Feature by Elena Karpeeva
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 12. WHERE does the Olympic dream start? When does the kid say, “This is my passion.” When do you see that spark in his/her eyes for the first time, and what keeps it lit?
Swimming at the novice level in the United States and Russia represents two entirely different systems. The sport structures are different, kids are different, parents are different, and as a result coaches’ approaches are not the same, but one thing that stays the same in both countries is that every little swimmer wants to have FUN.
After spending six years in the U.S. as a swimmer, student-athlete, and a novice and college level coach, I have learned a lot of things about swimming and coaching philosophy. Even though, I spent most of my swimming career in Russia, my views on the training process and coaching have changed quite a lot because of my experience in the U.S. I have realized that the coach is not the one who only produces an athlete. A coach is the one who develops an individual, who gives lifetime lessons, and helps a kid to build self-esteem and find a passion. The coaching profession goes way beyond times and medals.
One of the greatest things that I witnessed in U.S. swimming is that coaches make the process fun and very diverse. Swimming can become very boring if you just go back and forth, but American coaches have a talent to balance out essential skill learning and fun. Another thing that impressed me in the U.S. system is the style of communication between swimmers and a coach, where a coach doesn’t force an athlete to do anything. He gives recommendations, but the desire comes from an athlete. (If it doesn’t come, the athlete usually leaves a team.) It keeps the atmosphere positive, and develops the internal motivation, which is much stronger than the external one.
Russian sport system has a very different structure. It is supported by the government, so a lot of kids can play sport for free, which is great. It gives an opportunity to play sport to the children whose families have low income. Though, it is not very easy to get on this kind of program. In swimming, only those kids who were selected based on their physical abilities, flexibility, and anthropometry get a chance to participate for free. For example, last year at our Sport School of Olympic Reserve Kalininskaya-3 in St. Petersburg we had about 400 swimmers age of 7 who wanted to get on the government program, but only 165 of them were selected.
Other kids went either to a different sport or to the paid swimming program. Because of such a high competition, parents have to make sure that by the age of 7 their kid is quite developed physically, so he/she can get on that program. It is important for a kid to be physically developed, but if I made the selection I would first look at the ability of a kid to focus and follow the instructions. For me that is much more important than strength and flexibility.
Another thing that is probably different in Russian program (based on my personal experience) is that a lot of novice group coaches encourage kids to dream big, dream about the Olympics, and not only encourage, but also they start to build their professionalism from early age.
By the age of 10-12 swimmers know that they should go to bed early to recover and eat healthy and nutritious food in order to get energy and support growth. Maybe they don’t really get tired from practices at this age yet, but they learn how to be professional from early age.
When I talked to my 7 year-old swimmers about eating habits, one of the parents came up to me the next day and said that her daughter came home and said that from now on she is going to eat only healthy food because she wants to be the best and go to the Olympics.
Applying things from one culture to another can be a very difficult and sometimes a frustrating process. Some things would never work in a different country. Though, I believe that any coach who works with a novice group, no matter which country he/she coaches at, can make the process fun, communicate in a positive way, and encourage little swimmers to dream big and learn professional attitudes from early age.
Of course, not everyone has the ability to get to the highest level, but in that case I would like to cite a great coach Bill Sweetenham, “All swimmers should be developed as though they will become an Olympic champion and senior athlete. Not everyone can achieve Olympic representation, but everyone can be developed and their skills can be enhanced as if this is the desired outcome.”
Elena Karpeeva is a Russian National medalist and National Team member (back in 2004-2007), got 4th at the Olympic trials 2008, was awarded a full scholarship at Division-1 San Diego State University, held 4 school records. Graduated from SDSU in 2011 with a degree in Kinesiology. In 2012-2013 worked as a Novice group coach at College Area Swim Team and as a volunteer assistant coach at USD. Now working with both Novice group and Senior athletes at the Sport School of Olympic Reserve Kalininskaya-3 in St. Petersburg, Russia.