Swimming Lessons from Soccer
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on June 14th, 2010

The world’s most popular sports tournament, the FIFA Soccer World Cup, kicked off over the weekend, and with it a flood of soccer coverage in all media. At least one article should be of interest to competitive swimmers and coaches.

Michael Sokolove (who also wrote a profile of Michael Phelps prior to the 2004 Olympics) published How a Soccer Star is Made in the June 6 edition of New York Times Magazine.  It contrasted the player development approach at Ajax Academy, the leading youth soccer program in the Netherlands, with how soccer players are developed in the U.S.  Below I’ve included several excerpts, between which I inserted in bold questions about swim coaching, mostly in reference to youth coaching but many of these questions could apply equally to those who coach adult swimmers.

The Netherlands, with about 6%  the population of the US, produce an outsize percentage of the world’s best soccer players. What do their player development methods tell us?


“One man, Ronald de Jong, said: ‘I am never looking for a result — which boy is scoring the most goals or who is running the fastest. That may be because of their size and stage of development. I want to notice if a boy runs on his forefeet, lightly? Does he have creativity with the ball? Does he really love the game? These things predict how he’ll be when he is older.’”

Do swim coaches more often pay attention to the fastest athletes  (and consequently slower swimmers receive less coaching)? How commonly do they take more notice of the details of each swimmer’s style?

“One element of the academy’s success is that the boys are not overplayed. Through age 12, they train only three times a week and play one game on the weekend.  By age 15, the boys are practicing five times a week. Training consists of drills in which players move quickly and kick the ball to each other at close range. In the U.S., this kind of activity would be a warm-up, with the coach paying scant attention and maybe talking on a cellphone. At Ajax, these exercises — designed to maximize touches, or contact with the ball — are the main event. “

How often and why do swim coaches, like soccer coaches, seem disinterested in what’s happening in the pool?

“Drawn from a nation of fewer than 17 million, the Dutch national team relies on players who know what they want to do with the ball before it reaches them and can move it on without stopping it. David Winner calls this ‘physical chess.’  Watching the U.S. national team play the Dutch . . .  the Dutch zipped the ball from player to player and from side to side of the field, while the Americans ran and ran, chasing the ball but rarely gaining control. When the Americans did get the ball, their passes too often flew beyond reach or out of bounds. The Dutch style demands the highest order of individual skill: players with a wizardlike ability to control the ball with either foot, any part of the foot, and work it toward the goal through cramped spaces and barely perceptible lanes.”

“How the U.S. develops young players is not just different from what the Netherlands and most elite soccer nations do — it is diametrically opposed.  Even at the Pee-Wee level, Americans put together teams built to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat.”

“The balance between games and practice in the U.S. is skewed when compared with the rest of the world . . . a teenager in the U.S. can play 100 or more games in a season, for two or three different teams, leaving little time for training . . .  our best players tend to be fast and passionate but underskilled and lacking in savvy compared with players elsewhere. “

How much of swim practice is typically devoted to targeted skill development, and how much to swimmers simply racing each other repeatedly?

“I watched for 30 minutes as a coach tutored Florian Josefzoon. Bryan Roy, a former member of the Dutch national team, demonstrated a series of stutter-steps and pirouettes, then kicked the ball to Josefzoon, on the right wing, who trapped it and tried to match Roy’s moves. It was as if Roy were teaching him a dance. When Josefzoon mastered one set of steps, Roy showed him something new. “

Is it common for swim coaches to introduce a new, more advanced skill, as soon as a simpler one has been mastered?

“Ruben Jongkind, who mainly works with track athletes, was altering the posture and gait of a 15-year-old. Jongkind told me that while the boy was actually quite fast, he ‘was running like a duck, shuffling,’ Jongkind said. ‘That takes more energy, which is why we have to change his motor patterns, so he can be as fast at the end of a game as the beginning.’”

Which is more common: Trying to improve swimmers’ end-of-race speed by improving their motor patterns to increase energy-efficiency? Or with more conditioning?

“Jongkind said the player had progressed to ‘consciously able but not subconsciously able’ to run with the desired form, meaning that in the heat of competition, he reverted to his old form. I pointed out that a fast but flawed runner in the United States would likely be left alone. ‘Everything can be trained,’ Jongkind said. ‘You should always try to make an improvement if it’s possible.’”

Is it common for swimming coaches to follow a plan for improving everything in a swimmer’s makeup—stroke, turns, sense-of-pace, savvy?  Or mainly their fitness?

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8 Responses to “Swimming Lessons from Soccer”

  1. I would like to think that this article could be taken with a grain of salt, like all things in life, but alas, Terry Laughlin, you seem to poke inocuous questions at something that cannot be answered, nor is able to answer. So why publish something like this?

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  2. Tom says:

    Along these lines, I recall watching rowing at the Sydney Olympics some years ago. If memory serves, the American team had practiced long hours on erg machines, those indoor, dry land, rowing machines that crew team members use when they aren’t out in a boat.

