Challenges for advanced age group swimmers

Why they work and how to adapt your fun games to incite excitement and determination in veteran swimmers.

At the flags, float on your back in soldier position. Without pushing off the bottom or using your hands, do 3 FLY kicks to get to half way.

Last night I did the above challenge with some advanced swimmers. These were kids that have been swimming for about 6 years on the team; since they were 5 or 6 and are now 11.

I know. Scandal that you would actually play a game or do a challenge with elite athletes instead of cramming in more yards and workout. We have precious time and I feel like most coaches are determined to eek out the most performance out of their swimmers like squeezing a towel and ringing out water.

What I saw was a light of excitement blossom in their eyes. They attacked this challenge, and a second one with so much enthusiasm it changed their demeanor entirely.

Challenges work for elite swimmers because it gives them a vehicle to express their competitive spirit. Challenges, challenge swimmers to think and do things that they’re not typically used to; they’re new, exciting, and stimulating.

So in this example, we have a challenge that on its face is pretty easy. Float on your back, and do 3 fly kicks. Get about 5-7 yards using only 3 complete strokes.

These elite swimmers failed about 7 times before they could complete it!

SHOCKING! I know! They got frustrated. They were upset. They were delighted.

To get a far distance with 3 fly kicks the swimmers needed to use their whole body, glide, and use an efficient kick. The best measure of this success was how engaged they were. For the first time in weeks I saw trial and error enter into their swim practice.

When we’re coaching we want to see swimmers devoting deliberate practice; that careful study and attention to improvement that drives learning. We want to see our swimmers struggle to accomplish a drill or a swim with a trial and error behavior.

Lap swimming for a hour while they read off a practice (limitations due to covid) does not foster that deliberate practice learning. They accomplish the tasks, but without the thoughtful attention to improvement we desire.

Coaching can mitigate this zombie-like flow through a workout, but with 8 kids and 8 different practices it can be difficult to devote a high enough level of engagement on any one individual. We’re simply split too much between too many people.

Challenges bridge that gap into deliberate practice.

When the swimmers failed at this “simple” task they had to re-evaluate their approach. They had to change something about their kick, their technique, or their body position. For one kid, he had to confront that he only uses his legs in butterfly and not his whole body; like he should have been for years!

I adapted the above challenge for one I used with the developmental kids. For the beginners it was start at the yellow and get to the flags using 3 fly kicks, from a back float (dead start). They had to move about 2-3 yards whereas the elite swimmers had to go about double the distance.

How to adapt a challenge

Add roadblocks. Make it harder.

This follows the same formula as creating a game.

  1. Determine what you want to work on, what skill.
  2. Put a limitation on it.
  3. Provide clear rules for accomplishing task.
  4. Modify to be achievable.

Here is an example.

  1. Skill: Fly kick efficiency
  2. Limitation: Only get 3 kicks, no streamline, no push off the bottom. No using arms.
  3. Rules: Go from the flags to 1/2 way using 3 fly kicks on your back.
  4. Make shorter or longer based on ability level. Or do tiers; reach point a, good, extend and reach point b which is farther away.

The second challenge was this one for the developmental swimmers:

Do 4 BR kicks on your back where your knees never touch the surface.

Most figured out pretty quickly that they could sink their hips to accomplish this task. That was fine. i wanted the swimmers to be thinking about what a correct BR kick was (had to be legal for success) and to think about keeping their knees low. The goal of this challenge is to reinforce not lifting your knees up towards your belly for BR kick. Great for beginners a little too easy for elite swimmers that are winning state championships in breaststroke.

Ahh, but we can always make something harder with more roadblocks.

I added one crucial limitation on this challenge. See if you can understand why it was so profoundly challenging.

Challenge – Elite:
Do 4 BR kicks on your back where your knees never touch the surface, but your belly MUST.

Once we added the belly at the surface simple balance and buoyancy came into play. Swimmers had to adjust their body to do an unnatural BR kick.

But why are we asking the to do something wrong? Because it challenges the swimmer to THINK about what they’re doing. It focuses their mind into action. It connects a specific motion to thought instead of habit or instinct. Our goal is to stimulate their mind, their thoughts, their creativity to solve a problem and invigorate their interest.

Knowing what not to do is as good as what to do. Both help.

This new challenge with the belly at the surface was much more difficult than the other, but our swimmers LOVED them. They failed repeatedly. A swimmer that has set state records in breaststroke failed so many times I had to stop him from trying (we ran out of time).

He smiled the whole time and one of the older swimmers who got to do it said, “oooh, that one is super hard! Did you figure out the secret?”

Better swimming.
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