Knowing what to expect through different phases of your training as you progress through the sport can help you understand how your training should be structured for optimal performance in each phase and as you move from one stage to the next. When you’re very young (age 6-14) athletes are in what we call the generalized phase. In this phase, coaches are trying to build base fitness and endurance while focusing on proper technical development of strokes, starts and turns. This pre-pubescent and pubescent stage of growth and development is the aerobic and technical foundation for more intense and specialized work in the next phase.
During the generalized phase, especially for the younger athletes (6-10 years) structured play, games, establishment of rules, how practices are structured, and gaining more experience at swim meets are some of the major focuses. From age 11-14 swimmers may hit their growth spurt if they are going through puberty. This is when you may see changes in your body and when you may even feel more clumsy or uncomfortable in your own skin. You may seem sudden performance gains or just the opposite: a plateau or even see a decline. It’s especially important in this phase of training that you focus on technical development, off-events, or even other sports to enhance athleticism outside of the pool.
The second phase of training is Specialization. By the time you get to this phase you may be on the tail end of puberty or have entered adolescence. In this phase, you can start to work at higher intensities and put in higher quality workouts, if you have a strong aerobic base. You really begin to refine race strategy and take more responsibility for your own training. Because you may be more physically developed you may even begin a structured dryland program. This is also the point where athletes choose one sport to focus on and will put more time into that sport.
The final phase of training will hopefully take you to the end of a very successful and satisfying career and where the fully mature as an athlete. Athletes in this phase are really ready to put on more muscle mass, train at top end speeds with the balance of recovery, and also realize the importance of other training factors such as sleep, nutrition and psychology. Athletes in this phase are expected to be highly motivated and take an active role in planning their training.
Although these phases are generalizations you can often see characteristics overlap into different phases. Depending on the rate of your own growth and development, you may see some characteristics occur either or earlier or later. What’s important is to know the progression that usually occurs and to be able to apply it to your swimming.