Creating a High Performing Centre (part 3)


I guess the most visually obvious, the most tangible, factor in developing any program is the squad structure. Can you design a structure that allows, or rather, encourages athletes to develop at their own pace in an environment where failure is seen as a learning opportunity.

I decided a while ago that I was going to go fully down the LTAD path. To apply the principles directly to the squad structure as possible.

Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is a sports development framework that is based on human growth and development. In short, it is about adopting an athlete-centred approach aimed at achieving optimal training, competition and recovery throughout an athlete’s career, particularly in relation to the important growth and development years of a young person’s life.

So this blog is really an outline of the squad structure I have landed on. I warn you its not exactly ground breaking or revolutionary (which disappoints me a little – I was hoping people would see me as a visionary)

Scientific research has shown that it takes at least 10 years, or 10,000 hours, for talented athletes to achieve sporting excellence.

There are two ways in which young swimmers can improve their performance:

1. Training
2. Growth & development

All young people follow the same general pattern of growth from infancy through adolescence, but there are significant individual differences in both the timing and magnitude of the changes that take place.

A number of scientists have reported that there are critical periods in the life of a young person in which the effects of training can be maximised. This has led to the notion that young people should be exposed to specific types of training during periods of rapid growth and that the types of training should change according to individual patterns of growth.

These findings have been used by Dr Istvan Balyi to devise a five stage LTAD framework that has been adapted to swimming:

1. FUNdamental – basic movement literacy (female 5-8yrs, male 6-9yrs)
2. SwimSkills – building technique (female 8-11yrs, male 9-12yrs)
3. Train to train – building the engine (female 11-16 years, male 12-15yrs)
4. Training to compete – optimising the engine (female 14-16yrs, male 15-18yrs)
5. Train to Win – maximising the engine (female 16+yrs, male 18+yrs)

Obviously when implementing a new structure there is a choice go make. Do you go with a soft transition and move towards the ideal or do you make all the changes overnight.

The path I have decided upon is a hard change to a structure designed so that each squad fits as closely as possible to a stage of the LTAD. HOWEVER I have compromised a little on the suggested ages (though I hope that in future years we can move more towards these ages)

STAGE 1.  FUNdamentals
We are very lucky to have a dedicated Learn To Swim in the club. This undertook a serious overhaul last year in order to make it work more effectively. We currently run in line with the Swim Ireland LTS structure. Starting with stage 1 and working through to stage 6. Once the young athletes pass stage 6 they get offered a place in the ‘club proper’.
I am not entirely sure that the Swim Ireland model is the best that every can use. It is very good at providing a range of aquatic skills for everyone coming through the door however I think there are a lot of things in it that we don’t need in order to provide swimmers in a way we need. Maybe there I a way we can distille the system in future down to the bare bones and get a more effective efficient teaching program, but for now we operate this way.
The entry level in the club is where swimmers finish off the 1st stage of the LTAD. We call this the Academy Squad.

The Academy
This is a 3 tired squad. The main ethos behind it is that it takes the stage 6 graduates who can swim 4 strokes and breaks their strokes down to rebuild in the way we want them to swim. (I believe that we can shorten this stage if we revamp the LTS at some point so that it works better for us rather than as generic as it currently is)
In terms of swimming : –
Tier 1 focuses entirely on balance on all 4 strokes. We work on head lead and then hand lead kicking on all 4 strokes and how this relates directly into full stroke.
Tier 2 focuses on basic drills. These are arm drills that look to improve movement patterns for all 4 strokes. These are obviously related directly back to full stroke swimming.
Tier 3’s focus is on more advanced hesitation drills that improve learnt movements teaching swimmers to pause, assess and correct while learning self assessment.
Along side this we aim to teach racing starts and turns.

STAGE 2. Swim Skills
The Swim skills section of our club is the Development Squad. Once again this stage has 2 tiers (ultimately I don’t want 2 tiers but as an interim step in order to correct a previous habit of rushing through this stage this is what we have). Like I said I believe that this stage of the LTAD is the 1 we tend to either overlook or rush too much. Trying to change this habit is the area I am having diffulty convincing people of. The over riding feeling seems to be that taking the focus of this squad away from performance and towards developing skills is a backward step. It is my conviction that taking g an extra year at this stage is more than worth it.
Better skilled swimmers at this stage have more chance of achieving their optimum performance later on in their career.
This squad runs on an 8 week cycle and assessment is on an ongoing basis but because the next stage in the club sees and increase in training volume and intensity I also feel it is appropriate to wait for PHV before promoting anyone even if they possess the right skill base. This means that the age limit on this squad is a biological one not a chronological one.

STAGE 3. Train to Train
Now this is where I may deviate from the letter of the LTAD a little. I do believe that this stage of development is about taking the skills and technique developed through the 1st 2 stages and building on them. But rather than focusing on volume my focus is on teaching the athletes to train in a way that I will ask them to train in the next stage. Letting them experience the sort of work we will be doing but on a smaller scale. Teaching them that failure is ok, that it is an opportunity to learn and become better. We will start emparting the tools they will need to become self sufficient in this sport. One of the things that I have really started to work on is putting my stopwatch away. I have found that when I’m not timing I’m actually coaching more. Started me thinking that rather than timing everyone and calling times out (during which I a missing the actual swimming), which really isn’t coaching but simply providing training,  im going to insist on coaches actually coaching.
Now i appreciate that this may seem like commonsense, and I accept that it def should be, however bad habits sneak in and coaches can get stuck providing training.

STAGE 4. Train to compete
This is a new thought process for me, I have traditionally been a volume coach, but recently i started thinking a little differently. What is endurance training for swimming really? Is it not the ability to hold race pace and form for 200/400 meters (or whatever race distance you are doing)? I used to take some pride out of swimmers being able to complete a 10,000 meter swim set, but they never won anything really. So I started reading about some alternatives and there are a lot out there.
So now at this stage of the LTAD (and in our Youth squad) we shift the focus onto the swimmers ability to compete. We focus on 200 stroke swims and 400 FS which I believe, coming from Northern Ireland is the safe bet and gives a good competitive base. If anyone shows an aptitude for longer (or shorter) distances then we train them for those.
We focus heavily on skills involved in racing and the athletes ability to hold pace for prolonged periods of time.
I have borrowed some thoughts from USRPT and when we do race pace we stop if we not holding pace and aim to get up to three times race distance total volume per set.

STAGE 5. Train to Win
As things stand we currently do not have the swimmers for this stage of development. While we have swimmers who have broken national records for fun this year I do not consider this to be winning. The standard of Irish swimming is such that breaking records is possible in the train to train and compete phases.  Again I may be wrong but the impression I get is that swimmers in Ireland win national titles and break records and are happy with that. I want that to change and I want there to be a pinnacle to this LTAD pyramid.
I have been fortunate enough to place swimmers on every national team that has been available, it is, given the right application by coach and swimmer, not that hard (in Ireland if you make the time you usually make the team) however making the team should be not be the pinnacle. The pinnacle is seeing Irish swimmers standing on podiums at International meets.

So this is the challenge, this is the whole purpose of the LTAD, to provide the right stimulus at the right time to enable peak performance. Will that peak be the Olympics for everyone? No. But the pinnacle will be that persons ‘Olympic performance’ their ultimate, highest possible achievement.

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posted by Peter

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