Below is an interview help with Bill Sweetenham regarding elite swimming and faster swimming tips. If you aren’t familiar with Bill, he is one of the top coaches in the sport of swimming. Below are some of his career hightlights.
Australian swim coach
Sweetenham was a swimming coach at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) from the late 1980s till 1994. From 1995 to 2001 he was the National Youth Coach for Swimming Australia during which time the programme produced a number of future Australian national team members including Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett. He managed the Australian swim team for 4 Olympic Games and 5 Commonwealth Games. He was voted Australian Coach of the Year three times and worked with more than 12 world record holders, including Tracey Wickham.
Great Britain National Performance Director
Sweetenham’s tenure with Great Britain was marked by medal success at World Championship level, Olympic disappointment, and recurring controversy on his man-management methods. He was the National Performance Director for British Swimming from November 2000 to September 2007. Prior to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Sweetenham’s tenure as Director marked considerable progress in British swimming. Britain won as many medals at the 2001, 2003 and 2005 Swimming World Championships as it had at all previous World Championships back to 1973.
End of tenure as GB National Performance Director
On 3 September 2007, British Swimming announced that Bill Sweetenham had stood down as NPD citing personal reasons. Sweetenham had previously indicated that he would not renew his contract, which was due for renewal following the 2008 Summer Olympicsin Beijing. In December 2006, Sweetenham wrote to David Sparkes (Chief Executive of British Swimming) asking to be released from his contract either after the World Championships in March 2007 or at the conclusion of the summer meets in August 2007. Michael Scott was appointed as “High Performance Consultant” to lead British Swimming through to the Beijing Olympics; however, a permanent replacement as National Performance Director is yet to be found.
The Argentina Federation of Water Sports reported in 2013 about the arrival of Bill Sweetenham, for beginning work in conjunction with the national team and in order to improve the areas of training, technical training bodies and sports organizations in the coming years. This initiative was supported by the ENARD and Sports Secretary’s Office, will have to Sweetenham until day 28 in Argentina.
1. What first got you involved in swimming?
I commenced teaching swimming which led into my coaching career as a penalty imposed by my father. I soon developed a skill for teaching which has become my passion. In other words, I have a passion for teaching in preference to a passion for swimming. This passion has led to a passion for performance at the highest level and enhancing the growth of young people to achieve their optimal performance in life and in sport.
2. Who has most influenced your career in swimming?
I was fortunate in growing up when Australia was leading the world with some great coaches and I was initially influenced by the high standards set by Forbes Carlile, Don Talbot, Frank Guthrie and Harry Gallagher. Since then, I have been further influenced and learnt from many people including many of the great coaches from around the world, which include many from the USA – Don Gambril, George Haines, Dick Hannula, Doc Counsilman, Mark Schubert, Nort Thornton, Bob Bowman, Dennis Pursley, Eddie Reese etc.
3. What are the common errors during the transition from age group to senior swimming?
The greatest error that I have encountered and had to deal with is that the limitations placed on young people by limited teaching and skill acquisition at their age and youth levels of development. Skill perfection must always come ahead of skill acquisition. The age and youth athlete must possess a tool kit of transportable skills and technique that will take them through maturation with great efficiency and ease into their senior levels, and certainly when physical growth slows down or ends. Great technique is the greatest challenge, along with the athlete’s ability to change their mindset from age group with parental influence and support to independence with self pride and self motivation. Self belief is crucial to this transition. This applies also to the senior athlete going from the national senior programme into the international senior programme. It is not what they know, it is how they think. Character and attitude must be ever present. Talent may not always have character and attitude, however attitude and character will always contain some level of talent.
I have always believed that the greatest individual performances in swimming can somewhat be contributed to being part of a strong and effective team. The question always remains in team sport – does the team grow at the same rate as the most talented athlete on that team? Can each individual grow and perform at a faster rate than the growth of the team? I ask each staff member and each athlete to identify their perceived weakness of the team and become accountable and responsible for making that weakness their own personal strength, and encourage subliminally this to be their message for the team. If you can do this, you will have great individual performance supported by a strong team concept. (T)ogether (E)ach (I)ndividual (A)chieves (M)ore. I hope this explains it. You can even put an extra “M” on the end of the word TEAM – which would indicate that TOGETHER EACH INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVES MUCH MORE.
