Pursley Pep Talks: Just For The Heck of It!

Swimming World will publish a collection of coaching perspectives written by Alabama head swimming coach Dennis Pursley. This is the eighth installment of a series that will be rolled out throughout the coming months.


One of the required sets for all of the swimmers in one of our national team camps was a 3,000-meter swim for time. While this may have been a routine set for some of the distance swimmers, it was a shock to the system for the sprinters. In the age of race-specific training, many would argue that there was no purpose or benefit for the sprinters to do that kind of a set. I disagree.

While I certainly appreciate the value and necessity of race-specific training, I also believe that non- specific training still has an important role to play in the preparation of world-class swimmers. If our training consists exclusively of one type of training—no matter how significant it may be—the physiological response to that training will eventually become stale and blunted, resulting in a performance plateau.

To avoid this, it is important to routinely introduce a different and fresh stimulus to the training regimen. The concept of energy system-specific training—vs. race-specific—makes sense to me as well. The idea here is to isolate the individual energy systems involved in a given race and to design training sets that will optimally develop those systems.

What is often lost in the non-specific vs. specific debate, however, is the impact of training on confidence, psychology and mental toughness. Many times over the years after a breakthrough performance, I have heard one of my swimmers give credit to the “20 x 500 on 6:00” or the “10,000 for time” or the “120,000-meter peak week” for the confidence needed to prevail in the race several months later. (Just for the record, I am not recommending these sets for our sprinters!)

Anytime we step out of our comfort zone to take on a challenge above and beyond the norm, we become mentally stronger, and this enhanced mental toughness will serve us well when we are confronted with the competitive challenge in our races.

I am certain that most of our sprinters would have preferred not to do the 3,000 for time in the national team camp. But to their credit, they accepted the challenge without complaint, and aggressively applied themselves to the task at hand.

Afterward, it was apparent that some of them surprised themselves, and they finished the session with a little extra swagger that they didn’t have before. Again, I am not suggesting that these kinds of sets should be a part of the weekly training regimen, but sometimes there are significant intangible benefits to taking on a new and different challenge “just for the heck of it.”

About Dennis Pursley
After getting his start as a volunteer coach on Don Gambril’s first Alabama staff, current Alabama head coach Dennis Pursley has gone on to one of the most extraordinary careers in the sport of swimming, a career that led him to be named one of the 25 most influential people in the history of USA Swimming in 2003.

Pursley has helmed coaching staffs throughout the world, including stops as the first head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport, the inaugural director of the United States National Team and most recently the head coach of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic squad. Pursley returned to the deck in 2003 as the head coach of the Brophy East Swim Team in Phoenix Ariz., before becoming the head coach of British Swimming in 2008.

Pursley and his wife Mary Jo have five children, Lisa, Brian, David, Steven and J.J. Lisa and David have joined him on the Alabama staff.

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Author: Jason Marsteller

Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

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