Last week’s ASCA World Clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada was an annual meeting of the sport, with coaches from around the country (and world) coming together for a week of business, networking, and education.
Amid and among the formal events, there is a little of informal conversation happening that winds up dictating a lot of what happens in the sport around the country. New ideas and trends can spread like wildfire in such a dense crowd, and this might be the most important part of the annual convetion.
This year’s chatter had two easily-identifiable themes that emerged.
1. David Popovici Forces Re-evaluation in Sprint Training
As is so often the case, everyone in the world of swimming will look hard at what the next “it kid” is doing and figure out where they can copy it. David Popovici, who at the European Championships this summer broke a World Record in the 100 free that stood for 13 years, is that new “it kid” – at least for three more days (his birthday comes Thursday, where he will be 18).
Among the discussions is talk about Popovici’s build. While clearly fit and muscular, he is much leaner than a lot of the prototype sprinters we’ve seen recently (which is probably why he’s so much better at the 200 than the 50). So much so that Popovici has deemed himself “skinny legend.” Part of that is because he’s 17 and, presumably, going to continue to fill-out naturally as he moves into his 20s. But it also shows that a leaner body type can generate plenty of power to break World Records even in a sprint freestyle event.
I don’t think the build is necessarily the big surprise here. He looks a lot like Caeleb Dressel did at a similar age, for example. But he’s way faster than Dressel was at the same age, and Dressel was an all-timer as a teenager.
So as a community, there is going to be a big effort to figure out what we can learn from that – because it’s not entirely clear. The 50,000-foot takeaway is that he and his coach have captured something unique, where they’ve figured out the right technique and training for the unique strengths and drags of his body. On a more granular level, though, there has to be something specific that this can teach us – because at the end of the day, swimming, compared to many sports largely a calculation of physics, and figuring out the right combination of physics to maximize speed over a given distance.
2. The Gap Between Coaches and Science is Closing
The conversation at this year’s ASCA convention was, more than ever, centered around technology and science. The ‘art’ of coaching and the pseudoscience that has long accompanied it is being pushed out by more specific and quantifiable data and science.
Technology, like SwimSwam partner TritonWear, has at least piqued the interest of coaches everywhere. Heart rate monitors are a big topic for conversation too.
Piggy-backing off the above with regard to Popovici, the advent of science and technology has the potential to change the sport, but even moreso to change the profession of coaching.
In some ways, improvements in science and technology could be intimidating for coaches. Such advancements could take some of the mystique out of coaching in a sport that doesn’t have substitutions or play calling or defenses and allow more athletes to coach themselves.
On the other hand, the information exchange that can come from improved technology and science in the sport has the chance to revolutionize and professionalize it – globally. If more of the sport can be ‘learned’ from reading the science and reviewing the data, then it will be easier for coaches from states or countries with less swimming infrastructure to keep up with those from big programs with multiple coaches with decades of experience learning from coaches with decades of their own experience. It is much easier to translate data across the world of swimming than it is to translate culture and experiences.
Going back to the Popovici topic: I think it’s probably true to believe that sometimes, superstar swimmers are ‘lightning in a bottle.’ The right athlete winds up with the right coach by fluke of geography, they connect, the training that the coach believes in happens to be exactly what the athlete needs for their psychology and physiology, and magic happens.
But imagine having the opportunity to measure what’s happening with those lightning-in-a-bottle swimmers and being able to export that. What if Popovici’s coach could look at the data and tell us why this particular 6’3″ skinny-legend teenager has reacted so well to his coaching and training, and then export that to all other similar 6’3″ skinny teenagers around the world?
I don’t know if this technology will lead to more David Popovicis or Katie Ledeckys. But I think what it can definitely do is create more Brooks Fails and Rachel Klinkers, driving up the depth of the sport. This could have wide-reaching effects, especially when it comes to trying to fill out professional swimming leagues like the ISL.
To be clear: many of the top programs have been using technology for a while. Big college teams and some of the more-developed club teams, like the Carmel Swim Club in Indiana, have been on this train for a few years. But the tendrils of tech and science are now reaching deeper into the sport. The science language is being made more accessible, the technology has cleaner interfaces, unique and specialized software and bulky spreadsheets are being replaced by interface-friendly cell phone apps.
The Most Surprising Non-Conversation
There didn’t seem to be much conversation, that we heard, about Caeleb Dressel and his conspicuous silence since leaving the World Championships early.
That’s surprising because Dressel is one of the two top names in US swimming right now (along with Katie Ledecky), and because it feeds into one of the major narratives of Olympic sports right now: mental health.
While those conversations are definitely ongoing in the sport, they seem to have been reserved further for digital spaces than face-to-face meetings like ASCA.