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.