Does Team-Building Hold Water in Swimming?
Current studies also demonstrate that a team’s unity surrounding a task, as well as a positive social climate, can both lend a helpful edge to performance in individual or team sports (Carron et al., 2002). On the other hand, regarding teams that emphasize fun and participation, there are team-building processes that can be beneficial. A team that sticks together is more likely to have happy athletes, a positive social network, good stability, and the ability to work toward goals.
This is excellent news for the world of swimming! With the knowledge that increasing team togetherness can actually help performance, coaches can find even more ways to improve their team in and out of the pool. The sport of swimming offers some unique challenges, however. It’s hard to develop team work in a sport where performances are individual, and the athletes have their face in the water 90% of the time. Because of this, I’ve come up with a few swimming suggestions to promote team cohesion.
Suggestion #1 – Partner Kick-Set
This activity should sound very familiar because, in fact, it’s just a kick-set. This time, however, instruct your athletes to swim side-by-side during the set. Try giving them the kick-set as a warm-up after a rest day—your athletes will appreciate the chance to catch up with their teammates. Try partnering them up with teammates they don’t usually swim with—mix it up. By allowing your athletes this chance to talk, they can develop social connections and strengthen team bonds. In addition to enhancing social relationships, kicking in pairs will cause both swimmers to hold each other accountable for hard work. By kicking head-to-head, the athletes will participate together on a specific task. Although kicking next to each other isn’t quite as group oriented as running a double-play in baseball—the swimmers will be able to work together and communicate at the same time (a rare occurrence in swimming). With this small modification, your athletes can build team cohesion without missing a beat of their training.
Suggestion #2 – Med-Ball Pass
Try this one on the deck before practice. You’ll have your athletes’ attention (Anything to avoid getting in!) Split the squad into two parallel lines of equal length. Instruct the swimmers that they must work as a team to pass the med-ball from one person to the next as fast as possible. The line that passes the med-ball from one end to the other first gets 100 meters less for warm-up. Try overhead or side to side passes. If you don’t have med-balls on deck, just use a kickboard.
In this activity, the swimmers must cooperate and coordinate their efforts in order to work as a team. Let them discuss a possible strategy (briefly) before beginning. The nature of swim practices does not naturally promote the development of task cohesion—the swimmers don’t really need to work together on specific tasks. This activity will provide a way to develop task cohesion during swim practice with an easily explainable challenge that can be performed right on the pool deck.
Also, check out the Happy Feet activity from GoSwim that incorporates the med-ball pass while swimmers kick vertically in the water.
Unconventional - Happy Feet from Glenn Mills on Vimeo.
Suggestion #3 – Relay Races
Relay starts should already be a part of any swim team practice regime. However, as the coach, try to emphasize the team-work required for an effective relay exchange. Tell the swimmers to pay attention to each other’s stroke pattern, let the relay groups go off on their own to practice for a few minutes. This will give them a chance to talk and get to know each other without coach around. When selecting relay squads for meets, it is obviously important to consider the fastest swimmers in the line-up. But consider choosing equally talented athletes who get along well with each other. A tight-knit relay group will help improve individual split times by increasing accountability and personal sacrifice between highly cohesive teammates.
Suggestion #4 – Partner Swimming
This challenging activity will force your swimmers to work together to coordinate their movements. It's not the best activity for building appropriate swimming technique, but it will provide a fun yet difficult drill for your swimmers to work together.
The information in this article is based on the current understanding of sport psychology research in the area of team cohesion. Physical training should still be a priority; however, when augmented with the addition of mental skills techniques, athletes may gain an extra advantage in their performances.
As a coach, you are in a position to influence your athletes with your attitudes and behavior. When implementing any of the techniques described in this article, be sure to monitor your own tone of voice. If the athletes perceive that you don’t take team-building activities seriously, then neither will they. Using what you have learned about team cohesion and social processes, feel free to experiment with your own team-building techniques.