Six Reasons Your Team Needs a Strength Coach

By Swimming World correspondent G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and COR, Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and Dryland for Swimmers.

SANTA CLARA, California, July 24. AT age 16, I was looking for any strategy for improvement in the pool. I started studying the sport, actually performing warm-down, and found a strength and conditioning coach. This ex-college football star put me through a plethora of grueling exercises, questioning my skills as a sprinter.

On the first day, he put me through a grueling circuit and told me that if I did not complete this circuit in a certain amount of time, then he would not train me. This scrawny 16-year-old was motivated and I was soon busting my rear end to train with this Goliath of an individual. In the end, I crushed the time he set forth and I spent a few years training at his facility. While working with him I made large gains in and out of the pool. Despite his lack of swimming-specific knowledge, I feel he helped me tremendously.

Too often swim coaches are control freaks, because they care about the well-being of their athletes. They try to micromanage every aspect of their team, unfortunately controlling areas outside of their scope of knowledge. Occasionally they make poor decisions (due to lack of information), which are detrimental to swimming success.

When coaches overreach their knowledge, they prevent swimmers from optimizing their potential in the pool. Even though making poor choices is not done intentionally, the harms can be irreversible! For example, performing thousands of band external rotation exercises is not an appropriate shoulder injury prevention program as it neglects the shoulder blade stabilizer and depressor muscles, both essential for prevention of swimmer’s shoulder.

This isn’t a knock on coaches, as no one knows everything. Finding someone to trust is difficult. However, finding a strength coach who eats and breathes strength and conditioning can greatly enhance your team’s skillset, resulting in an Avengers-caliber coaching staff.

Strength coaches are mandatory components of any successful swimming program. Let’s take a look at a quick analogy. If a swimmer is a car, then the coach is the driver. A strength coach and supporting staff (health care professionals, nutritionist, etc.) are the pit crew. Why act like a bush league go-cart racer doing your own vehicle maintenance in your parents’ garage when you can provide your athletes (your high performance race cars) with the same high skilled pit crew that every elite race car has.

First, let me define a strength coach: this is any individual set out to improve an athlete’s strength, weaknesses, and prevent injuries out of the pool. However, an elite strength and conditioning coach does way more than this simplistic definition.

An elite strength coach screens for instability, provides preventative exercises to ward off injury (sometimes), enhances energy systems, keep training interesting, and keeps the program current and progressing, adjusting to swimming training volumes.

Many imagine a 300-lb lineman making 12-year-old girls do 400 pound stiff-legged dead lifts, when they think of strength coaches, but a quality strength coach (for a swim team) should focus on relative strength.

Relative strength is the amount of strength an athlete has relative to their body size. Unlike absolute strength, strength is scaled to size. Transforming a swimmer into a “world’s strongest man” contender is not the goal of a good strength and conditioning coach. Rather, increasing their strength, motor control, and coordination are essential for providing each swimmer the tools necessary for stroke corrections in the water.

After finishing my Doctorate program I didn’t know I’d be heavily involved in the strength and conditioning aspect of swimming, but as I reviewed the lack of strength and conditioning I found a much-needed area for improvement in the sport. Now I consult clubs and collegiate teams regarding their strength and conditioning programs and feel there are six common problems that a good strength and conditioning coach will be able to help you fix!

1.Your team is consistently injured: A good strength and conditioning coach will develop an adequate shoulder and low back prevention program for your team consisting of more than generic, non specific, injurious shoulder exercises . An excellent strength coach, will screen all the swimmers and find strong, weak, long, or loose muscles potentially leading to injury and provide corrective exercises for each case swimmer. Keeping swimmers healthy is mandatory for swimming success, as various programs work, but sitting in the training room does not! Please note these qualities are available in an excellent strength coach, do your research and find one with a diverse background and numerous continuing education credits in the realm of injury prevention (or have a background in rehabilitative health care).

2.Your team hits plateaus as they reach the pre-senior level (approximately 15 for girls and 17 for guys): Peaking early is far too common in the sport of swimming. This is commonly due to two things: boredom or maximal swimming practice. Sometimes, swimmers need to mix things up to get better. Unfortunately, many swimmers get mentally bored staring at the black line and need an area outside of the pool to monitor improvements. Other times, the swimmer has reached their maximum ability with the current swimming program. This happens on clubs with rigid training programs and minimal changes. A stimulus to complement swimming is necessary to push these swimmers in a new realm.

3.Your team dry-land essentially resolves around sit-ups, swim bench, and running stairs: This type of dry-land may “work” for some, but may be unrelated to swimming performance and needlessly increase the risk of swimmers injuring themselves. These negatives are amplified by the fact that they take away from energy needed to maximize performance in the pool, as well as hinder recovery capacity. Swimmers must improve their weaknesses and maximize the movements required in the pool for swimming success. Moreover, dry-land must not result in extreme soreness as this takes away from swimming practice, impairing well-defined movement patterns.

4.Your team has stroke flaws: Every swimmer has stroke flaws, but if your team has commonalities or a high volume of errors an elite strength coach with an understanding in biomechanics can help. Strength coaches are able to find muscle length, strength, or proprioceptive (joint timing) deficits preventing swimmers from achieving specific movements. Often times, swimmers need to practice the skill in the water to learn the skill, but sometimes the swimmer simply doesn’t have the means to perform the task out of the water. How can someone perform correct biomechanics in the water, if they can’t out of the water? Strength coaches can help with biomechanics.

5.Your team is bored: Let’s not be naive, swimming is a fairly monotonous sport, but a good strength coach can break this monotony and spice up training. Some swimmers need a lot of variety for success. A good strength and conditioning coach can teach swimmers how to have fun with the sport and mix-up training for added swimming success. As a coach, don’t be jealous if a swimmer enjoys the dry-land program; just make sure they are still putting the effort in the pool. As we all know, swimming is the biggest variable for swimming success. Make sure your swimmers know swimming is the most important variable, but it is possible to make improvements and have fun outside the pool! Strength and conditioning is suggested to improve confidence, which is essential for athletic success.

6.Your groups are unmanageable: If your group is running your coach ragged, then it is likely they are neglecting from an adequate strength and conditioning program. If this is the case, you need some help. Don’t be ashamed; get the help from a strength coach to allow you to worry about your strengths, designing the ultimate swim program for your swimmers! Get a strength coach to give you a break from this grueling task.

Finding a trustworthy strength coach is essential for taking swimmers to the next level. If you believe that your team has some of these rooms for improvement and would like to fix them, start looking for a dedicated, elite strength and conditioning coach today!

G. John Mullen is the owner of of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.

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