So Much Talent Going To Waste

A personal article this week from Paul Newsome on a subject very close to all of our hearts at Swim Smooth:

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


Phil said...

Well said, Paul. I swam and ran at school but only represented the school at running. I came to Triathlon in my 50s (as a result of a challenge that called my bluff) and I have rediscovered the joys of swimming (pool and open water) and I do regret that I did not discover longer distance swims sooner. Much of my enjoyment has resulted from improvements directly caused by following Swim Smooth, so thanks for that. Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

At 5'10", age 67, and poor sprinter but good distance man, I can relate. Like him I also found my sport in tris.

Escuevas said...

My 14 year old loves open water swimming. She recently swam from Lanzarote to La Graciosa and made history as the youngest ever female winner

Philippe V. said...

For those who swan competitively as children, why do you think shorter distances are favored over longer distances in swimming?

I can not help but think it has to do with sports also having a commercial side. It seems as though there will be a bigger audience to watch a short distance event (be it swimming, running etc.) than a longer distance event. Therefore, competitive swimming promotes the shorter distance events more when teaching children.

Could be wrong and I agree it’s unfortunate. I definitely enjoy swimming longer distance vs. many short distances. And I am new to swimming, just over a year as an adult, with very limited swimming as a child. Swimsmooth has been a great help of course, loved the book 

Excellent thought-provoking post, as a father it reminds me of the implications of “age bias” for sports, and academics, with my children.

Patrick said...

Could the reasoning behind keeping younger swimmers to shorter distances also have to do with the same reason that we keep younger runners to shorter distance and dissuade a 12 year old from running a marathon? Since their bodies are still growing at a high rate, they struggle with proprioception because one morning they wake up and their legs are a 1/4" longer then they use to be and if they did the training required to be competitive in a 1500m race then they break down or burn out by the time they were 15.


Scott Doherty, Kalamazoo MI said...

Interesting article....will look forward to receiving your blog. I am a lifelong recreational swimmer who started lap swimming in 2009 in my backyard. When the pool closed for the summer...I moved to the local middle school pool increasing my distance and endurance for workouts that averaged about 2000 yards.

In 2012 I joined a newly formed Master's swimming workout group and immediately saw my BP and total Cholesterol plummet...which I attribute to the intensity of the workout adding interval training and all stroke development. Subsequently swam my first three 2K OWS's this past summer.

The thing that trouble's me the most is the people who either think that swimming is boring..due to lack of variety and challenge.......or swim so inefficiently that it fails to accomplish the potential benefits and opportunities for improvement. Most people who can maintain locomotion in the water consider themselves to be competent swimmers so will not consider lessons to improve technique. Very simple basic instruction can take a novice like me and turn swimming into a passion that will pay back huge rewards over the course of our lifetime. It is for EVERYBODY!

Oliver K said...

Perhaps I represent a tiny minority here at such a long-distance swimming site, but who knows, and I would like to look at completely the other end of the spectrum (where I happen to be): I started swim training 13 years ago, at the age of 35. And I love short distances, while I dislike long distances (one reason is shoulder and neck problems, the other is that it is boring). Now from that special perspective, I believe I do not exist.

As a young swimmer apparently you are supposed to sprint (I don't have what's called a "swimming background", so I can't judge that), while as an age-group swimmer you are supposed to swim long distances. There is nearly nothing on the SwimSmooth pages on sprinting. I always try to guess from what's not said, or sometimes negating what's been said, but that's obviously not very effective. I'm not aware of much other information out there. There are master's competition, but swimming the 50m in 27s seems kind of average there, and that seems completely out of reach --- especially since one doesn't get information. I guess SwimSmooth knows also about sprinting a lot, but it doesn't tell. You are supposed to come from a swimming background, and then you know how to sprint. And since I won't be able to break records anymore, there is zero interest. Now how much possibilities (not world records, but human possibilities) are wasted because swimmers from a certain age are either supposed to know how to swim fast on short distances, because they did it from young age on, or are supposed to swim endless hours at constant speed?

I guess that roughly up to a speed of 40s for 50m the general technique training is fine for my age. But from 40s to 30s is a big step, at least for me, and that seems a complete no-man's-land (I mean for a male; I guess for a woman the numbers needed to be adapted a bit, but perhaps not, I don't know). It seems that a young talented swimmer (and the rest doesn't matter apparently, which might also not be such a great thing) reaches 30s for 50m relatively quickly, while it seems, at least to me, that if you start late with swimming, then reaching 30s for 50m is absolutely not easy. But nobody cares about a swimmer wanting to reach such an irrelevant speed from the point of view of records.

With just a tiny bit of care, I guess SwimSmooth could also add a bit of information for people without "swimming background" who want to do sprinting. It might even be enlightening for those who do distance swimming, making a sharper contrast.

I would guess SwimSmooth started in some sense as a general swimming site, but it becomes more and more specialised on long-distance front-crawl (only). Which I find sad. Would be really great, if general swimming (sprinting and other strokes) could be re-considered (to some degree).

