As Malcolm Gladwell made famous in his excellent book Outliers, of those who make it to elite or professional level in nearly any sport, there is a large bias towards those who were the eldest in the sport’s age banding as a child.
His example of professional ice hockey in Canada is fascinating, as observed by psychologist Roger Barnsley:
"In any elite group of hockey players - the very best of the best - 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December."
When is the age cut-off for age-class hockey in Canada? The 1st of January. A boy whose tenth birthday is in the first few weeks of January is nearly a year more physically developed than another child in his group who doesn’t turn ten until December. No wonder he skates better than the younger child, gains confidence in his ability as a result and is viewed as more talented by his coaches.
This is a significant advantage at this early age but the self belief it creates, the team selections and the extra coaching he receives as a result means that advantage self re-enforces and continues for many years, right into his professional career. Our younger boy of equal natural talent is much more likely to be underdeveloped and cast aside by a system focusing on short-term performance over long term potential.
Of course the exact same effect happens in swimming with age-banding – which is also a great shame – but it is actually not age-banding I’m concerned with here. It’s the type of events that junior squads focus on around the world: sprints.
In swimming, up until the age of about 12 or 13, the majority of events raced by our youngsters are from 50 to 200m. In fact at this age 200m is considered as a distance event when in fact it still favours tall powerful kids well suited to highly anaerobic swimming. There is next to no opportunity for any child of that age to race over further than 200m and so the children with great natural endurance (but perhaps not the longest smoothest strokes) never get the rewards they deserve and start that cycle of positive re-enforcement that the good sprinters benefit from.
Good coaches will tell parents that they don’t allow their swimmers to specialise too young in any particular event and that “all strokes should be attempted” due to the balancing effect this will have on them. However, if we are not letting our children specialise towards a stroke to give them time to develop, shouldn’t we also give opportunity to those who may not naturally be suited to sprinting to try some longer events that might suit them better?
The fact is that the meters covered in training in most junior squads is more than enough to race effectively over longer distances such as 800 or 1500m pool swims, or 2.5km open water. And ironically we often see those kids suited to sprinting doing too much volume for their needs!
As age-banding in all sports neglects the talent pool, so does our ‘sprint-only’ approach to junior swimming. The drop-out rate of kids from swimming is notoriously high in the 13-15 age range, perhaps because by that age kids and parents have realised they will never be the next Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin. The question is, how many of those would have made fantastic distance swimmers? And just as importantly, how many would have enjoyed distance swimming and kept it going for the rest of their lives – perhaps transitioning to open water which might have suited them perfectly?
As a child in the 1990s swimming at Bridlington Swimming Club, I know I was completely unaware of distance swimming as a sport. There was a lad in our squad whose mother enrolled him for the local open water club in Scarborough. I knew nothing about what or why he was doing this, only that the other kids and I thought he was only doing it because he wasn't that good in the pool and was carrying a few extra pounds in body weight.
How wrong we were - that kid went on to perform at a high level in open water and has since swum multiple marathon swimming events. What's more, he's still in the sport and still loving it as much now as he did when we were all 6 and thrown in the deep end of the pool for the first time.
|I loved triathlon and instantly found my natural stroke style perfectly suited open water swimming.|
In the UK and elsewhere it could be said that triathlon has benefited from this problem. Back in 1999 whilst studying Sports & Exercise Science I was also a Young Person’s Development Officer in the South West region of the UK for the British Triathlon Association (as it was then). There was much talk that as Talent ID officers, we should be visiting the local swimming clubs and looking for swimmers who weren’t quite making it in the pool to give triathlon a try.
Not co-incidentally, many of those swimmers who chose to switch to triathlon were those of smaller stature than their sprint-rivals and had shorter choppier strokes (the Swinger style as we call it). Many of them had weaker kicks too, perhaps lagging behind during kick sets.
This still happens today with many swimmers converting to triathlon (the Brownlee brothers being classic examples), which is great for triathlon but not so great for swimming as a sport. With open water races booming and the 10K marathon swim now an Olympic sport, it’s high time we took another look at how our juniors are prepared from a young age.
However for me, as I made mention of above, this is not just about gold medals, it’s about fairness and giving every child the best chance in swimming and the opportunity to experience something they love. Aged 16 I made the switch from swimming to triathlon and found I performed far better over longer distances and in open water. Suddenly it didn’t matter that I didn’t have much sprint capacity and I was 5’10, not 6’4.
I love distance swimming, particularly in open water. I love getting in a rhythm and switching off from the pressures and strains of daily life. I feel fortunate to have found distance swimming and I also know that whilst I have continued swimming through adulthood most of my contemporaries from my days as a junior swimmer have long since left the sport.
Swim Smooth is about helping you become a better swimmer but it is also about unlocking that love for swimming which is a gift for life. For us that starts with recognising that we are all different, swim with naturally different styles and are good at different events and that should start in kids coaching.
So if little Jonny comes home one day dejected that he hasn't made the team for that weekend's sprint meet, perhaps we should give him the chance to try some longer events. Who knows how he might perform with that opportunity, what it would do for his self esteem and where that could take him. It could be something that literally changes his life.
PS. Also see this interesting article on why kids drop out of sports