An important distinction has to be made… what exactly does it mean starting younger doesn’t make you better? Did the study mean to suggest that children should not be started in sport at a young age? Not all. What was meant is that starting deliberate practice (DP) at a young age fails to deliver optimal results: athletes will fail to reach higher levels of competitions when DP is started too early.
What is deliberate practice (DP)? Deliberate practice in the context of this study meant high-intensity training sessions. High intensity training includes any sort of training set which is based on making pace times, and/or demanding that athletes deliver consistently and repeatedly high intensity levels of effort in training.
Specifically this study identified that:
Runner who made it to World Class levels of competition (i.e. Kenyan runners) started DP at the age of 18.
Runners who made it as far as international-level competition started DP at the age of 16,
Runners who made it as far as national-level competition started DP at the age of 13.
The point: start an athlete at high intensity training sooner and the sooner they will max out, maxing out at a lower level of competition then if they started deliberate practice (DP) later on.
If not DP, then what should athletes be doing in training? Learning! Learning how to swim (i.e. all the finest details to swim all the strokes with excellence), how to train, the skills, the tactics, the strategies of how to race, and then learning to apply them in non-competitive situations before applying them in competition. Athletes should be spending years and years learning and only after truly mastering the execution of sport specific technique, the skills and strategies should DP be added as the final piece.
If you are a youth/junior/U19 swimmer, cyclist, runner or multi-sport (e.g. triathlon) athlete and your coach has you doing structured high intensity training before you have mastered the sport, they are not training you to reach your highest potential.
If on the other hand you as an athlete or you as a parent are truly invested in the long term and interested in exploring your fullest potential then deliberate training (DP) must be delayed as long as possible. In the meantime training should be to develop the athlete’s ability to execute sport specific technique at the highest level on demand without hesitation, doubt or fear. Training should be developing the athlete’s self-knowledge & self-awareness, and developing the athlete’s skill range in both training and racing so that at the appropriate time the athlete will be able to compete expressing honestly their truest ability.
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Why the position that Swimming Natation Canada/Swim Ontario are failing Canadian youth? Because neither organization enforces their own LTAD (long term athlete development) model amongst their associated swim clubs or coaches. Swimmers are not taught to ‘Learn to Train’ before ‘Training to Train’ which is supposed to come before swimmers are to ‘Learn to Compete’ which comes before ‘Training to Compete’ and especially before ‘Competing to Win’. Instead, swimmers as young as 7 & 8 years of age are thrown into swim meets and expected to swim fast, and swim hard and ‘beat’ other swimmers (and if possible break records and qualify for higher levels of competition).
The evidence of the failures of Swimming Natation Canada (SNC) and Swim Ontario (SO) to properly develop athletes is lengthy… all one needs to do is look at our roster of male and female Olympians (especially our male roster) and compare it to Commonwealth Nations of similar size/scope and the difference is appalling.
Considering that Canada’s most decorated swimmer and Summer Olympian – Penny Oleksiak – was rejected by not one but by two Toronto swim clubs because Penny was unable to swim a length at the age of 9… and it should be no surprise why the typical drop out age of athletes from competitive swimming is in the early to mid teens (with few teens actually making it to their prime physiological period of 18-24years of age, which is also the average age of Olympic level swimmers). By the time swimmers are 9 years of age at SNC & SO affiliated clubs, athletes are so deep into deliberate practice (DP) that helping a 9 year old ‘learn to swim’ is preposterous… who has time for that?
At 9, Penny was just getting started in the sport of swimming.
At 9, the typical Swim Ontario club swimmer is 1/2 way to being burnt out and being done with swimming.
Hmm… a clue that there is something tragically wrong with how children are being coached/trained to swim?
Below are links to prior blog posts depicting the “state of swimming” in Ontario & Canada:
On a personal note… this study hits home. My son swam with a Swim Ontario affiliated club starting from the age of 7, and like all parents we drank the koolaid believing that the ‘how to’ was appropriate… we believed like all other parents that the deliberate practice (DP) that our children were being asked to perform was not only appropriate, but safe and healthy. Plus, my son was swimming with 4 other boys with whom he had become good friends… everything looked and felt amazing. Then the results started to roll-in and the koolaid tasted better and better for us as parents.
At the age of 12, my son qualified for Festivals (Swimming Provincials for athletes <13yrs of age) in the maximum # of events permissible; one of only two on the team who did so. Within another month, at a follow up meet, the wheels fell off… all of a sudden unable to set another personal best, exhaustion set in, overwhelming exhaustion… and that was the end.
On a personal note I can corroborate the findings from the study linked above… my son started DP early, way way way too early in his athletic life and although he made it to the provincial level of competition, that was the tip of his spike. Do I believe that that is anywhere close to my son’s potential? Hell no. But that is exactly the point… start DP early and instead of doing the athlete any favours you are only shortening their career hence their opportunity to truly succeed in sport.
I write these blogs in the ‘after’ for parents in the ‘before’… in the ‘before’ the wheels fall off and your child is depressed, despondent, and deeply hurt by a childhood love of sport turned into a torturous effort that has lost all its fun. I promise all parents that trying to put the wheels back on is no small effort… and in short, the short term spike is not worth the long term consequences.
To all parents with children in Swim Ontario affiliated clubs… caution. No, not all coaches & clubs are clueless, but in my experience most are, and most are drinking the koolaid where hard is good, harder better still, and as hard as you can for as long as you can… cheered on as awesome. Its good while it lasts, but when it ends… its a disaster and your child will not leave sport without scars.
As parents, we started TOEST, TOETT & jTOEST for this exact reason… because our children needed an alternative and if our children needed an alternative we believe that all children need an alternative to the status quo.
On a final note, the other boys that my son swam with… only one still swims and that one today/6yrs later is still trying to move up to the next level of competition by qualifying for Nationals, and the others:
one developed a medical condition where the doctor prescribed (in addition to medication) an immediate stop to the high-intensity training/DP;
one was diagnosed with an heart condition which brought an immediate stop to the high-intensity training/DP; and
one left swimming in hopes of succeeding in another sport (and that was when he was still only 10 or 11).
The hopes and the promises of ‘being the next great swimmer’ disappeared for all these boys. It doesn’t have to be this way.