During October, the short course swimming season really gets under way. Most of the NCAA will kick their seasons off in the next few weeks, as will most of the high school federations (although some, like South Carolina, are already ending their seasons, amazingly enough). This made me take a look at all of the different types of meets that teams use to kick off the season. A vast majority of teams start off with an intrasquad (blue and white, orange and white, red and white, yellow and white, etc.) or alumni meet, just to get everyone used to meet procedures, without the pressure of another team. Those meets are also great for team-building, and set a tone of competitiveness within a squad that helps push everyone to improve in practice every week.
But here I’m looking at the first intersquad meet. Unlike the long course season, where it’s almost exclusively large invites, the short course season is much more team focused, leading to a lot of creative variations on how coaches think the best way to start off on the right foot is. These meets can often set a tone for the rest of the season, and thus the decision should not be taken too lightly. This is because team bonding and spirit is viewed to be much more important for team competition (which in itself is probably up for debate, but outside the scope of this post).
- Relay Meets – This is an old standard kick-off that seems to be falling out of favor a little. The Big 12 used to kick off their season every year with a relay meet, but that meet has been done away with. My high school team is beginning things with a relay meet this season. These meets are good because the relay aspect encourages team-building, especially in leagues (like the NCAA and high school) where relays are so important in scoring. Also, because there are so many spots available for each stroke, it often gives swimmers the chance to swim things they normally wouldn’t and perhaps discover a few hidden gems. These meets are also a lot of fun for the swimmers, and usually include some creative relays. One of the better ones that I’ve seen are class relays, requiring one swimmer from each grade level, because it can put younger swimmers in a position that they’re not used to, and give them some valuable experience racing with veterans. I’ve also seen a 2×250 relay, where two swimmers alternate 50’s until they get to a combined 500 yards. This race is a big mental test early in the season–if you don’t think it sounds that hard, try it. The only drawback of starting with relay meets is that they can sometimes devolve into silliness if your swimmers aren’t in the right mindset, and this can set a poor tone for the rest of the season.
- Dual Meets – Many of the big schools (Cal and Stanford of note) are taking pages out of the playbooks of their football programs, and opening their seasons with dual meets against undermatched opponents. These sort of meets can help build confidence in a team by getting an early win. These meets also can take on a high level of intensity, because the smaller program is gunning all out for the bigger program, in that it’s their first meet of the season and that they want to show that they can hang with the big guys. This proves to be a positive for both teams involved, as it creates an atmosphere of seriousness that can focus athletes for a whole season. For the smaller teams, it can allow the underdogs to step up on a big stage. Unlike in football, moral victories in swim meets do count for something. For example, San Jose State achieved a single event victory from Darcie Anderson in their meet against Stanford, which doesn’t seem like much, but imagine the feeling it gives that swimmer. She is only a freshman, went a career best in the 200 breaststroke by 5 seconds, and won an event against the might Stanford. Not only does that get her name mentioned in the media, it is a solid building block for the rest of the season.
- Invites – Many teams have opted to kick their seasons off with invites, which seems to be coming into favor over the relay meets. The Southwest Collegiate Plunge will be the first chance to see the defending National Champion Texas Longhorns in action, along with a handful of other top 25 men’s teams, including Texas A&M and SMU. Florida is hosting the “All-Florida Invite,” which is, predictably enough, made up entirely of in-state rivals like Florida State and Miami. I tend to feel that these are not the best way to amalgamate new swimmers into the team, and to create team chemistry, because depth tends to become less significant in an invite, meaning that a certain class of swimmers are put on a pedestal by swimming finals, whereas others are not. Of course, if you’re trying to establish leadership early in the season, this might not be a bad thing either. The big benefit of this meet type is that, given that they are usually prelims-finals, they start getting your swimmers prepared for conference and NCAA Championship meets early in the season. This double-session nature also allows some great coachable moments, as any mistakes can be immediately corrected before finals. They also give swimmers the chance to do a lot of racing, which can often be appreciated after so many weeks of straight-training. These meets can also disrupt early-season training depending on how long they are, which depending on coaching methodology, might not be a huge deal. A program like SMU, who runs on a cycle of resting about every six weeks, could benefit from this. A club like Arizona, who saves the full shebang for NCAA’s, this might not be so great.
- Alternative Competition – Some teams go with totally alternative types of competition. Triathlons are one way to go, with the theory that they help swimmers to develop an overall level of endurance and conditioning to build off of throughout the season. A lot of high schools and club teams in the south especially have given this a try, sometimes opting for a duathlon (running and swimming) instead. Of course, with swimmers being swimmers, there is a high risk of lingering ankle, knee, and hip injuries that could come from a spill in these races. The Texas A&M women took an approach that I’ve rarely seen before, especially on the collegiate level, by entering into the ASA Open Water Collegiate Championships in Austin. They were the runaway champions over Rice and D-3 Trinity in the unofficial college championship. Open water swimming is an entirely different animal than pool swimming, but an event like this is a good experience for a team, especially one like the Aggies that is so heavy with distance swimmers. In my personal experience of working with open water swimmers, the lack of turns and the choppy nature of the water helps swimmers build more upper body strength, which is a good foundation once they get back to the pool. The novelty of the race can also build some excitement around the program when drudging through the first few weeks of training, as novel experiences are always good for morale.
- It Just Doesn’t Matter – Many coaches take the mindset that it simply doesn’t matter what kind of meet opens the season, and that it’s more important to focus on how the timing of the meet fits into your training cycle. Being early in the season, nobody is anywhere near their best training yet, and the results of these meets are insignificant. It’s more important to get your athletes familiar with their warmup and pre-race routines, and to help break up mundane training.
Throughout my coaching and swimming careers, I’ve actually experienced all five of these scenarios. My least favorite tended to be the triathalons, because there was a general lack of enthusiasm from the team, and inevitably there was an unnecessary injury. Relay meets similarly lacked the focus to be a good lead-off for the season, and if I were to do a relay meet, I generally prefered it to come mid-season, when the light-hearted mood of the meet was more valuable as a mental break. As I mentioned, invites can be a lot of pressure for a first meet (though they make great second meets), and I don’t believe they’re the best first experience for a freshman. My favorite is ultimately a dual meet. Those usually satisfy the coaches who fall under the 5th category (it just doesn’t matter), because these meets are the most flexible in scheduling. They are also a great place to make mistakes, as a single race doesn’t have a huge effect on the outcome.
What kind of meets have you (as an athlete or coach) had the best experience leading off a season with? Sound off below, and be sure to vote in the poll on the right side of the screen.