    The U.S. crew teams did not do terribly well that year. If you looked at the bow of the U.S. v. the more successful German boat, you could see that the latter was much smoother. By comparison, the bow of the U.S. boat (many boats have a little ball on the end that help you observe this) was going up and down more. Now, it just makes sense that if a percentage of your energy is making the boat go vertically instead of forward horizontally, you’re going to be at a disadvantage to a boat whose energy is more directed toward the finish line.

    My guess is that the German crew, through their training, had a greater sensitivity to “boatness,” how a boat behaves in the water and how to become one with water and boat. Brute strength from practice on land is one thing, however if you misapply that energy, you will lose your advantage in the water.

    And so it is with TI swimming that we learn to be more in tune with the water, and in the case of soccer, more in tune with movement.

    It’s interesting that the word passion, used in the article to describe American teams, comes from the latin word “pati,” which means to feel or to suffer. Maybe if we had more feeling and less suffering in our passion for sports, we’d do better.

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  3. Tom These are great observations – and the Latin reference on the root meaning of the word passion is poetic. I’ve long thought there are lessons to be learned from crew practice. Racing shells are of course far more hydrodynamic than the human body. And yet crew teams, in their practice, seem to give far more attention to details such as stroke synchronization, than do swim teams. Ironic, no?

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  4. Chuck I don’t think of these question as innocuous at all. I spent nearly 20 years coaching age group club and college swim teams prior to founding Total Immersion. And since starting TI I’ve also spent nearly 20 years swimming with various Masters teams — and continued to observe youth swim teams on many occasions. My cumulative experience observing or participating in practices conducted by various swim coaches must now be into the thousands of hours. To my great dismay I’ve observed coaching practices similar to those employed by the Dutch soccer coaches, only a minuscule percentage of that total. The number of “wasted human potential hours” I’ve observed is staggering.

    I believe it’s important to ask these questions – rhetorical though they may be. And that’s why I decided to publish this. If your own experience–participating or observing–has been different, please let us know. Which questions in particular do you feel are unreflective of the prevailing culture of competitive swim coaching?

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  5. Tom says:

    Terry–Thanks for your kind post. I recall, ten years ago, when I bought my first TI cassettes that it was a total paradigm shift for me in swimming. I had the same experience a few decades earlier in tennis when I bought Tim Galway’s book, “The Inner Game of Tennis.” In both sports, I’d considered myself hopeless until TI and Inner Game, when I was able to focus on the concepts I needed, concepts that I just wasn’t getting from the coaching/teaching commonly available in the day. As a supplement, I’ve also done some Tai Chi and very basic martial arts. When I was very young, I contracted a virus, which, while it wasn’t polio (as far as anyone knows), did damage my neuromuscular system. So, I’ve spent a lot of time finding ways to go around that problem, mainly because I don’t have a lot of innate coordination or strength. In rowing–probably the only sport where I can claim some kind of innate ability (it’s actually a very limited, specialized movement)–I can cruise along briskly using proper timing and balance, even with a rather weak upper body. So thanks for the incredible work that you’ve done. Also, just as a side observation, when you move something into a different conceptual space, I think some people get a little disoriented at first. Maybe that’s what “Chuck” was experiencing.

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  6. Tom – I’ve done some sweep rowing and sculling, both of which I first experienced in my 50s. Without knowing too much about your neuromuscular issues, I’d say you’ve chosen well with rowing, because the key coordination is so much with larger muscle groups.

    My three favorite physical activities are sculling, skate-skiing, and swimming. What all have in common, is that they’re rhythmic, aerobic, and place a really exacting emphasis on balance. I find this provides the perfect combination for achieving flow states, and for ecstatic moments when you’ve been struggling with some aspect of balance or coordination and have a breakthrough. I hope to get a single shell when I have more free time to use it. I find it difficult to get excited about activities that fall short of that threshold.

    Also, you’ll be interested to know that I read “The Inner Game of Tennis” within a month or two of beginning my coaching journey in the fall of 72. Though my reason for reading it was because I’d decided to dabble in tennis as a potential replacement for the exercise I’d gotten by swim training for the previous 5 years, until my ‘retirement’ from competitive swimming in Aug 72, I immediately recognized that the concepts he expressed would be exceptionally valuable to my swim coaching. My interest in playing tennis only lasted a few weeks. My embrace of Inner Game ideas has continued for nearly 4 decades.

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  7. Tom says:

    Terry–Thanks again for another fascinating post. Tim Galway did have an amazing influence on sports in general. You’re right about rowing being a good match for my physiology. It’s a range of motion and strength that I have available And I always forget just how important balance is in both swimming and rowing when I’ve been away from them for a bit and then am quickly reminded when I get back in/on the water. I think what I like about them too is that I can do them when when I can. With tennis, you need a partner; and tennis is a game of levels, so you really have to find someone within a range of your level. I suppose you could say that for swimming and rowing, the water is always at the same level (sorry!).

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  8. swim lesson says:

    AMAZING! Such a wonderful perspective on the sport! I have never seen this approach before to soccer nor swimming, however you have a great point. With the comparison to the Dutch and there way of training it is very clear the teaching methodology we use here needs to change. I am definitely going to spread the word. Thank you for this enlightening information.

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