked girls game to one or two morning workouts a week during the school year.