Taking over a co-ed, Power 5 swimming & diving program might be one of the most challenging coaching feats there is from a relational standpoint: how can a brand-new staff connect with a 60+ member, combined gender roster quickly enough to get each individual swimmer the specific training, feedback and coach/swimmer relationship dynamic he or she needs?
One could do worse than to look to Neal Studd for some hints. We caught up with the new Florida State skipper to get his take on year 1 in Tallahassee – and how he used technology and data collection to speed up the “getting to know you” process.
“Obviously, an all-new coaching staff inheriting 60 swimmers or something, there was a lot to learn in a short period of time,” Studd said of his leap to FSU after 9 years building Florida Gulf Coast into one of the top mid-major powers in the nation. “We’re trying to find out what works for each kid. A lot of individual meetings, talking to their club coaches and figuring out what’s worked for them in the past.”
Data collection and analysis has become more and more a part of how we play, coach and follow sports. In baseball, it takes the form of the sabermetrics buzz; in football, it’s advanced grading and scouting services like Pro Football Focus. For Studd and Florida State, it took the role of blood lactate and metrics testing.
“We do a lot of different things here, blood testing and metrics testing and all sorts of stuff,” Studd said. “We’re just trying to figure out individualization of practice a bit.”
Studd said the team will regularly use heart rate monitors as well as blood lactate testing, combining the two to find each swimmer’s specific correlation between the two.
“Sometimes they correlate and sometimes they don’t. That’s good information to know,” Studd said, noting that his staff was able to adjust intervals and training cycles for swimmers based on their unique event combinations and the data pulled from the testing of blood lactate levels, heart rates and other metrics. The goal, Studd says, is finding what works for each individual athlete.
“I’m not a believer that you take 60 kids and you throw them in the pool and you beat them up and maybe 15 of them do really well and 30 of them are OK and the rest of them have a terrible season,” Studd said. “Based on their blood lactate results, you can kind of see where their aerobic base is, and depending on their event and who they are, you kind of figure out what their next 6-to-8-week cycle looks like.”
It’s something Studd has done for a long time, stretching back to his swimming career at Florida Atlantic in the ’90s. Studd said he tested his own blood lactate levels regularly as an athlete, and that experimentation – along with years of research and attending clinics as a coach – has helped him dial in the process further and further.
An added benefit? The extra testing and monitoring can serve to make the swimmers feel more personally valued by their coaching staff.
“I think from talking to the kids, and their knowing that we’re doing everything we can, it really comes across that we care,” Studd said. “And I think they have a big buy-in to that, that ‘Oh wow, the coaches really care about what we’re doing and care about us as people’ and you get more out of the kids that way.”
The results in one year at Florida State have been visible. The men jumped from 9th to 5th at ACCs, while the women moved from 9th to 8th in the conference and from scoring zero NCAA points in 2016 to scoring 24 and taking 28th in 2017.
“I think we took several steps forward,” Studd said. “There’s a lot more to go, but it was perhaps most exciting to do it with the same kids. It was kind of like a pure coaching job. If you look at college coaching, it’s as much recruiting as it is coaching most of the time. This year was just fun to coach the kids that we had here and coach them up to more success without bringing in any recruits.”
FSU’s big individual standout was Natalie Pierce, who exploded for not just her first individual NCAA points, but her first-ever A final appearance. Pierce took 4th in the 100 breaststroke at 58.25 – prior to this season, Pierce had never been under a minute.
“We did some technical work with her, and also her breakouts and underwaters especially improved,” Studd said. “You could see that at NCAAs. I think she took four strokes in the first lap of the 100 breast, and could’ve done it in three if she really wanted to. That’s pretty good for a girl.” He paused. “That’s pretty good for anyone!” he added with a laugh.
“She just kind of bought in to what we were doing and followed the plan. Natalie’s just a great competitor and a great person too.”
Pierce was outstanding at a midseason invite, but was off her game – relatively speaking – at ACCs. While on the surface, that often looks like a swimmer saving a full taper for NCAAs, Studd revealed that Pierce actually dealt with some back issues, which threw a wrinkle into her training leading up to the conference meet. When she was healthy in March, Pierce was right back down in the 58-low range.
That’s not to say the season was without adversity for the Seminoles. The women would have placed inside the top 25 had they not DQ’d both of their medley relays at NCAAs.
“That group of girls in those two medley relays have probably done more relay takeovers than any group I’ve ever seen in my life,” Studd said. “They would stay after practice and do them. And we were great at it all year.”
“It was one of those things as a coach where you just give a girl a hug and just say ‘hey, we did everything we could, you’ve done everything you could, but sometimes in sports things go wrong.'”
Three of the four legs on both of those relays return, which gives Studd plenty excitement for the future of the program. But Florida State will need to stay on its game, with the ACC rapidly becoming one of the toughest conferences nationwide, and ripe with rising programs like FSU. It’s a wholly new setting for Studd, who spent most of the past decade building FGCU into the big fish of the small CCSA pond.
“ACCs was eye-opening in a way. Everybody is swimming super fast,” he said. “It’s changed the game. It’s just made no room for error, whether that’s recruiting or the offseason – or opportunity season, as we like to call it here.”
But even as the ACC moves well into the upper echelon of college swimming, Studd believes the Seminole program belongs.
“That’s why I took the job,” he said. “I didn’t think there was a ceiling on Florida State.”