Long Strokes in a Short Season

Excerpts from “Long Strokes in a Short Season” by Art Aungst
Coach of the New York State Champion High School Team

Reaping Maximum Value from the High School “Talent Pool”

The unusual degree to which we have been able to create success based on significant contributions from athletes who don’t consider themselves “swimmers” has been exciting for me to witness. Swimming misses out on a great deal of potential, because it typically holds little appeal for the person who has multiple athletic talents. The good athletes often look at swimming as mainly about “how much pain and tedium can you endure?”

By changing our program from how-far-and-how-hard to a constantly evolving set of challenges involving balance, self-awareness, and exploration of efficiency, we have greatly increased its appeal to a person’s general athleticism.

The “buzz” this has generated around the school has translated into more good athletes from other sports who view swimming as a favorable choice for off-season. Many kids, who play volleyball, football, or soccer, also play baseball, run track, and play lacrosse in other seasons. Many have outstanding athleticism that could be applied to swimming during a 12-week high school season if they were given the maximum opportunity to apply their athletic talents in the water. By making swimming more appealing through teaching, we have attracted many more of these kids to swim with us. By focusing on teaching and practice, rather than generic training, we have also given them to opportunity to swim quite fast in a brief season, and they have been instrumental to our success.

Results

In 1997, we had our best season to that point. We placed six girls who also play lacrosse, softball, and run track in state final. They hit All American cuts in all three relays. Our swimmers were beating kids who train all year following just 12 week of practice! More importantly, every girl on our team got much better.

In the period from 1996-2002, we had three relays in every state meet. No other team has ever won all three relays. In 2001 and 2002 we broke the state record in the 400 free and finished second to Newburgh.

In terms of time, it might be appropriate to compare results from our school records in all three relays from the 15 years when I emphasized training, with the four seasons when I focused on teaching

Since 1998, I have had far fewer year-round swimmers than in the past, yet we are swimming far faster on far less training.

Since moving to a more technique-based program in 1997, our boys’ team has lost only two dual meets, and those were to the eventual State champions. In 1998 at States, we won the 200 free relay and finished second in the 400. We had an all-league volleyball player who swam only during the 12-week high school season finish 2nd in the 100 and 5th in the 500 free. In 1999, despite graduating 2 All Americans, we moved up to 1st in the 400 free relay at the State meet. Again, a different all-league volleyball player provided us with critical points.

What I Have Learned from Coaching Differently

In talking to and observing other coaches, it is quite clear that our approach is unconventional. Most high school coaches attend clinic after clinic to learn more about how to train their swimmers. At those clinics, they hear of elaborate plans employing macro- and meso-cycles over a lengthy period for optimal development of an elite-swimmer. They then hurry home and eagerly try to apply those plans over a period of perhaps 12 weeks (and fewer than 50 workouts) to a group of distinctly average swimmers.

My shift to a teaching emphasis has made me realize that a training emphasis requires more time than a 12-week season. It has proven to me that the surest way to succeed in short-season swimming-whether high school or summer league-is through emphasis on technique and teaching. Though this seems counter-intuitive to most coaches, I can’t help asking,  “ How can it be a bad thing to move through the water with less effort-no matter the level of the swimmer?”

I’ve also observed enormous benefits from learning how to make practice challenging every day. Not the one-dimensional challenge based on how hard, but a multi-dimensional challenge in which the swimmer is perpetually challenged to combine stroke rate and stoke length to solve the puzzle of how to swim more economically and reduce wasted effort. The yardage total is greater on some days, less on others, but our emphasis has shifted form how many yards to how-close-to-perfect they are.