PHOENIX, Arizona, December 13. IN the December issue of Swimming World Magazine, Dave Denniston spoke with Oregon State's head women's coach Larry Liebowitz in our Swimming Technique section. Here is the interview Denniston did with Liebowitz for that article.
Liebowitz spent eight seasons as assistant head coach for the women's and men's swimming programs at the University of Southern California before arriving at Oregon State prior to the 2003-04 season. In his last year at USC, Liebowitz helped guide the Trojan women to third-place finishes at NCAAs and Pac-10s. The men's team placed third in the Pac-10 and fifth at NCAAs that year. Since arriving in the Pacific Northwest, Liebowitz has led the Beavers to three straight seventh-place finishes at the women's Pac-10 Championships. During the 2003-04 season, OSU earned its highest-ever finish at NCAAs, placing 20th. Liebowitz also has served as an assistant coach at the 1999 Pan American Games and the 1997 World University Games. He was coach of the U.S. men's team at the 1995 Pan-Am Games and coach of the 1988 Costa Rica Olympic team.
Q: Swimming World Magazine: How is your season organized at Oregon State?
A: Coach Larry Liebowitz: We take three weeks in the preseason to teach drills, technique and turns. We gradually increase the amount of work we do during that period. From there, we try to break the season into two parts.
We rest in early December for a meet such as the Husky Invite, and give our women a chance to swim fast before Christmas. So, our workouts peak in late November and drop off for a short taper. I think we'll try to use the Short Course Nationals for this purpose in the future.
Then, we have a two-week training camp over Christmas. There isn't much time left after that, so we pick up the intensity in February and get ready to taper for Pac-10s.
What is one of the first things you discuss with your swimmers each year about technique?
I did something this year that I've never done before, and that is making the women have what I call "Big Legs." We did a lot of kick sets and running. When we did the kicking, I didn't want small, little kicks. I wanted big powerful kicks that really worked their legs.
Even when they were swimming, I wanted them kicking with big legs and driving power on their stroke. Everything that we did had big legs. Most of the women couldn't maintain that kick for more than a 75 when we started. Now, they don't have a problem.
The kicking has worked out very well. Now, I want them to have a good kick instead of big kick. I put a lot more emphasis on kicking early in the season this year, and I like what I'm seeing.
How has the role of kicking evolved in your program?
I was moving toward more kicking in the past few years. I wasn't getting enough speed out of my women on the third 50 of a 200. Other swimmers would take off and drive their legs, and my girls had nothing. So, I knew I had to make a change. After spending this past summer with Coach Sean Hutchison (King Aquatic Club), I saw the impact of Big Legs. He really had a strong influence on what I'm doing now with kicking in my program.
Is there a specific way that you like to kick?
I have them kick any way I can that will challenge them. For instance, I have them kick with vertical boards. We kick with fins. No matter what they do, they have to go fast when they kick. I've made kick sets more important than many of the other sets. When they grab that kickboard, it means they have to go. We also do kicking on the wall followed by a fast 50 swim. We do anything that will challenge their legs.
Describe a typical weekly workout.
The basic pattern is this: Monday morning, we do a lot of pulling. In the afternoon, the workout is aerobic-based. That is when we do big sets. It doesn't necessarily mean that it is a long set that just goes on forever, but it is one main big set for the afternoon.
Tuesday morning, we emphasize kicking. In the afternoon, we mix up some speed with some fast swimming. Wednesday afternoon is when we do a quality set. Then, we repeat that pattern starting on Thursday morning through Saturday.
Is there a type of dryland exercise you prefer?
We're doing a lot of running right now. We have a strength coach who does weights with the women. They do a lot of explosiveness for their legs, and we're learning how to do pull-ups. The goal is to get every woman to be able to do 10. I'd like their arm strength to increase compared to their body weight. In addition, they are doing a lot of core work. I told their strength coach that they can be one of two things: a kayak or a rubber raft. A weak core is a rubber raft. A strong core makes them a kayak. I want kayaks in the water and not rubber rafts.
