Mike's Mailbag: Coaching Decisions and Creative Solutions


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions emailed to me from swimmers and parents from around the country. While you should take this advice with a grain of salt, I’ve been a swimmer, coach, or swim writer most of my life. If you have any questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Hi Mike:

My son’s coach cancelled dryland this year. His reason is that it’s preventing swimmers from having good practices. The team has four very hard practices days: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday with Mon and Wed as recovery days and Fridays off. Last year dry-land was on Monday and Wednesday before practice but the coach says they were not having good practices due to dryland. And he doesn’t want them to do it afterwards because it would affect their Tuesday and Thursday morning practices. So he decided to cancel dryland.

I can understand his reasoning and realize the best would be for the team to do dryland after morning practices like the professionals do, with time to recover before afternoon practice, but this is not possible because they have to get to school. But it seems extreme to me to cancel dryland. All the teams I know are in the same situation, and they all manage to get dryland in.

Teenagers are so busy with school and swimming it’s extremely hard for them to find time to do dryland outside of practice time. And it is very difficult for a teenager to work on his own. Some parents are hiring personal trainers for their kids, but that seems unfair for parents who have to pay for it (and it’s not cheap!) in addition to the team fees.

Both parents and swimmers have tried to talk to the coach about this but he will not change his decision. I strongly believe in dryland and I’m very concerned with this situation. I think not doing dryland puts my son at a disadvantage compared to other swimmers his age. And I know college dryland programs are very tough and he will have a difficult time adjusting if he is not doing any at all now (he is a junior now).

I have tried to push my son to do dryland on his own before Monday and Wednesday and maybe on the weekend afternoons, but I am having an extremely difficult time keeping it up. So I’m wondering whether I’m wrong to push him and maybe we should just follow the coach and skip dryland.

Your advice will be greatly appreciated!!!
-Concerned Parent

Dear Concerned Parent:

Thanks for your note. I’ll try not to get in the way between your coach and his swimmers, as I don’t think that’s my role. I don’t know the team or the situation. But I can offer some advice, as I’ve had to do a lot of dryland on my own growing up.

First, your coach may be right in that dryland is affecting practices. But I’ve been on teams where that’s also the point – to get your body tired before practice starts, then, when you are exhausted, go out and have a great practice. Dryland is important, but not more than swimming itself. You can come close to replicating swim motions on land through stretch cords, VASA trainers, etc., but it’s not the same.

However, I’ve always felt similar to you – that dryland is an important facet of the sport that can offer things pure swimming practices cannot. Power. Muscle. Flexibility. Strength. Explosiveness. Again, this depends on age, stroke, and time, but dryland can be incredibly important.

So, your coach cancelled it. What to do, if anything?

Know that every coach tries his or her best. This coach firmly believes water practices should have 100% importance, and I won’t argue. But he’s also coming up with plans to appease all swimmers on the team. Which is sort of like a nutritionist coming up with a diet plan for 30 people. It’s silly that every person must adhere to one strict diet plan because everyone’s needs are different. Some people need more meat. Others need more dryland.

Personally, I actually practiced better after dryland. It woke my body up, created endorphins, and got the blood pumping. I’d do jumping jacks and pushups even before championship swim meets, because that’s what my body required.

So, if your son is like me, and he needs a little different “nutrition” than the team’s “nutrition plan,” talk to the coach again. Come up with a creative solution. Tell him the reasons why you believe dryland is needed (for example, evidence of previous time drops following seasons of dryland, etc..,) and see what your coach says. If he’s still unwilling to even do 10 minutes of dryland before or after practice (and trust me, you can get a lot of solid dryland work in 10 short minutes), here are some other options:

1. Start a dryland group. Don’t try to do dryland on your own, because it’s unsafe and hard to get motivated. Groups will keep you honest and hard working, so find others on the team who feel similarly. I’m sure there are a few. Then stay after practice 15 minutes, or arrive at practice 20 minutes early, if possible. If not, even once a week on weekends, just get together and jog, or do some stretch cords together. It might even be fun.

2. If you’re worried about time, compromise. You don’t need an hour every other day to get dryland benefits. Like I said earlier, even with only 10 minutes, you can get some solid dryland in.

3. Personal trainers? That sounds extreme and expensive. Back growing up, we shared equipment. So while buying a VASA trainer or medicine balls are expensive, when bought in a group, costs can be cut. Not ideal, but again, a creative option.

However, before doing anything extreme like starting a dryland group, please take a few things into consideration.

Your coach knows what he’s doing. That’s why he’s the coach. He may have a philosophy that, at this age, it’s much more important to have great swim practices instead of great drylands. I’d agree. Talk it out. And embrace what he says. If practices really were terrible after dryland, he’s probably making the right judgment call.

In the end, coaching is not an exact science. There are many philosophies that work and lead to success. Talk to the coach and don’t let this create tension that could affect what matters: Team attitude.

In college, I remember being very upset during taper because I thought we weren’t resting enough. An older, much more successful veteran pulled me aside and said, “You think you know, but you really have no idea what you’re talking about. Trust the coaching, and you’ll swim fast.” I adjusted my attitude, did what they said, and – wouldn’t you know it? --- I had all lifetime bests.

There’s no exact road to success just like there’s no exact science to coaching. But I do know what does matter: A good attitude. Don’t think that your son won’t be successful by not doing dryland. To be honest, if he cared that much about doing dryland in the first place, he’d do it. From what you said, it sounds like you have to push him yourself to get him to do dryland. And you shouldn’t have to push him to do dryland. That’s not your role. Maybe he was one of those swimmers having poor swim practices after dryland. In which case, maybe he’s getting too fatigued after dryland to have great practices. Or getting close to risking injury. Or just becoming mentally burned out. This can happen, especially in high school.

Like I said, swimming is like nutrition. As long as you’re “eating healthy” (having great swim practices) you’ll be successful. Good, consistent swim practices are the most important. Once that’s happening, then talk with the coach about creative dryland solutions.

I hope this helps.

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