Starting from Scratch: Training the Out of Shape Athlete – Return of the Native

Feature by Michael J. Stott

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 11. SHOWING up at college for fall semester remains a rite of passage. It is a time of promise and new beginnings. And for swimmers it is an opportunity to build upon years of training with the hope of greater glory.

"Swimming at the elite level collegiately is not for everyone — and that's OK," says Scott McGihon, head men's and women's coach at the University of California San Diego. "There are programs out there for everybody. But once you pick your program you have to understand what the commitment level of that program is."

By the time swimmers check in for their third semester there is little mystery regarding coach expectations. Dave Fritz, at D-III Grove City College, estimates that 40-to-50 percent of his returnees arrive on campus in swimming shape.

"Because athletes have such a variety of opportunities for training during the summer, I try to not have a rigid system of requirements. I do ask that they workout in some fashion and am willing to provide workouts if necessary," he says.

"If they have to choose between weight training and swimming I encourage them to lift weights," he says. "I'd rather them return stronger and fine tune their stroke under us than to grind out yards without direction and technique feedback. Soreness from our lifting program is the biggest obstacle the first few weeks of the season. Lifting during the summer minimizes this.

"For the most part, we have very little time to prepare for our first competition and our mid-season meet so we hit the ground running. Those that come back to campus out of shape have at least a few weeks to prepare before the season officially starts and they understand that we're not going to water down the workouts for anyone who isn't properly prepared. Most will workout hard those first few weeks of the semester to make sure they are prepared — whether they came back in shape or not," says Fritz.

"As for incoming freshmen, I would venture that 70-to-80 percent of our freshmen come to school in swimming shape. A lot of this has to do with their teams at home and the training opportunities that they have," he says.

McGihon figures that most all of his freshmen partake in summer training.

"I'm not looking for them to come in mid-season shape because if they do I see a lot of burnout because they haven't gotten a break," he says.

Of the Tritons upper classmen 25-to-30 percent remained on campus during the summer of 2010.

"It's something that is growing here," says McGihon. "I don't believe we will ever be at 100 percent, but I don't expect it to go below 25 percent either," even though he encourages freshmen to go home for the summer.

"We are at the point in our program now (UCSD women were third at 2010 D-II NCAAs, men seventh) where summer training is not a hope, but an expectation. For swimmers coming back out of shape the consequence can include not making the team," says McGihon.
That is not an idle observation. In California there are only seven D-I male swim teams, one D-II (UCSD) and several D-III and NAIA programs.

"There are only so many roster spots available. If you want to swim at that level, you need to show that commitment to us because if you don't have it we don't have it to you," he says.

"That's just the reality of college swimming at this level. You can't take off three months. I don't think our expectations are any different from any other program that wants to be at the top level," says McGihon.

Those are clearly the expectations at the University of Florida where American Swim Coaches Association Coach of the Year Gregg Troy directed his women and men to first and fifth-place finishes at the 2010 NCAA Division I meet.

"Training is not a nine-month deal," says Troy. "You're at it for 12 months and if you don't do that you are seriously going to limit your opportunities to be as successful as you could be. How you can work nine months and expect to go any further is just beyond me. It is beholden on the athlete to take responsibility. The people who are really great in their endeavors are almost always the athletes not taking breaks."

Athletes who can't swim consistently can still stay fit. Troy recalls one swimmer who cycled 25 plus miles a day, swam three-to-four times a week, lifted weights, returned to Gainesville after four months abroad and had an outstanding season. The reason, "he never took time off from fitness."

Anywhere from 50-to-75 percent of Gator swimmers remain on campus during the summer. At some other top-tier D-I programs (i.e. Arizona) the number is higher.

"For us it varies from year-to-year," says Troy. "But if our swimmers are not at school, the assumption is they are back home training with their club teams. They have to be or they are swimming at the wrong level."

As a result, virtually 90 percent of Florida athletes return focused, in shape and ready to go.

"Very, very few come back out of shape and some of those situations are injury related," he says. "We try to recruit people who have the expectation of being the best. If you have that, then you are going to be at summer nationals because that's where the best are. If you are at that meet, then you had to train to get there."

Getting there for incoming freshmen introduces a different dynamic. Not every athlete finishes a high school career like NOVA of Virginia's Rachel Naurath. She won six individual events at NCSA Junior Nationals, was a captain on the NCSA All-Star team that went to Ireland, dropped four seconds, finaled in the 200 fly at summer nationals and made the U.S. National Team.

"My issue starts when swimmers sign on the dotted line," says one unnamed Mid-Atlantic club coach. "That's a letter of commitment. I constantly educate my athletes that you have to honor your commitment to go to a school in the best possible shape and be ready to roll."

Athletes who back off their training after signing create problems for themselves as well as current and future coaches.

"As a club coach, I can't afford to run the kids out the door if they are not doing what they are supposed to do. Some coaches do, I can't," he says.

The downside for a club team is the poor example being set for other swimmers, failure to support the team and loss of points at championship meets, presumably from the best athlete(s). There is also a potentially lasting consequence for coach and to club reputation.

"If a college coach recruits a kid from my team and they don't show up in shape that's a reflection on me, my coaching and leadership," says the Mid-Atlantic coach.

Improved communication between coaches, parents and swimmers would improve the situation he notes. Such dialogue would more likely ensure that swimmers stay on task.

"Parents need to teach their kids to honor the commitment, not just say, ‘Hey, we got what we needed.' and walk away. This is the one that gives the most trouble. No doubt about it," he says.

"It is incumbent upon all the coaches to encourage athletes to be consistent about their training," says Troy. "The kids who slough off after they sign lose focus on what made them successful and once that happens they don't continue to do the same things. Then they never really arrive, it's always a journey.

"It isn't just summer training, it is a matter of swimmer responsibility. Athletes that leave their college programs and go home owe it to those programs to show up in good physical condition ready to be leaders. By the same token, incoming freshmen owe it to their future program to come in as the best athletes they can be," he says.

"That said there is an expectation across the board that you can take some time off out of the water to mentally refresh. Short breaks from the water after big performances are necessary and appropriate as long as they don't extend into lengthy breaks from fitness. If they do, there will be a problem," says Troy.

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