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  • Sep

    Coaches' Corner: Q&A with Chris Van Slooten

    On this month's coaches' corner series we're diving in to how Chris Van Slooten, coach of American Energy Swim Club, develops a wildly popular swim program in Oklahoma. Read more about his training style and what drives his team to success. 

    Q: How has your arrival at AESC shaken up Oklahoma Swimming?

    Chris Van Slooten: I really haven’t thought of it in that way.  Coming in and arriving to the LSC, taking a year to observe and learning from my past mistakes, clearly there are a lot of good things happening in OK Swimming.  At our sectional meet, Oklahoma Swimming did really well and we were represented well. Taking the first year to listen and build relationships is the first part of making change.  My subline on all this is swimming is a skill for life and we need to promote safety, it has nothing to do with competitive swimming, let’s get them safe.  There is a staggering statistic of kids drowning each year.  It’s been wonderful to see the changes that have occurred on our LSC board and what Paul Thompson is trying to do to promote swimming in just the year I’ve been here.  They say Oklahoma is the belt buckle of America and why not try and shine up the belt buckle.

    Q: How much USRPT / Race Pace training are you incorporating into your program?

    Chris Van Slooten: Do we do some? Yes, but we are not a purest USRPT. When I was with Fort Union, we did USRPT, but we did a lot of kicking and had terrific results.  The next year, we did pure USRPT and we had good results.  Coming here, and taking stock of what events we’re strong in, I had to see what I was missing.  Yes, we still do Race Pace training but not strictly.  I take what I really like. If you look at Doc Counsilman and Dave Salo you can take what they are doing and use what works.  I still go back and read their research  to see what I can use down the road.

    Q: Are you using this training with all age groups?

    Chris Van Slooten: Mainly I use the race pace with our 13 and over group. We now have Trisha Olander who heads up our Development Group and we’re working on getting everyone on the same page.   In my coaching, I don’t use things like one arm butterfly, we take the full stroke and we build up.  If you do some of these drills, you can create bad stroke habits.  We do full strokes, 2 sec slower than race pace and really stress emphasis on technique and stroke count.  For example, on Mondays we do a short meeting outlining what we’re going to do for the day, from there we focus on the stroke and stressing it at different phases in the practice.  With our staff, it doesn’t matter to me what drills you use, but you had better have a reason you’re using them and understand how they work.  Our coaches are expected to know why they're doing a drill and if they don’t know, they can ask. 

    Q: What is an example of a set you’re running?

    Chris Van Slooten: We may do, 40x25 @ 30 working the initial phase of any stroke you want.  Since this was early in our season, last week, we just focused on the catch, as you do that, I wanted them to really focus on every 4th 25 you do a stroke count.  Then for others, I would point to them and say, “okay now every 4th I want you to do race pace”.  We don’t have an overall focus, we try and have an individual focus and that creates ownership for the swimmer.  I’ve gone back over the years, and thought about writing on the board or not writing on the board.  I post the workouts on the team site and they also know I may walk in and tweak the practice.  Putting it up on the board, we get very specific and we may start with a 400 @6:00 with a streamline and strong kick off the wall, then into 4x100 kick @1:45 then 4X100 IM working on transition and then 4X100 back working on tight streamline and strong kick.  After that they’re ready and we do the main set and then from there we hit their legs again and then go into a technique set like the one above.  The kids look at it, and they’ll think “I can make these 100s doing fly, can I do that?” and I’m all for that.  They can personalize the set toward what they want to work on.  They are owning the process and that is so important and that’s so freeing.

    Q: It seems like you’re constantly communicating your vision to the membership in your 2020 articles. What other methods are you using?

    Chris Van Slooten: That’s a good one!  One of my swimmers asked me at Sectionals “am I going to the team dinner?” and I said yes, but I’m an introvert and it’s tough for me.  The vision 20/20 was something I added this week.  I’m cautious in my steps and there’s a reason for what I’m doing.   I’m open with parents, I’m okay with them contacting me and asking questions. 

