Can your coach, actually coach?  Ask athletes or parents of athletes on swim teams and you will be met with a quizzical expression implying ‘why wouldn’t they be able to coach… they are the team coach’.  Athletes and parents of athletes will then refer to one or more athletes who are ‘progressing’, qualifying for higher level meets, or setting personal best times in order to reinforce the narrative that the team coach, can in fact coach.

But can your coach actually coach or is the ‘progress’, the qualification of one or more swimmers to higher level meets and/or faster times being achieved due to another factor?

If your coach can indeed coach, then that would imply that there isn’t an age limit, that there is no point that the coaches methodology fails to be able to derive additional results for athletes, there should be no point beyond which the coaches training and racing philosophy fails. There should not be an inflection point in performance for athletes on the team; there may be plateaus in performance, but no athlete should come to the point where they feel that they are not capable of progressing further.

But this is exactly the problem. There is an inflection point consistently in the performance of all athletes – not just male swimmers, but female swimmers as well – on Swim Ontario affiliated swim teams.  This inflection point is seen in the drop out rate of swimmers, typically at or around the age of 13-15 for girls, and for boys in the age range of 13-16.

The question is not whether this inflection point exists, the question is why do athletes and parents of athletes on swim teams continue to uphold the belief that the head coach, or for that matter any of the coaches (especially if the head coach cannot coach) can all coach?  The corollary to this question is why do athletes and parents believe that when the performance gains do stop, that it is the athlete’s ability which is to blame (i.e. that’s their limit of their potential) as opposed to the coach being held responsible for failing to continue to achieve performance gains?

Why are we so willing to blame our children, and so willing to accept that the coaches you find on swim teams are actually qualified, educated, experienced, able to coach?

Simple.  Because athletes and parents of athletes come to the swim team believing that the coaches on the team are qualified, and if they aren’t or weren’t then they wouldn’t be coaching.  They trust that if the coach wasn’t capable to hold the position of coach, then the coach would have been let go. Once part of the club, athletes and parents either experience ‘progress’ or witness ‘progress’ being made by other athletes so the belief in the coaching staffs ability is reinforced.

But when ‘progress’ stops… no one asks any questions.

So let’s dispel a few narratives which keep incompetent coaches coaching, and lead to children leaving sport believing that it was their inability to swim faster that limited their potential, that prevented them from achieving once held hopes and dreams of… representing Canada as a member of the National team, as a member of the Canadian Olympic Team.

The Link Between a Child’s Growth Curve & Performance Curve

The diagram to the right depicts the typical or average growth curve for females and males. The Rate of Growth curve for girls slows as the age of 10 approaches, but somewhere around or after the age of 10 the growth curve accelerates achieving PHV (Peak Height Velocity) or peak growth rate between the ages of 12 and 14.  For boys the curve slows til the age of 12 or 13 and no different than girls, boys experience their acceleration in growth into the ages of 14 or 15 years at which point growth slows to a crawl.  For some the growth spurt comes as a series of intense growth periods followed by a break, which is then followed by another growth spurt.

It is extremely important for athletes, parents, and parents on Boards of swim teams to be aware of the Rate of Growth curve and the connection to performance gains of athlete’s on the team because if athlete’s on the team are mainly or only improving during their peak growth rates, then it begs the question… can the coach, coach or is the coach perceived as capable and competent only because children have growth spurts?

Click image to enlarge

On every team there are girls and boys who are early bloomers, their Rate of Growth curve steepens sharply upwards way ahead of girls and boys of equal age on the team.  In some cases, there are children in grade 6 or 7 who grow so sharply that they can easily be mistaken for high school students.  There are also children who are late bloomers and end up in high school and are still waiting for their growth spurts to happen.

What is the typical pattern in performance across these groups of children?  If you are a parent who has sat in the bleachers, the stands, on the side of pools, tracks, courts or fields you know what happens…  the early bloomers start to out perform everyone else.

But are these performance gains thanks to capable and competent coaching?  No!

But this is exactly what tends to occur: the coach is perceived as being capable because a handful of children excel, meanwhile athletes and parents turn a blind eye to the reality that the gains have nothing to do with the coach and everything to do with nature (as in a handful of children hitting their PHV earlier than all others). The children who are not excelling – the late bloomers – are made to believe that whereas the others have ‘talent’, they do not. These children typically stick around for awhile but they tend to either quit the sport and switch to another, or quit sport entirely. All because of the belief that its not the coach who failed to coach, but they somehow failed… as a child.

Now its easy to think that for those athletes and those parents of athletes who hit PHV early that their career in sport is set… they clearly stood out at an early age, so these children must end up going on to continue in progressing, going on to earn scholarships, qualifying for National and International level competitions placing them in the position to be selected for teams representing Canada.

Not so fast.

