Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Families Not Welcome

Yesterday, I talked about the discussion for NCAA qualifying, and seem to have found more than a few people's attention. Today, I want to talk about another issue that came up in San Antonio, different but no less important. Two of the speeches given at the talk were ostensibly about coaches who had just completed meteoric rises. Both sent a clear message: if you want to do this you better go it alone (and be a man).

One coach was more candid about it. In an otherwise cheery speech about starting a program from scratch and taking it to national prominence, everything turned dark for a few minutes as he discussed taking the job married and now being single. The other coach probably didn't even realize what he was saying, as he urged the audience to maintain strong relationships with his co-workers. Offering himself up as an example, he told us how he had eaten dinner every night with his head coach for a year. If you're married (and even if you're not) you know how impossible that scenario sounds.

I want to be clear: this post is not an attack on the single male coaches out there, of which there are many. It's more a call for help. So, rather than make this a long post telling most people what they already know, I want to hear from you. If you are reading this and you're a coach, male or female (even better), and you've had some success while not completely ignoring your family, send your story to Coaches need to hear your story and learn from it!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fixing NCAA Qualification

One of the most vexing problems in college swimming is the NCAA qualification process. In a sport that otherwise operates on concrete time standards, this process rests on a two tiered system of cuts, alongside an algorithm that makes it impossible for all but the most dedicated to authentically determine who will make the meet. Add in a frenzy of last chance qualifiers and you have a recipe for frustration on many levels. At the CSCAA conference last week in San Antonio, Division 1 coaches sat down to try to fix the process, and failing that at least make it slightly better.

Before we get to what was newly proposed, let's talk about what we have now and how we got here. Coaches got an instructive history lesson on the formation of the "cap", now at the center of most people's complaints. For successive years in the 1980s the NCAA asked coaches for a recommendation on a cap figure. Coaches couldn't determine one, thus the NCAA decided for them: 235 men, and 322 women.

The women's "cap" figure works fairly well. This past year 15 relays were selected and 29-30 individuals.  A fair individual field for a national championship to be sure, although picking 15 relays when you score 16 has it's own issues. The men's cap was a disaster, this year resulting in 12 relays and as low as 17 individuals being selected. The reason, as has been much discussed by my colleague Shawn Klosterman, is relay only qualifiers.

This year's men's championship has 76 relay only qualifiers. These are swimmers that did not qualify individually but were part of a selected relay. They are allowed to attend the meet and swim any event they have a "B" cut in. Although less traditional "power" schools always get a few relay qualifiers, the process had become a way for the rich to get richer. If you were a Texas or California, you could qualify swimmers relay only without shaving or tapering them to get an individual cut.

In San Antonio, a proposal for radical change was developed and will be submitted to the NCAA for the coming season. In it, relay qualification as we know it will be totally scrapped. The cap of 235 (and 322) will be used to select individuals only, which this past qualification year would have resulted in 29-30 men's qualifiers in each event.

Rather than destroying the role of relays in the meet, relays will make the meet through an alternate process. A cut time will be set up based on the average of the 16th place time prior to the NCAA meet of the last three years. Teams with an individual qualifier would be enter a relay provided they had met this time, and bring relay only swimmers alongside their qualifier to make the relay. These relay only swimmers would be true relay only swimmers- they would simply be there to swim a relay (or more). They would also be paid for by the school, not the NCAA.

That last part was and will be the most controversial part of the proposal. Schools are naturally concerned about anything that may add to their budget. The idea of limiting relay only swimmers to the relays stung for many schools who have seen relay only swimmers be successful. Ultimately, it was determined that schools big and small could ultimately push budget figures around if it meant getting people to the NCAA meet, the ultimate goal of most programs.

The proposal is not perfect, not without flaws, but it will improve the NCAA meet and qualification in crucial ways. It will make the meet faster, both individually and relay, as well as resulting in more participation at the meet. That is a win for everybody.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Training in Traffic

Some kids just don't care if the lane is crowded.  Weaving through traffic at full speed is an under-appreciated swimmer skill.

We have all dealt with crowded lanes and made the most of it.  I have had to rearrange the order of swimmers sometimes to keep things running smoothly sometimes.  Just this week I had to start telling my age groupers to line up in order of their 100 free time just to keep them from fighting about who leads the lane.  It is not usually a big deal until coach gets out the watch and expects some race quality splits when you know people are gonna get run over.

