Notice in the Swimming Natation Canada LTAD the line that shows chronological age. This timeline shows that the typical junior athlete needs a full decade of training to develop from the level of Active Start/FUNdamentals to being ready to ‘Train to Compete’.
For an athlete who starts swimming at an older age instead of using the chronological age timeline, the timeline used is referred to as ‘physiological age’ but what is most important is that nothing changes between a chronological or physiological timeline: both require an athlete to train for approximately 10years prior to being capable of ‘Training to Compete’.
Which means… an athlete learning to swim at the age of 12 will be ready to ‘Train to Compete’ around the age of 21-22, and a masters athlete who starts to swim at the age of 35 will equally require a decade to be ready to ‘Train to Compete’.
Why 10 years? 10 years is based on the ‘10,000 hrs’ concept of mindful training that Malcolm Gladwell popularized in one of his books. Gladwell simply recounted in his book the conclusion from a 1970s study that reviewed the time it took for aspiring musicians to develop into world class (i.e. 1st chair) violinists. The study documented that it consistently required an average of 10,000 hrs of mindful training. How do we get 10yrs from 10,000 hrs?
10,000 hrs = 20 hrs of training/week x 50 weeks x 10 years.
No one gets to skip the 10,000 hrs… anyone at any age who wants to be competitive at a significant level has to and will put in this volume of training. Any athlete, any coach, any team manager selling you different is selling you swamp land.
Hold just a minute there… aren’t there exceptions or what appear to be exceptions?
(1) What about? The Masters Athlete who is competitive within a year or two of joining a masters team.
Having coached a couple masters swim teams I can assure you that no masters athlete skips putting in the training volume and ‘just’ becomes competitive within a year or two. Not in swimming, not in cycling, not in running, not in triathlon, not in any sport.
What does happen is this… a former youth age group athlete, a former college/university athlete who stops training for years sometimes decades in order to start a career, a business, then a family, decides its time to ‘get back in shape’ and in their mid to late 30s or early 40s signs up with a local masters swim team, or running team or triathlon team. Being a bit overweight, and being out of training for a long time makes them look like a beginner but that doesn’t last. The rust files off quickly and within a short period of time – typically a few months – and these athletes are flying fast once again.
When this reality is revealed to masters who did not train in their youth… they typically are gobsmacked to learn that others in the pool many years ago, sometimes decades ago, qualified and competed in Canadian Olympic Trials or in some cases even competed at the Olympics. In one instance, a former Canadian Olympian who competed in Synchonized Swimming came out to join her brother and sister-in law for a swim and joined into the fastest lane in the pool yet hadn’t been ‘training’ in some time. Its not genetics, its not luck, its simply that…
You don’t forget how to ride a bike once you know how.
And this is exactly what happens. All the hours that these masters athletes amassed years and years ago may have been boxed up and thrown into a crawl space or an attic, but with a handful of hours back in full training mode are dusted off and race ready in what appears as no time.
It ain’t genetics, it ain’t luck… its work and loads of it. Put in proper training once and it holds for life. This is why I encourage masters never to compare themselves to anyone else, even other masters in their age category: you never know how much training that other athlete may have. They may not even ‘look’ like an athlete in their 30s or 40s or 50s or 60s or 70s but if they have put in thousands of hours of training in a former life… its still all there and there is no point in trying to compete against them if you don’t have comparable training experience.
(2) What about? Penny Oleksiak
Didn’t Penny Oleksiak learn to swim at the age of 9, start to train at the age of 12 and qualified for Canadian Olympic Trials and then qualified for the 2016 Olympics at the age of 15… what happened to the 10year/10,000hr rule?
But this is exactly why Swim Ontario & Swimming Canada swim club coaches refused Penny to join their swim clubs (i.e. Toronto Swim Club & Scarborough Swim Club). The coaches of these two swims teams who likely proclaim not only the ability to identify potential in athletes but equally proclaim the ability to train athletes to their potential were 100% unable to identify Canada’s to-be most decorated swimmer of all time.
Why? Because these so-called swim coaches looked at Penny at the age of 9, did quick math and thought to themselves… too late for this one, she is too old to start now, she is too old to ever become good, she is too old to ever become a ranked swimmer. Why waste our time trying to train her.
And Penny proved these coaches wrong… oh so embarrassingly wrong! Could you imagine being one of these coaches today knowing that you rejected Canada’s most decorated swimmer back when she was a learn2swimmer! Embarassing!
At the age of 9, Penny was already well on her way to amassing 10,000hrs but because the typical swim coach lacks sufficient education and experience to actually be coaching anyone… Penny was told ‘no’. Meanwhile Penny had already been training as a gymnast and as a competitive dancer for years. No it wasn’t swim training, but developing the cardio-respiratory system, nervous system, and developing positional and spatial and self-awareness that can translate to swimming can easily happen in gymnastics and dance/the visual arts.
Michael Phelps played lacrosse, baseball and football before he focused on swimming. Ed Moses swam only in the summers playing all sorts of ball sports (e.g. golf) the rest of the year before becoming the top breaststroker in the US and qualifying for the 2000 Olympics. Canadian Michael Woods was a track & field athlete for his entire athletic life, only after suffering repeated foot injuries did he turn to cycling. Now Woods is a UCI WorldTour rider on team Education First and rode in 2019 in the Tour de France and is training towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Of course there is sport specific technique, and sport specific skills and racing tactics and strategies but the foundation to excellence in any sport is the same… a massive aerobic base of conditioning that can happen in one sport, or preferably for young athletes across many sports ensuring that the young athlete does not specialize in any sport or worse in any event of any single sport prematurely.
When Penny started to train with a Swim Ontario club after having learnt how to swim… all that Swim Ontario coaches did was what they do with all athletes: they proceeded to have Penny perform deliberate practice (DP – see prior post titled “Starting Younger”) which is simply another term for high intensity interval training or HiiT.
Penny starting DP at 12 years of age but having already thousands upon thousands of hours of FUNdamental training and ‘Learn to Train’ and likely ‘Train to Train’ hours as a result of her gymnastics & dance, she was able to translate all those hours to swimming becoming Canada’s top swimmer.
This is in sharp contrast to every other swimmer that is over-trained and burnt out by Swimming Canada and Swim Ontario coaches. Every other swimmer who starts at the age of 7 or 8 with a Swim Ontario affiliated club is treated no different than Penny was, but lacking all the years of developmental training that Penny stood upon these swimmers burn out or max out or blow up permaturely.
Neither Swim Canada nor Swim Ontario High Performance Coaches (HPC) developed Penny Oleksiak into the athlete she is today… its Penny’s gymnastics teacher & coach, her dance instructor & choreographer and Penny’s swim coach who taught her how to swim with efficient competitive technique that developed Penny. All the SNC/SO HPC coaches did was provide the finishing touch. That SNC/SO HPCs don’t realize this is exactly why Canada’s National squad is as tiny as it is: they don’t know what they don’t know yet believe they know it all.
There is no way around 10,000 hrs and any coach, any sports organizations – like Swimming Canada & Swim Ontario and their affiliated teams – which are bent on forcing square pegs (children without appropriate base training) into round holes (potential Olympic hopefuls) are successful at only one thing: blowing up young athletes many years before they ever come close to experiencing or knowing their fullest potential.
There is only one way to develop an athlete to their potential: adhere to the Long Term Athlete Development model.