Tips and Tricks for Social Distancing Your Swim Groups

By Brandi West
21 May 2020, 04:05pm

While there are some people that still believe that swim teams will just ‘go back to normal’ swim practices and others that feel we shouldn’t swim until we have a vaccine, most can clearly agree that we will need to make some changes in the way we run swim practices in 2020. The industry’s process of stopping all swimmers at the walls between each swim distance is the singular most profound change we have to contend with. Any attempt at 6-10 feet of social distancing makes it nearly impossible to have 2+ swimmers stop together at a wall. As coaches all of our sets are designed around stopping each swim group at the walls. We fuss about swimmers not ‘hanging on the lane lines’ and have always struggled with the fact that the last swimmers in each lane typically don’t even touch the walls at the end of each swim. But these are the very principals that we have to consider as ‘essential’ as we get back into the pool. Some options tossed around in the industry so far:

  1. USA Swimming offered some templates for starting some swimmers on the walls and others in the middle of the pool. This seems unfair to those that are not starting on the walls. What happens when the swimmers leaving from the wall instantly run over those that are starting without the power of the wall to push from? How are we marking the lanes so the swimmers stationed out in the lanes know where to stop? A marker on the floor is an easy answer until we want to swim a backstroke or a back kick… then we have swimmers running into each other. Will the swimmers in the middle of the pool hear the instructions or read the board properly?
  2. Some teams are trying to focus 100% on all sets starting and stopping at the walls but keeping only 2 swimmers on each wall… one that stops at the wall and the other that stops at the flags. Then do a normal ‘5 sec’ restart. However, this means that the second swimmer has 5 seconds to work their way to the wall to push off on their time. This will inevitably mean that the second swimmer will be encroaching on the first swimmer before they leave. This also only allows for 2 or maybe 4 (if using both walls) swimmers per lane).
  3. Many teams will only allow 1 swimmer per lane. Simple enough of course but hard to pay for lane time, let alone coaches at this rate. And this largely disregards anything but senior elite groups and alienates all other swimmers on the team. So teams using this approach will have to eventually find a way to open up their program to others on the team.
  4. Some teams have 2 per lane with 1 on each end of the wall. Again, simple enough to run our normal practices this way but only a short term answer for most teams.

So much of what we do as coaches and as swim teams is about perception. Perceptions by our swimmers, their parents, and ourselves. In highly competitive metropolitan areas, every team knows that perception will cause them to gain or lose swimmers on their team. But now even rural areas with little local competition to steal their swimmers also have to realize that if their parents and swimmers don’t feel safe with our new program, they will likely not come to practice at all or quickly drop out. When the problems of social distancing become a reality in our swim practices, perceptions of our safety and team proficiency will be put to the test. Our team has already started back to practice and our experience is that our swimmers are much more aware of their social distancing than we thought they would be. They are a little more jumpy and a little more aware. Yes, they tend to get too close when they are outside the pool facility and are hanging out. But when in the water, it only takes one swimmer to be jumpy about no one touching their snorkel, someone swimming up on them at the end of a distance, etc… before the ‘awareness’ takes hold quickly with the entire group. And that is where us coaches come in… did we properly plan for this ahead of time? Are we supportive of social distancing? Are we being the ‘bad guys’ and correcting mistakes of some swimmers that ignore social distancing so their teammates don’t have to fuss at them and look like jerks? If we aren’t doing the job of enforcing social distancing we take a risk of losing our team entirely. Agree with it or not, it is a necessity that we manage the perceptions of our teams and do our best to socially distance while also doing our jobs of coaching their bodies back into shape.

Our team has starting swimming again and we have put in place a few processes to help guide us forward with 2020 swim practices:

  1. No one starts on the wall. We do have a plan that IF we end up with 7-8 per lane, we might put the LEADER on the far wall, so they are pushing off into an empty lane in front of them.
  2. Station Markers – everyone has a color and a location for them to stop and start (visible from above and below the water)
  3. Gear Hammocks – to store their gear at their station so they have no need to return to the wall for the entire practice (unless we are diving)
  4. Headsets – essential in communicating constantly with every swimmer in each group so they know the instructions and as they mess up, coaches can quickly reroute them to avoid swimmer contact with each other
  5. No bathrooms – come in suit, leave in their suits
  6. No more than 6 swimmers per lane
  7. Slow roll out with new groups coming back to practice after first groups are familiar with the new changes
  8. No overlap of groups, to minimize congestion on the pool deck
  9. Clear locations for them to place their bags so they are spread out on the pool deck before and after practice
  10. No one touches the door – propped open as they arrive
  11. Cones placed for dive blocks to keep them spread out waiting to dive
  12. Orderly fashion to get out to dive and to get into the water at the start of practice
  13. Etc…yes the list gets bigger every day as you work through the needs of your own program

