What is Success?

How is "success" determined in the sport of swimming?  For many, the answer is obvious. Simply swim a faster time than you have in the past and you are successful. Technically, they would be right… but in a sport were “best” times do not happen every time a swimmer hits the water, especially as they mature and get older, we would be setting up our swimmers for disaster if that were our only definition of success.

Success can be measured in many ways.  Early in a season, a coach may be looking for an athlete to focus on a specific technique during a race. The coach understands that even if the swimmer performs slower in the short run while acquiring this new skill, they will be better able to meet their long-term goals with this skill as an asset.  If the swimmer successfully executes the desired skill, but adds a little time, was the swim successful? I say yes.

There are also different points in the seasonal training design plan that are more conducive to fast swimming than others. Early in the season, the coach might be building an aerobic base for the athlete and the speed component might have less emphasis during the training cycle. At an early season meet, the coach may be looking for the swimmers to finish strong or even split certain events so he/she can see that the athlete has the proper foundation for future speed work. If the swimmer properly "negative splits" the event, the coach and swimmer might deem the swim a success, even if he or she did not post a personal best time.

Many of this is not even a consideration when working with younger swimmers.  Newer swimmers tend to drop a lot of time because their technique is improving, they are adapting to the increased demands of a training cycle for the first time in their lives or, they are simply growing.  All of those factors make it easier for coaches and parents to fall back on the “did you get a best time” line at the end of a race. I know, I have been there myself.

Think about it.  If we are constantly rewarding our swimmers with praise only when they get a best time, are they going to be as willing to try to and implement a new skill that might slow them down and lose that praise? Children, for the most part, want to please.  If we create an environment where they are rewarded for the development and acquisition of high-end skills, we will, in turn, develop high-end swimmers who will be happy and successful in the sport long-term.

My advice to our developmental and advanced age group families for any upcoming meet is to find out what the coaches’ goal is for your child.  At the time of writing this article, it is early in a short course season (late September) and we have a meet coming up in a couple of weeks. The coaching staff has been focused on the swimming basics. We would like to see them employ the new techniques we have been emphasizing for the past month (...ask the kids).  I am also looking to see how they handle the back half of their races. I know all of our coaches have specific areas of interest when their swimmers hit the water.

Know the goals and support them. You may find that you get even more enjoyment out of the meet as a result.  I know I get just as much satisfaction out of watching a swimmer finally learn not to breathe in and out of their turns, for example, as I do watching them take off .2 seconds on a 100 Free. Honestly, I prefer watching them perform new techniques properly more because I understand that it will bring them more long-term success than just knocking a few tenths off a mid-season swim.  

My long-winded point is that if we simply reward best times at a meet, we may lose an opportunity for the swimmers to gain much needed skills, attitudes and behaviors; the ones needed for long term success in the sport and beyond. I love best times. That said I like them to come as a result of a great, smart swim, not just a great effort. When effort and the perfect execution of strategy are married, the swimmer has every opportunity for true long term success.

Thanks for reading,