Can Michael Phelps still be Michael Phelps on less training?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 23rd, 2010

The Washington Post article Pan Pacific Championships: Michael Phelps ‘a long way’ from top form after sporadic training reports his coach, Bob Bowman’s concerns about whether Phelps can return to 8-gold-medal form if he trains less than he did leading up to Beijing. The lede spells it out:

This is the first year swimming star Michael Phelps blatantly ignored his coach’s training plan. Some days he would show up to practice. Other days he would sneak off and play golf. There would be no phone call, no heads up. Bowman would wait by the side of the pool at the designated workout time. If Phelps’s lane remained empty, Bowman would go on without him.

Phelps’s performance at the Pan Pacific Championships reflected his sporadic attention. He . . . failed to advance to the final of the 400 IM in which he holds a world record and on Saturday morning he dropped out of another event because he was out of gas. He acknowledged repeatedly that he arrived here in poor shape and felt disappointed with some of his times.

This sentence, midway down, illuminates what I see as the main issue: Bowman, Urbanchek and other coaches say they know they can’t force adult swimmers to train like children, yet swimming is not a sport that readily tolerates shortcuts.

Swim coaching and training has always followed an authoritarian model. Allowing swimmers a voice in their training is unheard of. In part that reflects the reality that it was always a youth sport. Partly because promising swimmers are asked to train so hard at ages 12 to 15 that burnout by 22 or earlier is almost inevitable. And partly because swimmers lacked reason or motivation to continue beyond college. Earnings from sponsorships has changed the latter but done nothing to address the former.

Then there’s the fact that anything other than high-volume, high-intensity training is considered a “shortcut.”

Thirty years ago, I developed several world-ranked swimmers, as a USAS club coach in Richmond VA. None approached Phelps’s success, but one was an Olympic medalist in 1992. The 20 years I’ve spent working with improvement-minded adults — and personal experience training for races up to marathon distance in middle-age — have shown that technique-oriented training has far greater potential for maximizing performance than I realized back then.

So long as I remained within the “competitive-swimming bubble” my sense of possibility was mainly within the volume-and-effort paradigm. But if I were to return today to that sort of coaching,  my methods would be radically changed — and I believe could prove far more compatible with the emotional and performance needs of post-collegiate swimmers.

My TI experiences have convinced me the primary reason swimmers seem incapable of performing at a high level on less training are:

  1. Human swimmers are, by nature, ‘energy-wasting machines’  and traditional training does little to address that. The USA Swimming protocols for conditioning are exhaustive and meticulously documented. Those for increasing efficiency are ad-hoc and undocumented.
  2. A very high percentage of training is non-specific, summed up by the phrase “getting the yards in” which has fortunately replaced the odious “garbage yardage” which was actually an article of faith among many coaches when I was coaching.

I believe a focus on better understanding the neural aspects of training, and approaches that include the mathematical predictability of tools like the Tempo Trainer would make a considerable difference by (1) more efficient use of time and energy; and (2) replacing tedium, which is increasingly difficult for an intellectually-evolved person to tolerate, with engagement and purpose.

8 Responses to “Can Michael Phelps still be Michael Phelps on less training?”

  1. James says:

    Thanks for the insight !
    I’m reading your book for the second time.
    It’s truly a wonderful read on many levels.

  2. Tom Norris says:

    This is a very interesting article. It reminded me of an experience I had in grad school. As a graduate student, I could take as many courses as I wanted outside my masters program, and for free. So I took introductory swimming, thinking I could thoughtfully go over stroke techniques and get the basics down better than I had as a kid learning to swim in a cold, spring-fed lake in New England. I was totally wrong. The instructor proved to be a martinet of a drill sargent. I was 25 at the time and a teaching assistant: I had privileges at the facutly club. But in that class, I felt like an 18-year-old raw recruit in the Marines. My swimming did not improve one iota.

    I had the same experience taking a university tennis class. But for tennis, I got a break. I quit the university class and took private lessons at a local country club where the pro there used TI techniques (visualization, breaking things down into managable chunks) to turn me into a credible weekend player. Several years later, Tim Galway would expand upon and literally write the book on this way of teaching tennis.

    I would have to wait 25 years to discover your early VHS instructional videos at the Swimming Hall of Fame swim shop in Fort Lauderdale and transform my swimming. During that long hiatus, I always had a deep faith that someone knew a better way.

  3. Katie Kenny says:

    This topic fascinates me. I wish you would coach either a young promising swimmer who isn’t willing to make the training commitment to get to an elite level or an elite swimmer considering retirement due to burnout. I’d love to read the case study on an efficient training program at that level.

  4. Katie. Back when, during that period of coaching in Richmond I referred to I actually did both. I had a few early-teen swimmers on that team who – due to negative experiences with previous coaches, unhealthy parental pressures, or just plain cussedness – were fairly reluctant participants in our training. Though they were pretty uncooperative on the volume and effort side of things (missing practices or intervals or giving half-hearted efforts) by being unrelenting in my insistence on technique (i.e. having them repeat certain things until their execution matched what I felt was their capability) I did manage to draw out some performances far better than they would have estimated they were capable of.
    I also had two post-college swimmers who joined of their own volition, but simply lacked the time (both held full-time jobs) to train at near the level they had during college. They also had no desire to repeat that draining experience. They were however intrinsically motivated to put heart and soul into a limited number of hours. Both swam lifetime bests with me on far fewer hours of training than in college. One was ranked #10 and #11 in the world in 50 LCM Free in 1981 and 1982 in times of 23.3 both years. Way back then he also swam 100LCM free in 51.2.
    For both the reason for swimming well was swimming (and turning) more efficiently than they had in college.

  5. Tom, I think you and I have discussed how I discovered Tim Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Tennis” in 1973 when I briefly took up tennis as a replacement for the swim training I had recently “retired from.” This was also my first year in coaching. I quickly recognized that his book would be far more valuable to my swim coaching than my tennis playing.

  6. Patrick Brundage says:

    Terry, I still remember your intense focus on technique at my first junior nationals in 1981? 82? Though none of us made it to finals, I remember you having us watch the technique of the swimmers who did, outlining their strengths so that we could then try to take that back to the pool and try to imitate it. It seems that some programs have moved a bit forward, but you are correct that the dominant USAS paradigm is still ‘engine conditioning’ via yardage.

    The beauty of Masters swimming, though, is that we each get to be our own swimmers – coaches – students at the same time.

  7. Patrick Your recall is keener than mine. It does ring completely true though, that I would have sought to maximize the learning value of being there by observing the technique and pacing methods of those who DID make it. As well I hoped to start the process of having you visualize yourself as a participant in finals the next time. I think your first Jr Nats was probably Tuscaloosa in 1982. I think both you and Jeff qualified for 1000/1650, possibly 500 as well, but simply making it to Jrs at that age, 15 for you-14 for Jeff, would have been an accomplishment. Debbie Wills, Mandy Owens, Heather Burgess, plus the girls relays, did make finals – Mandy (at 13) winning both breaststrokes in NJO record time and the 400 Medley Relay, composed of girls averaging 14 y.o., placed 2nd. A very satisfying meet. Thanks for bringing it to mind.

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