An Olympian’s Lessons for All Athletes, Learned from Coaching Teenagers

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

Last week, I officially wrapped up my first season as a swim coach as I watched the Buffalo High School Lady Bison take second place at the 3A Wyoming State Championship.

It was my job was to teach the swimmers as much as I could. As we worked together over the last three months, however, in teaching the girls I was reminded of the importance of many training principles I take for granted – ones I want to be sure to focus on as I move toward whatever athletic goals I might choose in the future.

Here are the three biggest lessons I learned from a fall of before- and after-work sessions spent hanging out with 14 high school girls.

Integrate intensity and variety into your weekly schedule

My swimmers had a consistent strength training schedule that featured a lot of variety. Watching them reminded me of my own days as a high school swimmer, when I too did plenty of core work, explosive dryland drills, and regularly hit the weight room.

Once I reached the elite road-cyclist specialist level, that changed. My biggest off-bike activity was my (potentially excessive) yoga practice. That made sense – in that phase of life, I was preparing myself to do one specific, linear thing very well. Exceptional short-term goals do not always dovetail with exceptional long-term balance.

My current training plan – or lack of one – and work schedule allow me to choose from a greater array of options, but don’t offer as much time for movement. I was able to track almost immediate changes in my body based upon the activities that I chose: As twice-a-day yoga evolved to twice-a-week, I noticed how quickly I lost flexibility and mobility in certain muscle groups. In contrast, when I started doing targeted, heavy weightlifting and running my bone density improved.

The last few years have taught me that if I’m working toward long-term health, it’s important that I engage in a variety of activities, even if I can’t do every one every day. It’s easy to get into the habit of just hopping on a bike or running the same path every day, but especially as we age, it’s important to make time for mobility and strength training in a lifelong training plan.

A rest won’t kill you

Many swimmers spend their entire season looking forward to the three-week taper that traditionally precedes the championship meet.

I was an outlier – I hated taper. I felt mentally anxious, physically restless, and had a hard time sleeping at night as day-by-day, our training volume steadily dwindled from four hours to about 30 minutes. Swimming fast was worth it, but I often found the supposedly-easy weeks leading up to the big meet to be the most challenging of all.

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I now believe that a taper training phase can serve mental and physical goals. In addition to preparing athletes to swim best times, a two-or-three times a year taper creates natural pauses of physical rest during the competitive season that aren’t as automatic in traditional cycling training programs.

If, like me, you find it a challenge to rest, I offer the advice I shared with multiple nervous swimmers during the run-in to state: Your muscles will not get weaker if you back off for a few days. Rest and recovery will prepare you to use all of your strength when it counts. If you only get to swim a few laps, you better make sure that they are perfect, and finally, when you feel challenged, focus on your goal, and trust that you are doing exactly what you need to get there.

Train with intensity, but moderate your reactions

Unless you head for the open water, the longest swimming race will take between 15 and 20 minutes. As a result, intensity appears much more frequently in swimming workouts than it did in my training for cycling.

Intensity is important for the physiological adaptations if offers, but also because the only way you can learn to go hard is… to go hard. Swimming offered that opportunity over and over again. I felt more pressure for each intense workout as a cyclist, because they didn’t come as frequently. Consider approaching an upcoming next interval session like a swimmer: Worry less about hitting your marks perfectly, and instead get curious about just how much you can challenge yourself.

The high school swim season is short, making the competition density quite high. Throughout the season, we had at least one meet every week. That made it impossible to fully rest for each competition and still work on building fitness, but all too easy for the swimmers to feel discouraged when their publicly displayed times were down after a tough week of training.

Not every practice or race will be your best

It’s easiest to learn lessons with regular practice: Not every race will be your best. Each race plays a different role in your development. Sometimes you have to show up in front of other people when you are not your strongest, and you have to be able to have faith in where you are headed.

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Comments 3

  1. As usual lots of good info here that clearly comes from your real life competitive career and all the emotional ups and downs that come with it.

  2. Mara, truly appreciate your wisdom. As a coach and an athlete (swimmer/triathlete) I’ve experienced all that you describe. I think your last sentence really hits it: we have to be willing to be vulnerable and fail in order to achieve our highest goals.

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