You coached with Mark Schubert for several years. What did you learn from him that you emulate today?
He was the best at accepting and making proper changes. If he heard that some things worked better than others, he would try that. So, I try to see what is going on in swimming around me and make changes based on what I see. Coaches Sean Hutchinson and Paul Yetter are doing some revolutionary and amazing things, and I have to see how that works with what I do.
Mark showed me that the sport is constantly evolving. From 1978 to the present, he was willing to change technique and underwater emphasis before anyone else. When better streamlining became important to some coaches, it became an obsession for Mark. He wasn't willing to keep doing the same old thing. Everywhere he went, he would look around and try to learn something new.
One of the best things about being a college coach is that I get to travel and see so many programs and visit with so many coaches. I learn so much every time I visit a program. I learn how to say something differently, or I'll see a challenging set or a new type of drill. I've never left a program on a visit without something new to try the next day.
Switching gears, what do you think is the biggest difference between distance freestyle and sprint freestyle?
I don't think there is that much of a difference anymore. Distance swimmers are using a six-beat kick and maintaining very high tempos. The only real difference is their ability to put power on the water. So, I think that things such as power racks or stretch bands need to be incorporated into distance training, too. They don't need it as much, but I feel they would get as much out of it as a sprinter.
Both disciplines are getting incredibly similar. The only real difference in the future will be body types. Sprinters will be bigger, and the smaller athletes will be distance swimmers. The main difference is in their body type and their ability to drive themselves forward.
How do you practice starts and turns at OSU?
It's hard to implement. You just have to stop and do it. If you don't take the time, your swimmers won't get any better. Our sprinters practice starts and turns quite a bit. They spend about 20 minutes every night. We have them do a few starts or turns with an emphasis on technique. Then, they do a start with a good breakout and few cycles, and eventually do a full 25. For turns, they race each other from 10 meters out.
As I said, the hard part is taking the time to do it. I just have to accept the fact that it means we don't get 2,000 meters in because of it, but I tell myself that it's worth it. I know it will pay off in the long run.
What is your favorite stroke to coach and why?
I've had a lot of success with butterfly. I love teaching the technique and rhythm. It's such a beautiful stroke to watch. How I coach my swimmers differs from person to person. I'm looking for them to be long and rhythmic. I constantly look for the right words to describe the feeling they should have in their stroke. I want them to feel the flow of the stroke.
I constantly remind swimmers that water is their friend—don't beat on it. I also emphasize getting their hand in the right spot for a good catch. Some coaches emphasize recovery, while others emphasize catch. I'm a "catch" person!
What are a few of your favorite drills?
I don't know if I have any real favorites because I'm always looking for something new. I look for new drills every time a swimmer comes into my program. One of the first things I ask a freshman is, "What drills do you like?" Currently, we're doing a lot of flutter-kick with breast arms for our breaststrokers. For a long time, I liked the 2-2-2 (two right arm, two left, two regular strokes) drill for fly. But, now I have them doing a lot of four kicks to one pull fly.
What equipment do you prefer to use?
We have all the typical stuff: paddles, buoys, fins. One of our best additions that we use a lot of lately is bands or tire tubes for around the ankles while pulling. We use different sizes of paddles while doing this, and the women really seem to like that. The other day, I had them pulling with just a band, and one of the girls said she learned something about her stroke and wanted to play with it some more. That is rewarding when the athlete learns something about their own stroke simply by using a different piece of equipment.
What do you emphasize during a taper?
I go back to the beginning of the year. I want their strokes to feel good, and I want them to feel good. We revisit a lot of drills, then add speed. I also have them count their strokes and find a consistent stroke count for their optimal speed. I think that is a very natural way for them to find their tempo. This way, the swimmers feel good, swim fast and really get the most out of their swimming.