Training for Capacity vs. Utilization | Bob Bowman | ASCA 2011 World Clinic

I’m Matt Kredich; I’m one of the ASCA board members. It’s a pleasure to serve on that board. It’s a great pleasure and honor to introduce Bob Bowman to you today our next speaker. We all know Bob as the coach of Michael Phelps which means a lot and I’ll talk a little bit about what that means to me. Bob’s a visionary and I think all of us coaches can imagine that if we have an athlete and we see that that athlete at age 11 can do something that’s never been done, probably never been imagined in the history of our sport, then we’re a visionary. And that’s exactly what Bob did. He’s the architect of – in two Olympic Games, one man won 16 medals. Fourteen of those 16 medals were gold medals. To me that’s unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine especially in the age where we have prelim, semi‑finals and finals. In the age where information is distributed as quickly as it is now. In the age where all countries are having greater access to information and facilities, it’s hard to imagine that that will ever be done again and if it is it will take a visionary like Bob Bowman and certainly a great athlete to create those performances. It’s also fascinating to think that Bob has been coaching Michael for 14 years. If we all think about what that means, that’s extraordinary. I can’t stand myself after 14 years. I don’t know how two people can work together at that level and keep pushing boundaries and keep developing for 14 years. But Bob’s coaching goes way beyond what he’s done with Michael. My first memory of Bob as a coach was when I first started coaching I looked at the cover of an ASCA magazine and saw these awards that actually I can’t really find the description for anymore but ASCA used to give an award for the best stroke technician in the country and there was Bob Bowman on the cover. He’s a young coach and Bob won the award but he’s standing next to the head coach of Las Vegas gold which was David Marsh. Bob then went on to work for one of the greats in our sport Paul Bergen and he’s also had a couple of stints with Paul, did some coaching on his own and then went to work for one of the other greats in our profession, Murray Stevens. So he’s been mentored by David Marsh, worked with David Marsh, mentored by and worked with Paul Bergen, mentored by and worked with Murray Stevens, the tremendous amount of experience and knowledge that comes with coaching with those men and then of course he’s taken over the North Baltimore Club which has been named by USA swimming the top performing club in the country for two years running. He’s done it all. He’s been a college coach at the highest level. He was responsible for coaching six of the athletes on the last Olympic team and it’s exciting to me to imagine what he sees next and what he feels like we as coaches need to focus on so that’s enough for me and here’s Coach Bob Bowman.

Bob Bowman: Thanks Matt. Interesting he mentions those Schlueter Stroke Awards named for Walt Schlueter, great stroke technician in the sport and one of the things that they did was really recognize Age Group Coaching and it was kind of a way to make you feel good about your coaching when you’re just starting out. I actually remember one of the years there were six awards, right? So there were 9 and 10 boys and girls, 11 and 12 boys and girls, 13 and 14 boys and girls. And I think I was fortunate enough to maybe get three of those. Three out of six in one year and I guess not too many people turn them in but anyway.

I was feeling pretty good about myself after that banquet where kept calling me up and giving me all these stuff and after the banquet I was taking these – there’s was a plaque for me, a plaque for the kid, a pair of paddles all kinds of – it’s about this much stuff, right? And I was feeling pretty full of myself after that I was like, “I must be pretty good.” So I left the banquet a little bit early because I wanted to go out and have some fun and got in the elevator to go to my room and I looked over and George Haines was in the elevator with me.

I was so excited but I couldn’t speak to him because why would George Haines want to talk to me? And I had all this stuff, it felt so stupid. Kind of took me down to earth. But we got out of the elevator, he got out at my floor and we walked down the same hallway and our rooms were pretty close to each other. So I stopped and I was putting my key in my door and he stopped right before I went in and he said, “Hey, you know what?” I was like, “Yes, sir?” He said, “If you just worked a little harder, you could have won all these.”

Good lesson from the best, right? All right. It’s kind of widely publicized that I sort of dabble in a lot of different things and I started thinking about why I’m attracted to certain activities or sports or things like that, arts. And I came up with two reasons. The things that I like, number one, inspire me. They’re uplifting and make you feel good, challenge you to be more creative. And number two, they involve hard work and hard work to me is not necessarily just grinding all the time. It’s pushing to your capabilities. What is your potential? How hard can you work to get there? And maybe go beyond what you thought it was.

So I think those are the things that kind of captivate me. There’s certainly something that captivates me about swimming and there are a couple of things that have interested me and I wanted to talk about a couple of examples. You kind of know that I’ve been involved for almost 15 years now in horse racing. And horse racing inspires me for two reasons. It inspires me because the animals are so incredible. None of you could be near a thoroughbred horse right now and not say wow. You either be able to say wow because you’re scared of it or because you are in awe but it’s the physical power, the presence, just a lot of things that inspire you about horses.

The second thing that I love about it is the hard work that goes into the process of getting these animals ready to race. If you think that you work hard and I guarantee all of you do. Go to Bonita Farm in Maryland at 4:30 any morning of the year, every morning, 4:30 because what happens then is the horses have been fed at 4 am by some unfortunate man who spends all night with them and then at 4:30 there’s a crew of must be 10 people because the barn’s 25 stalls on each side and if you walk in there at 4:30, there are five people in charge of five stalls on each side so while the horses eat they are cleaning the stalls, they’re throwing the straw out in the middle of the shed row.

A tractor comes in they shovel all these into the shed row. It’s swept down completely clean, new bedding is put in the stalls; the horses are still kind of chilling out after they ate. So by 5:45 they’ve already done almost a day’s work, everybody grabs a cup of coffee, and then they start training the horses at 6. Nobody works that hard. That’s what I love about it. I have another little interest which I never really talked about before because it’s kind of nerdy but I really love it. A little known fact is when I was in high school I was in the band. I was kind of a band geek, right? And I fell in love with this thing called Drum Corps International. Anybody know about it? Anybody here? Cool, DCI, right? And what it is, if you imagine it’s kind of like a marching band on steroids.

It’s maybe some high school but mainly college-age kids that get together for the whole summer and what they do is there’s a staff that puts together this program, they get together in May and what they do is basically sleep on gym floors, get up, rehearse all day long, like eight hours. Do a show, get on a bus, go to the next town and they do this for months and it culminates in a world championship, which is usually held – now it’s held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. I try to go whenever I can but it’s a pretty cool event because it’s competitive and it’s artistic. And the thing I love about – the inspiring part is obviously the music and the emotional impact of those things and then they have their technical side which is also appealing to me as well.

But the thing about DCI, the point I wanted to make is when you go to one of these shows, there are judges everywhere. There are 10 or 12 judges and they judge the technical precision of what’s going on. Some are for music, some are for percussion, some are for brass, and some are for color guard whatever it is. And they go around and they do what they call ticks. A tick is a 10th of a point so everybody starts with a score of 100 and then they tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick and then you end up at 60 or whatever it is, right? But it’s very objective. Anybody who’s trained can see if someone was out of step, if someone played out of tune, if the phrasing wasn’t correct. It’s pretty easy to see those objective things.

And that I equate to like the science of swimming. You can see that. That’s the what. That’s what is going on, right? And then you get to the how, the art part of it. The other score that they give besides the technical score is called general effect, GE, and that is when you’re sitting in the stands. How does the show affect you emotionally? Does it make you stand up and cheer? Does it make you fall asleep? What does it do and the judges actually judge that. And my point here is that your programs operate like that. You have whatever you decide to put in your training program and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m going to talk about the what. What to do?

But along with the – what goes the how and that to me is the art of coaching. How do you put it together? How do you communicate it? What’s the energy that surrounds it? What are the principles that go with it? So I think you have science, you have art, and it’s up to you to decide how much of which you put into your program because every program has both. Some are more science, some are more art. The great part is you can do whatever you want but I think I would like to give you some ideas today on how to organize that. But what we’re going to do today is talk more about training, one of my favorite things as Gregg Troy said the other night kind of labeled me.

Don’t label me please, but I’m one of those pounders. Not true. I’m going to show you how that works right now. What we’re going to talk about today is – I’m working with a lot of post-grads right now. I’m working with some pretty good high school athletes, come in contact with Age Group swimmers. I have a whole staff of coaches that I’m trying to educate to deal with all of those constituencies. When I ran into particularly with the post-grads, right? It’s just amazing that these athletes who have been in our sport for so long, they do well and they do well, and they do well and they listen to their coaches and they do well, and then at some point they don’t need us anymore because they know what they need.

Well, I don’t need to do that. So I was getting a little bit of, “I don’t need to do that,” and after I kicked the first two people off the team I decided that if I was going to keep doing that, I wouldn’t have anybody to coach so I decided, well maybe there’s another approach. Best part about my job is I’m not a college coach. People don’t have to like me. I own the pool. Get out. You don’t want to do it? I’m good. But I did think that probably a more educational approach would make things work better. There is one I couldn’t get rid of so I have to kind of educate him. He really owns the pool.

And pretty much me at this point but anyway.

We’re going to talk about two concepts of training. And don’t be afraid about the chalkboard. You don’t have to see – it’s not important that you see the details. I’m just going to do some kind of general things up here. We’re going to talk about training for capacity and training for utilization. And what those mean, how can you put those together in a program, and how they might help you explain what you’re doing to your athletes. They might actually, as it has been my case, help me explain it more to myself what we’re doing and analyze what we’re doing. And I guess there are about maybe three or four questions you should think about when you’re looking at your program.

Number one, do you know what is actually going on in your training program? That sounds like the most absurd question, right? But think about it. Do you know what’s happening in a certain set that made you want to do it on a certain day at a certain time? And once you put it there and they did it, do you know what effect it had on the next day or how it fit in to the day before? I think there are a couple of things that go with that and the first thing is, if you do not measure it, you can’t manage it. Step number one, for all coaches and there have been a lot of great coaches that don’t do this but I don’t know how they do it. You must record your practices.

You don’t necessarily have to do them in advance if you want to be an artist and you want to go in and let the muse strike you and orchestrate a brilliant practice but right after you got to write down what happened because you’re not going to remember. If you’re like me, I find myself right now I’ll be writing a workout and be like, “Hmm, it’s Wednesday.” And since I have things sort of organized by days, same kind of training thing I’m like, “What did we do last Wednesday?” If I don’t have that book in front of me, I can’t come up with it. So much has happened since then, right? I got a lot going on.

So you have to record what you’ve got so you can look back and see what you actually did because it’s kind of like those fish stories. The fish grows every time you tell it. And decide what you’re going to measure. North Baltimore Aquatic Club, we’ve had a lot of sustained success in our Age Group Program and one of the things that I think keeps that going and feeds into the goal setting process is that every swimmer on our team knows it’s important to get your time. Not have a coach read you your time. If they do, that’s nice. You have to get your own time. Start that with the little ones and we help the 10‑year-olds but we do lots of sets where – and with the older ones that really drives them crazy, right?

You’re doing pace work and I say, “Finish on your feet,” and they don’t. You don’t give them your time because that didn’t count. Well, it’s the same thing. If I do a set of something and I say, “What was your time on that?” And they don’t know then sometimes I just start everybody over and do it again, right? You only have to do that once. But it sends a message that it’s important. And if you know your times in practice, and you know your best time for 100 free kick and you know your best time for a 100 free swim in practice and you know your best time for 5000 for time and you know your best time for whatever you want to measure, you have a whole lot of things to be goal-oriented about, don’t you?

That’s how Michael came up. I’m going to try to do this whole talk without really using he whose name shall not be said – what’s the Harry Potter thing? That’s what we always refer to him, he who cannot be named. But when he was little, that’s what we would do in the sets. I’d be like, “You know, what’s your best in the 100 free?” And he’d be like, “Well, I think it’s you know, 52.” I was like, “Well, I think maybe by the end you could be 50.5, don’t you think?” And he’d be like, “Yeah, probably.” It just gives you a basis to work from. Instead of just doing a set where they go up and down and you don’t know what’s happening, that’s important. So write stuff down and decide what you’re going to measure.

Decide what your program is all about. North Baltimore Aquatic Club is so simple. For 40 years now we are about the discipline pursuit of excellence. Excellence we all know what that is. We want to be the best at every category. If we have 100 breaststrokers we want them to be the best. If we have 10-year-olds, we want them to be the best. If we have 30-year-olds we want them to be the best. If we run fund racing we want it to be the best. So we compare to what’s out there and we compare to the top. We don’t want to be the best in Maryland. We don’t want to be the best in the United States. We want to be the best.

Discipline, mainly self-discipline, that’s the life skill part, right? You have a plan. You follow it. You believe in it. You live it. It’s pretty simple, works for us. You can have whatever you want but you have to have something if you want to be any good, all right? As I said I wanted a way to explain some of the things we were doing in training to my athletes and it was pretty effective. I want to before I go any further give some credit, complete credit to go to Coach Nort Thornton who is in the back because a long time ago he wrote a paper about base training and sharpening training. Probably the best thing I ever read on training. And I went back and found it and re-read it and what I’m talking about today is essentially that.

I’ve sort of changed the terminology a little bit because I wanted to explain things a little more specifically from a physiological standpoint and because I think there are connotations with some of that stuff. I’m sure there are people in this room who will say, “That aerobic base stuff, that’s just a bunch of whatever.” It doesn’t matter. Well I say to you, “You keep thinking that because we’ll keep kicking your ass long course for the rest of time.”


Okay? It’s important. If you don’t think so, you’re wrong. I’m going to explain why in a minute. But thanks, Nort this is for you. All right. Let’s talk about capacity, what that means. The other part that went with this is I read a great book. I did a clinic in Canada, a guy named Jan Olbrecht. He had written a book called, “The Science of Winning.” And man is it a dense in terms of information book. I think I’ve read it eight times I almost understand it. But he talks a lot about some general training categories and he talked about – and I think a lot of it is the translation. Aerobic endurance and aerobic power, anaerobic endurance and anaerobic power and what he means by those are aerobic capacity, aerobic utilization, anaerobic capacity, and anaerobic utilization.

That’s why I use these terms today because I think it’s more clear. It doesn’t confuse the issue. When you think of capacity you’re improving the performance and potential of the athlete. How good can they be? And that’s going to involve some decisions from you about what kind of program you’re running. Where the athlete is in their career? A couple of things like that are very important so you’re going to have to think about those things but they call tie in. Think about improving and expanding the infrastructure of the athlete, right? If you think about it in some abstract terms it’s about like making a bigger warehouse, improving your capacity for inventory, having more trucks to haul stuff around. Its how do you improve the basis of what goes on in your business.

