SCOTT VOLKERS ON ATHLETES UNDER PRESSURE
SAMANTHA COULD HAVE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS RIDING ON TWO SWIMS
THIS CAN CREATE A HELL OF A LOT PRESSURE ON ONE
Cecil M. Colwin
Scott Volkers has more swimmers on the 1996 Australian Olympic Team than
any other coach.
His six Olympians-Samantha Riley, Susan O'Neill, Angela Kennedy, Elli Overton,
Lise Mackie and Jade Winter-all swim for the Commercial Swimming Club in
Colloquially known as "Commercial", the club has a successful
tradition in Australian swimming. Founded early in the century for ladies
only, Commercial has long been open to both sexes.
The club is unique in that swimmers from anywhere in Australia can join
"as a social thing", and club members are not compelled to train
with any one coach. Scott Volkers, and top coaches John Carew and Michael
Bohl, all have swimmers who compete for Commercial.
Scott Volkers, over the years, has mainly produced his own swimmers, taking
them through the ranks to the higher levels of competition. But recently,
Ellie Overton and Angela Kennedy joined his group.
Volkers says that changing one's coach is a serious step to make because
the patterns used by individual coaches vary greatly. "It takes eighteen
months to three years to become accustomed to my program, if you haven't
come out of one that's similar."
INSTITUTIONALIZED AND OVER-ANALYZED
"For the coach it's often a no-win situation, " says Volkers.
"If they swim well, they were good before they went there, and if they
swim badly, then it's your fault. It's difficult for someone to completely
change to a different regime overnight. And, if you're going to the Australian
Institute of Sport, to be 'institutionalized', as it were, it means a re-focus
to a total swimming life down there."
Volkers said, "There's a life going on outside, apart from swimming.
It's not just swim, swim, swim. I try to keep a much more relaxed atmosphere.
That's what I believe in."
Asked whether a swimmer in a national training centre, attended by scientists
and other support staff, could become a swimming guinea pig, Volkers said:
"It depends on whether a swimmer is being over-analyzed. Over-analysis
can hurt anyone. I've definitely seen it in the past."
Volkers said that there is a benefit to be derived when scientists work
on the pool deck under a coach's direction. "It's a matter of the scientists
enquiring 'What can I do for you?'" "
I ask them, in effect, to tell me what I should do to help my squad now,
and in the future, and not to tell me what has happened, after it's over.
A sport scientist who can provide the coach with new ideas in the practical
situation can be beneficial to the program."
For example, in the morning heats of the 100 freestyle, Susie O'Neill couldn't
get her stroke going, so Volkers consulted with sports scientist Graeme
Maw. He told Volkers that O'Neill was stroking too fast in the first 50
metres of the race, thus leaving herself with insufficient energy to finish
strongly. As a result, Volkers advised O'Neill to take fewer strokes and
make them longer, and she went on to win her fifth Australian 100 metres
Volkers' pool deck demeanour is calm and confident. He has tremendous rapport
with his swimmers. They gather around him like a small family. When Samantha
Riley didn't swim as well as expected, Volkers handled a potentially tense
situation with aplomb. Within a short while, Samantha was all smiles.
Questioned on his impressive communication with his swimmers, Volkers said,
"It doesn't happen by accident. Number one is: I try to keep them happy.
It doesn't matter what else you do, or how hard you train them, an unhappy
swimmer won't perform. That's how I work, I guess, and that's what I believe
in, and so I just keep doing it."
Volkers added that he believed swimmers should enjoy coming to the pool,
and doing the hard work, and they should leave the pool feeling happy, and
with a sense of accomplishment.
Samantha Riley started training with Scott Volkers as "a 15-year-old
with little aerobic capacity." Volkers said, "She was very weak
when she came to me eight years ago. She was a breaststroke swimmer with
good legs, and that was about it."
Volkers discussed his reactions to Samantha's performance in the Trials:
"There's no point in the coach showing panic. That's for sure. We just
worked hard enough to get her up for the meet; it didn't really matter what
time it was in the end. But, for some reason, she hasn't produced the performances
that her training indicated she could achieve. Like Kieren, eventually Samantha
could have been talking of millions of dollars riding on two swims; this
can create a hell of a lot of pressure on one."
Coach Volkers with breaststroker Samantha Riley
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Darin Braybrook/Sport - The Library
Volkers says that tension is the big enemy of the top-flight swimmer. This
is particularly true in Australia where the media attention to swimming
is probably unmatched in any other country. While this has its benefits,
the enormous focus on swimming creates a great deal of pressure.
Volkers says that different situations create diverse pressures. "Competing
in the Olympic Games creates one kind of pressure: the excitement and the
need to do well in tough competition. Here, at the Trials, it's the desire
to make the Olympic team, and, if you don't, the outcome is disaster."
