Monday, August 12, 2013

Are the best youth and junior swimmers really the most talented? Could we be doing more to help our children and even ourselves enjoy swimming more?

Dear Swimmers - some musings to ponder over a coffee if you're so inclined - enjoy! Would love to hear your thoughts / experiences to this effect.

Arguably one of the most quoted books on the factors that contribute to high levels of success in sport, and indeed life in general, is the fantastic title by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers. The book was released in late 2008 and spent eleven consecutive weeks as the New York Times bestseller. I simply love this book and how Gladwell draws upon a range of high-profile examples to support his thesis that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, the product of consistently practicing and perfecting a specific task for at least 10,000 hours.

Edit 3/10/13: David Epstein in his book "The Sports Gene" adds further flavour to this discussion with regard the role that innate talent plays in developing sportstars and is highly recommended as a read alongside Outliers.

One of my favourite examples from Outliers is that of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and how he took advantage of being able to use his school's very primitive computer system literally '24/7' in the 1970s to write computer programming code. No one forced him into this - legend has it that he was privileged to be at a school that had one of the first ever computers and that his IT teachers were willing to let anyone keen enough to learn how to use it to spend as much time as they wanted on the new set up. Gates took passionate interest in something which many people at that time found very 'geeky' or just plain complicated, and consequently over time became the guy responsible for writing the majority of the software and operating systems that we all now use on a daily basis. He had done his 10,000 hours of specific practice way before anyone else claims Gladwell.

Now this article is not a book review, but my own musings on something which I've observed over the years growing up as a swimmer and now as a coach with respect to which swimmers seem to perform the best as youths and juniors and how the 'system' supports those who perform well at a young age, but potentially overlooks those that are still developing or might even be in the wrong discipline altogether. Swimming in particular is notorious for having a massively high drop-out rate at the age of 13 to 15 years from children who've either become burnt out by training 6 to 10 times per week, or whom have realised that they might never be the next Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin. I hope to pose a few questions and equally to provide some potential solutions which might help your own children love swimming past their mid-teens, or if you're a coach of a youth or junior program, encourage your swimmers to identify their best performance pathway to keep them in the sport.

In Outliers, Gladwell opens with a fascinating look at the junior ice hockey leagues in Canada with the following observed phenomenon by Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley:

"in any elite group of hockey players - the very best of the best - 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December"

Gladwell cites Barnsley's reasoning for this as simply because the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1st each year. A boy who turns ten in the first few weeks of January is literally twelve months more physically developed than someone in his same age-category who turns ten in December. Being such a physical and strength-limited sport often means that the older of the two children is often viewed as being more talented due to the likelihood that they will be physically bigger and more coordinated at this age. Subsequently they might get chosen for a rep squad, receive better coaching and in volumes / frequency of up to three times that of the younger child who gets left in the "house" league. At this first divergence in their respective hockey 'careers' the two children might not be too dissimilar in terms of true ability, but after 3 or 4 years of this better coaching, the older child really is better and will then go onto selection for the Major Junior A league and onwards and upwards from there towards a potential professional career.

Gladwell sums up these findings with the following:

"Barnsley argues that these kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming, and differentiated experience. If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the "talented" from the "untalented"; and if you provide the "talented" with a superior experience, then you're going to end up giving a huge advantage to that group of people born closest to the cutoff date."

As a young swimmer growing up in the UK, January 1st was also the age-class cutoff. I remember becoming painfully aware of this as someone born in September as all the kids who were performing really well were born at the very start of the year, and yet because the school year ran September 1st to August 31st, many of these kids were in the year above me at school. As an interesting aside, being the oldest in my school year carried with it the same advantages as the faster swimmers in my age-class - I was literally the top of the year academically throughout my whole time at school, which I now recognise to be more of a virtue of my birth date than of any intelligence I might have had - I was seen to be 'gifted' in many subjects and consequently received additional tutelage and guidance. If I thought I had it 'bad' though in swimming terms, one of the kids in our squad was born on December 31st (making him the very youngest our age-class) and I recall his mother complaining to the national governing body (the ASA) to claim an exemption for her son. Had he been born a day later, he would have been the top swimmer in the younger age-class, instead he was very rarely noticed at competitions and subsequently withdrew from swimming at the age of just 13. Equally, a line has to be drawn somewhere though.

Many of you who have children or who grew up swimming will know all about this, and as such nothing I have stated thus far will be of any particular news to you, but how about we stop looking at the age-class differentiation and look instead towards the physiological differences between those swimmers and athletes who gravitate more towards sprint-based events (anything under 200m in the pool) and those who are seemingly naturally better at distance events. Could we be over-looking some of our potentially promising youths and juniors to a system which is biased heavily towards sprint-based events and as such recognises and celebrates only those who are naturally good at sprinting, leaving many of the would-be distance athletes to potentially become dejected and fall by the wayside?