Capacity training is long-term and it’s more general than utilization training. So the method you employ might have more of a widespread and less specific effect therefore less volatile and therefore it’s going to take longer for the thing to happen, which is fine, right? Time is on our side for the most part. Utilization is about improving the actual. What can we do today? Standing here with whatever the athlete has right now when they get on the blocks, what is the absolute best possible performance they can get right now? Think about improving sales, that’s what we want to do. Let’s make as much money as we can right now with whatever we’ve got. Whatever the inventory is let’s sell it out right now. That’s how you think about it.

It’s short-term and it’s very specific. I’m going to kind of be going back and forth between the two. If you get confused, just fall asleep and ask a yearbook later, maybe you can figure it out. I want to talk a little bit about capacity and if you can’t see this, don’t worry. It’s not that important, just kind of general capacity. When you’re using a long-term approach, things are going to take time. You have to decide what the essential ingredients of your program are and how you’re putting them into the daily program. The most fun that we’re going to have all week is I’m going to go through before long and name some programs and tell you what they are.

Capacity training sacrifices short-term gains for long-term goals. You have to ask yourself, is it more important that my swimmer go a minute in the 100 breast this season? Or go 55 two seasons from now because some of the things that you may do might make him go 102 this season but help him go 55 three seasons down the road. It’s an important concept I think. Capacity training is methodical and systematic. You’re improving systems. Maybe not specific skill-oriented activities I guess would be the best way to do it. You’re trying to increase aerobic capacity. Well, what does that mean? Number and size of mitochondria improve the delivery systems. There are a lot of physiological things that you can read in the physiology books and they’ll tell what’s happening.

All of them are important. Promotes general fitness and general improvements so if you’re working for general improvement that means your swimmer is going to probably be overall better swimmer. They might not be a better 200 freestyler specifically but they will probably a better swimmer and across the range of events, they will do better. Even though it might be like this instead of like that. And in our visual representation here, capacity represents the cup. That is the worst cup ever drawn but you got the picture. You’re building a cup. Every swimmer has a cup which is his potential or glass. Capacity training makes the cup as big as they can be or small, depending on how you do it.

The goal would be to have a big cup so that when you go into the utilization training you can fill it up. Characterizations of utilization training. Short-term focus, what are we going to do this season? For me that’s as short as I can get. I don’t think I can get like the meet next week but I can get March from now. It sacrifices potential for actual right now. You sacrifice what they could possibly do two or three years from now for what they can do this season. And there’s some real value in that. I’m not going one way or the other. I’m not telling you should be doing one or the other. I think a balance is best. A good example of this would be North Baltimore Aquatic Club has a long history of sort of building swimmers and getting them to the top level and I remember Murray Stevens always telling me, “We only taper once every four years for Olympic trials and games.”

And I thought that’s kind of dumb because it seems like we taper every season. But what he’s saying and how he would explain it would be, Murray would say, “What you do in the Olympic year and the rest and the specific training you give them is going to destroy their capabilities to do capacity training. You’re going to take that capacity and focus on this other stuff and it’s going to go down. So that when you get to the trials their overall capacity to do ten 400s may not be there but their capacity to do a 100 back in a minute is there. I think that’s a good way to look at it.

Utilization training is dynamic and it’s volatile. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you start doing that stuff. You’re either going to get them really good or they’re going to get crushed. So you have to be a little bit careful with it. It operates at the edge of their capabilities. I think Coach Bergen one time wrote a paper on same concepts. Do you train within the swimmer’s capabilities or are you going to try to get him to train beyond their capabilities? And his conclusion was you have to have both. You need to have training in your cycles that are working on capacity, that are done within their capabilities and that’s kind of on the under edge of their potential, right?

Whereas when you’re training utilization, you’re trying to see what the limit is so you may go past it. You’re trying to do something beyond their current capabilities. And his conclusion was that you have to have both because if you don’t it’s like pushing the refrigerator. If you only push on one side, its true think about it, the why I like the balance of this. Utilization training fills the cups. What are some good examples of some swimmers and cups? I’ll give you one. Michael Phelps before the Beijing Olympic Games, a cup the size of the Atlantic Ocean filled to the brim, took 12 years. Michael Phelps for the Pan Pacs in 2010 a thimble, half full.

I swear to God when I gave him that example, it was like an aha moment. He was like, “Now I get it.” It’s so true. Didn’t matter how full your thimble is either because that’s what they want to do, let’s do more sprints. Okay, well fine but you can only do a thimble full, that’s not a very good shot, right, if you’re used to drinking two gallons. So that’s kind of how you need to think about it. I also think that it’s interesting to think about how this works throughout a swimmers career because they don’t necessarily need this in the right same proportions to their whole career. How about swimmers who come from a high school background where they’re doing lots of capacity training, they go to a college program where they do lots of utilization training, they get real good, don’t they?

I’ll be the first to say I don’t know what the hell Dave Salo does over there. Obviously it works, right? It perfectly works and I have a feeling I know what it is but I think Rebecca Soni’s better in that program because she had a big cup from Tom Speedling [Phonetic] [0:32:54] when she got there. They filled it up as he should. With post‑grads fill, the cup. With high school swimmers, build it bigger. How about Ous Mellouli [Phonetic] [0:33:07] well he trains for the mile. Well of course he does. Who did he have before Salo, Schubert, and big cup? How did Erik Vendt go 146 in the 200 free when he had only been 149 before? He came from Josh Stern, Mark Schubert, came to us. We just filled the cup up. We worked on utilization. We didn’t care that much about – and he still won his best mile 1445 by 14 seconds.

It all fits together in a long-term plan if you look at it that way. So now you can kind of see I think what we’re talking about. It’s not just for swimming. It’s for dry land, mental training, to have to have a capacity to accept some of these things. Then they have to learn the high performance skills. What do you do when you stand on the block at the World Championships? First of all you got to just be able to take a deep breath before you swim when you’re 10 years old before you get to swim, right? [Exhales] Okay, let’s swim. Then 10 years later, you can do that when you stand up at the Olympic Games. It won’t be quite the same. The sphincter will be a little tighter.

Particularly the coaches but it’s the same concept. And I think you do that in your coaching when you’re – early in your coaching career, you want to build your capacity. You want to get as much knowledge in there as you can and then as you move along, you sort of decide on the things you’re going to focus on. I thought Teri gave such a wonderful talk the other night about her toolbox, right? And having had a front row seat to Teri’s evolution as a coach we almost came up together, right? I think Michael and Natalie sort of came on the scene about the same time. Natalie had been there a little bit earlier. But to watch that evolution is just incredible and if you know her story you couldn’t be prouder of someone, right? But that’s what she did. She built a capacity and then she used it.

Now she walks on the deck every day. She’s got a tremendous toolbox. That’s her capacity, the big toolbox. Now she can use it. All right. It’s a spectrum, right? It’s not an either/or. And one of the things I gave you that little in the beginning about the what and the how as I think so many people these days think that the what is the how. We sprint, we work on technique and speed we’re technique and speed based. No you’re not. Not really if you look at it because those two don’t exist independently. And then you have the oven. Well there, those distance space program. No they’re not because they do technique and speed too. They may do it differently. It’s a spectrum and you’re in different places. You might be closer to one side than the other. Maybe at some points of the year you’re closer to one side than the other.

All right who are the cup builders in the world? And once again, I say this saying everybody does everything and all these people are successful and these are my subjective opinions. And since all these college coaches are at home recruiting they don’t get to be here to defend themselves so too bad.

I’m going to put myself in here. Schubert’s probably over here, right, cup builder? One of the great cup builders. Mark Schubert at Mission Viejo, I won’t write names so you can forget quickly, right? So Jack Simon in here, he’s built some cups. These are people that really value aerobic training and I do too. There are people over on this end, Dave Durden. I think Teri’s somewhere in here. Salo and rightly so, they’re college coaches with people who are mature and either have cups or don’t, you know what I mean. Perfectly fine. I think you’d find Gregg Troy and myself somewhere kind of near this end but in the middle you can actually find our band check right in here. The intensity level on Jon’s program is very high.

So you have a broad range of programs. You have a broad range but everybody’s doing everything in the way that best benefits their athlete. I want to talk about some real world examples. What are some ways you can use this concept in your just regular training program? I’m going to start out with what we did in Michigan. Here you go, go blue, big day today. Here’s the training week and this – I always use R for Thursday because that’s what they did in my college scheduling at Florida State so I always do it. And I do two S’s for the weekends, I don’t know why but that’s how it goes. All right. We have a.m., we have p.m. This is not earth shattering, okay? On Mondays and Fridays we work on power training or overload training and I think you can look at that one of two ways. There are plenty of ways you can do that.

If you’re doing vertical kicking with weight and you do 10 rounds of 45 seconds on a minute, I’m pretty sure you’re building some kind of capacity. If you do 10 rounds at 10 seconds on a minute, it might be something different. But for us it was more a mix. On Monday afternoon, we did threshold training which was the famous colors, right? And the colors were designed to give us a specific target. That’s capacity training right here. You got to see here big one. If we did active rest which is easy fast kind of work, it’s about a half and a half. So you can get more towards the capacity side if you cut the rest down. You get more towards the utilization side if you get the rest up. So a good example would be – early in the season, let’s say they did a set and I’m going to make this super basic, right? Let’s say they did 20 times a 100 free also 50 easy.

And we just did the whole 150 on 140. There’s only so fast they can go, right? And they’re really operating at more of an endurance-oriented deal. It’s kind of a mix because you got some rest, got the easy rest, but then two weeks before the conference meet we might go four times or fifty, plus a fifty of each stroke and descend at one to four so there’s only one fast one and they’re going super fast. There’s a minute race speed on that. That’s utilization, same kind of training just done a different way. So it would depend on the season. Once again, don’t worry about it, it’s not that good. All right, on Wednesdays we would do quality training. It’s a very vague term but anaerobic training and that’s pretty much utilization for college swimmers.

That will be something where they would do a broken swim. So they would do rested 100s one every six minutes, something that’s going to train a system that is going to be used immediately in a race that year. You can build a capacity for that too. If you did three of them it’s one thing. If you do 10 of them it’s another and that will be up to you to decide. My goal today is to give you a fishing pole, not a fish. You got to fish for yourself. I just read a great quote its like Benjamin Franklin said, “Everyone in America is entitled for the pursuit of happiness. They have to catch it on their own.” That’s what this is all about. All right and then we just kind of repeat this through the week. That will be easy kind of capacity building aerobic, right?

We would just do this again here, here, and here but that’s how you sort of look at it one way in training. I’ll show you a little bit of old school North Baltimore because I’m old school I’ve been told. Didn’t think that was funny? I didn’t either. All right, as has been seen in many, many clinics that Janet Evans said, “I hope you do it because it’s pretty versatile.” I’m just giving you the basics so I can talk you through it. Six hundred, oh no we’ll get a two, four, six, eight, two, four, six and eight and then one times 200. And this will be a way we would design a lot of sets because it’s kind of a mix and the reason that we like it is, it’s a lot less volatile than some of these other things like six 100 dive on six minutes. That kills them, right? They do that, they’re not doing anything for the next couple of days. They go one all out 200 within five of their best 200 time, they’ll come back tomorrow okay.

So this is how it works. You’re going four two’s on the most basic interval 230, the three two’s or 225, 220, 215, it can be anything. It can be free, fly, whatever. It doesn’t matter. The stuff in between is kind of on a moderate interval, 220, let’s say we’re going yards, 440, eight, seven minutes and 920, how are we going to do it? And you just kind of make that suit. The in-betweens are relatively low stress and you start pretty low stress up here. So this is kind of building their capacity to do four 200s on a decent interval, right? It’s not an easy interval and they’re doing some quality but the quality is higher here and by the time you get to the pair we are all over them. We are all about the pair. If you do two 200s IMs it should be close to your best 400 IM time. That’s starting to get into some utilization training. That’s immediate, that’s neuromuscular, and that is super specific.

That’s allowing all the myelin that has been wrapped in years and years of doing four and eight and twelve and ten to do its job. If you’re a Talent Code fan and I am. And then we go at 800 and right here that’s it you go for it. When Michael was 11 and 12 almost until he was 13, every time I did this set with IMs, he did his best 200 IM on the last one. I mean meet time best. That’s some pretty specific training but it didn’t, we didn’t give up much because its 4000 set right? There was a big general component to it but it ends as something very, very specific. All right, how are we doing on time? You people in the back don’t run out early for your lunches. It’s not true there are only 400 free ones.

I want you to look at it another way. Let’s say you have your training program and this is something we did in Napa when I was his coach. Bergen and I actually use it a couple of times, it works pretty well. Do you remember? I don’t think we talked about it that much anymore because it’s kind of negative and there are other ways to express it. When you guys were swimming, did you have hell week? All right, week after Christmas, right? Merry Christmas and basically in hell week you just swim as far and hard as you can, right? Swim as far and as hard as you can, very scientific. Talk about capacity building I mean I think some of Dennis Pursley [Phonetic] [0:46:10] swimmers were still ready to taper. But, am I too for that matter but what we did in the course of our season. We started experimenting with this concept and were like, “Why is that good?” Well, it’s good because it builds their capacity to do some things, right?

There are some physiological adaptations that take place in that kind of training that don’t occur anywhere else and there are a lot of psychological adaptations or maladaptations that occur during that kind of training that you can’t get. One of my favorite is 5000 per time. Why would anybody do that, right? That’s dumb; all new school people told you that’s a waste of time. Their stroke breaks down to da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. Okay, I use it because if you’re doing a 5000 straight, it’s about an hour and they’re swimming at whatever their maximal effort is for that and they’re swimming a stroke, which I like. I just like 5000 free you can mix it up you can do all kinds of stuff. I kind of like just free. But I like free because there is set up a time for one hour where very small muscular movements are going to be made over and over and over with really no escape except for the turns.

You’re going to target a specific movement and many smaller movements that support it in a way that cannot be done any other way. You cannot get that by training ten 500s. It’s just different. It doesn’t mean its better but it’s certainly another way to do it. It’s certainly a way to build some confidence in people that don’t think they can do anything hard and it’s not even really that hard. Well, not for me but that’s why we would do some things like that. It’s muscular endurance. It’s not about aerobic capability. I can get them aerobically fit by going six 400s or something. It’s about that. So that’s why it gets back to saying, “Do you really know what’s going on?” And it’s mental too, right?

I tell you the best thing I ever did on Michael. He’s usually a step or two ahead of me sometimes in these little games that we play but I really got him one time because I had for years on of my distance guys in North Baltimore to go 10,000 per time long course and I felt like that was something that you can’t really give him very often. I’ve only done it once but I had a group of girls, they’re really distance-oriented and I had a boy who was really distance-oriented and I thought it would be good for them to do for these reasons. So we just talked about it and it was going to happen on Saturday and this is back when we were training on – we were doing some doubles on Saturday. We would do singles during the week and double on Saturdays.