"The pressures acting on leading swimmers are different from those
affecting younger swimmers still on the way up. At a meet like this, the
younger swimmers don't have to cope with external pressures so much as those
they create for themselves."
"In Samantha's case, she has had to come through the whole drug situation,
and all those pressures accumulated and added to the pressure of the meet."
Volkers said that he often uses the saying, 'Out of adversity comes greatness.'
"Well, we just wish that the adversities would stop occuring a little
bit right now. We've just about had enough of those, and we would like something
to go in our favour!"
Volkers believes in building a swimmer gradually over a long period. "I
don't like to see anyone become great overnight. You see the person who
comes up quickly; bang! They do something great, set a world record or whatever,
and then, just as quickly, they are back down the ladder again."
"So I believe we should spend time working on them mentally, working
on the person mainly, making the person a better person, and developing
a belief, a positive self-image. Then the swimmer will start to climb the
ladder of success. I believe it important to do that."
Volkers stresses the importance of not treating a swimmer as someone you
can flog, like a work horse. "Swimmers have emotions, and if they're
not having a good day, I certainly don't want to belt the hell out of them.
I'd rather say: 'Hop out. Stop work, stop for today. We'll come back tomorrow
and do a better job.' "
Volkers said "I believe we have to build swimmers up from a young age,
young teenagers, and take them through into their twenties." Volkers
said that he had coached at all levels, from six-year-olds, through to good
age groupers, but now he mainly coached seniors.
Says Volkers "The work is fairly intense, but we do it scientifically,
and we carefully work out the recovery times we give each swimmer."
Volkers says that recovery time is a critical factor in training, and he
is giving increased attention to achieving fast recovery rates in his swimmers.
The maximum distance covered by anyone in Volkers' squad is "about
fifty kilometers on a big week." Volkers uses a lot of recovery type
sessions. "We design the weekly cycle scientifically so that it covers
all the energy systems. We allow enough recovery time to maximize the amount
of work we can do in each energy system. I'm working on ways to perfect
this, and I'll probably keep trying different things to come up with a better
Butterfly specialist Susan O'Neill
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Darin Braybrook/Sport - The Library
Volkers said that he tries to avoid a lot of wasted kilometers that are
not doing any good. "After a major session, we do active recovery swims.
We don't try to stress the body in these recovery swims, so that we can
come back and do a better job the next afternoon."
Volkers said, "A lot of people tell me: 'We did a hundred kilometers
this week'. Well, we did forty, but probably twenty five of them were high
quality, and the others were warm-ups and swim downs."
"We do heart rate sets twice a week and we try to do them about three
days apart, if possible, to allow full recovery in a particular energy system.
So that might mean that on Monday and Thursday, we have quality sessions."
"What I call 'quality' is speed work; 50s within a second of your best
time, 100s within 5 seconds of your best time, and 200s at a fast pace as
well. Anything that requires maximum effort at almost race speed."
"We do quality swimming with long rests. In these quality sessions,
we also include lactate tolerance sets, but with shorter rests and higher
lactate. These workouts cover the whole gamut of the lactate system."
Volkers said that he once systematically tested every training item for
a whole week. "I wanted to see whether we were actually achieving what
we had set out to do. We noted that some sets encroached on another energy
system, and this detracted from the ability of that energy system to work
in the next session, when we needed it. In the process we discovered some
Volkers made an unusual admission: " We found that we were actually
trying to push the kids through some workouts that they simply couldn't
do; but it was the coach's fault and not their's. Some coaches too readily
jump down the swimmers' throats, and accuse them of laziness."
"But, when a coach has done the thing wrong, I think it important to
admit it. Most of our workouts seemed to be working, but we did need to
change some. I was giving some wrong items in maybe one or two sessions
a week. I had to reassess the week and change it around, just the mixture,
not so much the content."
Asked about Samantha Riley's maximim heart rate achieved in heart rate sets,
Volkers said: "Her maximum used to be 211. I say 'used to be' because
it seems to have come down a little bit to maybe 205 to 208. In a heart
rate set, we finish with up to 205, and so she's at maximum heart rates...that's
in a set covering as much as up to 2000 kilometers."
Volkers said: "We use heart rate monitors for all those sets, every
one of them. The 100s or 200s that we do are timed and monitored, and written
Asked what he thought was his greatest attribute as a coach, Volkers replied,
"Probably my ability to have swimmers perform above their past levels
of achievement. I guess it's a motivational thing, but it could be a combination
of different factors. Let's just say that I enjoy getting people to believe
that they can swim well. This what I've had to do with Samantha here at
"Samantha's a great girl, and she deserves to do very well, and sensationally
so. There's no way she'll take this as the end of the line. That's for sure.
She'll get back up. She got swamped at the Commonwealth Games Trials, then
she got back up, and went on to win every race until this meet. Now she
has to turn around again, get her confidence back up, for the Olympics."
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