Saturday, August 27, 2011

Age Group Success and the Olympic Dream

Photo by Paul Yetter (Japan International Meet 2007)

Recently I took a look at the USA Swimming Top 100 All-Time Times List. I looked closely at the Top 25 Times of All-Time (Long Course Meters), excluding the 50 Back, 50 Breast, and 50 Fly -- and searched within these times for names of US Olympians.

I wondered about the USA’s historic best were when they were 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old. Does an exceptional 12 year old have a head start on her competitors who are not ranked as well? Does the 14 year old who is not a highly ranked swimmer stand a chance of overcoming his competitors, to eventually vault into a top-ranked position?

Keep in mind: Out of 14 possible events, there are 350 possible slots in which athletes are ranked (14 events plus 25 rankings = 350 slots). Here are the results:

11-12 Men’s Events: 2 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
13-14 Men’s Events: 29 performances by US Olympians/ out of 350 possible performances
15-16 Men’s Events: 69 performances by US Olympians /out of 350 possible performances
17-18 Men’s Events: 96 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances

11-12 Women’s Events: 33 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
13-14 Women’s Events: 80 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
15-16 Women’s Events: 98 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
17-18 Women’s Events: 131 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances

You can draw your own conclusions regarding these statistics. I refuse to believe that our best 12 year olds are meant to simply fall off the map, and that they are simply good for their age because of their relative size. High-level athletic performance is too dynamic a quest to believe such a fixed-mindset stance.

Consider this: At age 10, Michael Phelps was one of the USA’s top 10 and under swimmers -- at least when you look at Butterfly performance. He was ranked number one in the USA, and still holds the National Age Group record in the LCM 100 Butterfly in the 10 and under age group. At age 12, he was still very good, but not nearly as highly-ranked on the All-Time USA times list (he is currently ranked 82nd all time in the 11-12 age group). Three years later, Michael Phelps became an Olympian in the Men’s 200 Butterfly. Great, good, great again.

Athletes are not perfect and they certainly are not robotic in nature. They have good days, bad days, great years and off-years. How do athletes, coaches, and parents react when there is a dip in performance? How do we ensure forward progression over time in the face of stagnant performances?

Additionally, what can coaches and parents do to help their athletes and children as they maneuver their way through performance plateaus?

Perhaps I’ll tackle these issues in another blog (this can truly be a rabbit-hole of contemplation), but for now I’d like to leave it out there for folks to consider and discuss.


  1. You know what Twain said about statistics:

    "There are lies....there are damn lies....and there are statistics"

    While the statistics do trend a certain way, I agree with you that just because someone is an "early bloomer" does not mean they are destined to be failures in later years. I have had swimmers who were ranked at 10, and then fell off as 11, 12, 13 year olds just to come back and be ranked again as 14 and 16 year olds.

  2. Hey Paul, I don't know the respective times of Micheal but because he dropped to 86 does it mean it was a platow? Maybe for that year their have just been others faster- I'm running on the assumption that his times were faster at 12 then 10. Was not 12 the year where he had the whole kick run in with Bob and spent time out of the water? At the respective ages of 10 and 12 you have a combination of training, cognitive and physical development. The ball park in my mind is not always the same with every one in the same 'age' bracket. Is it better that our Olympians come from a background where they make the connection between smart and hard work and swimming results. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how much early results pave the way for swimmers results in the future- in terms of early developers(you are right not all good 12 year olds can be categorized as this)and over/larger training emphasis. North Baltimore have produced a significant number of 15 year old or young Olympians. Was this due to increased training at a younger age, or just 'talent'? Was this to the detriment to others in the program in doing higher yardage at a younger age that did not come through? I appreciate their are a hundred different ways to create a chocolate cake.
    Thanks for the great post and good luck with your team! Your comments regarding Liz move to your program were exceptional

  3. Sorry and one more question- you know how you say for example 33 performances out of 350 by future Olympians- does that mean that one swimmer may have four 'performances' in the 33 of 350? If this is so do you have the stats on Olympians in the top 350 of each age bracket? eg 4 Olympians out of the 350 swimmers

  4. I think that intrinsic human quality called "interest" and "focus" ; (most notably focus), play a major factor especially here especially when you compare the boys to the girls.

    Also, I looked at the demographics of USA Swimming and the average USA Swimmer is white, 14-years-old and female.

    The girls do have a preponderance of participation therein.

