Establishing Sport Science Practices in a Competitive Swim Club

Published On: July 31, 2023Categories: Programming

In the ever-evolving landscape of sports, data tracking has emerged as a powerful tool for optimizing performance. Collecting and analyzing relevant information on athletes is essential, but determining what to track amidst the vast array of available data is crucial in sports science. Technological advancements have provided coaches and sports scientists with tools to evaluate and disseminate data, enabling effective practice planning and driving improved performance outcomes for athletes.

Coaches and sports scientists face the challenge of filtering through the noise to identify the most valuable and “useful” metrics. By focusing on key factors directly impacting athletic performance in their daily environment, practitioners can make informed decisions and changes to improve training. Visualizing data through graphs and charts can enhance discussions and adjustments to training plans. Visual tools can also help bring understanding to a wider audience, including athletes and other relevant stakeholders. Effective communication of data to athletes and coaching staff fosters collaboration and builds trust, helping in modifying practice, identifying areas for improvement, and unifying the sports coaches and support staff.

Upon joining Oakville Aquatic Club four months ago, my primary responsibilities involved overseeing the Strength and Conditioning program, implementing sports science practices and developing an athlete development model. In this article, I will discuss our approach to collecting and utilizing swimming practice data to improve practice planning and inform training decisions in the weight room.

Before I arrived at the club, there were processes in place to track total practice volume. This information has two primary purposes. The first is to allow swim coaches to reflect on the volume prescribed to the athletes. The second is to aid in coordinating the groups in our development model to establish a 10% increase in total volume as athletes progress up through training groups. This was an excellent place to begin, as the coaches already understood the value and were excited to be able to expand the insight that could be gained from this information. My goal was to take something already being tracked and tell a story with the data. By making the data practical, I planned to provide information to coaches that would directly influence training sessions and improve swimming performance. The initial recommendation was to expand on what was already being tracked and move beyond looking at only total volume.

Traditionally, swimming training is broken into three components Swimming (Full body), Pull (Upper-body only), and Kick (Lower-body only). This is beneficial information when designing Strength and Conditioning (S&C) programs. It allowed me to consolidate stressors and plan for resting certain parts of the body as needed.

The sports science process that we are implementing consists of three distinct steps: Data Collection, Data Visualization, and Data Communication.

#1 Data Collection:

To streamline the data collection process, practice information is collected daily through a Google form, which is accessible via QR codes or as a shortcut on the coach’s phones. The questionnaire captures essential details such as practice duration, time of day (particularly relevant for days with double training sessions), and the distribution of Swim, Pull, and Kick components. The primary objective is to make the collection of data as simple as possible while ensuring the information is timely, accurate, and clean.

#2 Data Processing & Visualization:

Once the data is collected, it is imported into a Google sheet for further processing. Various calculations are performed, including the assessment of total volumes for each practice component over a week, month, and year. Additionally, the Acute-to-Chronic Work Ratio (ACWR) is calculated, although this can be a time-consuming task. For those interested in learning more about these calculations, Dave McDowell provides an excellent tutorial on his YouTube page (DSMStrength).

After cleaning the data, it is transferred to Google Looker Studio (previously known as Google Data Studio) for visualization purposes. This platform goes beyond mere numbers, allowing for comprehensive visual representations of the data. The resulting visualizations provide a powerful tool for our staff, simplifying complex data sets into easily understandable formats. Automation processes are implemented to streamline this visualization process, enabling it to run in the background while allowing me to focus on other essential tasks, such as analyzing the data or attending practices to gain an in-person understanding of the athletes beyond the numbers.

Sample dashboard of monthly to yearly swim volume (1k = 1000m)
All bars represent volume of swimming, All lines represent Acute:Chronic Workload Ration (ACWR)

Five types of visualization on our dashboard effectively communicate the story of what unfolds during practice and our training program:

1. Weekly Tracking: This visualization breaks down the last four weeks of training, enabling us to compare the distribution of training types in the short term. This is particularly valuable during the championship season when there are fluctuations in mileage distribution due to the high demands of racing. It helps us identify any notable trends or patterns.

2. Monthly Tracking: By comparing month-to-month data, we gain insights into changes in the distribution of training. This is crucial when designing S&C programs that complement swim training. It allows us to monitor and adjust the training distribution as needed to optimize performance.

3. Yearly Tracking: Although currently of limited consequence, tracking data over multiple years will provide a comprehensive view of training patterns across the Club. It will aid in the ongoing development of our athlete development model and inform long-term planning strategies.

4. 28-day Acute-to-Chronic Work Ratio (ACWR): ACWR is a valuable metric traditionally used to assess whether the training load is increasing too rapidly, potentially leading to a heightened risk of injury. While I have previously used this model to highlight the demands of training camps in team sports, it offers us insight into the workload distribution and helps manage load management strategies for swimmers.

