In almost every field — athletic, academic, or artistic — the current experts started their training at a young age with a kindly local teacher or coach, then moved on to a more rigorous instructor, and then moved on to a nationally recognized instructor as they entered adulthood.
Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People documents this pattern in piano, tennis, swimming, sculpture, math, and research neurology.
Missy “the Missile” Franklin, the 17-year-old world champion in the 200-meter backstroke, has followed a different path, sticking with her original “starfish” coach, Todd Schmitz, whose emphasis has been on not ruining his swimming prodigy:
For years, Franklin’s parents have been urged to move their child to California, Texas or Florida to train with coaches whose swimmers have won enough Olympic hardware to fill a vault. The Franklins decline to identify the sources of such pressure, in part because they say it is well meaning.
The Franklins believe they already happened upon the ideal coach for their daughter. Schmitz, who earns a salary of about $70,000 a year, arrives at the pool around 5 each morning and during the school year leaves most evenings at 7.
His work ethic and passion for coaching were apparent when he swam at Metro State, where after practice he hung around to write down that day’s routine and ask about the philosophy behind it. “That’s rare,” said Andy Lehner, ex-coach of Metro State’s now-defunct swim team. “Most kids after practice are pretty focused on what their next meal is going to be.”
As a coach, however, Schmitz stands out for a devotion to rest and play. No less important than his swimmers’ splits is whether they are having fun inside and outside the natatorium. At practice, if the kids seem spent, he’ll end the workout midway through and start a game of water polo. “He’s a fun loving kid, he laughs with them, he plays loud music,” said D.A. Franklin, Missy’s mother.
Schmitz’s swimmers also go through a structured dry land practice twice a week that focuses on building core strength and athleticism. “Looking at a black line all day, every day gets awfully dull,” he said.
Even when it comes to improving form—something other coaches regard as a strict science—Schmitz believes in the art of play. Sometimes, in fact, he orders his charges into the deep end for a session of vertical kicking, with the aim of lifting their torsos out of the water.
“A lot of this is about simply playing around in the water,” he said. “That’s what kids do naturally, and the play engages the mind and gives the swimmer the tools to figure out the right way to move their body.”
When Missy first joined the Starfish, the Stars’ youngest group, Schmitz says her strokes were hardly Olympian, and she didn’t care much for practice. When the workout board called for 50-yard sprints, Missy sometimes sat out one for each one she swam.
But from the outset she took pleasure in reaching the wall first. At age 12 she broke three national age group records in one meet. As she moved from the Starfish group to the adolescent division of the Colorado Stars, Schmitz followed her, with the club’s board promoting him to head coach in 2008.
Many coaches with a prodigy in their stable would choose to increase her workouts to test her potential. But in the view of Schmitz, the biggest danger for Franklin and for all his swimmers is burnout. So even as Franklin broke record after record, Schmitz treated her like everyone else her age in his elite group. That was the equivalent of owning a Ferrari and driving the speed limit.
This meant that Franklin would swim two hours a day, five or six days a week, with an average of roughly 4,000-5,000 yards per day—less than half the yardage logged by top college swimmers. In the summer, he doesn’t hold Saturday morning practices, giving Franklin and all of his other swimmers a weekend-long break from the pool.
“The last thing I want to do is for them to get to the end of the summer and feel like all they’ve done is swim,” he said.
Even in the run-up to the Olympic trials, Franklin usually takes off two days a week. One recent week, Schmitz told Franklin to skip practice to get ready for her boyfriend’s prom. Working with Schmitz, Franklin says she has come to believe that balance is as important to her success as stroke improvement.