5. What are your favorite methods to track fatigue/overtraining syndrome in senior swimmers?
For many years, or at least since 1978, I have had all of the athletes in my care do between 6 and 8X300s on Monday mornings at 50 below, 40 below and 30 beats below maximum heart rate. I have graphed this to ensure that the swimmer is aerobically recovered from the week before, and is ready to prepare for the new week ahead well rested and recovered. If their graph has improved, then this is a great sign. However, if it has gone backwards I would continue to rest them and re-look at their technique and have them undergo a medical examination/blood test. I do not believe in starting any new week of training with a fatigued athlete. On Monday afternoons, I would look at doing some reaction games with the team. Reaction games and jumping ability done in any form is a good indication of anaerobic fitness and recovery. I also ask the athletes of today to self monitor every morning on their i-Pads with a set format rating their levels of readiness to train, readiness to compete, quality of rest, hours of sleep, levels of rehydration, quality of food, levels of aggression, willingness to train etc. They can send these to me prior to arriving at the pool. Along with their weigh-in done immediately on arrival at the pool, this will give me a profile of the athlete and a daily record of how they perceive they are recovered and ready to train. Obviously, the coach must know the heart and mind of the athlete as some will rank high or low, according to their personal approach to performance.
6. I love it when you discuss building confidence in oneself in the Swim Coaching Bible Volume II. Could you discuss how you teach swimmers self confidence?
I have a competition strategy of each athlete competing in competition at three events at their level of competence. This is where the athlete can place in the top 3. It is in this situation where the athlete feels relaxed and open to both positive feedback about themselves and challenging feedback on their performance, ie. redirection. My policy is to praise the person, evaluate clinically the performance and redirect skill execution. I then ask the athlete to compete in two events below their level of competence. In other words, somewhere that would normally be an easy to win situation but in this situation, I ask the athlete to experiment. This might mean going too fast or too easy at the start of the race etc. It may mean for a Medley swimmer or a 200 form stroke swimmer that they have to hold the back end of their event at desired race speed or goal time for the end result 200m performance or the 400m IM performance. This implies that the athlete learns quickly by making fewer mistakes. The question here is how many performances does it take for an athlete to achieve a result? Obviously, fewer is best. This is where, as a coach, I look to coach the person (the brain), train the event (the physical) and teach the skills in the most demanding way possible. My job as a coach is to make the journey as difficult as possible by challenging the athlete with adversity but at the same time, ensuring that they succeed in obtaining their optimal performance. The third and final strategy is perhaps the most important one where I ask the athlete to compete well above their current form and in a situation where in theory, they cannot win. This is where I aim to ensure that I develop athletes with a winning culture where they can achieve in a “can’t do” situation. This is the CAN in a CAN’T DO environment. I would ask the athlete to enter an event where they would be ranked between 7th and 20th and this would depend on the confidence of the athlete, ie. the more confident, they would enter an event ranked more like 16th to 20th and the less confident would be ranked between 7th to 12th. THis one event is where the athlete is right out of their comfort zone and where the presence of abnormal and the absence of normal would require an extraordinary and exceptional effort. I ask the athlete who is ranked 7th or slower to make the final, and then to stand on the podium. I want them to be challenged after they have been through the earlier two strategies. This is where the athlete would have to perform without a speed gap on the field, but no matter what the outcome I would praise both them personally and their performance unconditionally so that they grow in confidence and are ready for the transition from youth to the unprotected open age group, and hopefully from national to international standards.
7. How do you balance the line between self confidence and cockiness?
Confidence is about self belief and being prepared to back yourself against all odds. Conversely, cockiness or arrogance is telling people that you can do it. I coach confidence and self belief.