5. Distribution of Training Type: This metric holds significant value in our assessment. It empowers me, as an S&C coach, to make informed decisions to support athletes in completing the rest of their swimming workload throughout the week effectively. By monitoring the distribution of training types, I can tailor the S&C program to complement the specific needs of the swimmers, optimizing their overall training regimen.

#3 Data Communication & Decision Making:

While data visualization is undoubtedly satisfying, its true value lies in the conversations it sparks and the subsequent changes that result. When coaches receive data presented in a format aligned with their coaching language and reflective of their training practices, it fosters excitement and curiosity. This data becomes an integral component of Integrated Support Team meetings and serves as an invaluable tool for effectively communicating the training regimens to athletes.

One illustrative example of how we have utilized this information is through an adjustment in our approach to kick volume in practice. The need for change arose from feedback provided by the athletes themselves, with comments such as “my legs are tired” indicating a higher variance in kick sets than expected. Initially, the assumption was that we might be overloading on kick volume. However, our meticulous data tracking practices allowed us to closely analyze the loading parameters. Surprisingly, what we discovered was quite the opposite.

The data revealed that kick volumes exhibited fluctuations, with the ACWR  occasionally dropping too low before bouncing back to higher levels. This insight led us to the conclusion that we needed to increase our kick volume in practice. Additionally, from a strength and conditioning standpoint, we recognized the importance of accumulating more lower body exposure over time to compensate for instances of lower kick volumes during swimming practice.

The results of this adjustment were truly remarkable, with athletes demonstrating outstanding performances in the 400 kick, which serves as our primary Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for kicking performance. This simple tweak, driven by the conversations inspired by the data collection and visualization process, had a significant positive impact on athlete performance.

By effectively utilizing the data, engaging in meaningful discussions, and making informed decisions, we were able to optimize our training protocols and drive improved outcomes. This highlights the critical role that data communication and the resulting conversations play in shaping practice planning and positively influencing athlete performance.

Reflections from this process

Swimming stands apart from team sports as the sport itself is a direct assessment of physical performance. Racing, therefore, provides a unique reflection of the athlete’s current physical and psychological state, devoid of unpredictable factors or bad bounces. Given the controlled environment of the sport, tracking, and analyzing this information becomes integral to our success as a Club.

One area where I initially made a significant mistake upon joining the Swim Club was the overemphasis on the ACWR model. I placed excessive importance on these numbers, particularly regarding total volume, and would panic when the red lines (ACWR) extended past the blue guidelines of ‘safe’ ACWR. However, this was an error on my part. The chronic workload, when accurately measured over a longer period of time, proved to fit the model far better than initially tracked. I had failed to account for the time required for the calculations to level out, as well as the extensive long-term exposure that many athletes had already accumulated from over 10+ years of swimming.

Fortunately, I began this project with our most mature and fastest group of athletes, making it easier to communicate and explain the purpose behind the data collection and analysis. I strongly recommend starting with a smaller group when implementing this process, as it can quickly become overwhelming. Moving forward, my plan is to expand data tracking and analysis to all 12 different groups within the club in the upcoming year. This expansion will significantly contribute to fostering a unified approach to performance between myself and the swim coaches. Additionally, it will aid in the continued advancement of our comprehensive athlete development model, which spans from teaching children as young as 8 years old how to swim all the way to supporting senior swimmers aiming to make provincial and national teams.

By learning from my initial mistakes, leveraging the insights gained from tracking and analyzing data, and gradually implementing the process across the entire club, we aim to enhance our understanding of athlete development and optimize their performance outcomes.

Appreciation & Next Steps

I would like to extend a special thank you to David Tontini and the entire Oakville Aquatic Club for their trust, support, and inspiration throughout this project. Their belief in the value of data-driven approaches and their dedication to athlete development has been instrumental in driving the success of this initiative. I am grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with such a passionate and forward-thinking team.

As we move forward, I am excited to continue expanding this project and delving even deeper into building a robust athlete development model. The insights gained from our data tracking and analysis efforts will further inform our decision-making processes and contribute to the continuous improvement of training programs, practice planning, and overall performance outcomes. Together, we will continue to strive for excellence and empower our athletes to reach their full potential.

Author Bio

Josh Nowlan is the Head Strength and Condition Coach at Oakville Aquatic Club and Masters’s student at Brock University, where he specializes in Environmental Physiology. He previously completed Internships at Acadia University and Brock University. Since 2018, Josh has been working with Australian Football Canada, where he is currently the High-Performance Manager for the Men’s National Program. 

Josh Nowlan

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