In swimming, up until the age of about 12 or 13, the majority of events you might attend will have offerings in the 50m to 200m range, i.e. events lasting 25 seconds to 3 minutes. In fact, even the 200m is often considered a 'distance' event at this age. Seldom few distance events exist on the calendar where young swimmers might have the option to compete over 400m, 800m and 1500m. Is this due to lack of interest from the swimmers and their coaches; lack of time available to run a program of events which will each take between 5 and 25 minutes to complete; or due to a deep-seated belief that young kids should not be exposed to the rigours of a 1500m event, despite training typically at least 10 to 20 times this volume per week as sprinters. Good coaches will tell parents that they don't allow their swimmers to "specialise too young" in any particular event and that "all strokes should be attempted" due to the balanced effect that this will have on their kids. Surely though, if we're not letting our children specialise in any of the strokes too young in the hope that they will naturally develop towards their optimal stroke(s), that we should also be doing more to give those who might not be excelling at sprinting, but are motivated and love swimming, to not be afraid to let them have a go at the longer events and find their groove there potentially? Given that the 10,000m open water event is now an Olympic discipline, I would suggest that we need to be doing everything we can to help develop this relatively grass roots area of the sport. This all starts by recognising what are some of the physiological, mental and technical factors that will allow a swimmer to excel in these events, and obviously these are grossly different to what swimmers have historically required for pool-based sprinting.

Whilst studying Sport & Exercise Science at Bath University in the UK, I was fortunate to spend my third year on placement working for the British Triathlon Association (or BTA as it was known then, now simply British Triathlon) as a Young Person's Development Officer for the South West region. This essentially entailed me travelling around schools and clubs in the area looking for potential young 'talent' and then guiding them on a pathway to better performance in the fledgling sport. Even as far back as 1999 British Triathlon and the World Class Program had identified that the best triathletes of the future would be those that could swim and run really well, owing to the fact that triathlon was switching to it's draft-legal format on the bike for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and beyond and as such effectively placing less emphasis on cycling prowess. Whilst the Brownlee Brothers (Alistair and Jonathan - Olympic Gold and Bronze Medallists, London 2012) would have been only 11 and 9 respectively when I was in this role with the BTA, clearly their backgrounds in swimming and cross-country running ahead of cycling, earmarked them as being prime candidates for future success. There was much talk at this time that as Talent-ID officers we should be visiting the local swimming clubs and preening those swimmers who weren't quite "cutting it" in the pool to give triathlon a bit of a go. Not coincidentally many of these swimmers who elected to switch to triathlon were those of smaller stature than their physically developed sprinter-type rivals, seemed to gravitate more towards distance events anyway (even if by virtue of the fact that they weren't achieving County and National standard times in the shorter events) and had strokes which their coaches readily described as being "rough" compared to the technically more gracious Smooth sprinters. Were these neo-triathletes simply the first major wave of true Swingers, whose stroke style, work ethic and endurance-biased physiology would ensure that they'd excel in the very different environment of the rough open water?

Obviously triathlon had it's own "selfish" thoughts of medals at the olympics at heart when we went in search of the next wave of ├╝ber-triathletes, however, did this whole process invariably breed new life back into swimmers who'd spent much of their lives being "shunned" from a performance perspective by doing a discipline (sprinting) that never suited them physically, mentally and technically in the first place? As swim coaches, should we be "giving away" these swimmers to triathlon, or instead at least look at how and why a certain squad swimmer with a good work ethic and seemingly "rough" stroke might actually be prime fodder to be developed as a distance swimmer either in the pool (400m, 800m and 1500m) or in the open water (5km and 10km plus) despite this not being necessarily the "norm" for a kid or a swim program as a whole? Could we be doing more to support these kids and recognising the signs that might earmark them for achieving more in a different discipline? I know for one that I personally wished I'd been led more towards open water distance swimming long before someone suggested I switch to triathlon instead. There was a kid in our squad back in the early 1990s whose mother enrolled him for the local open water club up the coast in Scarborough. In reflection I knew nothing about what or why he was doing this, only that we all thought at the time that he was only doing it because he wasn't that good in the pool and was carrying a few extra pounds in body weight. How wrong we were - that same kid went on to doing really well in the open water and has since swum multiple marathon swimming events as well. What's more, he's still in the sport and still loving it as much now as he did when we first got thrown into the deep end of Bridlington Leisure Centre; not many of those sprinters from my youth are still going (if any), that's for sure!

So if little Jonny comes home from squad practice one day all dejected that he hasn't made the team for the weekend's sprint meet, but genuinely loves swimming and wants to achieve, then maybe little Jonny should give some longer events a bit of a go. Who knows how he might go if given the opportunity? Is this really saying that distance swimming is only for those who don't achieve in sprint-based pool events, or is it simply recognising that all of us excel at different things even within the specialism of swimming and would be best advised to follow what we are truly good at, because everyone likes to be good at something and that's what ultimately keeps the majority of us motivated to keep enjoying something for life?



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