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FINA World Aquatics Convention
SPIRE Institute's FINA-approved Aquatics centre

Since it opened its doors to the world in 2009, the SPIRE Institute (a US Olympic and Paralympic training site) has been developing promising young athletes into world-class stars. In October 2011, SPIRE unveiled its 295,000 sq. ft. Aquatics Centre – a state-of-the-art, FINA-approved, facility.

For the past two years SPIRE has been working with FINA to deliver the FINA Scholarship Programme – a programme which saw seven of its athletes qualify for and compete in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

SPIRE Aquatics Director Thad Schultz – former Swim Coach at Ohio State University, Penn State University, and Clemson University – reveals three things SPIRE Institute focusses on when developing elite athletes and future Olympians.

1. Cultivating the right culture

“Positivity is a habit, it needs to be worked at every day,” says Thad. “We try to cultivate a culture of excellence at SPIRE – we want our athletes to understand they’re here to achieve a set goal, and in order to achieve that goal they need to buy-in to the SPIRE programme.”

Thad explains this conversation happens frequently when athletes first arrive at the Institute, “many athletes are coming from developing countries and as a result haven’t experienced the demands of a world-class swimming programme. We try to put them in a position where they’re leading and learning at the same time.”

Interaction with other age groups is an important part of the SPIRE culture, “the athletes have to learn how to work together,” says Thad. “Training with different age groups allows our athletes to see things from a different perspective.”

One of Thad’s favoured techniques to help realise this idea is to play the tactical board game Four Square. “It serves as an equalizer,” he says. “All our athletes from ages 8-23 play together once a week. It’s all good fun, and we can transfer the skills learned through this shared experience to the pool.”

The interaction between age groups at SPIRE doesn’t end with board games. Thad says his FINA athletes often attend practice sessions to help their younger counterparts, “they learn a lot from a coaching perspective, which feeds back into their attitude as an athlete. They start to gain a deeper understanding of their own performance and things start to click from a developmental point of view. Creating this type of culture allows for the individual to grow on their own terms.”

2. Recognising the individual

SPIRE Institute places great emphasis on catering for the individual. “Most elements of our programmes are highly specified for the athlete,” Thad explains. “It’s not just that our athletes have different strokes and different distances to train for, but they fundamentally have different backgrounds, mentalities and physical abilities.”

The SPIRE Aquatics team recognises they can’t simply make an introverted person a leader, “you have to find ways to make athletes leaders in their own way,” Thad says. “On the other hand, we get athletes joining SPIRE who’ve known only success from previous programmes and they’re in need of a reality check. It’s a delicate balance between teaching individuals to know when to lead and when to follow.”

At SPIRE special attention is placed on the role of mental preparedness in performance. The Institute has its own mental skills coach who works with individual athletes on how to deal with both success and failure. “We want to encourage a mentality of opportunity rather than pressure – to concentrate on the journey and not the outcome,” says Thad. “If we do everything right in training on a day-to-day basis, then come competition time we can switch our minds off and let our body do the rest.”

3. Tailored training

Everything Thad and his team do at SPIRE Institute is geared towards success in the pool. “A lot of our training is technique heavy,” Thad says, “a lot of specificity goes into what we do.” The focus on the individual is evident in the training programmes at SPIRE. Thad himself writes 8-10 tailored workouts a day. Each programme is complemented by classroom time to analyse performance, but he is sensitive to the attention span of younger athletes and is careful to avoid what he terms ‘paralysis by analysis’.

Because SPIRE athletes attend the Institute for a finite amount of time (usually six months to a year), Thad’s approach is to work backwards from a set goal. “The key is to decide with the athlete when to peak,” says Thad, “so it’s crucial you know what you’re going to do ahead of time.”

Thad says he will put up a calendar that outlines a three-month schedule, “I want the athletes to be fully prepared and have the opportunity to question the programme. We’re constantly trying to feed back into their individual development in and out of the pool.”

A typical week’s hard training schedule at SPIRE Institute

Monday AM: Aerobic-based practice (kick focused)
Monday PM: Aerobic swim (hard), weights

Tuesday AM: Race pace set/power set (maintaining lactic)
Tuesday PM: OFF, Yoga

Wednesday AM: High-level lactic set
Wednesday PM: Skills session

Thursday AM: Aerobic swim
Thursday PM: OFF, weights

Friday AM: Aerobic kick
Friday PM: Short power workout, weights, games

Saturday: Race day

Sunday: Rest

SPIRE Academy is an Official Event Partner of the 4th FINA World Aquatics Convention (FWAC), taking place in Windsor, Canada from 3-5 December 2016. In addition, SPIRE Institute will exhibit at the event to meet with coaches, federations, athletes and clubs, and demonstrate how the Institute’s team, facilities and programmes can support swimmers from all over the world.