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Developing Athletes Who Swim

Swimming Academy’s Athlete Development Pathway

It is common belief that multi-sport exposure in young athletes is beneficial. Not only for their longevity in sport as it reduces early burn-out, but participating in more than one sport is known to develop fundamental movements that makes them an athlete; in short, non-specialisation at a young age develops athleticism.

Athleticism can be described as the ability to perform basic athletic movements, such as squat, push, pull, and brace, at optimal speed with precision, style, and grace. The early specialisation of young athletes in a single sport commonly results in under-developed athletes. A good foundation is essential to going far in sport. However, in many sports, this foundation may not refer to sport-specific technical skills. Rather, coaches look for athleticism in their charges.

Since the end of January 2020, Singapore Sports School’s Swimming Academy has implemented an athlete development model that is customised for student-athletes based on their individual development stage. The Academy’s Athlete Development Programme (ADP), designed collaboratively by Sports School swimming head coach Douglas Djang and National Youth Sports Institute’s (NYSI) Strength and Conditioning head Quintin Roman, sees student-athletes spending significantly more time out of the water learning and developing movement competency, capacity, and knowledge. Their land training focuses on improving their functional movement ability, and after 10 months of the intensified strength programme, Doug is pleased with how his swimmers are progressing.

“I’m extremely happy with the progress of the student-athletes in the academy. Through the collaborative efforts of NYSI and Sports School staff, our swimmers have shown tremendous improvement in coordination, agility, as well as strength. I’m excited for the programme to evolve as their abilities and capacities continually increase and expand,” said Doug.

The cessation of competitive sport for more than six months has been a blessing in disguise for the Swimming Academy as it has allowed student-athletes to focus on the building blocks – in other words, develop athleticism; in Doug’s words, to “become athletes who swim, instead of being called an athlete because they swim”.

The ADP for a Swimming Academy student-athlete starts when he joins the Sports School; the intensity and length of training are adapted according to each student-athlete’s stage of development. A major component of the ADP is strength and conditioning as it helps with injury prevention. “You should not have separate strength and injury-prevention programmes. They should be synergistic. A good strength programme should prevent injuries,” said Doug.

The start point for a student-athlete is determined through a functional movement test which assesses their proficiency in seven areas: Squatting, stepping, lunging, reaching, leg raising, push up, and rotary stability. Swimming coaches work closely with Strength and Conditioning coaches from the National Youth Sports Institute to progress student-athletes according to their areas of strength and weakness.

Having a strong foundation in functional movement skills and strength is essential in high-performance sport. As a swimmer develops and matures, he would “level up” to the subsequent stages of the ADP. By the time a swimmer has progressed to the more advanced stages, his training programme would include proportionally more sport-specific training. At an advanced stage of the ADP, a swimmer’s base strength and movement skills would presumably be at an adequate level which will allow them to stretch their potential and break their boundaries in their sport.

Prior to developing a plan for athletes, Doug suggests that coaches should first analyse the needs of the group, demands of the sport, and what attributes carry the highest dynamic correspondence to success for their athletes; analyse the qualities of the athlete; and understand the common injuries of the sport which will guide them in crafting an effective programme which will meet their long-term goals for their athletes.

Post-secondary swimmer Mitchell Ang Li has felt a significant improvement in physical strength which has contributed to better performance in the pool.

“I definitely feel stronger now than before and my strokes have become more efficient. It's important for us to be able to translate the movements that we have practised on land through the exercises into our strokes in the water. I can now swim the same times with less effort, and go faster with the same effort as before,” said Mitchell who is in IBDP Year 5.

“The increased focus on strength and conditioning has improved my overall physical performance. It has made me stronger and given me higher tolerance level in training,” said Ritchie Oh Rui Zhi (DBS Year 2) who competed at the 2019 SEA Games in the 10km open water swim.

“The strength and conditioning sessions have helped me to strengthen my muscles and become stronger physically. With more strength that I have now, I am able to pull and kick harder for longer durations which can lead to an improvement in my swimming results. My stroke rate has also decreased which is good because I am able to take fewer strokes to swim the same distance,” said Candice Ang Ruohan (DBS Year 1).

“Because of the increased focus on swimming-specific exercises, I've gotten muscularly stronger in specific muscles that are prominently used in swimming. The increase in strength has allowed me to move faster and more efficiently in the water, therefore contributing to the improvements that I have seen so far in my swimming,” said Clydi Chan (Secondary 4).