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How coaches are fighting burnout, mental health issues with creativity in girls swimming

Wisconsin State Journal - 9/12/2022

Sep. 12—There's nothing better than cooling down with some relaxation at the pool on a hot summer's day.

It's not all fun and games for area high school girls swimmers however. Most remain hard at work after school lets out during the summer participating on USA and club swim teams to prepare for the upcoming fall season.

It creates little time in between the two seasons with roughly a maximum of two weeks for student-athletes to rest and recharge ahead of the grueling three-month campaign that began Aug. 9 and culminates with the two-day WIAA state championships on Nov. 11 and 12 at the Waukesha South Natatorium.

Oftentimes that minimum rest can create mental burnout for swimmers as they're thrust back into the pool, typically with two-a-day practices leading up to the start of the school year. That pursuit of avoiding burnout and an increased focus on mental health has left both coaches and swimmers alike looking for ways to keep teams in a constructive, helpful environment that fosters positivity.

"It definitely is kind of an art; a science, whatever you want to call it," Sauk Prairie coach Todd Wuerger said.

The heightened attention on mental health has sprung up largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and some professional athletes, like USA gymnast Simone Biles and Japanese tennis pro Naomi Osaka, speaking out on the matter. It's definitely a far cry from when Madison West coach Amanda Ellmaker swam for Cedarburg and collegiately for the Badgers.

"Mental health was not talked about at all when I was swimming in high school or college," she said. "Now hearing about mental health and through COVID-19, as a coach recognizing and seeing all the swimmers; maybe they're all struggling about something or they had a long week, versus when I was swimming I wasn't really aware of my teammates' mental health at all."

Said Mt. Horeb coach Bree Parent: "As an experienced high school swimmer myself I remember thinking at the last few meets and few practices how fast the season really did go. But as a coach, I'm seeing it in a different perspective."

Now Ellmaker, Parent, Wuerger and other coaches are making a concerted effort to curtail burnout, both in and out of the pool.

'Quality over quantity'

The biggest change coaches have made in the water is in regard to the number of yards their athletes will log during a practice. When he first started coaching two decades ago, Wuerger said that his workouts "were like the workouts I got, these grueling workouts where you look at the black line at the bottom of the pool and get used to it because it's not going to move."

"That's just the way swimming was," he said.

Shifting away from those workouts with over 6,000 yards, Wuerger typically has the Eagles swim 4,500-5,000 yards. Ellmaker tries to stick along those same lines with the Regents, as does Madison Edgewood coach Emily Schwabe, another former Badger.

However, Schwabe said she doesn't even track the yards the Crusaders do.

Schwabe, now in her ninth season leading the reigning seven-time Division 2 state champions, said that if she in fact did focus on how much the Crusaders swam, she'd "be thinking too hard about it."

"I just focus on the quality," she said. "It's possible that if I do measure out yardage, I'll look at a practice and be like 'Oh, that's not enough yards,' even if it's just really quality work.

"I don't measure it out because I don't want that to be in my head at all, and it's really hard to avoid that thinking."

It's not just the coaches who view that change as beneficial. Sauk Prairie senior Riley Talmage, a four-year swimmer for the Eagles and member of the Sauk Prairie Pool Sharks summer team, said she and her teammates preach that similar mantra of "quality over quantity."

Talmage said the Eagles incorporate a lot of short, intense race-like sets, often off the blocks, into their daily workouts, something she believes helps during meet days.

"Doing stuff like that is a lot more helpful rather than swimming a bunch of stuff off the wall and doing longer stuff," she said. "For the shorter events, all the 100s and 50s, the 4,500-5,000 yards is super beneficial."

Not all workouts are created equal though, just ask Middleton'sSophie Benson. A fellow four-year swimmer, the senior and the rest of the Cardinals' distance crew are more accustomed to those 6,000-7,000 yard practices.

Benson, who swims for the Badger Aquatic Club out of season, admitted that it's difficult seeing the rest of the team break free and do shorter, more sprint-oriented workouts, but the distance crew, led by assistant coach and former Badger Danielle Beckwith, has fostered a sense of unity.

"We lock into the set we're doing and the mentality we have every single time going into it, we tell each other we know it's going to be hard and we're going to have to push ourselves," she said. "That's really helpful especially when you have a coach who's so talented in her training and teammates who are willing to do it with you."

Incorporating entertainment

The amount of yardage swam during a practice hasn't just shifted for coaches, but rather how to package that workout in order to keep swimmers engaged.

The biggest way to do that is simple for second-year Middleton coach RJ Leiferman.

"We just have to try to make practice fun," he said. "Give them things they haven't seen before and just make sure they're staying positive.

"I think I do give kids some similar stuff throughout a season, but give them enough things to make it interesting. Every set you do is a set you've already done before; not even a set but there's stuff in the weight room and dryland games, keep them doing something new at least once a day.

"I think that really helps because if you just swim 10 100s every day for 15 weeks, that's going to get really boring really fast."

