“We Have Always Done It That Way”

by SwimSwam 11

July 20th, 2017 Lifestyle, Opinion

Courtesy of Stuart Dustan

“We have always done it that way”, is a phrase I have heard uttered far too often by coaches in response to a challenge of their training methods. In a previous article I highlighted the importance of hanging a question mark over your strongest held beliefs; in this post, I challenge you to put it into practice.

I have posed a number of questions to you below and I would like you to answer them, however, I have one condition for this exercise – I would like you to assume that, whatever answer you provide, it is wrong. I want you to try and act as your own devil’s advocate. Find the flaws, the weaknesses, the limitations of your answer; assume that they exist – more often than not, if you look hard enough, you’ll find them. By becoming aware of the pitfalls in your programme you can refine, remove and replace the practices which do not stand up to this self-scrutiny.

Make yourself prove your answer. Don’t accept cop-outs such as “That’s what everyone else does,” or, “That’s what we have always done”. Instead, I would implore you to employ reason based on logic, science, scientific rationale and, evidence.

For each of the questions I have posed, I have included a potential ‘cop-out’ answer and, a possible alternative answer – a ‘devil’s probe’. Here goes.

Why are some of my* swimmers progressing and improving significantly better in comparison to other swimmers within the same lane? 

Cop-out: Some swimmers work harder than others. 

Devil’s probe: I have not created a programme which is sufficiently individualised for each athlete within the lane. I have not recognised the vast physiological and psychological differences which can exist between each athlete. 

Why do I have swimmers who regularly become injured, particularly in the shoulder region? 

Cop-out: It’s an excuse swimmer’s utilise when the going gets tough.

Devil’s probe: My programmes consist of vast swimming distances which are applying an unnecessarily large amount of pressure on the swimmer’s shoulders’. My dryland programme is having a detrimental effect on the swimmer’s performance in the water.

Why are my swimmers not meeting my performance expectations? 

Cop-out: The athletes are not trying hard enough. They don’t listen. 

Devil’s probe: I am overtraining my athletes. I am not communicating my technical instructions effectively. I am not creating an environment in which the swimmer’s wish to engage. 

Why is it that during races my swimmers fail to replicate the technique we have worked on in training? 


Cop-out: The athletes are not performing the technical movements enough.


Devil’s probe: I have been ignorant of the link between technique and velocity – I have prescribed paces slower than race-pace for my swimmer’s to practice their race technique. 

Some of the club swimmers attend a session and always seem distracted – why are they not concentrating? 


Cop-out: They don’t care enough about their swimming.
Devil’s probe: I am writing up a session on the whiteboard and I am not engaging with the swimmers – I mainly leave them to it. I expect them to get on with the session with minimal interaction. 


Why do my age-groups swimmers appear to peak at age 16-17 followed by a decline in performance? 

Cop-out: Young adult life catches up with them, they prioritise their social life over their swimming life. 

Devil’s probe: The performance of those swimmers have relied on the improvements which come from growth during puberty; it shows the training programme has not been as effective as I thought it was.   

Why do I struggle to retain swimmers between the ages of 16-18? 

Cop-out: This is due to the external pressures experienced by teenage swimmers, e.g. academic pressures. 

Devil’s probe: I have reduced my athletes to swimmers rather than appreciating their life outside of the pool. My programme does not accommodate for these other areas of life. I have placed a disproportional emphasis on quantity of swimming over quality. 

Are all my training practices in line with current evidence and research? 

Cop-out: I don’t care, all my practices have been learned from very successful coaches and from methods which everyone else uses.

Devil’s probe:  No, I haven’t been equipped with the skills to carry out research of sport science so I avoid it. I am ignorant of the scientific process. Some of my practices conflict with scientific evidence and scientific rationale. 

Should I allow my ideas to be challenged by colleagues and other coaches? 

Cop-out: No, I’m a level 3 licensed coach!