So Saturday morning they came in and I said that I didn’t have Michael on that lane and I had him over here and I had the distance guys over here. I said you guys got 10,000 per time, everybody does a good job on this, and you can take this afternoon off. He was like, “What about me?” I was like, “You’re not doing 10,000 per time so you’ll be here this afternoon. “Well, can I?” I was like, “Hmm. Why of course you can.”

And he actually did it, and did a really good job. You got to sell this stuff but back to what I was talking about. We had this hell week concept and what we thought about and what we really figured out about it was if you’re training at your program at a certain volume and I think volume is important when you talk about your training but it’s only important for your program. The volume that Dick Shoulberg does has a meaning within his program. The volume that I do has a meaning within my program meaning that if I say 7000 yards we’re going 7000 of this kind of training that has a pretty standard intensity level. Jon Urbanchek and I, we’ve worked together so long now we say, “Look, let’s just go 8000 threshold, 4000 main set,” and we know exactly what that means. But it probably means something different to another program. So, while you talk about mileage being something I like it because you can hang you hat on it, it’s kind of program specific.

I’m sure that if Teri looked at it, she probably thinks about it as time. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her about it. Maybe she thinks about it as 4000 but maybe it’s an hour and 40 minutes. It’s the same thing. Yardage is time. So, you can think about how much you’re doing and usually program to program within your program it has as definite meaning in terms of consistency. So let’s say you’re working at your program and your average mileage is 7000 a practice. I’m just doing that, right? And then for one week you bumped it up so your average was 9K. And then you come back to your seven. Our theory is that this is a better seven after you’ve done the nine. Why because you built your capacity to do some things that you would then come back to in your normal program and use.

So we took that concept and we did a thing where most people have a meet in December that you kind of ready for, right? I would think and might get ready, some people shave and taper, and some people go three weeks. I go like four, five days of kind of rest. But what we did was three weeks out; we were working on our program. Three weeks out we did the hell week and what we did was a drastic hell week. That means if we were training in the water for I think we had an hour 45 to two hours in the water and we had another 45 minutes to dry land. So let’s say we were two hours and 45 minutes total in the afternoons, we drop to dry land and swam the whole time. We got serious about going as far and as hard as you could.

But no dry land because that – how much stress can they take? We did that for a week, then we came back to our program and this was three weeks out of the meet. We had three, two, one. Actually we would do it sorry, the third week out we come back, we’d have kind of a normal weeks but maybe the quality was a little higher and then we’d have a week where we rested. Man that worked like a charm. But that’s not normally how we do it, right? We did hell week and then you just go back to hell week and I actually like this hell week concept. I did hell decade, right? I think it was the 90s. But it’s just something to think about because you’re building some capacity here then you’re going to go a week of utilization training and another one where you really kind of rest up and get very specific.

So there are any number of ways that you can think about this. Jon Urbanchek calling. Jon, you should be here and then you wouldn’t be interrupting me. I’m trying to watch the time. My watch broke so I’m just trying to make sure I don’t cut over too much. This concept, it changes with age and I think one of the reasons I like to do this to talk about this today is that if you’re in an Age Group Program, and you have developing athletes and you’re looking for something to hang your hat on in terms of how you’re going to train swimmers. I think you can learn so much from every coach in America but every place isn’t the right place for everything. I think if you’re working with 10 and unders and 11, 12s and you’re running Dave Salo’s Program, I’m not sure that’s developmentally correct that he does for his post-grads. Because that’s all you hear about, right?

Well, what are they doing today? It’s great, I love it. And you shouldn’t do what I do with my post-grads. You shouldn’t do what Dick Shoulberg does with Arthur Frayler but you should have a vision of how you’re going to get there and then work yourself back. It doesn’t mean you can’t do things that are in the theme of those work-outs but if you’re running a utilization program and you ace your program predominantly, they’re just going to level off and not get better. If you’re only doing capacity they’re probably going to get bored because it’s super slow even though they’re growing. Balance it out. The younger they are, the more capacity. The older they are, the more utilization. There’s some sort of progression there. That’s my main message.

And one thing that I’d also like you to do, as young coaches, don’t try to re-invent the wheel. I won’t give you this total boring story that I told at National Team Coaches but I got hooked up with Paul Bergen when he was into horse racing right and he had gotten into this totally foreign environment. This is a guy who’s a genius in one area, gone over to this new area because it was exciting and he wanted to deal with it and I was with him. I was his accomplice to these crimes against horses. Not really, we never mistreated a horse. I don’t behave like that. But we looked at this from like; they’re doing these things the same thing the way did it 200 years ago. They’d take them out, they do a short run, they come back, and they stay in the stall all day. Surely there’s a better way. Well, we found 10 better ways only they never want to race.

They’re not strong enough. Let’s give them weight training because it works for swimmers, so we did, we built a sled and we had the horses carry – a race horse, right? Number one, can you imagine putting a race horse in a harness, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do but we did that and then they would pull this sled and get stronger. We were convinced that made him stronger and you know what? It did but there were some other things that we couldn’t figure out and that was if you’re going to make any money in race horsing so you can live to actually enjoy it, you have to work with 50 horses. It took one horse, two people and hour to get this strength training done. So it didn’t work. We wanted to train them in the gate, right? We put them in the gate because starts are important, right, just like swimming. Starts.

We’d walk them in the gate; we had this whole elaborate thing. First we want them comfortable in the gate so I would sit on the gate and feed them carrots while they stood there, right? Okay, fine.

And then we wanted them to be able to stand there by themselves so we did although they started to get pissed when they didn’t get the carrots every time, right?

And then we’d open the gate and they’d walk through it and there was this whole elaborate progression and they would start pretty well but you know what? I’d watch these other barns come up and they’d stand them in the gate and then they’d open it up and they’d kind of gallop out, and then they do it again and hit them one time and they’d come out pretty fast. We were trying to do things that – they race for millions of dollars that kind of focuses people on what works. We were just doing it for fun and obviously that’s – so when you’re coaching, right? It doesn’t have to be new to be good. When I talked about aerobic base and I was joking, that’s a serious point. I think 11, 12s need to swim some mileage. Do they need to swim some sloppy mileage? No, they don’t.

I think if you’re going to have young girls that are going to be world class someday they need to be doing some work before they’re 14. What does that work entail probably not 20,000 a day but maybe 10 sometimes? There are things that are proven to work, find those things out, become a classically trained coach and then go crazy. If Beethoven walked in today and opened a score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, he would recognize every note. He would be able to read everything on that page. The instruments would be basically the same and he wouldn’t know what the hell was going on in that page but he had a basis from which to appreciate it and he would probably love it.

He didn’t just – Stravinsky didn’t come in and say, “Okay, I’m just going to throw away scores and just write x’s and o’s on a page and then that’s how we’re going to play music. His early compositions are harmonic and melodic and he evolved to something incredible but very different and that’s I think how you should go about your coaching. Learn the scales first, learn all the scales. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. Then learn how to do something crazy because if you just start out here, you’re going to miss a lot of things that work and you’re going to learn what they are but it’s going to take you a long time to get back to that.

The Theory of Motor Learning, Part 2 | Michael Brooks | 2016 World Clinic Talk

Michael Brooks Michael Brooks
[Introduction by Kathleen Prindle]

Most of you have been in here, but if you are new to the room, you are listening to Part 2 of the talk by the great coach, Michael Brooks.

[Brooks begins]

Alright, I spent the first whole hour and it really kind of flew by at least to me.  It’s kind of setting the stage.  I want to talk now, fairly sensibly, about the motor learning principles and prescriptions that guide what we do in practice every day and how we try to make the changes, and make them stick.

I mentioned earlier that motor learning is the science of learning movement skills—how we learn best.  It’s important to note at the beginning of this, that the kind of set, the format of the set that will result in optimal learning is very different from the format of the set that will result in optimal improvements in physiology.  These are two different animals.  So, I think it’s very important when you’re trying to write a practice, and the sets that will comprise that practice, that you understand what your aim is with each part of the practice, because you’re going to get certain results, certain adaptations and those depend on the kind of sets that you’re giving swimmers.

Here, of course, I will be focused primarily on formats that will result in optimal learning.   Physiology is another talk.  So, the basic format of this section, I’ll talk about the motor learning principle.  I’ll talk about how it applies in swimming. Then, a sample format, or a couple of different kinds of sets that we would use to take advantage of this principle.

The first is modeling.  I’ve talked about this already, so I won’t dwell on it.  But it’s giving kids a standard of comparison, a standard of reference or to compare with, when they perform the skills.  If I can get the screen to show us what we want, I will show you what I mean by my model.

For each stroke, I came up with what I call the stroke catechism.  I’m Catholic, so a lot of the terminology I use is theological.  The kids deal with it, you can deal with it.  Stroke catechism.  For each stroke, it’s a list of approximately six to 10 skills that I consider fundamental to an effective stroke.  Each of these skills is illustrated by a video clip.

So, for instance, this is one of the videos that we use.  This is to illustrate the high elbow catch.  The words we use are wrist, rotate, press.  So, wrist cocked, elbow rotated, press straight back.  Each of these skills, each of these fundamental skills has a little cue and we use the same words every single time.  It’s short, sweet, to the point, has to be replicated.  Swimmers don’t individualize it and make it their own.  They use the same words every time.

Another example.  This is metronome six-beat.  The idea here is I want to see a six-beat kick.  It’s essentially straight up and down.  It’s a metronome, regular beat.  I don’t want strong, weak, strong, weak.  I don’t want a broken rhythm, stops, or pauses, I want an absolutely regular six-beat kick.  Because every single time there is a break in the rhythm of the legs, there is a problem some other place in the stroke, whether it is the head position on breathing or whatever.  So, problems are always connected.  But, for each of the eight or ten or whatever it is for that particular stroke, we’ll have key words for a skill.  And, by and large, we will work on these skills in the context of full stroke.

I’ll talk in a few minutes about drills and what I think of them.  Some of you already know and the rest of you will be scandalized, but, just as a basic idea, almost all of the technical work that we do, and we do a lot, is with the kids swimming full stroke focused on one skill at a time.  The skills that we are focusing on are drawn from the stroke catechism.  We use the same vocabulary every time to describe a particular skill.  It’s really simple and I think very effective.  Yes, question?

[Audience Member]:  “How can we sign up for a stroke catechism class?”

[Michael Brooks]: Well, the question is, how do you sign up for stroke catechism class.  I came to the stroke catechism and it changes a little bit from year to year, as I decide one thing is little more important than another, where I change the way that I describe a skill.  But, I came to it by watching hours and hours and hours of elite swimmers video, primarily underwater video, and trying to figure out what the best people in the world were doing.  No two of them had exactly the same stroke.  The rhythms look different.  Michael Phelps doesn’t look like Tyler McGill or like Chad le Clos on butterfly.  They are different.  But, they share about 99% of their technical DNA and there are a lot of commonalities.

So, boiling down all the individual differences, it came to a list of what I consider the most important skills.  You know, probably no two coaches are going to agree entirely on what they think is important, on what model they have of the stroke.  It’s probably not that important that we do agree, entirely, at least.  But what is important is that you, not me, but you have thought about it, and done the legwork to figure out, “I want my kids to swim like this.”

So, I came to it by watching a lot of video and I change my ideas every now and then.  Somebody does something new.  It seems to me to work according to laws of physics and hydrodynamics and whatever. I don’t feel like I have to defend whatever version of the catechism was in the book because I retain the right to get better and to learn.  So, I’m not going to stake my reputation on what I had in a book a few years ago.  So, this way I get to write second edition and I can make oodles more cash in royalties.

[Audience Member]:  “There you go.”

[Michael Brooks]:  So, we’ve got the stroke catechism and we’ve got the video catechism, which is a set of clips that illustrate those important skills.  Now, super fun stuff, random practice.

Usually, random practice is compared with what we call blocked practice.  Examples, blocked practice would be 20x25s catch-up on 30 seconds. I am giving the kids two or three things to focus on.  They swim the whole set doing exactly the same thing, thinking about exactly the same thing.  That’s blocked practice.  You’re doing a whole bunch of things and it’s very uniform.

Random practice would be 20x25s on 30 seconds, where each repeat, we focus on a different skill, from the stroke catechism so that with every single repeat, a swimmer has to think, “Okay, reset.  Now, I want to focus on metronome six-beat.  I have this idea in my head.  I swim, trying to swim according to that model.  I finished.  I compared A and B.  Okay, what’s next?  High elbow focus or finger-drag recovery?  Okay, reset.  Now, I want to do this.  I swim.  I try and swim according to the model.  I finish.  I compare.  Okay, reset.  What’s next?”

So, every single repeat or very close to that, they’re changing the intention.  They’re changing the attention, they’re changing the sensory information that they’re paying attention to.  They are learning.  With the blocked practice format, after the first two or three repeats, there’s not a lot of learning going on.  Brain is on autopilot and the analogy I like to use is like from math, super simple.  Question number one, what’s five times three?  Fifteen.  Excellent.  Good job.  Question number two, what’s five times three?  Fifteen.  Question number three, what’s five times three?  Fifteen.  Question number four — what’s five times three?  Okay.  Ad nauseam.

The first time, I had to think a little bit if in I’m second grade, but after that, maybe after the second one, there was zero thinking going on whatsoever.  But, if I’m changing it up every time, five times three, 13 times seven, 48 times 17, you know, whatever, every single repeat or every single question, I’m having to start from zero again, kind of reboot and then attack the problem.  Question.

[Audience Member]: I appreciate that you allow for an exchange, however an eight year old is going to be at a different level than a fifteen year old. Does the set vary according to the swimmers level?

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, does the kind of set we give kids vary according to the age and developmental level of the swimmer?

[Audience Member]:  “How many things do they have to think about?”

[Michael Brooks]:  A number of things they have to think about.  Well, in reality, I’m only asking them to think about one thing at a time.  I’m just changing after every single repeat.  Did that make sense?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]:  So for, but it is the case that with an eight-year-old or a brand spanking new swimmer, I probably won’t do full-scale random practice.  I would do more blocked.  I might do four repeats in a row with one focus, because all these skills are so new, it’s going to take them three or four or five repeats to just get a general idea of the skill that we’re talking about.

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, do I have in my head kind of an idea of what sort of practice is going to work best with different ages?  Yes, I got a lot of stuff crammed up in here, a lot.  And, I’ve been doing this long enough so that I do have an idea.  I can look at a swimmer and see how they respond, and that’s what I’m really gaging after.  For instance, with my new group right now, and they’re senior level swimmers, I can’t do the kind of random practice that I could do with my York kids, because for these kids, everything is new.  The vocabulary I’m using is different, the particular skills are different, so I’m having to treat them like I would have with my 10-year-olds in York.