8. What are some commonalities in elite age group swimmers who have difficulty transitioning to the Senior level?
Lack of self confidence, lack of preparation, lack of self belief which are all indicators of inadequate coaching and personal development. This is also somewhat conditional on the athlete who has poor skill execution or poor technique. We see a lot in today’s world of the early gratification and sought after easy option which quite often and more likely than not limits growth in performance after physical growth has ceased. If the technique and attitude is right, the athlete’s transition will be fine. It is about training the body to match the fitness of the mind in preference to training the mind to match the fitness of the body. The greatest attribute any coach can have is the ability to teach and develop optimal physical performance and winning.
9. What is the biggest difference between elite (National Level) and ultra-elite (Olympic Level)?
I have often been asked this question and for me, personally, the difference in the athletes who I have coached who fit into this situation are as follows. The athletes who I have coached who have achieved optimal performance and who have stood on the podium are those who wanted success for themselves more than I did for them. For those who fell short of this, I believe it was due to me wanting success for them more than they did for themselves. ‘t – this is the difference between CAN and CAN’T. The facts are champions know the difference, and winners live the difference.
10 How do you learn new information?
This day and age, technical knowledge is no longer the winning differential and the return on investment here or the winning point of difference is no longer the key. It is about knowledge of the product, ie. the athlete and the skill and your ability to teach and coach this area by communication. The athlete must have total trust in the coach, and the coach must have unconditional belief in the athlete. This means not just in the physical, but in character and attitude. In this regard, I have four people who share no feelings for me personally and can deliver any messages they feel that I have an area to improve on or that will deliver a winning point of difference. These people continually research and supply me with relevant information that will prove to be the winning point of difference in my personal growth and how I will deal with today’s athlete and staff member, along with growth for the athlete and team. I have a person in sports science (physiology and biomechanics), a person in strength and conditioning and cross training, a person in the corporate/business area and an ex-swimmer who knows me well and can advise me on any new technology that they feel I need to know. I do not want old information. Not everything that is old is bad, while not everything that is new is good. My personal ambition is to finish my life by being the most knowledgeable and experienced coach in today’s world. This job belongs to the four people above as well as to me in having an open mind and self belief. I am continually looking for what the winning athlete in 2024 will look like.
11. In the Swim Coaching Bible Volume II, you discuss tracking progress annually. How many new things do you suggest adding to a swim program annually to differentiate variables?
I do not believe in changing programmes or more importantly, the content of the programme by any more than 10% at any given time. While saying this, I like to have something new and creative in the programme for each athlete on an annual basis. I look to do six monthly tests for every athlete based on improved efficiency in stroke length, speed and mobility with flexibility. If it is measurable, I want to measure it. My experience has taught me that any aspect of an athlete that is measurable and recordable, especially at the young age is usually changeable. I need to know this as someone who can influence their personal and sporting growth in a positive way. I do not like to leave anything to chance. I always look to see how much improvement is made six monthly and annually, not just in speed but in efficiency and attitude.
12. What projects can we look for you in the future?
I want to be ahead of the field. I believe the one area that will grow and that we have minimal influence over is the continued pressure that young people will have to deal with as the world changes. Given this, our coaching attitudes must change but do so without compromise, pampering or indulgence. This is a great challenge for coaches and one they will need to address to stay ahead of the field. I personally believe that coaching as it has to deal with character and attitude as the most important part of athlete growth will always be an art, and only when critical sports science is included will it make the coach a better artist. Great artists paint what they feel, not what they see. I believe great coaches will always coach what they feel as well as what they see. This, along with my statement above of the athlete feeling what the coach can’t, and the coach seeing what the athlete can’t guarantees, I believe, that winning partnerships will continue to be the high point of individual achievement and winning performances.
My areas today and the area that I want to continue to pursue in moving ahead to 2024 and put in place are both the art and science that will positively affect individual growth ahead of anyone else in the world. I think we have much to learn when it comes to optimising performance for each individual in your care. Team sports must have an individual approach and individual sports must have a team approach. I also believe we have much to learn from the corporate world, and the high performance world in many other sports. I particularly think the performing arts and Formula 1 are two good areas to consider in terms of consequence for poor performance, and therefore in a quick period of time, poor performance is eliminated. I continually hear coaches state that the athlete has to be able to perform under pressure. I do not contribute to this philosophy as I think the winning athletes and coaches put in place strategies where the athlete can perform without pressure as this will be removed in clinical preparation.