Devil’s probe: Yes! It’s one of the best ways to find the weaknesses in my training programme. My beliefs and opinions are not infallible – I could be wrong. 

This is not a post on how to improve your programme, instead, I hope it has revealed to you that your programme can be improved. If nothing else, employing the devil’s advocate and utilising self-evaluation can reassure you that you are on the right track IF your ideas, training and methods can stand up to thorough scrutiny.

Yours in Swimming,


*I have noticed some controversy with using the phrase “your swimmers” or “my swimmers”. It has been claimed that no coach owns a swimmer and that said terms are too possessive. I think that this response is an overreaction and, is a tad pedantic. The swimmers are the coaches responsibility during a session and, they tend to lead the team – thus they are in a position whereby they are – in essence – the coach’s swimmers.

About Stuart Dustan

Residing in Scotland, Stuart has been coaching for numerous years and has belonged to a variety of clubs across the country. He started his coaching career with Forres Bluefins ASC moving on to Perth City SC whereby he worked alongside one of the most experienced coaches in Scottish Swimming, assisting with the development of a number of successful swimmers including an Olympic medal-winner. Stuart now spends his time coaching within a large swimming club in Dundee (Dundee City Aquatics) and, he is also a long-term member of the executive training team within one of the only specialist sprint clubs in the UK – Free Style SC. Free Style utilises an evidence-based and scientific approach to training. Stuart has experience as a researcher in Medical Science and he utilises this experience to critically review scientific literature related to athlete performance. He can often be found on Twitter engaging in respectful, yet critical debates with other coaches on swimming science (@SwimCoachStu).

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Ice age swimmer
4 years ago

Outstanding approach to coaching. Can also be applied to other parts of life. Thank you Stuart- great article.

Stuart D
Reply to  Ice age swimmer
4 years ago

Thank you Ice!

4 years ago

Rather than bashing yardage and coping-out to each of these problems with “I put my swimmers through too much time and yardage and not enough speed training.” It would be interesting if you could give us an actual solution. Swimming a 10,000 yard practice can be just as boring or as useless to a swimmer as a 4,000 yard practice. If the athlete isn’t engaged and devoted to their swimming then they won’t have fun, won’t improve, and will drop out either way. Stuart, you seem like a well informed guy but you are again coming across as an arrogant Diva by “subtly” bashing any coaches that ask swimmers to put in a lot of time and/or yardage. I wish… Read more »

Reply to  Swimmer
4 years ago

After re-reading your last paragraph, I withdraw the first part of my comment. You seem like a decent fellow and I will be continuing to read your articles in the future.

Reply to  Swimmer
4 years ago

In light of the fact that you are offering a method and not trying to push a solution ^^^

Reply to  Swimmer
4 years ago

When done bashing successful age-group coaches of swimmers like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin, Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Rebecca Soni and others, please list the great swimmers in history who have grown up on low-yardage, “science-based” training as young teens.. I am impressed you were able to keep track and field training out of your piece. Kudos

Reply to  Coach
4 years ago

Coach I believe you and I are in agreement. However if you responded to me to express a disagreement I would love to hear it.

Stuart D
Reply to  Coach
4 years ago

I wonder how many hundreds of ‘Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochtes, Natalie Coughlins, Katie Ledeckys, Nathan Adrians, Rebecca Sonis’ we have let slip through our fingers for not applying this method?

4 years ago

This defines me as a swmmer, I want quality as a sprinter ?

Stuart D
Reply to  Retnirps
4 years ago

50s are very much underappreciated in my part of the world. Keep it up!

4 years ago

In thirty years of coaching, I have never heard a coach respond to a “why” question with “That’s what we have always done”. Just sayin. I HAVE heard others dismiss coaches by implying that is the response they WOULD get. I have heard coaches say “That’s what Bill Rose (or Mark Schubert or Bob Bowman or a number of other super-successful coaches) have always done” to develop olympic-champion swimmers.