So, yes, it does depend on the level, the experience of a swimmer and the group, the swimmers in a group.  You pay a lot of attention to your swimmers and how they respond.  But the idea is you want to keep them on the edge.  As soon as they really get the skill, you change it, so that they are having to struggle again, or at least, to reset their onboard computer and attack another problem.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]:  Well, it’s really interesting because right now in Chapel Hill, I’m not only working with a lot of swimmers to whom this is completely new, I’m dealing with a coach and staff to whom this is completely new.  I’m cutting them a lot of slack, because what I can do without thinking about it, because I’ve been working on these ideas for a long time and trying to implement them for a long time, they can’t do.  So, it takes them longer.  The tempo of practices isn’t nearly as quick.  So, it’s hard at first.  It seems really complicated at first.  To me, it’s not complicated at all anymore because I have the framework in my head, and I can just put in different parts and keep it all organized.  But, that has only come with a lot of practice.

The beginning of the season when you have a slower pace for practice anyway, is a really good time not only to introduce this to swimmers but to get it introduced to a coach, because practices will go a little slower, really working on skill work.  Physiology isn’t quite as important.  So you have time to make your mistakes and learn how to do it.  But, it took a long time.  Where I am right now is a level of sophistication that is well beyond what I had a few years ago, just because I’ve been working on these by tweaking and polishing these ideas every single day.

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, they are doing a lot of different things but where are they getting the repetition, the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or whatever you want to call it if you want to go that direction, which I don’t, but I will for the moment.  In motor learning circles, they talk about repetition without repetition.  That you want to get a lot of reps of something, say freestyle, but you want to do that with as little back-to-back repetition as you can.

So when you think about it, if you’re doing a Michael Brooks random practice set, they’re doing 20x25s freestyle, but they’re focused on something different every time.  They’re resetting the computer every time.  When they do that, they are giving those different skills, those, say, ten skills in the catechism, a chance to work together and fit together which they would not get if they just did 20 of them focused on one single thing.  So, it’s repetition without repetition.  The learning rates are drastically accelerated, compared with your typical blocked practice.  Kids have to think every single repeat.  They have to compare their performance with the model every single repeat, so they are learning a lot.

Now, one of the ways that we put this into practice is really simple ideas called rainbow focus, pass it on.  We’re doing our 20x25s on 30 seconds.  I tell the kids one time that, “Okay, on repeat number one, the focus is metronome six-beat.  Let’s say we’re doing 50 s because that’s easier.  I don’t have to keep walking back and forth.  But, say we’re doing 20x50s, okay.  First, swim metronome six-beat.  They swim.  When the first group, the leaders in each lane get to the wall, I’ll announce the second skill.  Finger-drag recovery.  I say it one time.  First person passes it to the second, second to the third, third to the fourth, all the way done the line, okay?  They have to say it loud enough so I can hear it every time.

It’s like a chorus.  I say it one time.  We don’t have to wait for the last person in the lane to finish, and then, for me to give a speech.  So, we can get a lot of learning done, a lot of repetition without repetition, a lot of deliberate practice, thoughtful planned practice in a short amount of time.  It looks like a normal set.  But the rate of learning is accelerated because they’re swimming.  They’re not standing around waiting for me to talk to them for a lot of time.  There’s very little downtime.  Further, they have to take responsibility for listening to the message from the kid in front of them, passing it on to the person behind them.  So, that helps reinforce that particular skill in their heads every single time.

It really works, and it works with the 10 and unders.  John Nelson, my old assistant, now the Head Coach at York, had been working with our 10 and unders the last couple of years and they are really good!  Kids can do amazing things if you give them a chance to prove it.  They can pay attention, they can do the stuff, and it really, really helps.  Question over here?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible] “I have them say thank you just to make sure that they received it.”

[Michael Brooks]:  Okay.  The statement was, she’s been working with rainbow focus for three years and, not only does a swimmer acknowledge the message but thanks the person who gave it to them, for passing it along.  And I assume that also makes a much polite swimmers.  So, thank you.

That thing about social media is totally true!  My wife will text her daughter, my stepdaughter, who’s one room away.  I thought it was only teenagers who did that, but it isn’t.  So, yes, it’s nice to actually talk to each other and pass along important information.  Was there a question over here?  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “So when you are doing the random practices and you’re working on skills but you see that that the skills are not being demonstrated the way you like, how do you handle that?  Do you have them repeat, or they just move on?”

[Michael Brooks]: The question is, what do I do if they don’t look the way I want them to look?  I’ll usually make sure that I cycle that skill back in again relatively quickly.  I won’t go through a whole cycle, just to see if it was maybe an aberration.  If I notice that it’s still a problem, I might put that on the backburner until they do a few more.  Then, I might stop the whole group and kind of reinforce.  And, remember, finger-drag recovery means you’re not swinging your arm out, you’re picking the elbow up, just sliding it along, straight forward, setting it in nice and pretty.

So, I would probably, after a little bit, stop them briefly, unpack the skill a little bit just to make sure they all understand what I want to see, and then send them off again.  But I try and make sure that any speeches from me are very short, very pointed.  So, we are not spending a lot of time on the wall.  They are getting as much learning as is humanly possible in any practice.  So, I keep it very, very short.

Now, a variation on this rainbow focus pass it on is, what we call HRPK.  Sounds, and it will sound, when I elaborate on it kind of complicated, but not really. HRPK means H: head, R: recovery, P: pull, K: kick.  So, we’ve taken four fundamentals of how the body swims.  And in freestyle, for instance, our H focus would be head steady, one goggle breathing.  The R would be finger-drag recovery.  The P would be wrist, rotate, press.  The K would metronome six-beat.

So, if we’re doing any repeat that’s divisible by four, say hundreds divisible by 25s, or a set where the total number of repeats is divisible by four.  It doesn’t really matter how you do it.  I would just have kids focus serially on first H, then R, then P, then K, so that I don’t have to spend my whole time at the end of the pool telling them what I want them to focus on.  They’ve got the main points of the stroke that they’re going to be focused on, one at a time.  It keeps their attention much better.  I know because the order is the same every time what I’m supposed to be seeing, and I pay fairly close attention to aberrations, especially when they become patterns.

It helps the different parts of the stroke harmonize with each other, because they are working one at a time.  It’s a very simple way of allowing kids to do essentially random, you might call it serial practice, getting the main stroke focuses repeated over and over and over.  It allows me to watch more than I can when we’re just doing a rainbow focus pass it on.

You can throw in so many different variations.  I mean, you’re limited only by your imagination.  You start throwing in breathing patterns on freestyle or butterfly, stroke count variations, stroke tempo variations, descending speed variations, and pretty soon, you’ve got lots of moving parts and kids are really having to be on the ball because they’re supposed to be controlling or mastering more than one variable at a time.  It’s just fun.  It really keeps them on their toes.  They like it.  I mean, they usually say, “Gosh, I have to think so much.”  That’s their way of saying, “That was good coach.”  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “When you put that together, did you order it specifically or is that just random order?”

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, did I order the HRPK for a reason or is it just randomized?  Essentially, it’s for a reason because with the H and the R, it’s kind of setting the body line.  With the P, after you’ve got a nice straight line, you’re going to be able to pull more consistently.  I always want kids hard on their legs coming home.  So, it didn’t start out as HRPK, it was something else.  I can’t even remember.  Then, I started thinking, “You know, it makes a lot more sense if we do it the following way.”  So, this is probably the third iteration before I found the one I really like.

But, you know, like I said, what I’m trying to do is throw out ideas for you to play with and presumably come up with better ideas than the ones I’m giving you.  And then, it is your obligation to get back to me and tell me how I can get better, because that’s part of the deal.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]:  Okay.  The question is, some kids are going to be more visual learners, some are going to be more verbal, just kids have different learning styles or skills, and how do we take that into account when we’re giving kids set formats?

I’m going to zip ahead for a moment and, talk about some of the ways we would use a video catechism because, we show a lot of video.  It’s a huge part of our technical improvement program.  We call it video catechism day, or video catechism set, where we would take one of the clips like I showed you.  I would have it slowed down, about half speed or one-third speed, so slow motion.  Kids would sit in their training group, in front of the very large flat screen television.  They would watch, actively watch a particular clip for about three to four minutes, okay?  And actively watching means you watch Michael Phelps do metronome six-beat, but you feel yourself do that skill just the way he is.  Three minutes or so.  Really dial-in.  Then shut your eyes for a minute and I want you to feel yourself performing that metronome six-beat.  Start at a slow tempo, same tempo you just watched, and I want you to gradually pick up your speed until your swimming race speed performing that skill.

So, watch first, observational learning. Then imagery or visualization. Then we’d pick another skill.  Let’s just say since we just did legs, we’d switch to the other side of the body, other end of the body, and we do a catch: wrist, rotate, press focus.  We do the same format.  Three minutes watching, active watching, one minute imagery. Then we’d get in and kids would do for instance, 12×50’s on :50 or whatever, alternating the two skills.  If kids are relatively good at this, we would have them descend by pairs, so they start very slow and they gradually build in speed.  So they’re only alternating between two skills, but then, the speed or intensity is changing from start to finish.

It’s a way of bringing in that visual learning which I think is absolutely key; being able to see a model and to feel what he’s doing or she’s doing.

Another variation of that is we would wheel that televisions as close to the end of the pool as is financially possible, and the kids would watch the video clip in between repeats.  So they’d finish, they’d watch about 20 seconds, they’d shut their eyes for about 10 seconds and kind of plan, “This is what I want to do.”  Then they’d swim, trying to mimic or imitate the model.  I might do three or four in a row with one single skill and then switch it.  The idea is that they watch, they perform, they watch, they perform, so it’s very quick back and forth.  I think that it’s a really simple format and very helpful for solidifying that ability to distinguish between the model and what you’re doing.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “Is that like the principle of neuroplasticity?”

[Michael Brooks]:  This whole talk is about neuroplasticity.  I didn’t want to scare anybody by using that.  But, yes, we are after rewriting their brains, and that’s what neuroplasticity is all about.  Yes, Bob?

[Audience Member]: “Would you use any physical movement in the curriculum?”

[Michael Brooks]:  Some kids do and you can see them.  For instance, when they are shutting their eyes and they’re on deck, I see some of them and they’re kind of knitting their brows and whatever.  Sometimes, I’ll have them swim watching a mirror, so they can see themselves.  So, yes, there’s some movement involved sometimes.  Some kids more than others, sometimes, I’ll tell them to. So, there’s a lot of variety.  But, the basic principle on both, the video catechism and the having come up with a cool name for that variation, but basic idea is they’re watching, imaging, performing and just trying to move their stroke closer and closer to that model skill that we’ve got on video.

So we talked about modeling, we talked about random practice.  Very quickly, variable practice. That is distinct from constant practice.  Here, examples would be constant practices, race pace training, 20×50’s on :45, hold your 500 race speed.  Simple.  They get a lot of repetition at a certain stroke, certain speed, certain stroke parameters.

Variable practice.  The simplest example would be 20x50s on :45, descend one to four, five to eight, et cetera. Where they never do two repeats in a row.  In this case, the same speed.  They have to make adjustments the whole time.

Now, some ways of descending training are a total waste of time when you get a swimmer whose four repeats in a cycle are 32 flat, 31.9, 31.8, 26.2.  That does nothing.  However, if the swims are controlled and in a nice progression, then it teaches a lot.  Sometimes, just from talking with some friends, we tend to think pacing is just kind of, well, whatever.  Distance swimmers do it, and we’ll do some descending stuff every now and then.  But, you know, what we really care about is number four, number eight, number 12, number 16 and number 20, how close are they to race speed.  That’s how we really care about.

But, I think pacing skills are fascinating and I think, key to technical mastery. Because we’ve got all these skills and presumably, we’re doing a lot of technical work and learning these skills.  Pacing is how we put them together under a range of expectations, demands, and needs.  Can we control our stroke? Can we optimize our stroke through this range?  That’s what pacing really is.  Because, if I swim a 50 at 30 seconds, and then I swim a 50 at 28, freestyle, those are two very different freestyles.  The tempos are going to be different.  The distance per stroke are going to be different.  The precise way that I perform each of these skills and how they fit together are different. The physiological demands are different.

These two things are like apples and oranges.  And even more, if I swim 30 seconds on a 50 and I’m fresh as a daisy, that’s very different from swimming 30 seconds on a 50 if I am dog-tired.  The motor unit recruitment of the particular muscle units that are being used, are very different.  Usually, the stroke skills are going to be very different as well.  It might not be easy for us to see it, kids can probably feel it, but a stroke is not this monolith that’s the same at all times.  It’s different at every single point along this speed curve.

Fairly recently, I was listening to this really old talk by Bill Boomer, and he talks about speed choices or something like that.  And, what I was thinking about with pacing, because by then I was already freaking out about these talks, was dovetailing precisely with what he was talking about. Kids are making choices.  Often, those aren’t explicit choices at all.  But we’re probably better off if at least initially while they’re learning to be, we make those choices as explicit as possible.  How does your stroke change as you get faster?  Because pacing is, how do you swim at a particular speed efficiently?

If the two of you swim 28 seconds per 50 and you can do it at 140 heart rate and you have to do it at 160, my bet is on Brant.  And, you know, everyone has seen at the end of the sets almost always have the kids do 6x25s on 30 side-by-side racer guts out, because we want finishing kicks as good in the pool as the Ethiopians or the Kenyans have on the track.  So, no matter how tired they are, no matter how long a set is, we finish with some crazy fast sprints.

Well, if in order to go fast the kid has to take eight more strokes than they’ve been holding throughout a set, then they’re not getting faster intelligently at all.  And the kind of stroke that they use, usually one where they’re seemingly attempting to beat the snot out of the water, that’s a stroke, that’s a choice that they’re not going to be able to maintain, because physiologically the demands are so high they can’t do it.  So, they’ve got to be able to swim at any particular pace as efficiently as possible, and they’ve got to be able to get faster intelligently.  That takes a lot of practice.

Pacing is so cool when you think about it.  There are a whole bunch of different ways that you can work on pacing skills that will help kids optimize their stroke at any point along that speed curve.  It will give them technical mastery, and that’s what we’re after.  It’s one thing to be able to swim the skills and have them harmonize together. But can they do it in different situations, in different needs, and in particular in racing?  So having that control over the different speeds used in racing is absolutely a key, but training speed is important as well.

There are a lot of different kinds of sets that we use with variable practice.  I kind of want to jump to the next thing because it’s the most controversial.  And if we have time or if you buy me a coffee, I’ll tell you anything.  We can postpone the kinds of variable practice until later.