When a child has made all their performance gains as a result of hitting PHV earlier than others, the belief is at first that they are ‘special’, they are a ‘natural talent’, they are supposed to succeed in the sport, that they are on their way to greater and greater successes. What parents of children who are late bloomers – those who tend to quit at an early age – do not see is the struggle these children encounter the moment their growth spurts starts to slow, and especially when it ends.

First, when these athletes stop growing, their times no longer improve by 5, 10 or 15secs between swim meets and all of a sudden improving at all becomes a challenge. Herein lies the first test of how ‘special’ is the athlete, how naturally talented they are, how destined to succeed. All of a sudden, the wind is no longer at the back of the athlete. In addition, if they follow the typical progression at most Swim Ontario affiliated swim clubs, the older the athlete the more times a week they train, meaning that at a time when the athlete is training more hours per week then ever, their performance gains stop or at least slow. Typically this leads to doubling-down on training and with progress failing to materialize, athletes quit sport spent, exhausted, disappointed, some even hating a sport they once loved.

Second, these athletes are no longer the stand out amongst a handful of similar aged swimmers, these athletes are typically moved up to train with older athletes as a result of their gains in performance, and without the added benefit of being taller and stronger than all their counterparts the only advantage they had is now eliminated. Now, these athletes are faced with the task of actually competing on level ground… with other children who were early bloomers, with other children who were told that they were ‘special’, naturally talented, who could be certain that they were to go on to success after success in the sport.

But let’s not forget what the point of this post is…

Its not about children and growth curves, its whether or not any coach on your child’s swim team can actually coach.

If the coaches are capable and competent then these issues should not exist, these issues should not be the ‘typical’ story of any athlete.

If the coaches are capable and competent then all of these issues would be discussed with the athlete and/or at their parents so that inappropriate extrapolations of success are not made based on early successes, and that the child is encouraged to understand how growth rate influences their short and long term performance in sport.

If the coaches are capable and competent then the focus is never on short term bursts of progress from growing, the focus is always maintained on skill acquisition, repetition, and preparation to execute skills on demand across a wide range of circumstances and conditions. As in… coaches actually coaching.

Writing Up Workouts Is NOT Coaching

The ability to write up a workout does not imply an ability to coach. To coach means to teach. To write up a workout… well, there are apps for that, so the ability to write up a workout is essentially the equivalent of an algorithm.  If all that a coach can do is write up workouts… then they are not a coach, they are an algorithm who can be and should be replaced by an app.  If that’s all that the coach is capable of doing… then whatever the club or team is paying them is way way too much. There are endless numbers of workout generating apps which any parent can download and use to write up a workout on the whiteboard for the swimmers to follow.

A swim team or swim club – at least one which is invested in seeing children actually acquiring skills, learning to practice those skills to refine them to the point that they are available on demand (i.e. in competition) so that the athlete is capable of delivering an appropriate effort – should have a coach who spends their time teaching.

Having former OAK (Oakville Aquatic Club) and BAD (Burlington Aquatic Devilray) swimmers – some having swam for 3 or 4 years with these teams – start to train with us, I have experienced first hand the poverty in what has come to be called ‘coaching’ at these clubs and other Swim Ontario affiliated swim clubs. Athletes who supposedly ‘trained’ 3, 4, even 5x a week for years lack the ability to swim all four (4) strokes with any degree of skill, not to mention are often unable to execute proper turns [open or closed] to match the stroke, nor proper wall push offs, and lets not even mention dive starts.

In all the cases, the athletes left the teams as a result of burning out, sustaining one or more injury, developing illness(es) as a result of the training schedule, or because the lack of progress precluded new goals, new expectations to be set, that continuing training was rendered pointless.

Parents… why are we so desperate to have our children on teams where competing and the expectation to compete against others is primary, where the expectation is that athletes will set times and improve on their times while coaches depend on growth curves to cause ‘progress’ instead of actually teaching children how to progress?

I ask you to consider the impact that this mindset has on your children.  Long term… what impact does it have on your child when they are made to feel that their potential is limited, that they do not have the ability to continually improve, when they are made to feel that others can succeed and they cannot?  In the short term it seems innocuous when our children decide to ‘quit’ sport, but is it really without consequence?

Children need to know that they can succeed, and they need to learn the process to succeeding. If all they experience is that success comes as a result of being ‘lucky’ by having your growth spurt come early, that success is linked to external factors beyond their control then how does that set them up to live life?

Parents… I ask you to seriously consider how you chose your children’s extra curricular activities, the goals and expectations set for those activities. If you are truly interested in setting your child to win in life, then what they are doing, and how they are taught in those activities should be considered critical to their long term well being. Most importantly parents, I ask you to evaluate the qualify of coaching at whatever team or club you sign your child up. Find out if there truly is coaching, or if the coach is no better than a downloaded app.

All of this matters… to your child even if they don’t know it; actually… especially since children don’t know.