I had a first last night-- something I had never seen, or at least never seen this executed so well...  I just have to brag on it.  It was impressive.  We were doing a set of 8x100 on 2:00 in the yard pool, best stroke (non-free) and I expected them to hold a pace that was in what we call "zone 3" which is calculated by taking half of their 200 time and adding 4-7 seconds to it.  It gets them right around VO2 max.  I let the kids take #7 easy so I could see how close they could get to race pace on #8.  This set is pretty typical for us although this was very short for this kind of set.

My breaststroker, who just finished his freshman year in high school, took off like a rocket on that last 100.  He was out FAST and I was excited to see what his time was gonna be.  Unfortunately he caught up to the last person in the lane just after the pull-out on the last 25.  He did about 5 or 6 strokes at her pace before he finally got impatient enough at the 15 meter mark to pass her...

but he couldn't pass down the middle as there was a butterflier in the way.  So this kid improvises:  he takes a breath, submerges and crosses under the lane rope without even interrupting his rhythm, and finishes in the next lane with a pretty incredible time.  I wish I had caught it on video.  His best time shaved in a meet is 59.4, and his best 200 is 2:07.  On this push 100 at the end of the set he went out in 29, and even with a half length stuck in traffic he finished in 1:03.  Not bad for a push! Of course, I worry a little about the day this kid finally gets his drivers license and I am glad I ain't the one teaching him how to drive!

I love coaching age group.  It's gonna be a fun summer. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Faster Standards: What's the Point?

In the past week, much of the discussion surrounding Germany's Olympic selection meet has been over their standards. You see, the German's chose to make their athletes not just make the FINA "A" cut, but actually go a faster time, an equivalent to the 10th fastest time the world last year. Most notably, Georgia based swimmer Martin Grodzki cleared the "A" standard on the last day of the meet in the 1500 but was left off the London squad. This begs multiple questions: why does Germany see a need to have a higher standard than the FINA "A"?

To understand, you have to step outside the US mindset. In the US, it is seen as a limitation in some situations that we can "only" select two swimmers per event. Often there has been a third US swimmer who could contend for a medal at the Olympics. But few, if any, other countries have had that quandary. These countries also have far fewer resources. They have to be judicious about who they send. In their minds, there is little to be gained from sending a swimmer to a big international meet, much less the Olympics, who cannot at least get a second swim.

But the problem here is larger than that. Ordinarily these time standards would be far less of an issue. Germany has traditionally been a very strong swimming country. Were this an average group of German swimmers they would be sending far more than the 18 they selected for London. But this is not an average group. Germany is a swimming power on the verge (if not already) of falling flat on it's face in 2012.

Take, for instance, the aforementioned 1500. Grodzki's time of 15:10 was nearly 20 seconds slower than the national record set by Jorg Hoffman in 1991. As much as the Bill Sweetenham's of the world love to bemoan the death of distance swimming, this is not a common problem. The heathen sprinter's paradise of  America is in no danger of returning to Chad Carvin levels of distance performance. Germany's tiny neighbor to the north, Denmark, will field two athletes in the London 1500 leaps and bounds ahead of Grodzki.

Germany's two established swimming stars, Britta Steffen and Paul Biedermann, seem to already have peaked. Steffen, once the world's best sprinter, hasn't medaled individually long course since 2009. Biedermann was steady with two bronzes in Shanghai last summer and did get the benefit of training through this competition. Only other legitimate hope for a medal on Germany's team is Christian vom Lehn, the young breaststroker and medalist from Shanghai.

At this point, you might believe that I agree with Germany's strategy: I don't. When standards are so far ahead of the athletes you have an imbalance that must be addressed. Keeping athletes at home is not the solution, in fact it hurts future development. The young talents in countries like Germany need to feel like there is an attainable goal for them to aspire too. To be fair, German swimming has put some responsibility on coaching when they took the bold move in firing Orjan Madsen in an Olympic year, but this problem goes far beyond Madsen. Germany needs to re-evaluate how they are developing athletes across the country and why they are falling behind. German talent hasn't all of a sudden disappeared, but the development of it definitely has.