Next, really important motor learning principle is the primacy of full stroke.  If you look at our program, we might do drills at most 5% of our technical work. And the overall program maybe 2%.  So, by and large, we are working to improve our swimming skills by swimming the full stroke.  Again, not all the time but really close to it.  We’ve been blessed to have had a number of these visitors over the last couple of years, because we’ve had some kids do fairly well.  So, people want to see what we’re doing.  And it astounds people the way we work on strokes.  “Well, where are your drills?”  “We keep them in that storeroom and we never open it.”  So, there are ways to do this that I think work a lot better than drills, and I’m about to tell you why.

Probably most coaches use drills extensively to improve stroke skills from age group, all the way through the pros.  Now, you always see “my top 10 favorite drills for freestyle,” by some famous coach.  That assumes that when you work on this drill and improve on this drill, that you are going to get better on the full stroke.  That there is going to be some transfer from this work to this work.

Usually, we assume, or we start from the observation, that these two things share a particular skill and that’s going to be our target.  So, this drill has this particular skill A, the full stroke has this particular skill A.  These two really aren’t the same, but they share the same thing.  So, if we work on this, this is going to get better.

That is a highly problematical assumption because transfer works best when you’re dealing with a brand new beginner learning a skill.  And the more that you work on a skill, the better your stroke skills become. The more precise, the more specific you swim.  So, it may be the case for an eight and under or a new nine-year-old, 10-year-old.  So, for the younger kids having them do, say, catch-up freestyle really does help their regular freestyle.  But, once they’re older and their stroke skills are relatively good, there’s probably almost zero transfer from the one to the other.

Next, I have a wonderful quote by Richard Smith, about transfer and how it lessens as skills develop… but you’ll have to trust me that I have it.

So, transfer applies best with beginners, and that lessens as skills improve and become more specific.  Further, it’s usually the case that coaches will give swimmers a particular drill and they’ll do it, but it causes certain problems.  So we give them another drill, because this compensates for this problem.  But, it causes another problem so we give them another drill because it compensates for that second problem.  And we give them another in practically infinite regression.

When you think about it, if you have to have a series and a growing series of drills to solve all the problems that the drills have caused: A.) It takes you a lot of time to go through all those, and. B.) It’s a highly indirect method of getting faster at freestyle.  We can get faster at freestyle by working on freestyle and working on one skill at the time. Again, using that stroke catechism as the basis for skill work. But it’s very direct, to the point way of improving the skills.

Now, it is the case that with the younger kids, say 10 and unders, we would have them do more drills, because the goal is different.  With a 10-year-old, I might not be aiming at explicitly improving, optimizing this little kid’s freestyle.  Instead, the goal would be to give the swimmer the biggest arsenal of movement skills they can possibly acquire, not only in the water but out of the water as well.  Make this 10-year-old kid a master of movement, so that it’s easy from that foundation to have him or her improve and work on strokes skills more specifically later on.

So for 10-year-olds, I think the goal is very different.  So, the guidelines that I have always used are different from the ones, say the 11 and overs, unless you have a new swimmer.  You know, 11 and 12, new to this sport.

Another reason why drills don’t work, just to be blunt, and that’s for the most part, because there are a couple that I really like.  But for the most part, drills don’t work because a swimming stroke… again, let’s just use freestyle… is a collection. It’s a series of skills that all fit together continuously. And how I do one, affects how I do the next one.

Super simple example, if a swimmer breathing lifts the head up and tosses the arm on their recovery, then one time their stroke is starting right here.  Then, they don’t breath, it’s going to start right here.  Sometime it starts two feet underwater, sometimes it starts six inches underwater.  They never start a stroke in the same place twice because of what the previous skills or, the poor performance of the previous skills.  All of those skills were together.  That’s one reason with HRPK that we started beginning with body line because I realized that if the body line skills were awful, the pulling skills couldn’t be good.  So, these parts all fit together, really tightly.  They interact strongly.  Everyone affects every other one.  And given that interaction, it isn’t a reasonable assumption to say that these two things, this drill and this full stroke share this skill.

So, if I work on this, I get better at this. Because this skill is embedded in a drill whose wholeness, whose parts… the interconnection of the parts, is completely different from this one. We can’t say, “Well, this skill, take it out like a surgeon and transplant it into this.”  Because motor skills just don’t work like that and it’s so much easier.  So, if I need to fix a recovery to work on freestyle, and have them think about recovery, and I want to have them work on the kicking skills, we do metronome six-beat.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “So, in essence, the drill is basically another stroke?”

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, in essence, the drill is another stroke.  Exactly.  For new swimmers, beginner swimmers learning a skill, that is probably not true and there is transfer.  But, once kids have gotten to reasonable level of confidence, the body sees them as different animals, one’s a cat and one’s a dog.  And even though a cat has ears and a dog has ears, the cat’s ears are all working with the cat’s parts and needs, and the dog’s ears are working with the dog’s parts and needs.  So, they aren’t the same and you can’t just take my dog’s ear and put it onto my cat and have everything work well.  It just doesn’t work.  Those two things are different.  So, that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make.  Said very succinctly and I’ll put that into edition two.  So, thank you.

And really, full stroke swimming is the only thing you don’t have to make accommodation for.  It’s a very direct way of getting to the heart of the problems and solving the problems.  And I do understand that, you know, for most people, what I just said is heresy because, you know, I learned how to coach from a coach who did drills all the time.  And when I was starting out in coaching, I kind of called myself the “drill king.”  And, yes, I am not proud of that.  But, I had a whole smorgasbord of drills that I used because I thought that was really, really smart, because that’s what my coach told me to do and that’s what I knew.

And fortunately, my brother steered me to motor learning and I starting to learn.  I was just in shock and in horror with each page. “Oh, my God, what have I been doing?”  And, you know, one of the challenges is that a lot of the motor learning experiments have been centered on very simple skills because they’re easy to measure, like tapping drills.  They’re very simple skills, rotary.

The problem with really using and applying the principles of motor learning has been that, I’m dealing with a full-body movement, very complicated timing among the different parts of the body and the limbs against resistance.  So, physiology plays a huge part in swimming.  It’s a really complicated thing.  One of the newer schools, probably not new anymore, but the newer schools that constraints led ecological psychology, dynamical systems.  I mean, they go by different names, but they’ve really started looking at these complicated movements like we do.  I’ve been stealing from them as much as possible and trying to figure out how their teachings apply in the water.

Another challenge is that so few people have worked in the water with swimmers because it’s hard.  Water goofs things up.  It’s hard to get really good on-the-spot video because Wi-Fi doesn’t work underwater.  And, when you’re on deck what you most need to be able to see, you can’t see very well. Even when somebody is in the lane closest to you.  What’s really going on underwater, you don’t have a clear view of.  If they are eight lanes over, no chance, what so ever.

As a coach, you need to get really good at being intuit about what’s going on underwater from what you see on the surface.  That’s why I love to watch from the side of the pool, because I can watch momentum.  I can see changes in speed.  I can try to put together, connect the dots between what I see them doing, and how much forward momentum they get or don’t get.  But the reason I have to do that, is because we’re not playing volleyball.  I can’t just set up the camera on the edge of the court and be able to see in great detail exactly how a player is performing a skill.  It’s so much harder for us.  And that difficulty has funneled into the motor learning field. So very few people have really worked on what we need, desperately need, if we want to do our jobs really well.

So I’ve started to kind of amass a little network of motor learning people.  Thanks to email.  Goodness gracious, you can talk with a Brit in two seconds and it’s wonderful!  But, try to get some people who are interested in these questions, thinking about our questions, and how to solve our problems, and not a volleyball player’s or soccer players. Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “If you’re into learning motor skills in the full stroke, where do you see the dedicated kick sets and the focus on kicking with strengthening the legs?”

[Michael Brooks]:  Great question. If I like full stroke, what do I think about kicking sets?  Because, that’s part practice if there ever was any.

Okay.  Well, I’m of two minds about it.  I know that kicking is very important, but I also know that kicking inside the rhythm of the stroke is what really matters.  And, I see it all of the time, kids who are wonderful kicking on a board, as probably most of my current senior group.  Put board on them… Boom, they are awesome kickers.  Take the board away and say swim, not so great.  Because they are being able to integrate a true metronome six-beat kick into the full stroke, the rhythm of the body, the role of the torso, et cetera.  Those two things are really different;  kicking on the board and kicking while you’re swimming.  This is more important than this.

And, one of the things I’ve done just in the last week, because it took me about four seconds to see this gaping problem, was when we’re working on kicking skills.  Right now, we’re alternating.  So they might do a 50 with a board and then a 50 regular freestyle focused on metronome six-beat.  And, I’ll be asking them questions the whole time.  When I see weirdness, I’ll just try to guide their attention to problems that they might have, so that a couple of weeks from now, I will see orthodox six-beat kicks and I’ll have a group of kids who, at least in theory, are ready someday to go off and break a world record, because right now it is not happening.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “How do you feel about equipment?”

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is equipment basically.  I feel about equipment the same way I feel about drills.  My grand principle is the more I digress from full stroke free swimming, the better reason I better have to do that.

So, if I’m going to use a piece of equipment, I need to know why I’m using it and not just for a change of pace, or to give the kids a little break or whatever.  I have to know exactly why I’m using it.  I have to ensure that I’m not getting reliance or dependence problems so that there’s going to be some alternating between equipment and full stroke drill and full stroke.

I’m going to have to pay very close attention to unintended negative consequences.  And as soon as I see them, change what we’re doing.  The drill, or the piece of equipment, has to give kids access to important information that they weren’t getting otherwise.  So, it’s got to actually bring something to the table and at least, in theory, allow them to improve the full stroke. In the end, that’s what I want.  We want to get better at freestyle, we want to get better at backstroke, et cetera.  I don’t care how well they do with an ankle buoy.  I don’t care how well they do one arm backstroke.  I want to make sure that their full strokes are getting better and everything else is a means to that end.  As soon as it starts becoming the end in itself, then we’re going off in the wrong direction.

Let’s just take at least a few minutes for questions.

[Audience Member]: “Do these principles work in all four strokes?”

[Michael Brooks]:  Yes.

[Audience Member]: “For young swimmers?”

[Michael Brooks]:  For young swimmers?

[Audience Member]:  “Yes.”

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, do these principles work in all four strokes and even for younger swimmers?  For instance, butterfly.

We do more drills.  The proportion of technical work would be higher with drills when we’re working with younger swimmers and fly.  But even so, we really only have two drills that we do in butterfly.  One is what we call a one-arm B, so one-arm butterfly.  The arm you don’t use is down by your side, and you breathe forward every other stroke.  It’s pretty challenging.

The other is what we call single-double B and that’s single arm, full stroke, single arm, full stroke.  You breathe on the full stroke.  But, those two drills retain the rhythm of the overall stroke.  They simplify it, both in terms of motor learning and the number of moving parts, but also physiologically, so kids can do more of it.

But, I would say even with the 10 and unders, we do try and do full stroke butterfly for technique, or we just might do more interweaving of alternative freestyle and fly, or dolphin kick and fly. This is so that they’re never going to be asked to do more consecutive fly than they can handle well, because I love beautiful things.  I love beautiful swimming.  And ugly swimming turns my stomach.  I can’t handle it at all.  I spent a lot of time on deck.  I want it to be aesthetically pleasing.

So, we don’t do more butterfly.  We don’t do more of whatever stroke than they can do.  So, yes, the same principles apply, but they’re tempered a bit to the ability level of the swimmers’ strength and the fitness levels as well.  Okay, yes?

[Audience Member]:  “So you mentioned how you format your sets for technical changes different than how you format the physiological changes.”

[Michael Brooks]:  Right.

[Audience Member]:  “So could you give us insight to the thought process behind your daily planning and simple planning to achieve that balance?”

[Michael Brooks]:  The question is, sets for physiological improvement look different from sets for technical improvement and how do I figure out all that – how do I figure it all out.  And unfortunately, that’s about a 40-minute long answer.  It depends on how I structure the season.  And, in a very small nutshell, we have about a 4-5 week technical improvement phase where there’s a lot of technique work all the time, all the time, all the time.  So lots of random practice, lots of varying and all that.

Then we have kind of our ordinary time where we have four-week phases.  Each phase is completed by a meet.  In particular, by a prelim, final relatively important meet. Where are in this phase, we have one week that’s called a Techweek.  We’ve use the data that I’ve gotten from the previous meet, like what are our most important problems that we need to aim at.  So, we have one week where we really aim at those, a bridging week, where the goal is to take that new skill and give it legs; make it a little stronger, make it a little faster.  Then, two weeks of just more normal training where in theory at least week and now train on this new skill.

The last six or seven weeks, which consist of a pre-taper and a taper. My kids will tell you that our taper last about two days.  This actually is longer than that.  But, you know, this last six or seven weeks, the goal is to bulletproof the different technical advancements we’ve made throughout the first, five, six months, whatever, of the season. Because if kids are not ready to race on those skills, they’re not learned and they’re of no real value to us when they get on the blocks at nationals.  But it’s a long answer.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “Do you incorporate underwaters as its own stroke or as part of all the rest?”

[Michael Brooks]:  Do we incorporate underwater work as its own thing, a separate animal, or do we work on it with all the rest?  A little bit of both.  And probably, it depends more on the part of the season.  Right now, it gets its own place at the table.  As we go, it’s just part of maybe not every set, but pretty darn close.  So, yes.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]:  Okay.  Once we get in to more of the conditioning focus where the aim is physiological improvement, are we still using this random practice, variable practice, et cetera, et cetera formats?  Yes, yes, yes.  I think a lot of times, coaches will have the first month, where we want to get better technically, and then the goal for the rest of the season is just to maintain.  We can train the snot out of them and hope like crazy that we maintain the strokes, but that doesn’t happen.  So we’re trying to get better all the time.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible]

[Michael Brooks]: The question is, how do you implement this more random practice or rainbow focus when you’re dealing with kids with a wide range of ability and wide range of send-offs?  Well, one variation to rainbow focus is the leader of each lane determines the stroke focus, which means that no two lanes may be doing the same thing, but the rule still applies.  You need to pass it on.  This does give them some ownership of what they’re doing.  Especially, if you’re changing the order of lane so that everybody gets to lead some time.  That’s a way to take into consideration this difference in abilities and still get the same kind of learning done.  So, yes.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  [Indiscernible] If you are working with a high school team, and you’re not the high school coach — if they train with someone else in the morning, and with you in the evening will they still be able to retain what you have taught or will they lose it.

[Michael Brooks]:  Okay.  The question is, if you’re dealing with, for instance, high school age swimmers and they are training with somebody else in the morning and with you in the afternoon or vice versa, how do you ensure other than lots of Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers that the lesson you’re trying to teach them make it through the gauntlet of this other coach or practice and show up the next day?  Is that a good translation?

