Mike's Mailbag: Moving Up Training Groups


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have any swim questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Dear Mike,

I love swimming. It's something that has kept me going for such a long time. But lately, swimming has been becoming weird for me. Lately I've been really trying to prove to my coach that I want to be in more advanced groups. However, I feel that he doesn't think that I'm ready or mature or fast enough for those groups. I've tried working A LOT harder in practice, really trying to perfect my stroke and stroke count, going above and beyond of what he's asking for, but I still don't think that he thinks I'm ready or even good enough for those groups. There's a big meet coming up the same weekend of Junior Nationals, and I really want to prove to him that I want to be in those groups swimming faster than I ever have before. Any suggestions?

Sincerely, Curious Sprinter

Hi Curious Sprinter,

Swimming is a sport of endless pursuit: Once you get a best time, you want to better it. Once you win a race, you want to win another. Once you advance to one group, you want to advance to the next.

This type of endless, cyclical “want” creates endless desire, which can be both good and bad. It’s great to be motivated to continue to try your best and achieve more, and more, and more. But at the same time, you need to follow your coach’s advice. If your coach believes that you aren’t fast enough, or mature enough, or whatever the case may be, then why are you so insistent on wanting to move up?

I remember when I was an age grouper, I was just like you. I always wanted to move up to the next group: They were faster, doing more advanced sets, and filled with more successful swimmers. I talked to my coach and I asked, “When can I move up?”

And he’d always say: “When you’re ready.”

It really bothered me. How come I’m not ready right now? I’d always wonder. And so, I did exactly what you are doing: I’d try harder, push myself more, and constantly beat myself up each week he refused to let me join another advanced group.

It wasn’t until later that I realized what he was actually doing: Protecting me. My coach wasn’t holding me back because I wasn’t fast enough. He was holding me back because I would have gotten annihilated in the older, more advanced group, not just physically, but mentally as well. There were still many things I had to improve in my swimming – my flip turns, my endurance, and my confidence – before I was ready to tackle the more advanced senior group. Though in races I was technically fast enough to swim with them, I just wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready. My coach was protecting me from burn-out, or being even more discouraged in a group where I’d get lapped and miss intervals.

When your coach decides if you’re ready for a more advanced training group, he’ll ask himself, “Will this swimmer not only survive, but succeed?” Succeed is the key word.

It sounds like your coach is not trying to actively hold you back, but he’s just trying to protect you from a host of things that can happen when you move up into a more advanced group. When there are endurance disparities and age disparities and maturity disparities, it’s oftentimes best to wait a few weeks, months, or even an entire season before moving up.

I’ll use college football as a more obvious example: Sometimes, high school seniors want to jump right into starting a college football game. They want to play. But more often than not, though they might have the talent and desire and drive (and sometimes even the physical ability) to play in the game, they just don’t have the emotional stability to handle the grind of playing in a game. Sometimes they get hurt – broken wrists, concussions, snapped knees, and other ugly stuff. Other times they just aren’t ready for the crowd, the pressure, the other X-Factors that go beyond just playing football. Many coaches believe in holding back freshmen players just so they can mentally acclimate, succeed in practice, and adjust, before letting them into the big game.

So, how do you prove to your coach that you’re mentally ready?

Once, I heard great advice that goes something like, “Be so great that they can’t ignore you.” In your practice group you’re at right now, if you swim so fast, so consistently, your coaches will re-evaluate where you’re at, and when you’re ready, they will move you up. Have a positive attitude. Be encouraging to teammates. Show your maturity level. Don’t whine, don’t be negative. Be everything that a mature, advanced swimmer would be.

But also, you have to trust your coaches. I know that you’re eyeing the green grass down the road, but if you focus on where you’re at, and succeeding in your own practice group and doing all the things you’re supposed to do, eventually, you’ll be moved up from the minor leagues to the majors. But your coaches know you, they know your training, and they know the type of training and mentality and maturity in the advanced groups, too. They’ll know when it’s best to move up.

Until then, just keep swimming. Don’t worry so much about what you don’t have – which is, training in the more advanced group – and worry instead on continuous improvement in the group you’re in. Give it time.

Back to that earlier story: When my coach finally did move me up to the senior group, I was ready. I didn’t sit in the back of the group or five people behind the lane leader, and I wasn’t lapped.

Instead, I was confident in my abilities and that confidence carried over and throughout my experience in the next group. Like building a house, stability is all about a strong foundation. My confidence was built over time and because it was built slowly and solidly in the less-advanced groups. By the time I moved up training groups, I was not only fast enough, but mature enough, confident enough, and strong enough to not only survive the advanced group, but succeed.

Hope this helps.