Army of One: Coaching Workouts with Limited Staff

By Michael J. Stott

PHOENIX, Arizona, April 25. ATTENTION! WE HAVE A SITUATION HERE: 60 swimmers, four ability levels, one pool, one coach. What now?

Well-staffed programs have a fairly simple solution. Divide into groups using multiple coaches, depart to different lanes and get on with the workout.

Flying solo is much harder. Arranging the chaos so swimmers get what they need within allotted practice time can tax the resources of even the most organized coach.

"At my branch, I have five lanes for two hours and 85 kids (only 50 swimming at any one session) in four different levels ranging in ages from 6-to-13, so there is definitely a challenge in getting anything done," says Robin Jacobs, head age group coach of the Winston-Salem YMCA Swim Team and 2008 North Carolina Age Group Coach of the Year.

"We always have at least two different groups in the water and sometimes three. I currently have one assistant who comes in for three-quarters of that time. I don't know that I do anything unique to solve this problem though. Basically I need to be really flexible and ready to change in case I have an unusual influx of swimmers on any given day.

"We do loads of stroke work so I can mix up groups for this. Every Friday for the last half hour is relay day. It is a time when we have three groups together so they get to know each other and work together as a team. Of course, we do the same basic set and adjust times and/or distances by lanes," she says.

"When I have enough staff we do stations, i.e. one group for starts, one for turns, one for a swim set. It uses the whole pool very efficiently and each coach gets to interact with every swimmer," notes Jacobs.

Becky Michela has coached USA swimmers and at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md, where competitive swimming is relatively new and attendant start-up issues, including limited pool time is problematic.

She sees individual attention as key.

"When running a practice with a wide range of swimming abilities it is important for each swimmer to get a ‘piece of your time or mind'. The thing that worked best for me," she says, "was to have workouts for each level of swimmer, usually beginner, intermediate and advanced, with some variation in each level. It takes some planning to have time to get to every group and still have the other swimmers working.

"I usually had the workouts printed and available for each lane so swimmers didn't have to wait for me. It means you have to trust that your swimmers will do most of the workout, most of the time, without you having to lean on them. I tried to have the fastest and most conscientious swimmers as leaders in each lane," she says.

"At the beginning of the season we all learned or relearned the same drills so that there was consistency across the board. Sometimes we had ‘stroke lanes' so that the less advanced were in with faster kids and learned from their example. Where we could do all the same thing with varying skill levels, like starts, relay exchanges and finishes, we did."

"The most swimmers that I ever had for high school was about 60 in six lanes, but usually it was usually more like 45-50 swimmers. We had very little time, often only one hour, to get anything done. The most USA swimmers I had was about 35 in five or six lanes and they reflected a much wider range of development."

Michela also put to use ideas gleaned from self-study and ASCA World Clinics.

"When I got what I thought were too many swimmers in a lane, I made a Dick Shoulberg ‘seventh lane' on deck and gave swimmers a dryland workout to do. That was moderately successful," she says.

"It is a hard way to do things. For a lot of reasons, it is better to have more coaches on deck, but I can vouch for being able to run a pretty varied practice by yourself. It helps if the swimmers are all the same age and/or maturity level. That seems to make more difference than swimming ability."

Division by ability level is a system that Mike Curley incorporates at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Fla. While hardly a staff of one head coach, Curley and his assistants train a Highlander Aquatics USA Swimming program and a high school team consisting of sixth through twelfth graders.

Operating in a 50-meter by 25-yard pool Curley uses a 24-lane short course configuration. His high schoolers take up half the lanes.

"I reserve Lane 1 for the swimmers that can train at the fastest intervals. No matter the age or grade, Lane 1 is the fastest lane with the ‘best' trainers. It normally has three swimmers while Lane 12 might have six to seven.

"I write all my workouts with the fastest trainers in mind – not the fastest swimmers. My goal is to encourage swimmers to rise to challenges and persevere through hardship, in essence to build character through the journey," he says.

On any given yards freestyle set Curley varies the interval from a 1:05-to-1:25 base, i.e.: 8 x 200's lanes 1 and 2 @ 2:10, lanes 3 – 6 @ 2:20, lanes 7– 8 @ 2:30, lanes 9 and 10 @ 2:30 and lanes 11 and 12 @ 2:50. Twice a week he offers challenge sets, usually 2400-3000 yards in length, to let swimmers try moving closer to Lane 1. Swimmers choose their intervals and upon successful completion at the next fastest interval they move up a lane.

Some coaches, like Curley, use Hy-Tek Team Manager to write and conduct workouts. Others, like Bob Gillett, head coach at Golden West Swim Club in Huntington Beach, Calif., use other ways to vary practice. Gillett is the coach who ushered Misty Hyman into national and international prominence.

"Innovative coaching is the process of seeking the system," he says. Revered among coaching peers for his videotaping mastery, he pioneered the use of flex bulkheads, adjustable plywood pieces that allow swimmers to vary lane length in training sets.

Introduced in 1986 while at the Arizona Sports Ranch in Phoenix, Gillett still uses them every day. "They are very simple," he says. "They are pieces of plywood that measure 3' x 8' (or 10" less than the width of the lane) with two holes in the top and bottom corners. Router the edges, paint blue, paint a black strip and you are in business. We have changed the actual attachments to the lane lines many times over the years. We now use six carabineers from Home Depot. Simple is better," he says.

In practice Gillett recommends modifying distance rather than stressing number of repeats and time intervals. For instance he suggests trying 10 x 100 @ 1:30 and 10 x 75 @ 1:30, rather than 10 x 100 @ 1:30 and 8 x 100 @ 1:45.

"Relax with less accomplished swimmers. You can cut the workload with your top swimmers by 20 percent and still do quite well with total workload and training effect for the low level swimmer without the constant mental stress on them," he says.

Coaches also need relief from mental stress. Jacobs eases the pressure by sharing the load with the swimmers themselves.

"At the Y we are big on character values, one of which is responsibility. So sometimes," she says, "I give the older kids a set and assign leaders to be responsible for making sure it gets done correctly while I work with the littlest kids. They do a really good job on this. I also occasionally have the older kids pair up with little ones and teach them turns or something similar. They love that.

"Most of the above situations occur if I am the only one there. When I have an assistant I think I am in heaven. Then the groups can do their own thing as needed," she says.

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