The answer is, if you have communication with the other coach, it really helps if you let them in on some of the mysteries.  It helps a lot if you’ve educated your swimmers that they need to take responsibility for their own technical improvement and not just depend on you or your teammates, or your practices, but it’s something that they need to be thinking about and working on all the time, whether they’re with you or with somebody else.  That helps a lot.

Sleep helps consolidate motor memories, and just as a general thing, if they get enough of it will help a bit at least.  But, if swimmers are watching a little bit of the video catechism before they go to bed, you know, just watch five or 10 minutes and really actively watch observational learning that accelerates the consolidation overnight.  So I highly recommend that our swimmers do that.  It also helps make those new patterns, new connections more stable.

[Audience Member]:  Do your swimmers have access to the videos?

[Michael Brooks]:  Yes.  I make the video catechism the whole series available to the swimmers.  I don’t force it on them.  They have to bring in a flash drive and I give it to them.   I tell them how I think they can most effectively use it. Some of them do. Some of them don’t.  Yes?

[Audience Member]:  “You said they think that taper is two days.  How long is it actually and then what age?”

[Michael Brooks]:  Do I taper the younger ones? No, not really.  For senior level swimmers, I’ll start planning for the last day before the meet, seven-week.  Well, since the beginning of the season but really I’ll start setting it up seven weeks up.  The actual taper in my eyes is three weeks.  But we swim fast all the way.  We swim faster and faster as we get in, but for shorter and shorter repeat distances and with greater and greater rest.

So, we go into meets swimming crazy fast.  The kids who have tapered best and had the biggest improvements, are the ones who are swimming the fastest going in.  Because some kids will self-taper and say, “Well, you know, I’m just going to make myself tired.”  I think that what they really are doing is not sharpening those motor skills enough.

Unfortunately, we have to call it an afternoon.  Thank you very much.

The Theory of Motor Learning, Part 1 | Michael Brooks | 2016 World Clinic Talk

Michael Brooks
Michael Brooks

[Introduction by Kathleen Prindle]

Hi, everybody, welcome. We are going to go ahead and get started. For those that don’t know me, my name is Kathleen Prindle. I am the Vice President of the ASCA Board of the Directors, and am completely thrilled today to be able to be announcing Coach Michael Brooks. I’ll start by reading his bio for you. I need my glasses.
Michael Brooks has been the Head Coach of York YMCA Swim Team in York, Pennsylvania since October of 2006. In that time, in addition to scoring at the major domestic meets, York Y swimmers have represented the USA internally at meets ranging from Junior Worlds, Youth Olympics, Junior Pan Pacs, Pan Ams, and various World Cup Meets. Four of his swimmers have been named to the USA Swimming’s National Junior Team and two to the National Team. The York Y was named the Gold Medal Club in both 2013 and 2015. This is really notable because York YMCA is the smallest sized club to get a gold medal award from USA Swimming. It’s a huge accomplishment. In 2016, the York YMCA girls won the team title at the YMCA National Championships.

As of last week, the move has been official. Coach Brooks has taken the Head Coach position at the North Carolina Aquatic Club. So, they’re really lucky to have him over in North Carolina now, although my husband is from York. So, I won’t get to see him as much when we go home to visit. So I’m sad.

He is a featured speaker at several major coaches’ clinics across the country and Canada. He has spoken on wide-ranging topics, such as creating a culture of excellence, teaching technique, coaching effective practices, age group coaching for long-term success, coaching swim parents, creating talent in a small town, coaching IMers, coaching everything basically, and engineering success for age groupers at meets. In addition, he has taught the ASCA Stroke Technique School three times and the Physiology School once.

Coach Brooks has been named Coach of the Meet at the YMCA National Championships four times, Mid-Atlantic Senior Coach of the Year twice and Maryland Age Group Coach of the Year twice. His swimmers have raced to 50 plus YMCA National Titles and over 200 National Top 16 and Top 10 rankings.

Before coming to the York Y, he spent two years as the Head Age Group Coach of the Brophy East Swimming Team in Phoenix, Arizona, working closely with the great Dennis Pursley. And before that, he spent five years as Head Coach of the York site of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where he had the good fortune to work with and learn from both Murray Stephens and Bob Bowman.
You guys are in for a real treat today. This man is brilliant. He’s one of the most brilliant coaches of our time in my opinion. If you haven’t read his book, I will shamelessly plug it. It’s called “Developing Swimmers”. It’s fantastic. One of the best books I’ve read in our industry about developing swimmers. So, I’d like to welcome Coach Michael Brooks.
[Michael Brooks]: Thank you.

[Brooks begins]

Well, thank you very much, Kathleen. I liked like to thank ASCA and John Leonard for allowing me to talk. It’s always a bit nerve-racking at least for the first few minutes, but after a couple of minutes I’ll settle down and we’ll just get down to business. I wanted to start, if we can get this work, with the star of the show. There it is. That is a tiny sliver of a mouse’s cortex, so part of a mouse brain. A tiny, tiny sliver. And despite its tininess, there are hundreds of thousands of little connections, just in this slit of the brain. When you consider that a mouse’s brain is about that big and our brain is this big, and there are hundred trillion connections… well, you got the picture.

What we’re trying to do when we teach stroke technique is to rewire that thing and make those wirings and the connections stable enough that kids can swim beautifully, effectively, efficiently, consistently, at race speed.

I have two talks today, both of them are–each is for an hour. I’m probably going to run a little long on the first one, and I’m probably going to start a little early on the second one. I’m going to try and finish the second one on time, so I don’t bleed into the next speaker, but there is a lot to talk about. And I understand that a lot of what I say will appear, maybe even heretical but, you know, even if something rubs you the wrong way, just take a few deep breathes. Give me a hearing and if you have questions, please ask them. You don’t have to wait until the end of the talk to ask questions. Because if you’re stuck, I want you unstuck so that the rest of it makes some sense.

I have a bit of a cold right now, so occasionally I will clear my throat. Apologies in advance. And my suggestion is to take notes. Even if you don’t like taking notes, because if you don’t, within approximately three hours of the finish of my talk, you will only be retaining at most 50%. After about three days, you will have lost 90% of what I’m talking about. When you take notes, you’re going over the ideas in your head and trying to figure out what’s important and what isn’t, and that helps the retention enormously. So, suggestion, take notes. I will have a PDF available of a summary of it, but I hope that’s more a complement to what you do now and the thinking that you do now.

Kathleen already told you who I am, so I won’t get on to that. But a few quotations to set the scene that I think are pretty important. John Wooden, the legend, “The proper execution of fundamentals can become instinctive if–underline if– taught properly, just like breathing or walking.” Percy Cerutty, he was an Australian track coach, again legendary, “Forming the correct neural patterns is 80% of winning on the highest levels of competition.” And last from someone still around, Sean Hutchison, a friend of mine, “Bad strokes, bad coach.”

Now, some of those are a little more abrupt and extreme than others, but, I think they do well to set a standard that we should try and hold ourselves to. The translation from all of those put together at least as far as I can see is, if we do our jobs better, kids will swim a lot faster. So, that’s the basic point here. And as far as technique goes, I think the situation right now is that most kids train ugly, and most kids race ugly.

If you go to just about any practice and watch, and you have a real and refined sense of beauty, it’s difficult. And, if you go to any meet, and this even includes a national championships, the technique is fairly poor, I think. Probably, if we want to search down to the root of the problem, it’s us. We’re not doing a good enough job at teaching skills and getting swimmers to retain those skills at the most important times when they are racing. It’s not looking really pretty for a 25 here or there. It’s being able to race on a very efficient stroke from the first to the last stroke of a race under the most trying circumstances, say Olympic Trials.

Now unfortunately, I didn’t do a very good job at that last one this past summer, so I definitely have a long way to go on this and I don’t say that I have come up with all the answers because to me this is sort of like the holy grail that I’ve been searching for, for a long time. And if you’re familiar with medieval romance, you know, they never found it. So, I’m expecting that this quest will go on as I try and figure out the answers.

I think that swimming is a technique-limited sport, by and large. Which means that the study of motor learning, which is how the body learns motor or movement skills, should be primary in the education of coaches. But, I won’t ask right here, I’ve given a decent number of talks on technique and teaching technique and what have you, and I usually ask how many of you are familiar with max VO2 or anaerobic threshold, and almost every hand will go up. I’ll ask how many of them of you are familiar with random practice or variable practice and there will be maybe one out of hundred. Well, if teaching skills is what we’re supposed to do, that’s our biggest job, then we need to know this field. Motor learning should be crucial.
You know, I was fortunate to have a brother who is in Physical Therapy Graduate School and he pointed me in this direction. Up until then, I was always a physiology guy, you know, train these kids, get their max VO2s and lactate, all the rest of that. And now, I look at swimming, I look at practices very, very differently and I think, I hope, a little bit more comprehensively than I did in the past.

Now, I am not going to be discussing the perfect butterfly or perfect strokes or anything like that. What I am going to talk about is how we most effectively teach skills and get them to stick.

So, I’m aiming for a program of technical development that is relatively simple. It might not sound like this, this first time through for you, but once you get familiar with it, it is that simple and cheap because not very many programs have tens of thousands of dollars to buy the most advanced technology. It’s got to be something that anybody can do if it’s truly going to be practical.

Second, it’s got to be practical for everyone from 10 and unders up through seniors. I think that my assistant coach, John Nelson at York, and I have spent a lot of time trying to make sure that we can do this with every level, every age of kid in a developmental program.

And last, it’s got to be able to work with a group, because very few of us have the luxury of being able to do one-on-one private lessons very often. We work with training groups. Sometimes, there are huge training groups, sometimes the range of abilities is huge, range of ages and thus, biological needs—very different. So, we’ve got to be able to work with a group and a program has got to be able to work with a big group.

Brain cells in swimming. You kind of got a little tiny, tiny picture of a very simplified part of a brain. Our brains are 10,000 times more complicated than that. And, kind of a subtitle for this section of the talk is the Power of Bad Habits or Why It’s So Hard to Change.

Practice makes permanent. And swimmers’ bodies learn from every length that they swim. They are adapting continually to what you give them to do. With swimming, it’s a very peculiar type of sport. If I’m playing volleyball, I might do 10 or 15 spikes in a day of practice. But if I’m a swimmer, I’m going to swim several thousand strokes. Over the course of the year, I will swim millions of strokes. If I’m swimming millions of very poor, ugly, ineffective strokes, then I have made those ineffective stroke mental or neural patterns very strong, practically resistant to change.

That is a real problem. We have made these bad strokes overlearned, habitual, and normal. It feels totally normal for a poor swimmer to swim poorly. So it is very difficult when you’re not necessarily teaching somebody a skill for the very first time, which is relatively easy. You’re trying to change something that is overlearned and very stable. Changing strokes really means rewiring those neural connections in the brain. I like to think of it as –- the analogy as a superhighway versus a cow path. You know, the superhighway has eight lanes, beautifully asphalted, no speed limit, a Starbucks every few miles. Those are nodes of Ranvier for the neuroscientist here. It speeds everything up a little bit.

It’s easy to go down that superhighway. And if you want to get from A to B fastest, that’s the way to go. That’s the lousy stroke that a swimmer is practicing every single set. If we want to make a stroke change to a skill, so make a skill change. We’re going through this cow path that’s overhung with thickets like the Amazon rainforest, and we’ve got to take a machete and just blitz out every single step that we take. And it’s going to be easy to go to take the path of least resistance and go down the superhighway.

We’ve got to convince the swimmer that it’s in his or her best interest to take the cow path no matter how hard that is. And the more often we can get the swimmer to ignore the super highway, the Starbucks’ will go out of business, you start to see potholes and next thing you know it’s not nearly as efficient and easy to go down that road. The more we take this cow path, the more we’ve cleared it, the better we’ve grooved this path and the more like a superhighway we are making that new stroke skill.
So, superhighway versus cow path. Those are the competing patterns or networks that we’re dealing with and we need to basically make this one into this and make this one into this, if we want to get kids to truly change what they’re doing.

If a stroke change is properly understood, it takes a long time because new neural patterns are very fragile and subject to erasure. It takes a long time and a lot of very precise, probably easy swimming to groove in that new stroke pattern. Usually, neither coaches nor swimmers have the true patience to let that happen. We want to get back to work because we’re worried that kids are going to get out of shape and I am too, and I do too. I fight that as much as possible.

Further, this is really important. These new stroke patterns are not really learned until they are stable, consistent, and they are resistant to interference, and stable under training and racing stress. So many coaches and so many swimmers work on something that’s a problem and they’ll swim in 25 and they’ll say, “Ah-ha! I got it, I did it right!” And the coach will say, “My job is done.” Well, that’s the first necessary, but only the first of about 10,000 steps to getting a swimmer to actually be able to race at the national championships under tremendous stress and hold that stroke from start to finish. So, it is that first, first step. And it is very easy, and very common to train a stroke change right out of a swimmer.

For instance, if you spend say 20 minutes working on technique, skills on say freestyle and then you go right into 20 X 200 on 2:30, fastest average, try and hold your new stroke. Ready, go. That new stroke change will last for approximately four seconds and after that, it is back to their old normal, ugly, ineffective stroke and you’ve just wasted those 20 minutes. And then, when the swimmer looks terrible, you get mad at him, “Well, why didn’t you focus on that?” What the swimmer should say, but never does, because they don’t know enough neurosciences. “Coach, you’re a dunderhead and you didn’t give me the right stuff to do.” So, what we make sure we do is protect any gains that we’ve made. I mention this several times throughout this talk and the second part.

If I’m working on technical skills in a particular stroke, that’s what I do that day and I don’t train anything on that stroke. Nothing hard at all, period. Because I want to protect any gains we might have made, presumably have made, I assume we have made, and then give those changes a chance to stabilize a bit. It’s called long-term memory consolidation.
So anyway, our job is really difficult. When you look at just by experience, everybody knows how hard it is to get kids to change their strokes, and when you start looking at the science both motor learning and the neuroscience underlying it, you realize why it’s so hard. It takes a long time. You’ve got to be very, very patient because we’re not just changing a swimmer’s freestyle, we’re changing their brain, we are rewiring it. That takes time.

Now, getting to more of the fun stuff. Foundational skills. These are the kind of conditions of accelerated learning. In other words, this is what we want our swimmers to come to the practice with. The attitudes, the abilities and if they’ve got those, they’ll be able to make most effective use out of the sets, practices and formats that we give them.

