FAST TIMES AT WHITNALL HIGH
Strength Coach Neil Bowe sinks a long-held misconception as the BFS program buoys the performances of swimmers.
By Kim Goss
Published: Fall 1998
With 29-year-old Jana Novotna winning this year's Wimbledon and 34-year-old Michael Jordan being, well, Michael Jordan, many young athletes are confident that they too will enjoy long careers. But in the sport of women's swimming, being competitive beyond the teenage years is the exception rather than the rule. When there is such a small window of opportunity to reach peak performance, it's no wonder many swimming coaches are reluctant to try something new.
Such was the case with Greenfield, Wisconsin, swim coaches Dale and Mark Schrank when they were approached by strength coach Neil Bowe last year with the idea of putting their female athletes on the BFS program. Dale is the head coach both for the Whitnall High School girls swim team and for a local swim club called the Southwest Aquatics Team (SWAT), and Mark is the senior team coach at SWAT. Both are enjoying considerable success as coaches, and one reason is that they carefully scrutinize every aspect of their athletes' training.
Weight lifting has been established as a vital training component in power sports such as football; however, there is still skepticism over having swimmers perform such BFS core lifts as squats, bench presses and power cleans. The impression that BFS is just for football lives on. But specificity of training wasn't the only stigma standing between these swim coaches and their acceptance of weight training.
"Swimmers need extraordinary flexibility, and we were all very worried that the lifting would make our athletes muscle-bound," says Mark. Fortunately, Neil Bowe has not grown tired of dispelling the myths about weight training causing muscle inflexibility to coaching staffs, and he quickly assured Dale and Mark that the athletes would stretch before and after every session to prevent any lack of flexibility. One problem down.
The next concern Dale and Mark had was how the BFS program would affect their swimmers' ability to peak for meets. Dale says they always planned their programs carefully according to yardage, speed and rest intervals, and they were concerned that the weight training would cause overtraining and interfere with the athletes' ability to perform their best in competition. "It was not so much that we didn't recognize the value of weight training, but we were quite concerned about adding another component of training. We already had a program that worked, and whether this would work any better was like rolling the dice at the end of the season."
Reassurance about this second concern was harder to sell than the first, but after presenting evidence that the BFS program is sound and has a proven track record of success, Neil convinced Dale and Mark to throw the dice.
The Times, They Are A-Changin'
Convincing the coaches of the merits of the program was just the start. Now began the task of convincing the athletes.
Many of the swimmers in the high school program are also in the swim club, giving Dale and Mark more time and opportunities to experiment with their training plans. Dale and Mark looked at two major meets to test the effectiveness of the BFS program and perfect their peaking schedules, one in March and another in August. The fact that these meets were pending would give the coaches the much-needed benchmarks to prove the benefits of the BFS core lifts to the athletes and encourage them to continue using the program until the state high school championships in November.
"In the beginning they had a negative attitude," says Neil about those early attempts to convince the athletes about the BFS program. He said he had to explain how the lifting would develop explosive strength, such as is needed for getting off the blocks at the start. But there was more than just the concept of specificity of training--the female swimmers were put off by the lack of other women in the weight room. "I kept telling them not to let it bother them," recalls Neil, "but the psychological block about women and weight training definitely had to be addressed to get on with the program."
Bob Haeger, who has two daughters who swim for Dale and Mark, recalls the adjustment as gradual. "The girls wanted to do the program but were reluctant because they didn't know what it was like to lift weights. They were constantly saying, ‘Gee Dad, this really hurts--we don't know if we're doing this right.' They were hesitant and a little afraid of the unknown." As a parent with little weight training experience of his own, Bob said he shared his daughters' concern about injury at first. However, once they got over the initial soreness from the weight workouts, and with lots of encouragement from Neil, Bob recalls his daughters began to get "really excited" about the new training and their newfound strength gains.
The addition of weight training to the program produced other changes in attitude that came as a pleasant surprise to the coaches and athletes alike.
"Coaching girls can be a lot different than boys," says Mark. "The guys, you can pretty much get on them, and they'll respond. With the girls, there are a lot more things to consider. If you're not careful about what you say, they could take it the wrong way and they'll have a pretty bad attitude."
Dale agrees. "I would echo that part of it. I've coached high school girls and boys for about 20 years, and there is no denying the fact that the girls are more emotional. It's tough, and coaches are in an adversarial role to begin with because you're trying to get these kids to do things they've never done before. But when you get through to them, it's all worth it. With this last group of girls it was a joy coaching them because they were there and they were working hard--sometimes, and in some aspects, even harder than the guys."
"The biggest thing I told them is that there is one word that you never use in a sport: Can't. I think I got through to a lot of them with that," says Neil, "especially during the early days with their weight training. When they were struggling, they never said, ‘I can't do it, Coach.' Instead, they said, ‘I'll try harder the next time.' I think that attitude in the weight room came across in the pool as well."
Making Waves with Muscles
The basic philosophy in swimming is to work very hard, then taper off for the meets. As such, it's often difficult to see results during the training season, and patience becomes a virtue much sought after. However, Mark says he noticed many positive changes during their training after they overcame their initial soreness. The swimmers were coming off the blocks more explosively. More importantly, they were riding higher on the water. "The higher you can ride on the water, the faster you can go because you're not pushing a lot of resistance--you're a tugboat down below and a speedboat above."
The changes weren't all in the water. The women began to take pride in the physical definition they were developing and improvements in their posture. "You could really see it in the way they stood and walked," says Mark, "The weight training was complementing the swimming right from the start."
In sports such as football, sometimes the best-conditioned team does not win. In swimming, what you see is usually what you get. For Dale and Mark, what they got were better times and heavier lifts.
The previous page shows some of the before and after results of the BFS program from November ‘97 to March ‘98.
Keep in mind that these changes are big! A swimmer who knocks off a second is like a weightlifter adding another 50 pounds to his or her bench!
As for team results, this year SWAT had more athletes than ever qualify for the Junior National Championships. They also hope to win the Division 2 High School State Championships this year, a competition in which they placed fourth last year. This would be an especially impressive accomplishment since this competition pits 45 schools against each other. Also, in J