Swimming in Alberta and LTAD
There are two types of competitive swimming programs in Canada, summer swimming and year-round swimming. Before I start expounding my opinions, let me just say that I am a product of both programs, but primarily of the year-round program, and I swam competitively from age 7 until I graduated from university at age 24. I also have two kids who are swimmers (among other sports) so I have perspective on these issues from both directions. I’m also about to make some sweeping generalizations, so don’t be offended if your organization has a different philosophy from what is discussed below.
Year-round swimming is a unified program nationally in terms of having an over-arching organization (Swimming / Natation Canada), and a common set of rules. The season starts in September and carries on until the following summer. Nationals and high-level international competitions take place over summer, so for elite swimmers, the season pretty much lasts all year. Swimmers in all parts of Canada participate in meets together including twice-yearly Provincials, age-group Club Nationals and open-age National Championships. National team members also come from the year-round program. Training for many swimmers is every day, with Sunday off, and some do workouts morning and night, before and after school. It can be a major commitment, but that’s how the programs produce internationally successful swimmers.
Summer swimming varies by province. There is no national organization. In Alberta, summer swimming is managed by the Alberta Summer Swimming Association, supported by the Swim Alberta. The season goes from May to August. Kids participate in meets between clubs in the various regions in Alberta, and then each region hosts a regionals. Top swimmers from each regionals go to Summer Swimming Provincials in August. Swimmers generally train about five times per week through the season. It’s a lot more focussed on fun and enjoyment of swimming rather than the performance-oriented focus of year-round swimming. It is also a great sport for developing athletes, because it allows the participation in multiple sports throughout the year.
In Alberta, year-round swimming hosts an age-group Provincials competition. This is the only competition where summer swimmers have the opportunity to race against their age-counterparts in year-round swimming. If summer swimmers achieve year-round-swimming “A” time standards, they qualify for the Alberta Summer Swimming All-stars, which is a multi-club team that goes to Alberta year-round swimming summer Provincials. It’s a fun experience for the summer swimmers, firstly because the summer swimmers get some new kids to race against, and secondly because it’s the only time in summer swimming that kids get to race in a 50m pool. The rest of the summer swimming season is done in 25m pools.
I think that the other great benefit of the All Stars is that it shows the value of the summer swimming program in comparison to the year-round programs (not the value of summer swimming above year-round swimming, just in comparison to it). Summer swimmers who come and compete at year-round swimmers see that their programs are not inferior, and that they can compete directly with kids who train in swimming all year. Year-round swimming proponents (some of whom stupidly look down on summer swimming as a joke) get incontrovertible proof that summer swimming produces competitive athletes, especially at the younger ages, without unnecessary early specialization in swimming. Unfortunately, the All-Stars team also engenders the equally stupid fear held by many summer swimming organizations that year-round swimming is out to steal athletes from summer swimming, and that having athletes move to year-round swimming somehow harms summer swimming. The pathological dismissal of summer swimming programs by year-round swimming organizations, and the paranoia held about year-round swimming organizations held by summer clubs is a problem that benefits nobody.
Presently, Sport Canada is pushing to adopt a new philosophy, called the Long Term Athlete Development model (LTAD). The LTAD model is a non-sport-specific model for athlete development from early childhood, through youth, to nationally and internationally competitive athletes, to post-competitive active adults. The LTAD considers a lot of scientifically supported information regarding child and adolescent development, as well as athlete development, and long-term health and wellness.
The point of this article is that in terms of Sport Canada’s push to adopt the Long Term Athlete Development model, the existing summer swimming program in Alberta is more appropriate and compatible with the LTAD than the existing year-round swimming program, for the LTAD’s first three stages. Those are: FUNdamentals, Learning to Train and Training to Train. The first three stages encompass young athletes up to ages of about 15 for girls and 16 for boys. The LTAD recommends no sport specialization for the FUNdamentals stage, focusing on at least three sports in the Learning to Train stage, and on two primary sports in the Training to Train stage. Year-round swimming, with it’s intensive training programs and long season, discourages generalization during the Learning to Train stage, and essentially requires one-sport specialization in the Training to Train stage. The LTAD recognizes early specialization as a contributing factor to a lack of basic motor skills, over-training injuries, early burnout and early departure from competitive sport. A requirement for early specialization may also eliminate potential future star swimmers from swimming entirely, because many young athletes are interested in participating in multiple sports, and if participating in one sport precludes other sports, the exclusive sport might be dropped in favour of the others.
The summer swimming program in Alberta, in contrast, fits nicely into the LTAD model for the first three stages. The season is brief, allowing ample time throughout the year for kids to participate in multiple organized sport programs. The attitude of summer swimming is very fun-oriented and light, and most clubs in Alberta even encourage and facilitate participation in other summer sports, like soccer. The program obviously works for the young ages, judging by a direct comparison of 12-and under swimmers at year-round swimming provincials. Athletes who have successful summer swimming careers, and then move onto year-round swimming towards the end of the LTAD Training to Train stage, often have tremendous success and tremendous career longevity in year-round swimming. The Swimming/Natation Canada national team bios contain several stories of national team members who didn’t specialize in year-round swimming until the middle teen years.
As a former participant and beneficiary of both programs, and now as a parent of a couple of budding (no Flowers pun intended) young aquatic talents, I would like the summer swimming program to get rid of its paranoia and start encouraging kids who have outgrown the summer swimming program to consider moving on to year-round swimming. I would also like year-round swimming programs to start recognizing summer swimming programs as valuable sources of developing athletes, and as appropriate programs for multi-sport athletes, and being more supportive and inclusive of summer swimming. Changing attitudes on both sides will benefit both, and more importantly, will benefit the athletes most of all.