Anyone can pick this list apart and suggest endless problems to every system. But in the end we either wait for a vaccine or use sound judgement and make the safest plan possible for our team. Of course not all of our families will agree and many will choose to not come back this summer. Others will argue that we are making things too complicated and being overly cautious. As coaches and team leaders, our job is to balance those views and create a program that is realistically safe.

We love them. Yes, it has a cost of about $100 per swimmer or you can recharge them yourself and rotate them between groups. That is an impossible cost for some teams of course. But once you and your parents see them in action you will start to realize the potential for social distancing with headsets. Every swimmer can hear you even whisper into the headset. They ALL hear you at all times (not a different channel for each swimmer). They hear BETTER when their head is in the water and hear very well up to about 6-7 feet deep before the audio starts to get fuzzy. They can dive, flip turn, and race full speed with fins and paddles without problems. But as a coach in the brave new world of social distancing, they are a life saver. You don’t have to yell to swimmers stationed in the middle of the pool. You don’t have to spend all of your time hoping they all heard the instructions or can read the board that is now 40 feet away from the swimmers in the middle of the pool. If someone forgets to stop after the set distance, you can stop them before they run up onto the next swimmer in front of them. You can ensure far more safety to the swimmers and parents that a new swim program will not be chaotic. And as a coach you will wonder what you did without them; a) you fix technique during race pace, b) you don’t have explain 16 problems to 16 swimmers during a 15 second break, c) you can push effort in the middle of the hardest set, d) you can make your sets way more complicated than you ever did because you can explain it as they go, e) and you can download free tempo metronome apps to your phone and go crazy with all the things that a tempo trainer can do with your entire group on the same tempo. To further explain the metronome value: a) you can change tempo during the same swim such as turn on and off during a constant swim, or build tempo over a long swim, or switch between 2 different tempos b) You can get all swimmers in sync with each other so it is clear who is holding the tempo and who is not, c) you can fix breathing problems when they mess up their rhythm when breathing, d)… the list of tempo advantages is endless (here is an article on the tempo advantages of headsets). But the key value you eventually learn about headsets is your ability to give out immediate praise for things you see in the moment and not forget when they hit the wall. Your practices will be more uplifting for you and your swimmers. And you will be relaxed all the time, even in our new socially distanced world.

Station Markers
Somehow we need a way for swimmers to know their own ‘home station’. There may be ways to make your own but this station marker is balanced to just clip on the lane line with a simple carabiner and is color coded both below and above the water. A colored foam buoy stands up above the lane line so swimmers can see it when on their back.

Gear Hammock (attaches under Lane Line):
Unless you run practices without any gear at all, it is important for the swimmers to have easy access to their snorkel, paddles, fins, etc… This gear bag clips under the lane line with 2 carabiners and is weighted to keep the gear from floating over into the lanes.

Kickboard/Buoy Lane Line Mount
Buoys and kickboards can fit in the Gear Hammock but they need too much weight to keep them out of the way. This mount is available with a built-in weight or comes in a cheaper version that you just drop in your own 3 lb dumbbell instead of paying for the shipping costs of so much weight. It straps around a kickboard, buoy, or both at the same time. The foam items float on their edges so they can be clipped up to the lane line and stay out of the way.

True to form the swim industry is made up of endless approaches and methods for training swimmers. We all like to invent our own way and do things differently. Thanks to that approach we will all continue to take bits and pieces from each other and build our own program. The risk of social distancing is that we have to figure out a safe way to START on our first practice without a lot of ‘trial and error’ time to sort this out before swimmers and parents get nervous that we are not keeping them safely apart. Regardless of our personal beliefs as to the value and importance of social distancing, it is our JOB to do the best we can to help our swimmers and parents to feel confident in our approach.