Thursday, December 23, 2010

Speed Swimming Exit Point

My recent posts about water polo and it's LTAD have drawn some interesting observations about speed swimming. And, for those speed swimming coaches that are following this and expecting another biting blog like last June, relax, it isn't happening.

In discussing Training to Train, or what I like to term "Competitive Foundations" we see a realization that this is where athletes tend to make choices about sport. For an activity that has early specialization, like speed swimming, this means individuals are seen as "dropping out" if they choose another sport. For sports with a later specialization the teen years of Competitive Foundations tend to be where athletes "opt in" and it is really the same thing with different labels; one is positive and one is negative.

With a healthy background of multi-sport activity there would be less negative association with choosing a sport direction at 14 and more of a positive transition to something that fits well with an individual as a person, an athlete and a team member. This is where the LTAD would go in Canada if we had a central leadership that shared vision through the National Sport Organizations rather than through a neutral funding arm of the government. As long as sports fight each other for funds and a share of government resources there will not be a joint development of elite athletes or a mass mobilization of the couch potato culture we have created.

That may sound extreme to some so let me give you perspective on this point. Hockey, in Canada, is the model sport in terms of success and performance. The organization nationally has a staff that could run a small country, and a budget that could also finance one. But here is a comment you would not expect to hear from them. In September I attended a Leadership Summit for water polo and listened to a presentation on "Relative Age" given by a facilitator from Hockey. The facilitator gave an example of a sport that was late specialization ie relative age not that important, and used the term "pirate" to describe them. He was talking about Rowing and how they recruit athletes who have dropped out of other sports in their teens or university years.

I have never thought of Rowing as a collection of thieves, more a group of astute coaches who know how to assess talent and make a grueling activity attractive to those who have learned to tolerate effort and pain en route to personal goals. This may be why Rowing is now attracting a significant number of ex speed swimmers in Winnipeg, the culture eases families into a healthy amount of training and competition as athletes head toward competition peaks in their 20's.

Speed Swimming, as I have mentioned before, ties sport development to an economic model rather than a sport science one. This has made them a very powerful sport organization but they fall well behind a boutique sport like Rowing who have much more Olympic success through a "science first" approach to athlete development. I am curiously watching these two sports right now trying to understand how much of what they do is planned, how much is science, how much is social and how much is just pure coincidence. I won't use the term luck here as both sports have very knowledgable coaches and it is the systems they work in that I am observing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Looking Ahead

I've been quiet on the blog front the past few months and this has promoted a number of comments and concerns. People seem to want the additional perspective I provide in this public forum so it will become more common to post regular installments in the new year.

One reason I have been unable to write more often the past few months would be the amount of writing I am doing in other areas. If you search "bicycle slide" and water polo on the Coaches website you will find a paper I was responsible for this fall. That took lots of time with film, dialogue, analysis, editing etc. I have also helped develop some LTAD based articles for the Water Polo Planet website through the efforts of Mike Reid. In addition to that work I am helping Water Polo Canada develop resources and evaluation materials for the next level of NCCP education - The Professional Coach. So, my blog has come after all these tasks.

However, I am always finding new ways to teach and talk about LTAD and give it perspective and relevance to others. One interesting point came up in December club parent meetings when we were talking about the competition options for our 14U teams this winter. We have 3 streams of play at this age - Competitive Boys, Competitive Girls and Active for Life Co-ed. There are training differences based on end goals of the athletes, some are training to be active and develop physical literacy for life; looking to create lifestyle habits that will last forever. Others are looking to develop physical literacy toward specific, athletic goals that involve competition and reaching for new levels of achievement.

I had to be clear why we didn't want the 14U Competitive players playing in tournaments with Active for Life kids who are not headed to the same place in the sport. Why not? Is it just because the Competitive players will win by a large margin? No, in fact they may not win that way at all. What is different is that the players are learning different things in application of skills, girls hold suits when playing each other in places that boys would not grab. That means the game teaches physical contact that is leading toward the future age groups for the girls. They learn how to avoid a hold at 14U and that helps prevent a hold at 16U or 18U.

For boys it can be more blatant what is different. They are taught to fight for the ball, not to play for a foul and referee "help". This is a vastly different approach between the Competitive players who are Learning to Train and Learning to Compete when viewed opposite the Active for Life players. It is here that boys can get labeled for life as "aggressive" or "dirty" or "cheap" because they want to use strength and skill they have developed over many hours of training and don't want the referee to be the one to decide if a shot is taken when they are being held.

I've seen many, many examples of this sort of label being placed on talented players. It happens all the time in Manitoba, the home of casual, co-ed water polo. Most of our National Team athletes get labeled as negatively competitive at home and then have to be convinced to be more aggressive in the NCAA or at a National Training Centre. I'm trying to put an end to that now by forcing only games at the equivalent level of training at each age. Hopefully that will put an end to the sillyness we see now where adults from a Recreational club think it is ok to punch young teens from Competitive clubs in the head during games if they don't get their way as "grown ups". It is a long process to develop the sort of rational adults we want in our community and I am hoping LTAD will take us there.