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It's More Than Just Practice: Coach Dave Johnson

May 12, 2014  - Delano Ducheck

Malcolm Gladwell proposed a popular theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, anything. You want to be an expert guitar player, cook, or nuclear physicist; you better start putting in your 10,000 hours or practice. In swimming, with the high demand of training and the long season,  an eight year old starting out at any program will probably reach the 10,000 hour mark before the age of twenty. There are a lot of 10,000 hour swimmers, the supposed “expert” and yet there are only a few athletes who rise above the crowd to win championships. What are they doing differently? Is it a physical trait? A mental trait? A personality type? Is their a common mind frame that distinguishes this group?

I put the question to Dave Johnson, Director of Swimming and Head Coach of Cascade Swimming. Dave came to Cascade with over thirty years of coaching experience (that’s over 100,000 hours of coaching experience), and had coached at every Olympic games for Canada since 1976, as well as the National Team Head Coach for over 11 years. Since taking over as the Head Coach of Cascade Swimming, the club has become the fastest improving team in Canada, as well as the number one Age Group Program in the country, which culminated into the Men’s Title at the Spring Senior Nationals in 2013. In Johnson’s words, “We pride ourselves on homegrown talent. The majority of our kids at Nationals started with us as 10&U”. Out of the 11 senior men who swam for Cascade at Senior Nationals, 7 of them started as 10&U in the program.

Cultivating the right mind frame for elite swimming is not left to chance but is implemented in the program and built around the club principles. With the help of assistant coaches Wendy Johnson and Ildi Deliu, Cascade re-developed their entire age group program and built it around 5 key principles:

  • Performance (training and competition)

  • Motivation

  • Technical Reliability

  • Attendance

  • Age

These principles are weighted differently depending on the athlete’s age and group. For example, at 12&Under, keeping the athletes with their same social age group is the most important factor and performance is the least important factor. Fast forward to 15&Over and the reverse is true: performance is the most important factor and age is the least important.

Attendance moves up the list in importance as the athletes become older. The coaches at Cascade encourage their young athletes to take up other sports and activities to become balanced individuals, or what Johnson calls, “gain physical literacy.” But there comes a time when the athlete has to pick their sport and attendance is only second to performance, as seen in the following chart:


  1. Age

  2. Technical Reliability

  3. Motivation

  4. Attendance

  5. Performance


  1. Technical Reliability

  2. Attendance

  3. Motivation

  4. Age

  5. Performance


  1. Performance

  2. Attendance

  3. Motivation

  4. Technical Reliability

  5. Age

With the program framework in place, the Cascade coaches are able to better identify potential competitors because they are not only looking at meet performance as their sole criteria. It also allows the Cascade coaches to build the program around the individual’s needs and gives them room to grow into athletes as they progress through the program.

Cultivating the right club culture starts with the coach’s program, but it ends with the individual swimmer. Johnson seems to be always on the look out for athletes that bring their individual love to the sport, “when we see kids who really respect the sport and love it for the right reasons then those are the kids you can really do something special with.”

I asked Coach Johnson to provide a TOP 5 list of skills swimmers should develop at the age group level to prepare them for international competition. He came up with a list of 5 swimming intangibles.


  1. The ability to win a close race. That doesn’t mean only for 1st place. Do you win the races between 7th and 8th? Do you have that competitive fire to touch the wall before the person beside you? Win those close races!

  2. The ability to take video or verbal instructions and apply it to swimming. Can you watch a YouTube clip on streamlines and use what you’ve learnt in the pool? Can you take what the coach says about your hand entry and make that adjustment during practice? Can you apply what more experienced coach’s are trying to communicate to you? Are you able to focus on making those adjustments during practice?

  3. The ability to assess the competition and strategize your race. Can you rise to the occasion at a big meet? Do you know and respect your competition? Can you make and stick to a race plan? Can you change a race plan if things aren’t working?

  4. Love of the sport. Do you love the training and competition demands? Do you love figuring splits or improving your time? Do you love the thrill of victory and the pain of defeat? Love the game, but know it’s just a game.

  5. Become a student of the sport. Do you know your split times, stroke counts, stroke rates for your favorite events? Do you know the world record holder for your events? Do you know their splits, stroke counts and stroke rates? Learn the finer details of swimming. Read articles and books. Watch past Olympics. Know the players.

For all you Age Group swimmers reading this article, you can practice these skills no matter what program or club you’re swimming with. You can start putting these intangibles into practice today!

Dave Johnson is once again hosting Summer Swim Camps in Calgary, July and August 2014. Check out cascadeswimming.com for more information.