10 Lessons from the 2020 Olympic Swim Program

There was a lot of controversy about whether the Olympics should go ahead. And I could understand the points being made by both sides.

But now that they’ve started, and we’ve won some medals in the pool, I find I’m checking to see whenever there’s a swim event coming up.

And a lot of stories have come from the pool. Below is a recap of some of these stories and the value for all swimmers looking to get to the next level.

  • The value of the start – Have you seen Caeleb Dressel swim? I have yet to see a race of his where he isn’t half a body length ahead right at the start. Part of this is how quickly and powerfully he gets off the block. This isn’t by chance. Dressel puts the time and effort in the weight room to develop the speed and power to get off the blocks so quickly and explosively.
  • The value of the underwater – Maggie Mac Neil is so good on the underwater portions of her races. In the 100 m fly, which she won gold, she was 7th at the turn and came back to catch everyone. A lot of this has to do with how strong and streamlined she is during the underwater.
  • The value of confidence – I believe it was Kylie Masse that said being on the podium is starting to feel normal for Canadian swimmers. Physically there isn’t a lot of difference between gold and 8th place in most swim events. The medallists know and expect to be there and approach the races differently than those that have never been on a podium before.
  • The value of the process – All swimmers will go through low points in training and competition. And this can make it tough to stay the course. PBs may be hard to come by. You’re tired and sore and it can be hard to find the motivation. Sydney Pickrem made a great comment when she said some practices she would tell herself to have great turns and not to worry about anything else. When things aren’t going well, get back to the basics. And with time the rest will come along.
  • The value of competition – Texas has one of the top programs in the NCAA. And their coach attributes this to the culture of competition. The swimmers push each other to bring their best and work together to get better. Canada has a version of this with the High Performance Centre in Toronto. Having teammates swim fast encourages everyone to swim fast. Success leaves clues and they can learn from each other. And on the days when they’re not up for it, their teammates hold them accountable. You cannot achieve the same level of success on your own. You need a team.
Texas is a perennial top NCAA program because they compete daily as a team.
  • The value of consistency – Daiya Seto has a couple of world championship medals and a bronze from Rio in the 400 IM. But he didn’t make the finals in his home country for this event. There was a rumour he had been at altitude just prior to the games and perhaps hadn’t fully recovered from that training stress. It’s hard to say? But one thing for sure is the value of consistent training and competition. If training at altitude was something new, maybe it should not have been attempted before the biggest meet of every 4 years.
  • The value of win or learn – Some won’t agree with me on this. And that’s OK. But I feel if that if a swimmer qualifies 8th for a final, and that was an over-achievement, than they should just go for it in the final. For example, if you were seeded as 16th fastest and you grab the 8th spot in the finals, than just go for it. This is what Ahmed Hafnaoui did to win the gold as an 18 year old in the 400 m free. What do you think?
  • The value of a quality relay – The Canadian men’s and women’s 4×100 m free relays were both awesome races. And these teams can get even faster with a few improvements. Brent Hayden and Kayla Sanchez can show the others how to get off the blocks further and faster. Maggie Mac Neil and Josh Liendo could share how they are so powerful during the underwater portion. Hint…it might have to do with their strong butterfly. Rebecca Smith and Yuri Kisil would be able to teach how to be as explosive as possible at the turn. And well, you’re not going to teach Penny Oleksiak much about how to race. But she started without much of an arm wind-up and a neutral foot position. A track start with more arm propulsion would likely be quicker and more powerful. And Markus Thormeyer did a great final leg battling Kyle Chalmers who posted a 46.44 second anchor for Australia.
  • The value of kaizen – It only makes sense to include an acknowledgement of the concept of kaizen while the Olympics are in Japan. Kaizen comes from the business world and has to do with seeking constant improvement. It’s the attitude of never being satisfied and always trying to refine and get better. When interviewed in between heats and finals, Canadian swimmers were asked what they would be focussing on for their next race? And some of them answered they would review video of the race with their coach and then decide on a game plan. This helps them continue to improve.
  • The value of doing the little things right – In the men’s 100 m free final, the 8 racers all finished within 1.08 seconds from first to 8th. Dressel beat Chalmers by 0.06 seconds for the gold, and this is the same margin of their reaction times on the blocks. But besides reaction time, we could also look at how powerfully each swimmer got off the blocks. And for that matter, how far they pushed off the wall. Since the cameras all cut to an underwater view on the turns, it’s hard to see who takes a breath right after the turn. In the longer races i.e. 200 m or more, it’s surprising how many swimmers are breathing right off the turn. I’ll have to dig and see if there’s research to see how much this slows a swimmer down because it definitely doesn’t help with maintaining top speed.
  • The value of the placebo effect – Do you remember at the Rio Olympics in 2016 when Phelps came out for his first final? And when he pulled off his shirt the world saw all the cupping marks all over his back and shoulders? Soon every swimmer was seeking out a practitioner to give them the same treatment, and hopefully, improved results as well. Unfortunately cupping doesn’t do many of things it is purported to do, i.e. detoxification, but it may help with pain modulation. Even though the scientific evidence doesn’t exist to support cupping you still see athletes, such as Kyle Chalmers, use it. If he believes it works, and helps him swim fast, than it’s probably good for him to do.
If there’s something you believe helps you swim faster, than it’s probably a good idea to do it.
  • The value of training as a sprinter – This last point probably deserves an entire blog on its own. With more than 20 years as an s&c coach, specializing in coaching swimmers, I believe there is huge value in training and developing speed at a young age. This aligns with LTAD methodology and helps identify those with the best potential in the sport. As an athlete ages up, they can evolve into more of a distance swimmer. I believe this is a big reason for Canada’s success in the pool and there is evidence in other sports as well i.e. Usain Bolt is training for the 800 m, Malindi Elmore is now a marathoner etc. Stay tuned for a future post for more reasons to develop speed and sprinters in swimming.

Coaching swimmers is an amazing and rewarding group of athletes to work with. Success is determined by a higher placing or a faster time. And for most races, the performance is entirely up to the individual. It is much more clear to identify interventions made in training as effective or not. Swimmers should take note of the value of the lessons the Olympics have taught us and apply them to achieve future success.

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