  5. Hello, excellent stuff. The one thing that I could concluded from your findings is that there is that every kid develops differently. Some will find more successful early in their careers and others as they get older and understand what their bodies are capable of doing. As a swim parent, all I can do is encourage my daughters to try their best and have fun.
    Mauricio Cordova

  6. Thanks for all the comments. One of my athletes pointed out a typo -- the 15-16 girls are listed twice....but the second line is descriptive of the 17-18 girls. You all probably figured that out. As for the questions, keep them coming -- I'd like to use your questions to fuel another blog. I'm going to try to update this a bit more regularly.

    As for anonymous' comment regarding "performances" VS "performers" -- yes, that is an important point. I counted each "Performance", so in the 11-12 age group there were 33 performances in the 350 slots -- not 33 future Olympians. People like Sippy Woodhead, for instance appear quite a few times. So where there may have been 33 performances, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-15 Olympians (not sure without examining it) who appeared more than once.

    I went over the list twice, and the 11-12 boys three times to be sure of my numbers. I don't want to miss someone. Much time was spent looking up people on Wikipedia if I wasn't sure about their accolades (there are some great swimmers who never made a USA Olympic team)....but even so I imagine there's a mistake in there somewhere. I hope not, but I'm not a computer haha!

    I also kept track of what events were accounted for. For instance, I found that for the 11--12 girls age group the 100 fly was the event most populated by future Olympians! As you may imagine, the distance and IM events were up there too. I hope to publish a blog at some point addressing "what events future Olympians succeed in" or something like that -- in the near future.

    Thanks for reading, and by the way Tony I read your blog well as the SportsScience blog by Coach Mullen. Great info on both -- it's good to know others out there are as into this stuff as we all are.

  7. Paul,
    Great topic - I enjoy the quantitative approach. This (and I suspect future entries revolving around this topic) should be required reading for age group parents. Keep it comin'!

  8. Hello Paul, just found your blog. I heard about these stats for 10 and under but you completed it with the older age groups. I believe that there is a benefit in early success, but requires more mental strength as swimmers see the pack catch them. It also tests a child's perseverance.

    I have used this idea to motivate swimmers who start a little later than others. Hard work still pays off and that they can catch those who might have had a head start on them.

    I also liked your previous blog about im's and having your athletes do the array of events, as this is something I try to also do with my athletes.

    I just started to read yours and tony's blogs and I enjoy the blogs that you guys post.

  9. Championship qualities come from a number of factors. The bottom line is it is up to the individual where they end up; if anyone controls the majority of the share of factors it's them. A lot of parents seek a barometer that they can check to see where their child will end up - and then someone great comes along and shatters all the preconceived notions about where people should be or should have been at a given age.

  10. paul:
    very interesting. i like this analysis. the one thing that you might want to do (or have already done) is to subtract from these lists those people that are still too young to be olympians. this would obviously have the biggest impact on the younger age groups, but for example, if 100 of the 350 fastest times in the ten year old category are still say 15 years old or younger (these are all hypothetical numbers and thresholds), then do they skew the data. If they do, they should probably be excluded, so that the sample really should only be 250.

  11. It is very best kinds of the post regarding to the athletics and the games that are played by the different kinds of the people and also about the various sort of the games. Which boosting the mutually relation among the people.

  12. interesting daughter was a standout age group swimmer, but has struggled since turning 15 to turn in best times in her main events. Is it natural for teenage female swimmers to hit a plateau at around 15 and if so, does this usually pass with perserverance and positive attitude.

  13. Thanks to all for comments. Before I respond to the comment immediately above I'd like to point out that this post is pre-2012....the numbers have changed (but the point remains).

    As for the comment above, please check this post from a more recent blog of mine:

    Here you can see that a normal progression for a female from 13 to 14 is much different when compared to similar progression from age 14 to 15. The average improvement slows dramatically for the average.

    There are so many different things that go into improvement, and the best advice I could give your daughter is to look within herself for the answer. You don't have the answer, and although your daughter's coach may have some great ideas it will all come down to your daughter, her attitude, and ability to problem solve.

    I'd add this: we are all at the "end of our season" currently (August). Emotions are high and generally in my experience everyone needs to step back and examine themselves. I bet the coach is examining things....but as stated above, it's the athlete that will eventually right the ship, with the help of the coach and the parent(s). It rarely works the other way around, where the coach initiates major changes and athletes/parents follow along. This way, if it does work, is only a "band aid", short-term fix.

    One if the beautiful things about our sport is that there are many competitive events. Often, athletes change their "best events" throughout their teens. Parents and athletes who accept this fact and attack other events will build confidence through perseverance and eventual success. At times, the best events will fade, other top events will surface, and then the process happens again!

    Parents must offer love and support during this tough time, and encourage dialogue/trust between the athlete and coach.

    Best of luck to your daughter in her pursuit of excellence.