By Emma Merrill, Swimming World College Intern
Many swimmers experience a plateau at some point in their careers. Even worse, the plateau can often closely follow some of the fastest swims of their lives. John Collins, head coach of the Badger Swim Club in Larchmont, N.Y., laments the seeming lost potential of an age group phenom who might reach his or her fastest times well before their ideal peak years. Collins says that for some young swimmers, the “window of opportunity closes.” They are fast at a young age and then they might never drop much time again.
The teenage years can also be a nightmare for many swimmers who find themselves grinding out longer and more frequent practices only to be repaid with mediocre race time performances. A 15-year-old girl may go from dropping significant amounts of time in middle school to being unable to drop a tenth of a second throughout high school.
But, plateaus can strike at any age or ability level—from age group swimmers to masters. At best, plateaus test one’s dedication to the sport and perseverance in the face of adversity. At worst, they prompt talented swimmers to leave the sport they have shed blood, sweat, and tears for.
No matter what, plateaus frustrate.
What causes these brick walls of weeks, months, or even years of slow swims? How can swimmers break through the worst of plateaus?
1. Too Much Training While Young
This one is for the parents. While it’s not a hard science, excessive training as an age group swimmer may be one of the top causes of plateauing. Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas, USA Swimming’s director of physiology, deplores huge amounts of yardage in training young swimmers, who he believes should patiently progress to more intense training in order to peak later in their careers—when they will be fastest.
“Most of the future elite swimmers swim slower than age-group champions, especially at ages until 15-16 years,” Sokolovas says.
The moral here is that a fast 8-year-old does not equal a fast 18-year-old. In other words, quality over quantity should be the M.O. for parents from day one. There’s no rush to make your 9-year-old child swim 7,000 yards a practice. Besides the fact that garbage yardage will drive any self-respecting 9-year-old insane, such immense training can stunt his or her development later on.
So instead of eight swim practices a week, how about four swim practices and two basketball practices? Or three swim practices and a soccer game? Being a multi-sport athlete will be more enjoyable and more beneficial for young swimmers in the long run.
Especially for girls, the body changes that accompany this phase of growth and development can be career-altering. Jilen Siroky, a 200m breastroker in the 1996 Olympics, made the U.S. team when she was 14. Her body began to develop after the Olympics that year. Sadly, even as she continued to swim in high school and college, Siroky was never able to get closer than three seconds off of her best time.
While the body changes of puberty may appear inevitable and terrifying for a young teenage swimmer, it is important to realize that everyone’s bodies are different. For some, puberty brings the long awaited growth spurts and muscle development that equalize the playing field with competitors who have always towered over them. For others however, puberty may be the end of huge time drops and easy speed.
While there is no easy, “one fits all” solution for plateauing, here are three concrete ways to deal with the frustration that accompanies one.
1. Vary Your Training, Switch Events
There’s nothing more frustrating than failing to improve in the events that you consider your best. That being said, if your 100 fly isn’t getting faster and all you do is obsessively train for a perfect 100 fly, no wonder you’ve hit a wall. Try different types of sets, do other events at meets, use equipment in practice. Trust me, the physical benefits compounded with the mental break of varying your training will be worth it in the long run.
2. Focus On What You Can Control
Nobody can control what time flashes on the board when they finish. All a swimmer can do is put in the work both in and out of the pool to maximize his or her race performance. During a plateau, times do not reflect the work put into impossible aerobic sets nor the countless hours spent perfecting technique. That being said, it is essential to focus on parts of each swim that you can control, like your breathing pattern, underwater dolphin kicks, or just beating your rival in the lane next to you. These small victories might not be the breakthrough that you are looking for, but they will help ease the emotional stress of a plateau.
3. Have Fun
In the end, swimming isn’t just about going best times or winning races. This realization is something that I struggled with for years in high school and still do!
Competitive swimming is about the adrenaline rush that sweeps over you when you dive in to swim your favorite event. It’s about teammates, post-meet ice cream, and the satisfying exhaustion that follows a hard practice. It’s about enjoying yourself.
So, if you are currently struggling through a plateau, do yourself a favor and relax. Don’t let frustration take away from your enjoyment of the sport.