Unknown said...

As a parent I can identify with this article, and it is so spot on.
My 13 year old daughter swims and her birthday is mid-November; the age cutoff date is December 1st. I try and encourage her that eventually she will physically catch up, and one day surpass the older girls in her age bracket.
I live in New Jersey, so there are plenty ocean swims in the summer. This year I was able to persaude her to swim three of them with me. Her 200 fly time has already improved by 20 seconds versus last year.
Keep up the good work!

Lubos said...


those are some good points. Would be nice if Swim Smooth provides more info on sprints although there are some sprint training sessions in Swim Smooth book so it's not that they neglect this area completely.

I have a competitive swimming background and recently came back to swimming after 20 years. Swim Smooth was a great resource helping me to gain a new view and love for the sport. One of the things I like about it is reaching my own limits and improving PBs both in long and short distances. While for long distance swimming we have this great concept of CSS training, you are right that there isn't anything comparable for improving your speed on sprints.

One particular thing which surprised when I came back to swimming was how slower I was on sprints when compared to my young ages. Not sure if that's just overall fitness level (maybe I still train too shortly to compare that), but I would expect that for anaerobic activities there won't be such difference. Maybe that's why technique or rather way of swimming is more important for sprints. Would appreciate if I can learn more about it from Swim Smooth because I too believe they know more about this topic.

Oliver K said...

Hi Lubos,

CSS doesn't work for me, since I can not swim longer distances at once, and I need longer rest times. More precisely, when I swim more than 200m with effort, then there is a high chance of getting neck problems, which could me make feel miserable for a whole week (so naturally I don't want to risk that). Now the standard advice is "talk to a doctor" -- ha ha. I haven't yet spoken to a doctor who had something new to say here. MRI shows "degeneration etc.", but the meaning of that is completely unclear. Some say that's "severe". Another specialist first said that I must have had an accident (which I didn't). Then my ostheopathist had a chat with her, for over an hour, with the result "strange --- god knows". Another doctor says "if you had the whole population MRI'ed, then you would find a lot like that". The only thing which helped, and that actually a lot, is physiotherapy, ostheopathy and massage in all forms (it seems that I react very well to that). That really helped enormously! So that now I'm in the position, that after my swimming training (I try to go five times a week) most of the time after the training my neck and shoulder feels better than before the training (which was completely different, say, two years ago). So I feel I have some "understanding" of the situation. But still longer distances are a no-go-zone for me. And I imagine that this is not so uncommon. Okay, so I belong to those lazy guys standing (actually often sinking-downs etc. --- I really like that :-)) a lot in the corner of the lane, dispised by the real SS hero(ine) (the relentless (manic) swinger). But that yields from time to time some talk (not too much), and I think the neck-issue is really a stumbling block for many males (I think it is a male thing, and that might also cause it being ignored). Likely from the SS perspective they nearly don't exist, since they are automatically filtered out, being practically invisible. (From that, admittedly rather special perspective, I must say I was somewhat disappointed from the SS DVD "Catch Masterclass": from the female swimmer there neither do I learn like watching a professional, nor does she share any of my characteristic problems; watching her doesn't say anything to me).

Oliver K said...

I hope you don't mind me continuing with my own approach to "CSS and all that". So, due to these problems, I swim mostly 50s (and 25s, when trying to find out what "sprinting" could mean). I don't get problems with swimming 50m at a higher effort level, when I get enough rest. Alright, roughly two weeks ago I thought, it would also be nice to do additionally some sort of "distance swimming". So my approach is to go for really "effortless" swimming for longer distances. But that's another problem. The speed for "real effortlessness" I think is 1:40 for 100m. But that really feels *horrible*: either I go for 52 strokes per minute (I got kind of addicted to the wetronome), and that feels like hovering in space; perhaps I could try, but somehow I think 56 strokes per minute should be kind of minimum. Or I go for such a lazy short stroke, that it really feels awful after some time (really awful --- the fun is gone, and I'm really feeling like "stained"). What I will try for another month or so is to go for 1:30 for 100m, with 56 strokes per min, and that at least for 400m: after some warm-up, being relaxed then, that kind of works for 50m, feels rather effortless, but already for 100m I start cramping (and, without putting extra effort into it, it becomes something like 1:34). But I think that it could work out --- it feels as if there is some "island" of tranquility and peace.

A few times I tried to join some masters swimming club. When I started swimming training 13 years ago (before that I really didn't swim at all for 20 years), that was in a masters club, and that was alright. But due to my problems now, whenever I tried a masters club in the last couple of years, I felt awful after that, due to the missing breaks (which relax my shoulders and neck). And that feeling awful is of the negative kind. More than 20 years ago I did Kung Fu at not such a low level, also full-contact fighting and sparring. I know pain, the heart pounding like mad, you nearly can't move your arms anymore, but you must go on, and that with full speed ("kill the enemy"). Also endless push-up sessions ... But that pain was "positive" (kind of ;-)), you extend, you reach the limit, your muscles work, and it is muscle failure which finally stops you. But that neck- and should-pain is purely negative, there is nothing to be gained here, you just must stop (otherwise the next day I can't move my head and/or arms at all).

