SPIRE Institute: Preparing Athletes from Developing Nations

SPIRE Institute’s Director of Aquatics, Thad Schultz, explains how the organisation is personalising programmes for aspiring athletes and how it prepares them for major competitions such as the Commonwealth Games.

The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games was a spectacular event, with 50 swimming races producing some unforgettable moments.

While it’s the medals that make the headlines, there are hundreds of athletes who have their own successes – especially those from developing nations.

SPIRE Institute is one organisation that has invested significant time in these athletes. FINA Convention spoke with its Director of Aquatics, Thad Schultz, to discuss how SPIRE develops and prepares its swimmers for large competitions such as the Commonwealth Games by using a balance of technology and intuition to achieve those all-important marginal gains.

SPIRE Institute is an Official FINA Training Centre, with nationally renowned coaches offering an impressive list of residential high-school and post-grad academy programmes, summer camps and weekend training sessions in soccer, track & field, swimming and basketball. SPIRE was created as a place where all athletes can train and develop their athletic skills.

As part of its FINA Development programme, SPIRE worked with swimmers from Zambia, Samoa, Grenada and Fiji ahead of the meet – working with each swimmer in a different way to achieve personalised performance objectives.

Preparing for an event such as this comes with several challenges. Thad explains some of the biggest ones his swimmers face.

The timing of the meet was a challenge due to how it aligned with the United States swim calendar. At our facility, we host a large number of events which lead to a lot of pool changes from yards to meters and back. Meter race opportunities are rare as well.

In this year’s Commonwealth Games, the home nation not only topped the overall medals table, they also dominated the pool with a total of 73 medals – 28 golds, 21 silvers and 24 bronzes. But what differences do Thad and SPIRE need to consider, if any, when coaching swimmers from developing nations compared to the larger, more successful ones? 

Background is a huge component. Most of the athletes we work with never experienced a situation as intense as we have here. Balancing an increased workload both in the water and out of it, with weights, dryland and yoga make the first few weeks challenging for everyone.

Thad and his team recognise how these challenges differ from athlete to athlete – and personalisation is a huge part of their approach to each swimmer’s individual training programme.

We try to individualise their swim program and their strength program based upon each individual. Background again plays a huge role along with age, events, and experience.

Despite such challenges, Thad was pleased with the performances of SPIRE Institute’s athletes but stressed that time is not the only metric in which he defines success in the pool.

I try to judge our performances not only on time drops but also improvements to the stroke mechanics, turns, and other details we continue to stress and work on every day.

Everything is a stepping stone to the next level… it is not only about time drops. We have to change strokes, kicking, turns, and starts and focus on mental toughness, improving form in the weight room, teaching better nutritional habits and so on.

Sometimes huge strides are made but there appears to be very little time improvement due to things like the swimmer simply has not gotten strong enough to handle their new stroke for a full race yet. Individual performance gains are looked at individually, not as a group as a whole.

As for the long term, we hope the things they are learning at the SPIRE Institute will be taken back home and shared with their coaches, federations and teammates to improve not only their swimming but their countries as a whole.

Whether athletes finished on the podium or not, they will be looking ahead and working towards their next competition. Thad explained the next steps for SPIRE swimmers, with particular focus on this year’s FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Hangzhou, China.

We need to get each swimmer ready for the next progression. For some it will be their National Championship, for others it will be getting ready for the Youth Olympics.  But above all, it’s about getting their cuts for the World Championships this December.

The development of athletes around the world is vital to strengthen a sport’s longevity. The FINA Development Programmes aim to help and support swimmers to reach their full potential and SPIRE Institute has been a key Partner to FINA in this area.

The FINA Development Programmes have been hugely successful for the athletes and their respective Federations. In speaking with the many parents, a lot of the feedback we get is how their swimmers have learned so much and how each one is very grateful for the experience.

Find out more about SPIRE Institute here.