By Dr. Zachary Hojnacki
How Was Your Race?
Coach: “Good job, how do you feel about that swim?”
Swimmer: *shakes head* “That was terrible.”
Coach: “Why do you feel that way — your stroke technique was strong and efficient, and you executed the race well.”
Swimmer: “Because I added…”
Our program recently traveled across the country from New York to Arizona to compete in a terrific and uniquely formatted competition hosted by Phoenix Swim Club called the Arizona Dual Meet Championships. Aside from the benefits the team travel experience provided for our 14 & under athletes in their developmental process, the dual meet format brought out the best in our kids. It was a significant departure from the traditional weekend swim meet experience, where the emphasis is often on maximizing the number of events swum and personal best times achieved. This weekend was instead about racing: fighting for first not only for yourself, but for your team. Competition is pure and fun, and somewhat lacking in today’s swim experience. I believe we have somewhat overcorrected and could benefit as a sport from shifting our emphasis back towards racing.
Where We Got Lost
I suspect that in the early stages of the sport, competition was the primary focus. Somewhere along the way, coaches and parents encouraged athletes to direct their attention towards improving their personal best times as a means to discourage obsessive comparisons to the success of other athletes, and to instead prioritize self-improvement. I agree that is a healthy and appropriate mindset, and that constant comparisons to other swimmers is a recipe for constant disappointment and discouragement.
However, it feels as though we have veered off course from what that mindset was originally intended to promote. Walking around the pool deck, speaking to my own athletes or listening to the conversations of others, times are often the only focus. Evaluation of race outcomes has become binary – drop time = good swim, add time = bad swim. As athletes grow older and less frequently perform their personal bests, their relationship with the sport begins to sour. Even as they understand that a personal best time is not a realistic expectation at certain phases of the season, there is a tendency to compare times to past seasons or to other swimmers in an effort to project taper times. If those times don’t meet the swimmers’ expectations, they are quick to panic and self-doubt creeps in. For some, there is a decreased willingness to compete in meets during the phases of training where fast swims are least likely, even as these competitions are important prerequisites for end-of-season breakthroughs.
What We Are Communicating to Young People
Parent: “Nice racing today! 3 out of 4 best times! We just need to fix that backstroke!”
Parent: “What happened out there? Why were you so far off your best? Is something wrong?”
Coach: *Emphatically* “You dropped 3 seconds!”
As adults, we are culpable here. Post-race feedback is often littered with discussion about races in terms of total time, proximity to best, etc., rather than objective evaluation on the basis of execution of strategy, technical proficiency, or in the context of training performances and goals. We reward athletes for achieving personal best times by congratulating them and affirming the accomplishments as if they were solely a reflection of effort. The truth is that personal best times can be accomplished with less than maximal effort and poor execution, while swims slower than your previous best can be effortful and flawlessly performed.
I believe that the overemphasis on racing times is somewhat dangerous, particularly for older athletes. The national average improvement percentage for a 15-16-year-old girl in 2019 was .93%. The picture for 17-18 girls was bleaker still, with an average of negative .3%.When our communications exclusively reward personal bests and demand explanation for swims that fail to meet that criterion, it implies that swimming our best is merely a reinforceable behavior as opposed to a complex and challenging long-term pursuit. This also suggests failure is always controllable and completely avoidable — which, in a sport where failure is incredibly common, is extremely demoralizing and simply not true.
It is important that our coaching leadership educate athletes on the impact growth and maturation has on performance in swimming, particularly for young girls. Besides keeping young people enrolled in the sport, perseverance often pays off for those that can transition into strong collegiate athletes. Each year, I sit down with our teenage swimmers to discuss how age and physical maturity may impact short-term outcomes in the near future. The examples of well-known Olympic athletes below illustrates how drawn out plateaus can be, but also how successfully navigating those challenging phases can pay dividends in the long-term.
- 12->13: 2% improvement 13->14: 4% improvement
- 14->15: <1% improvement 15->16: 2% improvement (Olympic Qualifier)
- 16->17: <1% improvement (World Record) 1
- 12->13: 0% improvement 13->14: 6% improvement
- 14->15: <1% improvement 15->16: 0% improvement
- 16->17:<1% improvement 17->20: No improvement (added time)
- 20->23: 3% improvement (Olympic Qualifier)
Which brings me back to my original point. I think it’s time to re-emphasize racing. In swimming, you have an opportunity to compete against seven or more others every time you dive in for a race. We are built to compete — the human body responds physiologically to competitive demands by providing chemicals that enhance performance. It is often when athletes get caught up in a great battle against the person next to them that they are able to give additional effort and energy that leads to extraordinary performances for both parties. Competition has a winner and loser, which forces young people to learn how to be both. There is a subtle distinction between confidence and arrogance, or humility and self-deprecation, and we as a society will benefit from cultivating the former of each. Racing also draws attention to realistic expectations for athletes of similar ages and in season phases; as we work to educate our young swimmers on how the competition calendar interfaces with season training plans, we can point to others and note that competing well within your heat is reflective of the fact that you are on the right path.
This shift in tone is important and necessary because our sport is at times brutal and unforgiving. Swimming requires an incredible sacrifice of time and a comparatively absurd workload to many other sports — and yet the payoffs are often infrequent. As coaches, our responsibility is to guide the swimmers through the hardest phases of the season so they can see success at the end of the tunnel. I think by encouraging and rewarding racing too, instead of simply performances times, we will find that our swimmers have another way to measure success, and subsequently have more fun and are more motivated as they see progress in one area when the other is stagnant, and vice versa. More importantly, I think it encourages a healthier relationship with the sport that could address some of the issues of attrition and end-of-career plateau that we too often see.
Coach: “Let’s not obsesses about how much you added or dropped from your personal best. Let’s discuss your racing splits, technical proficiency, and strategy in relation to recent training markers, the current season phase and your long-term goals. What does this race tell us about how we can continue to improve our daily preparation?”
Parent: “You raced hard today and I’m proud of you. I always love watching you swim.”
In my doctoral research at Arizona, I studied the roles that mindfulness and acceptance play in regulating performance under pressure in sports. There is compelling evidence that suggests that adopting a mindful, non-judgmental approach to daily practice in sports can enhance long-term performance outcomes (Gooding & Gardner, 2009; Thompson et al., 2011; Zhang et al., 2016). I posit that this is in part because athletes that practice this approach are able to separate their emotional responses from their objective evaluations of performance outcomes and are therefore more likely to learn from failure and remain motivated. This is a daily approach to sports that leads to more consistency and effort over time, which ultimately is the key to success in anything. We can contribute to this healthier attitude about performance by being mindful of what we say to young people about their performances, encourage using multiple objective measures to evaluate outcomes. Finally, let’s remember that swimming is not just about times, but also racing. I think we would all do well to remind ourselves of that.
About Dr. Zachary Hojnacki
Zac is currently the head coach of the BGNW Marlins in Mount Kisco, NY. He swam for the University of Arizona from 2009-2012, qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 200 breaststroke, and the 2013 World Championship Trials in the 100 breaststroke. In 2017, he received a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Arizona, where he studied the role stress and mindfulness play on athlete performance under pressure. Zac is passionate about utilizing athlete education to develop a well-rounded, self-sufficient person in and out of the pool.