Oliver K said...

To complete the story, I would like to say something on "smooth versus swinger", which seems like a dead end to me (for my ends).

Inspired by the Jono-video, my current attempts at sprinting try to emulate that. My best is with 80 strokes per min going 35s for 50m. I like that. But I also think that I can't continue much further in this direction: it feels as if this is my best possible technique. In that way I like it. But I also feel that sprinting doesn't mean best possible technique. Who knows, I'll continue in this direction, but even reaching 30s in this way might not be possible.

As the only information available to me on the Internet I found "The Race Club" a month ago. They have some really great videos for viewing, and so I hoped their DVDs would be the ultimate thing. Alas, they are more like a music-video: glorious bodies going fast and having fun in Florida (kind of California-style body-cult, but the other side of the country), with a few flashbacks and enigmatic remarks. I guess they want to keep their secrets for themselves. But nevertheless I got something out of it (I believe --- that was my first encounter with real sprinting, and before that I believed Jono-style is the only sprinting-style). On the one hand, the much higher stroke rate.

And then the "shoulder-driven" versus "hip-driven" (they also have, as the third style of front-crawl, "body-driven", but I have no clue what that means). I have a kind of feeling I understand roughly what that means. So I try also from time to time going up to 100 strokes per min, not stretching out like made, and kind of aborting the last phase of the pull, coming back to the front as quickly as possible. For example doing this with 80 strokes per min, it is a bit slower than my "Jono-style", but it feels much easier. Reaching the 100 it becomes a bit difficult, and it can also break down (becoming quite a bit slower, don't getting into it). But I feel rather insecure with that, since it's basically my own invention, just extrapolating from some remarks in those videos.

Back to Swim Smooth: For the higher stroke rates there seems only "swinger". But I don't understand at all, why the hell the main characteristic of the swinger is recovering the arm round the side of the body --- why should I do this?? Okay, it is my understanding of "shoulder-driven" style that there is much less hip-rotation, which makes it also easier (as it seems to me) to crank up the leg kick --- only the upper body rolls, not the hips. But still I assume I don't recover the arms swinging round the sides. There is also no mentioning of the swinger-style having something to do with sprinting, so there must be some kind of "high-frequency smooth" or so.

It would be great if Swim Smooth could create a greater map of the world of (front-crawl) swimming. Yet the 6 types seem clusters of properties, which empirically are often related in some types of swimmers (excluding for example the sprinters). But their doesn't seem to be inherent necessity of these properties for being related. So people often describe themselves as "mixtures". I think it would finally be more appropriate to go for more atomic properties of swimming (which are not already clusters), perhaps there are, say, 30 of them, where every swimmer is then some kind of combination of these atoms of swimming.

tomtrappforloans said...

very well written.

Mike Kay said...

Nice post. It's refreshing once in a while when you post something more expansive than just swimming. I'm going to check out that Outliers book.

@Patrick Scanlon: you're daughter is luck to have a parent like you. Such encouragement at that age can make the difference in how one enjoys and succeeds. I believe that I fell on the short end of the stick as a kid with athletics, but luckily found enjoyment in various sports as an adult.

It's also nice to see sprinters chiming in. There must be other websites that emphasize sprinting technique I would imagine, and maybe in forums on such website you can find out about short distance events. The Swim Smooth folks produce materials that seem to reflect their specific interest in longer distance.

One thing: if your only reason for avoiding distance swimming is due to neck and shoulder problems, there is a lot of advice at Swim Smooth that can help you out. Every time I develop a pain in the shoulder I see it as a sign of a fault in my technique. Paying more attention to my technique, and taking it easy for a few sessions, usually solves the problem.

Oliver K said...

@MikeQue: Thanks for your comments. I think the neck-and-shoulder problems need to be looked at from a somewhat different perspective. First, I think the neck-problem is the real elephant in the room, causing most of the shoulder problems. And it comes very likely from my Scheuermann disease
which I have since birth. In the end it leads to, let's call it a "glass neck", which amplifies any problem. Sure, my technique can be improved. But long distances mean *fighting* the decay of technique, that is, the technique decays and you try to keep that as minimal as possible. Add to this little mistakes, or just the need to lift the head from time to time, irregularities at the turn --- all that can easily end up causing damage to my neck, which a normal person would just absorb. So I think, when swimming longer distances then I need to be in full control, and must swim within a save comfort zone. Because everything stiffens up; for shorter distances and with enough rest I think I have a good control on that. Sure, I take it as a motivation to develop a technique as "smooth" as possible. But there are limits to that.

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