Blending that entertainment with hard work has taken many forms for coaches. Wuerger has developed a number of tricks over the years, including something he calls "Spin-a-workout."

Initially starting out as something for his wife's job, Wuerger turned the handmade wheel into a prop for the Eagles featuring 21 slots with one-third of the spaces designated as "goofball" sets, while the other two-thirds are broken up into 1,000-yard sets of some kind and sprint sets comprised of 50s or less.

Once all of the sets are swum, practice is finished; however, Wuerger does allow for the team to end early, with one slot designated as a "get out swim" in which the captains race to hit a specific time — Wuerger said it's "typically a goal time within a second of their season-best time to date," — to let the entire team end the practice early.

"It's amazing over the years that every time I've done this they go under their season-best times," he said.

Said Sauk Prairie junior Savannah Acker: "Fun sets like spin-a-wheel that makes us want to swim and we want to put effort into that practice."

The Regents have a similar tradition with a practice filled with what Ellmaker has dubbed "carnival relays."

"It's all fun relays whether it be wearing a t-shirt or these other random relays we mix up, and I create teams," she said.

The date of the "carnival relays" is unknown only to Ellmaker "because the whole purpose is that I want it to be a surprise."

"Whether it's a fun relay or some little competition that's still actually fun than swimming straight for two hours," she said, "whether it's a relay or they're with some different teammates they're not always with ... they're still focusing on a skill, but it takes their minds off hard intervals and multiple long yards, but focusing on some type of swimming or skill."

It's not all work and no play for the Crusaders as Schwabe said she'll map out a fun practice on a Saturday in the middle of the season. Things can also be as small as a dance party during practice, something Sauk Prairie calls "mermaid swims" or just listening to music. The key in all of it is carving out when it can take place.

"You have to know it's okay and it's going to benefit the team ... the team can have their own fun, but as the coach you can play a role in making space for it and making sure it is happening," Schwabe said.

The athletes play their own role in keeping things fun as well. Talmage admitted she often sings songs in her head during long sets to "help me keep tempo with whatever stroke I'm doing," or singing and dancing between sets.

That noise does wonders according to Benson, who said the Cardinals are keen on staying loud to keep the energy up.

"Cheering people on, saying those positive affirmations and giving the 'good jobs' not only outwardly but receiving them as well to make sure it goes both ways," she said, adding the team often listens to music throughout its practices.

"I've really noticed that being really accountable with each other and staying loud at practice has been a great way to keep the energy up and keep your body less fatigued with the mental state."

That positivity can be a pillar for athletes to cling to when the season itself gets the most grueling, especially coming off a long summer season. It's part of what's helped keep Madison West senior Maddie Scheer continue to forge ahead.

Scheer, who swims for the Shorewood Hills Sharks in the Madison All-City Swim League during the summer, as well as the Badger Aquatic Club out of season, said she finds enjoyment within her team and practice itself.

While she certainly enjoys the spirit of competition, Scheer is well aware how caught up swimmers can get in trying to improve their times.

"For me, focusing on the little improvements I can find in practices and getting a drill just right, and cheering on my teammates is really helpful for me," she said.

Scheer said that positivity has helped foster a strong team culture, something that isn't unique to the Regents alone. Benson said Middleton has done a good job fostering positivity this season, "especially on those days where I had to cry it out in the pool after practice."

"I always had the girls where I had a shoulder to lean on or someone who could give me a hug, and that really helped me get through that time," Benson added.

Both Talmage and Acker have also hit the proverbial wall. Talmage admitted she felt mentally drained after rolling right into her winter season with the Waunakee Wave after a grueling freshman season in 2019, a similar feeling Acker felt this March after immediately hitting the water with the Oregon Community Swim Team after last fall.

"I loved the girls and hanging out with them, but it was tough getting through practices," Acker said.

It was then that she had a talk with her gym teacher, Todd Breunig, who helped her rediscover that passion for the sport.

"(He) actually told me, 'You need to reflect back and remember when you were 5 years old again. Why you wanted to start swimming and why you loved swimming at that moment.' That really just hit me," she added.

It's a piece of advice Acker said she would give fellow swimmers who can't see the light at the end of the tunnel and are in need of a break once the season hits. Parent has made a concerted effort to trying to keep that in focus for Mount Horeb, who are fielding their own team for the first time in five decades after spending the last 12 years as half of a co-op with Verona.

The former Verona/Mt. Horeb and UW-Stevens Point swimmer said she has her athletes keep a notebook of their goals and progression, assisted along by swimming test sets throughout the season.

"I think that's really helping them see that the work they're putting in is actually paying off," she said. "We do make mistakes and there are things we need to learn every single day, so positivity is huge."

Scheer believes those small highlights can play a huge difference in maintaining that mental health, and with it comes success in the pool.

"I think your sport being a part of the maintenance of your mental health is super important," she said. "You can't hate your sport and still show up for it. You're not going to like every single part of it, every single day, but knowing you do have fondness at least for your sport and are getting something out of it is really important in maintaining that balance."

Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.


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