Our first is what I call emotional priming. If kids are coming to practice, with the right attitudes, lessons get learned better and they get learned deeper. Namely, if they have a sense of choice of ownership of what they’re doing, if what they’re doing is emotion laden, L-A-D-E-N, and if the learner is truly engaged. So, basically you kind of boil all those things down and you’ve got to get a kid thinking, “This is important to me. This really matters. What I’m doing right this second really, really matters.” If you get somebody thinking like that, you’re 90% of the way towards getting changes made.

Next is focus. Because if a swimmer is thinking about what’s for dinner, what to wear to the prom or the fact that their boyfriend seemed a little distant during school or whatever, then they’re not focused on whatever skills you’re asking them to work on and they’re not going to be learning anything.

Kids need to be able to focus. When they swim, especially because we’re suspended in water, their bodies and the pool they’re in, and their surroundings, the environment is sending them thousands and thousands of messages continually about what’s working and what’s not. How one thing is different from another. And if they’re not paying attention to that, “if the cellphone is off”, it doesn’t matter how many and how important that information or those messages or information are. Nothing is getting through.
And it’s especially hard with certain age groups. Teenage girls, they just love to chat and when you ask them to maybe, perhaps, stop talking and think about what they’re doing, it is like, “Well, this isn’t any fun,” and well then, you have to have all philosophical discussion about the different meanings of fun and situations and all that. So, it’s difficult, I understand that. And 10 and under boys or 12 and under boys, they’re always grabbing, splashing each other and spitting on each other and all the rest of that stuff.

So, again, it’s hard. But getting kids to remember and you convincing them that this is important. This is really going to help you, but you’ve got to stay focused. That is absolutely key. Just some really simple ways to get their attention. First is how you structure sets. I’m going to talk about that in a few minutes. Also, the use of random practice and variable practice. The basic point of both of those is variation, variation, variation. So you’re never asking them to think about one thing or focus on one thing for a very long time. You’re always changing it, okay? And second of all, guided attention. They’re getting a lot of messages being sent to them and you need to let them know which ones to listen to and which ones are going to help them, which ones are most important.

Increase their motivation. Again, convince them that this is in their best interest and it will help them meet their goals and all of that. One thing that we’ve tried recently is just after giving kids the instructions and the goal of a set or the instructions for a set, I ask them to come up with three things that they want to be better at when they finish a set. So it gets them thinking about, “Okay, well, this is what we’re doing, how can this help me?” They have to do a little bit of discovery trying to figure out, “Well, why are we doing this? Why are we spending 20 minutes on this set?” It really gives them a sense of ownership. It helps, you know, gets the hook in the mouth and you can start reeling them in. So it’s really, really important.

Lastly on focus. I try very hard and often to have kids practice what I call the optimal learning triad. Sounds kind of highfalutin but what it really means is before a swimmer pushes off, they plan. They think about, “What is my intention here? What am I trying to do?” They’ve got this model for the way a skill is performed, for example. Second, they swim it, perform. Then after that, the third step is comparing. You’ve got your model. You’ve got your performance. Now let’s put the two together and see how they did, okay?

If you can get kids thinking for even 10 seconds before they push off about, “What am I trying to accomplish here? What do I want to feel like?” Then, have them swim with attention to that model, and then afterwards, think for even 10 seconds about how did I do? What do I need to tweak on the next one so I’m just a little bit closer to my model than I was on that last one. So, getting their heads in the game, getting them really focused I think is absolutely key.

First was emotional priming, second was focus, now feel. This is a huge topic. Everyone talks about – coaches always talk about this, the mystical, magical FEEL for the water that Natalie Coughlin obviously has, Michael Phelps obviously has, and the Olympians obviously have, but that most kids just don’t. We pay a lot of lip service to helping kids develop a feel for the water and all of that, but I think it’s absolutely important. If you don’t know what you’re doing when you swim and if you can’t feel the difference between two different ways of performing a skill, you have no way to change, no way to improve. So, it may be mystical and magical, but we need to be doing every possible thing we can to help kids develop a sense of this feel, to become more sensitive to what they’re doing in the water.

A little bit of a digression on feedback, but it isn’t really a digression; feedback is really important. It’s the information that’s being fed to a swimmer after, usually after, sometimes during a performance. They swim a repeat, they get information about how they did. The usual distinction is between extrinsic feedback from the outside. This usually that means coaches or the environment like a stopwatch or a pace clock. Sometimes it’s from watching a film. Usually, it is coach provided.
Then there’s also intrinsic feedback and that’s the sensory information that they’re getting as their bodies swim in the water. Usually the coaches role is to watch a swimmer swimming terrible and then to step in and fix the problem. “Your right arm is terrible, do this instead of that.” You come in on your white horse, save the day. Kid thinks that you’re great because you fixed his stroke. You think you’re great because you fixed his stroke. Mom thinks you’re great because you’re actively helping the swimmer fix his stroke. Everybody is happy. That’s the usual way things are done.

A different way that coaches can coach with completely different assumptions underlying it, is to just ask a lot of questions. If I see a swimmer’s right arm is very goofy, I’ll say, “Hey, what is your right arm doing at a certain time of the stroke?” Or, “You know, do you feel the same thing on your left arm that you do on your right?” Just start asking them a lot of questions to kind of guide their attention to a problem. I’m almost never going to tell them what the answer is. I’m not going to tell them that they have a problem. I’m going to ask them enough questions so that they can go in that direction by themselves. When they figure it out, they say, “Oh, my gosh, my left arm is totally goofy when I kick.” And then, I’ll just start asking more questions. So again, guide them toward figuring things out for themselves. They need to become aware of a problem, then they need to diagnose what’s causing this, and then. They need to figure out how to fix it.

If we can get kids doing that on a very small scale, just by asking them questions, soon, they learn to do it for themselves. And you always hear when they talk with great coaches who have coached Olympic champions or whatever, how the swimmer will basically say, “Hey, what’s wrong with my left arm, am I doing something weird?” And the coach will say, “Hey, yeah, it kind of looks like you are.” And say, “Well, would you watch this?” And they swim it perfectly, “Oh, you’re fixed.” I mean the super swimmers know how to spot, diagnose, fix problems quickly, intuitively, and practically. We need to teach those skills and ask enough questions so that kids learn those skills. Not just the superstars who probably are going to get pretty darn good even without us, but also of the kids who, if they just get taught some of these skills, they could be really, really good. So, asking tons of questions.

Of course, a problem with asking lots of questions is that it’s a struggle for the athlete. You’re not just telling them the answer and fixing the problem for him, you’re making him do all the work. That isn’t always appreciated. That usually isn’t appreciated. Twice this summer, like no clue – no lie, I got accused by two of my senior swimmers, “Well, you never help me with my strokes.” And after, they kind of revived me from my faint on the floor. I tried to explain to these kids how I was giving them the greatest gift of all. I wasn’t solving their problems for them. I was teaching them how to solve their problems, because I’m not going to be standing right over them fixing them 24/7. And even if I did, I know that as soon as I try to do that, they’re going to stop thinking for themselves entirely and just depend on me. They develop a reliance on or a dependence very, very quickly. But also, I want them to be able to go out into the world, go on to the next coach and the next coach after that in college or whatever, and be a self-reliant swimmer who understands his or her body. So, you know, it isn’t always appreciated when you do people enormous favors.

Obviously, I prefer asking to telling. I probably ask 10 questions for every one or two statements that I give kids. And then, usually, when I do tell them something, it’s more to just guide them in the direction of what information to pay attention to. So it’s all about getting them to think. Yes, question?

[Audience Member]: “I have heard you talking about asking questions. I’m wondering if in terms of talking to the athletes at practice? Or are you talking about just asking questions at practice and then coaching at competition they take that context from practices to nationals?”

[Michael Brooks]: The question I assume I need to repeat this. The question is essentially “Am I getting kids to think too much?” “Is that about it?”

[Audience Member]: “Do you find that issue at competitions?”

[Michael Brooks]: The way that I coach definitely requires swimmers to think about what they’re doing. I think it develops a sensitivity, discrimination between subtle differences and the way they swim. I think it makes them a lot smarter. It’s my job to make sure that by the time we get to a meet, the skills are down pat so that they are not having to think very much about how they race. The skills are in there. And, if I do have time to talk about periodization of technical work… Well, I’ll give you a snippet because I probably won’t have time. The last six or seven weeks before the championship meet, we’re not trying to make any real changes. We’re just trying to bulletproof the changes that we’ve made all the way up to there, so that those skills will withstand any stress, and kids have the confidence in them that they can go to a national championships and race on this new stroke. Also, that they can do it without thinking, without having to go through a checklist of 27 skills to the perfect stroke. They know how to do this. Hope that answers your question.
[Audience Member]: “In reference to athletes who overthink, do you have skills to help them not to?”
[Michael Brooks]: Right.
[Audience Member]: Is there a certain tool helping them not think, ultimately not overthink? How do you get them to kind of relax?”
[Michael Brooks]: Right. The question is how do you get kids not to think too much, to over think, when you’re working with a group; because some kids are going to get skills very quickly, some are going to get them much slower. Kids work differently and they have different abilities.

I think that to a large extent, what I’m trying to get them to do, is to get them to connect the dots. To realize how different parts of their body are relating to each other and it might be explicit at first, but it becomes very intuitive as kids learn these skills. So, the really good swimmers, they get it. When they’re doing something wrong or ineffective, when their strokes starts to fall apart, they can feel that. They don’t have to explain it. They can feel that and they also can take the next step of making whatever changes are necessary so that they maintain a high elbow as opposed to dropping or whatever the problem might be.

So, I do believe in teaching kids to be intuitive, and getting them to pay attention to feel, without giving them a lot of verbal instructions with lots of, you know, ace of one and two, three, you know, all that. It’s just asking them questions, asking them to feel how different parts of their body are working or not working together. I haven’t had that problem, so I’m going to assume for purposes of answering your question that if you coach like this, you do an end around that problem. I think that is the case.

[Audience Member]: “Do your swimmers become dependent on your questions?”

[Michael Brooks]: The way that I coach hasn’t seemed to cause that problem. The kids have learned how to diagnose, how to fix. It all tends to be varied by feel; that they work by feel. They don’t work by sets of instructions. I definitely think it’s the case that showing is better than telling, and that I can show them a video clip of a model stroke. I can say a few words guiding their attention, but by and large, watching for 10 seconds is going to be worth my explaining a whole long set of skills for 20 minutes. It’s much more effective to watch than it is to listen.

Alright, I had a little bit of a digression on feedback. I think it’s absolutely important that we always steer the swimmers down or back to intrinsic feedback. The information that their bodies are giving them, sensory information is absolutely key. Another digression that isn’t really a digression, is on the use of equipment. Error detection is key to learning. You have a model. You perform trying to imitate this model, and then you’re able to feel the differences. You’re able to detect your own errors. Often, swimmers are completely oblivious to their stroke problems. I mentioned why earlier. It’s because they perform millions of lousy strokes and that’s the norm. That’s what’s comfortable to them.

Further, because swimming strokes use the whole body—a lot of times if a swimmer has a problem, mistake, or flaw in one part of their stroke, another part of their body is hiding it by having a compensatory problem. So, two or even three different strokes kind of work off against each other. The kids don’t even realize they have a problem and it’s making them a lot slower.
A very, very simple example on backstroke, if you have a swimmer who enters right here for instance and they push sideways, what’s that doing to their hips and their legs? They’re just going all over the place. However, if they’re kicking madly at the same time, their kick is going to compensate for that problem and essentially hide the problem from the swimmer. There is so much information that’s going in there. One part of the body is compensating, or accommodating another, that they don’t even know they’ve got a problem.

We’ll, if you take that same swimmer and put a pull buoy between his ankles, and he pushes like this, goodness graces, his hips hit one lane line and his feet hit the other! And, it is really clear that something strange is going on here. And you ask him at the end of a 50 or a 100 of ankle buoy backstroke, “Hey how is that?” Say, “Is something strange going on with your legs?” And they’ll tell you, “It was just crazy, they’re going all over the place.” Say, “Well, okay, awareness.” Ding, check one box. “Okay. Well, what’s going on? Do another hundred or two and tell me why this is happening because, remember, this isn’t happening to you, it’s happening because of something that you are doing. You are causing this. So, swim a couple of hundred and give me your report.” So they’ll do a couple of hundred and they’ll say, “Well, whenever I push this way, my legs seem to go sideways.”

And then, I’ll ask the next obvious question, “Well, that makes sense, right? Because when you do that, you know, you’re suspended in the liquid, so doing this first line over dive and all the rest of that fun stuff. So, every time you go off line, you’re going to throw the rest of your body off line.” Say, “Okay, we’ve made some steps and discovery here. It’s like Columbus. It’s cool.”

The next step, “Okay, well, we obviously don’t want this, right? Of course not, I want you to swim some more and I want you to tweak, make whatever adjustments you have to make so that your legs aren’t swaying but rather your body is in a nice line.” And it might take six or eight or 10, for some kids, a 100; but usually six or eight, or 10/50’s before they look like they’ve actually made a really nice adjustment to their stroke. Not because I talked to them about how they shouldn’t push sideways, but because they have discovered the true effect of that problem which was being hid from them, because swimming is so complicated. And, if you can, use equipment as a way to simplify the stroke and to clarify the information that they’re being given, because they’re getting a lot, and for the most part, it’s just noise. What we’re trying to help them do is clarify the signal through the noise.

If we can do this in a way that maintains the normal rhythm of the stroke, as I think ankle buoy does for both back and free, we’re not departing too far from the normal full stroke swimming. It’s much easier for swimmers to take the problem and solution that they just found, and then translate that to swimming better, improved stroke skills with a full stroke. Yes.
[Audience Member]: “Are you doing this at regular speed, a slow speed or at their own speed?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, are we doing this at super slow speed, moderate speed, fast speed? Usually, when we’re playing with guided discovery, it’s at a moderate speed. Just because the faster you go, the less precise anything is, and the less precise those signals that the information is. But obviously, we want to transition to swimming well, fast, but that’s several steps down the line.

So, equipment can be a very valuable tool for error detection and fixing problems, correction. But, you have to avoid reliance or dependence on that piece of equipment, and that happens really fast too. So, if we were doing the example I just gave you, when they figure it out and have made those adjustments, tweaks immediately, I’ll have them alternate between ankle buoy and regular, so that they can start to translate that discovery into the context of the full stroke, which is what we really want. So, it’s not letting them use a piece of equipment to the point that the lessons don’t transfer or translate to full stroke swimming. Do you have a question?
[Audience Member]: “Do you tell them why the equipment would be limiting? Do you help them in that process, or not? Do you tell them the equipment can do this, but it’s also up to you, so that it’s ownership on their part? Do they understand the equipment so much when you’re helping them?”

