Swimming is morning practice. The conventional wisdom is that at a certain point, you get as much as you can out of training once per day, and from there on you must “double up” by making an often cold and dark trip to a cold and dark pool to do some laps. In 2011, when I was an immature 28-year-old swim coach, I decided I would kill morning practice for my training group at Georgia Tech, and I wrote about it, you can find that blog here:
I did it for one season. By the next, morning practice had returned, although in somewhat modified form. Now I am coaching a club (as a wise 31-year-old) where Wednesday is the only day of the week I don’t stand on the pool deck at 5:45 to greet eager young swimmers. So how did I come all the way back? Was dropping morning practice a failure, or did I learn something quite important along the way?
First off, a quick recap of why I killed morning practice in the first place. I was looking at a specific group of athletes and making the determination that longer trainings once per day were a better solution than two practices per day three times a week. The trade-off was fairly negligible in swimming time since I was able to make all the other six trainings a half hour longer and avoid some repeating of warmup/warmdown. The swimmers had by my counting a successful season, their improvement was above average and it was definitely a nice change of pace. If I had the right circumstances (pool space and time), I would probably do it again. Philosophically, I still believe in efficiency and quality in training. If it can be done in a more efficient way and there is a way to stretch the quality of a practice, I’m going to do it.
By the next season, though, adjustments had to be made. Due to the academic schedules of the kids, two of the practices in the week were moved to the middle of the day (11-1) to accommodate afternoon labs/studios, all too frequent for Georgia Tech students. This meant no extra half hour on those days, and realistically many swimmers would arrive 15 min late or leave 15 min early. Morning practice would have to return. I made a conscious decision, however, as I still felt I had swimmers that didn’t need to come to two practices. I made morning practices available only to those who “applied” to be a part of them. Basically, you had to ask, and once you made the commitment you were in. I still do so to this day and I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. The psychology of morning practice completely changed. Instead of “having” to come to morning practice, it was a privilege, extra training with less swimmers in the water and more personal attention. The attitude and atmosphere of the practices were great, and swimmers both in the group and out of it saw great success.
Now as a club coach, I have a whole new set of challenges that required even more change on the morning practice front. Instead of having an entire half of the 1996 Olympic pool to train 18 swimmers, I am now often faced with 2x50m or 4x25m lanes to train the same amount. Morning practice four times a week allows me to spread the swimmers out a bit with their training, and also has allowed me to make a new “sprint” group in the morning and build my team with some older swimmers who need different training.
So what’s the moral of the story? No matter what as a coach you need to think critically about what resources you have and to best use them. Morning practice is a tool, and if you need it you should absolutely use it, but you should also consider whether you really need it or not. It is not without cost that you and your swimmers wake up in the dawn hours of the day- make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.