    Here’s our vision, here’s our goals, it’s for the staff and for other parents to see.  We try and stay innovative and use social media.  I don’t do anything crazy, but I also know there are tools and technology developed.  I still like paper in hand, I think it’s a good thing.  We have 2 large team meetings a year with all the kids I coach where we outline the goals, next steps and the kids write down on paper what is discussed.  I think the kids that have done the best are the ones that write these things down.

    Q: How has AESC changed since your arrival? We see swimmers qualifying for Nationals, Futures, etc. now. 

    Chris Van Slooten: It’s a great question for some of the swimmers!  I think for me, my family, we take a great comfort in routine.  I think with the kids, they’re seeing a routine. Here is what we are doing and here is why we are doing it. It builds trust.  We have one year under our belt and now we’ve seen the research. I have a pattern there’s a standard. 

    I talk to team, I’m available, they know my family, we meet as a group and talk about leadership issues and it’s open to everyone.  I’m not just a guy that comes in and shows up for practice. We’ve had some kids with breakouts and now the kids see they can do that.  It wasn’t me saying that, it was them setting that goal for themselves and as long as we keep doing that, we’re good.  I think going back to some of our sages of our sport. I forget who said this, but he was observing a coach at UT (Eddie Reese) and he pulled the guys out and was having a team meeting. I learned that a team meeting, even if it’s 5 minutes, it’s part of the workout.  I tell my coaches, if they need to pull a kid out and talk to them, go for it. I think all of these things have really helped the program grow, get faster and improve.

    Q: Does the staff have a cohesive message/vision they try to convey to the athletes?

    Chris Van Slooten: We are in constant communication, we have monthly meetings, we use time on deck before practice.  With the staff, we have informal meetings. I’ll send something out like “hey, let’s make sure we talk to every swimmer at least twice in every practice”.   I do expect my coaches to look professional, every practice they wear a team polo. The kids wear AESC Caps all week, but on “Fun Cap Friday”. Sometimes, it’s those little things, and creating an environment of professionalism.  We do not sit down on deck, we’re not off on our electronics, we are doing what we need to do to make these kids successful.  We need to make sure that we are teaching these kids.  They are going to reflect what we value, the message we put out there. 

    Q: How are you staying innovative with your training? Are there any tools your using you feel are vital to improvement?

    Chris Van Slooten: I’m a pseudo techie, anyone that knows me knows that I’m not good with technology.  There are a lot of great training things out there, but my first filter is always “why would we need this”.1. How much will it cost? 2. Is it worth it? 3. Am I going to use it.? If there is a no, I don’t buy it. 

    Do I use anything that is “magic”? You know some swimmers will say “I like tempo trainers” and if they see results and like using them, they can.  We are using more and more video through Huddle with an iPad.  Some kids will come in with the drag sox, and I’ll say “okay let’s track your progress and give these a trial period”.  I try and keep things focused.  I may do something cause Dave Marsh does it, but I test it and see whether we get great results and then maybe I’ll use it.  Every Thursday we do a test set.  The kids know by the week which set they’re going to do on each day.  It takes care of all these things for them so they can focus on what they need to focus on.  So if a kid says to me “I want to go 55 in the 100 fly”, I say okay, what have you done?  What are you holding on race pace set?  You have to get them to think through it.  For a lot of these kids, they’re use to being a baby bird and being fed a set, and it can be frustrating, but it makes them own their performance.  There’s a tangible success to kids thaven taken ownership of their process and become leaders.
    Q: What do you want your legacy to be at AESC?  

    Chris Van Slooten: I hope that above all, that the kids know I gave my all so they can be productive adults. So they can go on to be leaders in their home as husbands and wives, so they can be parents, and leaders as employees. So they can say, “when I swam, this is what I learned from swimming”.  That’s important to me.  Anything else is gravy!  If we make national meets, that’s great, but if we have kids that go on collegiality , I want those college coaches to know what they’re getting from kids coming from AESC. 

    Q: What your favorite moment this year? 

    Chris Van Slooten: That’s hard, I think my favorite moment was stepping back and seeing the kids having fun with each other and how they’ve matured and how they’ve taken ownership of the process.  They’re taking pride in who we are as a team.  It’s a tough thing in our society to put the needs of others in front of your own, but these kids are doing it.   That means they’re getting it.  It’s something greater than themselves. 

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