[Michael Brooks]: The question is, “How much of my explaining the rationale behind using equipment?” Probably, right now, not much. I’ve got an entirely new group of kids and it feels sometimes, since I’ve only been there a little more than a week, that I’m speaking Greek to them. So, I’m having to slow down a lot more than I would have had to with my York kids, because they were totally comfortable with me and understand my thought process. Right now, I haven’t explained too much, just kind of keeping it simple. But, for the most part, when we use equipment, it’s not for building strength or anything like that. It’s for error detection and technique skill work, not exclusively, but primarily.

A few kinds of equipment we use–I mentioned ankle buoy. We use tennis balls or fists. Either way, as long as they have tiny fists and not cheating. So, I think that’s great. We’ll use parachutes a lot, but again, mostly for technical work and not so much for power, speed work et cetera. We’ll do some of that, but it’s primarily for technical work. Paddles once in a while, but almost always with backstroke. Usually just to point to entries and catches, because when they enter with a paddle vertical, the resistance is zero. When they square up and rotate the elbow, the resistant should be infinite. So, they go from zero to infinite, and it’s easier to feel that huge difference when they have paddles, compared with just hands.

So, whenever we use equipment, it’s very thought through first, because I do believe that the more that you digress from full stroke, free swimming, and here free swimming is defined as swimming with no equipment; The better reason that you need for that digression. So, if we’re going to use equipment, the same argument holds for the drills, we have to have a very good reason because there are always unintended consequences, negative consequences, of what we give kids. We need to be thinking through those so that we’re truly helping kids get faster, and not just helping them get better at using ankle buoy, freestyle or whatever.

A few different kinds of feel sets that we will do and I think this is really important. We’ll film kids, and with as quick a turnaround as possible, they swim and then they watch what they are doing. That is to align what their actually doing, with what they THINK they are doing. With a lot of kids, those two things are really far apart. When you tell a kid you want them to do X, you watch them, they are doing Y. They come back and they say, “Well, I did X.” Say, “No, no, no, no.” So, they don’t really know that they’re not doing it correctly. Filming, having that instant feedback, can be really, really helpful. But again, you don’t want to rely on it. The point there is to teach them to connect the dots. So, filming can be really, really good.

Eyes closed swimming. Obviously, you have to be pretty careful about kids swimming with their eyes closed, just like if they were driving with their eyes closed. We try and set parameters so that there are not going to be any major traffic problems. But, if you close your eyes for five or six strokes, and then open them just to make sure you are where you thought you were, and still going in a straight line, and then, eyes back closed. It can really, really help because for the same reason that blind people are much more sensitive to feel and sound than we are. Most of the time, the eyes and all of the sensations coming in to the visual cortex are kind of monopolizing a lot of your brain power. If you shut that off, you give these other senses a chance to really work to their optimal. It really helps kids feel what they’re doing and it makes so much more sensitivity. But again, you have to be careful or you’ve got problems.

Random and variable practice. I mentioned this already and I’m going to talk about it more in a few minutes. We do a lot of that where they’re varying how they swim, what skill they’re focusing on, what piece of equipment they’re using, so that they’re never getting the same sensory feedback or information twice in a row. They have to stay on their toes.
So we do a lot of random and variable practice. We do a lot of alternating with and without equipment, again, to feel changes every single repeat, so that they’re being guided toward paying attention to those differences. There are a whole of bunch of others, but just a couple. One is called a contrast exercise. Say, a swimmer is swimming with a certain problem or certain fault on freestyle, say they’re dropping their elbow, simple stuff. We are trying to get them to swim with a nice high elbow catch and pull.

Well, as soon as they have kind of figured out that idea and can perform a high elbow pull, we’ll have them do contrast exercises where, for instance, they’ll assume a 25 the old way and then a 25 the new way, really focusing on how those two things are different. Okay? So a contrast drill, it’s old versus new, bad versus good, feeling the differences between them. And, in theory, as kids solidify, stabilize and start training on those better skills, as soon as they start to fall back into the old patterns, they’re going to be able to feel the difference. And so, being able to discriminate between two different ways of swimming the same skill is absolutely crucial. I think contrast exercises can really help kids do that. Yes.
[Audience Member]: “Would you compare a contrast drill to an exaggeration drill? If you take the dropped elbow, and ask them to exaggerate, and then you’ll have to fix it, would that also be effective?”
[Michael Brooks]: Would it also work to exaggerate a problem and then do it correctly, exaggerate, do it correctly? Well, have you got it working?

[Audience Member]: “Sometimes.”

[Michael Brooks]: Well, then, sometimes it works, okay? I think it’s really important that you understand what my function is or I understand my function to be here is to throw out ideas, and then, for you to play and experiment. Because what I’m doing in practice right now is different from what we were doing six months ago, and VERY different from what we were doing a year ago. I’m taking an idea, trying to figure out an interesting set that would help elaborate on that idea, or unpack it. Then, paying attention to how it works or doesn’t, and trying to make it better. So, if it works, go for it. Always, however, pay attention to unintended consequences which usually are lurking in the background somewhere. So, you need to pay attention. Yes.

[Audience Member]: “Somebody has given the example of recovery as they’re rotating their hip late or early or whatever and dropping the elbow and we find that a lot of times, they’ll come inside the line.”

[Michael Brooks]: Right.

[Audience Member]: “I’ll say to them, I think, it is on the timing of the rotation and when they’re pushing their hands. It’s like experience. But, I’ll say when you enter the hand, I want you to go outside the shoulder line, and they think when you tell them that– when they hear that, they think when they try to do what they think is right, that they’re doing that, they’re actually going inside the shoulder.”

[Michael Brooks]: Right.

[Audience Member]: “What message I gave then outside the shoulder was basically was in line. Do you know what I’m saying?”

[Michael Brooks]: I do. Okay. So, the question/statement is, sometimes, by asking kids to exaggerate what you want.

[Audience Member]: “Like all overcorrect.”

[Michael Brooks]: Right, overcorrect, exactly. They’ll actually be doing it correctly. And, I think this goes back to what I said earlier about how so few kids know what they’re doing when they swim.

[Audience Member]: “But, you’re saying too, that there could be consequences to that?”

[Michael Brooks]: If it’s working right now, it’s working. As long as it stays working, you’re probably good. But, as soon as you start seeing a problem, then you need to reel it in. That’s what I’m always doing. I give kids a set, or ask them, to do something based on my understanding that this is going to help them be better. And, as long as they keep getting better, we’re good. But, if I start seeing negative consequences, I’ll stop it right away, try and figure out what’s really going on here, what did I miss? Is this just poor execution of a good idea, or a truly bad idea, and take the next step of, “Okay, well, what’s next?”

I’m going to go for a couple more minutes even though I’m right on the edge.

Degrees of freedom set. I think this is really kind of fun. We are so fortunate that we have joints. You know, thank God for the human body, because I love rowing. And, if my body were a rowing or a sculling shell, I’m going to swim, I’m going to row, I’m going to paddle, I’m going to move like this. Put my hands in here, my paddles, my sculls, and here, the spoons, and I’m going to push hard. I’m going to be pushing mostly out. And then, for about a 30 degree sweep, I’m going to be pushing almost directly backwards. Oh, wonderfully efficient and really powerful if you’ve seen those rowers. And, then, after that, most of the pressure is pushing in toward the shell, very ineffective, inefficient.

So for only 30 or 40 degrees of that sweep, am I pushing in ways that I really want to be pushing? That’s because I don’t have any joints. Well, we are so fortunate in that we’ve got wrists, elbows. A paddle does have shoulders essentially, but we’ve got these three joints which help us be exponentially more effective than a rower. Because, by manipulating the degree of bend of my wrist and changing that as I do a stroke, by manipulating the degree of bend of my elbow, manipulating the internal, external rotation of my shoulder, I can put effective pressure almost the entire stroke. It’s wonderful being human.

But, most kids don’t think about this. Don’t take advantage of the different options that they have available to them. They just swim the way they always swim. By doing what we call a “Degrees of Freedom Set”, we’ll ask them to manipulate all these bends as they swim, and do things differently from what they are used to, and just pay attention to the results. It’s fascinating what kids will learn by just letting them go play swimming. You know, just tell them what you want, to what constraints you want them to manipulate and, then, let them find out really interesting things about how their bodies work in the water.

I’ve used up my first hour, so we’ll call it a day for that. I want to start in about six minutes, so take a really quick break.

7 reasons to join the World Swimming Association

Why Join the World Swimming Association (WSA)?

  1. The world needs an alternative to FINA. To either replace it or show how to reform it (if that is possible).
  2. Our Swimming world needs an organization focused on being athlete centered.
  3. We need a world of sport that is transparent, not corrupt.
  4. We need a world of sport that is owned by the participants, coaches and athletes. Not owned by “suits” for their own benefit.
  5. We need an organization that helps develop swimming, not one that sends elites to fancy hotels via first class airfare and tells them how to vote and calls that “development”.
  6. “Develop Swimming” means:
        -pools with clean water that are accessible;
        -coaches who can work with assurance that when they help someone get fast, they will actually go to the meet (not someone who pays the money to the Federation);
        -athletes that can BELIEVE in the process.
  7. We need an organization that gives clean Swimming (not doped Swimming) the priority it deserves. (High Throughput Testing)

You should join WSA because you can support 1-7 by joining. And you have a CHOICE to join, unlike FINA (which you never join, but can ban you and hurt you).

Join WSA here. It is pennies per day of your professional life, and makes you a part of the solution and not part of the problem.

-John Leonard, WSCA Executive Director
-George Block, WSCA President

Invitation to the WSA Constitutional Convention

World Swimming Association Constitutional Convention: You are invited!
  by John Leonard

From 3:00-8:00 p.m. on Friday, September 1, 2017, the Constitutional Convention of the World Swimming Association (WSA) will be held at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC, USA and YOU are invited to participate! Plan now to attend this historic event, when we focus on forming a new world Swimming organization focused strictly on Swimming.

WSA will be athlete-focused, professionally-directed and transparent.

Two things will be accomplished at the Convention:

  • First, we will finalize (modify and approve) the WSA Constitution which has been openly developed online for the past 18 months. (Find the most current version of the Constitution here.)
  • Second, we will form working committees for each of the developmental areas that WSA will focus on, and begin planning and working on each area. The committees will be named and described next month and emailed to you.

If you are ready to change the world of Olympic Sport to the sport you fell in love with as a young person, come and join us.

It is an end to corruption, self-centered governance, and money into the pockets of those “leading” the sport. Money will flow to the athletes for a change. And we will be developing the entire world of Swimming nations, not focused on putting money into the pockets of the self-appointed “leaders” in each nation. We will also put an end to doping with High-Throughput Testing!

In addition, on Saturday, September 2, 2017 we will have a full day of your choice of coaching clinic programs for Elite Swimming (6 coaches of Rio Olympic gold medalists) or Age Group swimming. (More information to follow in coming months as the program is developed.)

Please put September 1-2 on your calendar now!

FINA Scholarships: another systemic failure

FINA Swimming Scholarships: Another Systemic Failure
  by John Leonard

The individual young people benefiting from a FINA Swimming Scholarship are not to blame for the transgressions and failures of a monolithic organization focused solely on maintaining its own power and ability to bring in money. The athletes are simply taking advantage of a “best opportunity” to improve their own personal athletic prospects. The mere existence of the need for a “FINA Scholarship” is an indication of a conspicuous failure to measure up to the needs of the sport on an international level.

The organization of FINA considers “development” to mean bringing national federation presidents and an accompanying person, typically their wives, to a major city for a championship event and oh yes, of course, while they attend the dinners and FINA functions, they do put in a two hour meeting in a two week visit at the FINA Congress, where they routinely wave through whatever President Maglione and his boy, Cornel Marculescu, propose for the future, while waiting anxiously for the catered lunch. Let’s see, that is two hours of work in a 336 hour fortnight, at a rate of $400 (at least) per day in per diem (total of US $5,600.00). That works out to $2,800 per hour. Good wages for most.

On the resignation of 3 from FINA’s Doping Control Review Board

On the topic of the resignation of the FINA Doping Control Review Board members
  by John Leonard, American Swimming Coaches Association

Dr. Julio Maglione assures the world that FINA is “at the forefront of anti-doping”. I believe the resignation of the three most important members of the FINA Doping Control Review Board demonstrates conclusively that FINA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are running an elaborate public relations scheme designed to fool the world into thinking they actually care about anti-doping, when all they care about in reality is the flow of cash into their organizations, earned on the back of athletes predominately clean but some “dirty with doping” receiving a pittance for their labor.

The athletes need to rebel and refuse to participate until the doping mess is cleaned up with a renewed World Anti-Doping Agency in charge, led by someone like Travis Tygart with an impeccable reputation and history and no conflict of interest with the IOC or anyone else.

Path to Clean Swimming

The Path to Clean Swimming
by John Leonard, WSCA Executive Director

We see admirable courageous stances by athletes from multiple nations in Rio with regard to the immediate and important need to protect our sport.

This comes about because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its subsidiary International Federation puppets, such as FINA in our sport, have abdicated their moral responsibility to protect and preserve the sanctity of Olympic ideals and values. They have revealed themselves as simply a financial machine, generating billions of dollars while sharing pittances with the athletes on whose backs those dollars are generated. AND THEN, they are so arrogant as to ask the athletes to protect their private-money-generating circus by not protesting the prostitution of clean sport, as FINA and the IOC have done by allowing the dopers to swim.

Which leaves us with “What to do?”.


To those brave athletes and coaches who are in Rio and speaking out on the doping issue: you have our profound thanks and admiration for your courage.

Only the athletes have to power to beat the IOC, who no longer deserve to be the custodians of the flame and all it represents. Four BILLION dollars in IOC revenue from Rio, and pennies to the athletes. And they expect you to shut up and be abused by doping cheats as you star in “Their Show”.

Some cheats chose to be cheats. Some cheats are forced by their governments or others to be cheats. For those who are “forced”, we can extend out sympathies. For those who chose, nothing but scorn and shame.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Para todos los atletas y entrenadores que estan en Rio y hablando publicamente en los problemas relacionados con el dopaje, tienen nuestro mas profundo agradecimiento y admiracion por su coraje.

Solamente los atletas tienen el poder para vencer al COI, quienes ya no merecen ser los custodios de la flama olimpica y de todo lo que representa. Cuatro BILLONES de dolares es la recaudacion para el COI por Rio, y de eso, solo centavos va a los atletas. Y aun asi, ellos esperan que se mantengan callados y sean abusados por los nadadores dopados mientras eres la estrella de “su show”.

Algunos tramposos son tramposos por eleccion. Algunos tramposos son forzados por su gobierno y otros involucrados. Para quellos que son “forzados”, les extendemos nuestra simpatias. Para aquellos que son por eleccion, nada mas que rechazo y verguenza.