Every practice there should be a challenge. A set that is challenging? A certain swim that is challenging? You can call it a "challenge" if you want or just sneak it in there and act like its just a normal thing. Generally I just sneak these into practices and act like it is more of a way of life. Sometimes its good for the group to think that they did a tough "challenge" at practice. I would use your judgement on how to administer these challenges. They can change the outlook of your athletes in a single moment. Make sure they are prepared. Make sure they are motivated. Make sure it is appropriate for the athlete. Get ready, it's challenge time!
We occasionally will do a "shakedown" set. An example for 100's Free would be: 1 on 1:30, 1 on 1:29, 1 on 1:28, 1 on 1:27 (and so on...as far as you wish to go). I usually will figure out how far the top swimmers will go with the set then work backwards from there. I try to make the first third of the repeats do-able for all swimmers in the group. The next third should be pretty tough for most of the group, but still do-able. Then the remaining repeats should be so challenging that very few swimmers make it that far. When we do this type of thing the swimmers usually start getting excited and "into it" after the first third. When swimmers miss a repeat I will usually send them to another lane where they repeat 50 Kick, 50 Swim until the remaining swimmers have finished. Or - they get out and cheer. This type of set spices things up from the norm. Maybe once a month we do a set like this. Generally I like to have most of the group do the same interval and complete the set.
I almost never use broken swims with age groupers in this fashion: Dive 50, rest 20 seconds, push a 100, rest 10 seconds, push a 50 get your time and subtract 30 seconds (the rest) and try to beat your 200 time. I do use the broken swim idea in a set that contains something like 2x100s where we try to add them up to faster than their 200 time. Or 4x50's on short rest adding up to better than their 200 time. I think that planting a seed in an age groupers mind about what the possibilities are can be important. These reminders about "best times" help do that.
You can do a straight 500 swim/kick, 1000 swim/kick, 10, 20 or 30 minute swim. Once in a while just to prove that they CAN do it. This works great with younger or developing swimmers. If you do this once in a while no one will be terrified of the 500 at a swim meet. Even if you swim 4,000 yards a day a lot of younger swimmers are still scared of swimming the 500. Sometimes you have to let them actually do it to prove that they can do it. They need to be shown the way. I like to time 200 kicks for 8&Unders and 500 kicks for 9-10's and 1,000 kicks for 11&Olders. I track them and can keep team/group records.
Dive a 50 faster than half of their 100 time. Push a 50 faster than half their 100 time. Do a set of 100's that are 50 Breast, 50 Free and try to beat their last 100 of their 200 IMs. Hold their 500 pace for these certain 100's swim. Make up challenge sets that involve the swimmers own competition time - so each swimmer can challenge themselves against themselves. Set it up so that they can succeed. These types of swims you can and should sneak into nearly EVERY practice.
Relating Kicking To Swimming Speed
Time a 75 Freestyle kick and try to beat your 100 Freestyle swim time. Time a 100 Breaststroke Kick and try to be within 10 seconds of your 100 Breaststroke swim time. Do a 50 Breaststroke Kick and try to be within 5 seconds of your 50 Breaststroke swim time. Do a 200 IM kick and try to be within 20 seconds of your 200 IM swim time. You can design sets like this and adjust them for the current level of the group. Tell them if you get within 10 seconds you get a AAAA, within 15 you get a AAA, within 20 you get a AA and so on. You can make them "do-able", but still make them challenging.
Get Out Swims
You can really use your imagination on this one. Pick 8 swimmers who haven't gone under a certain time in a meet and let them know that if 3 swimmers do it, the group can get out early. Or do a skill set or relays (my all time favorite I am going to trick you into thinking that you are doing only fun but you will actually work really hard set!) instead of some other set at the end of practice. Have everyone dive a 100 of something and if half of the group can at least go within 2 seconds of their lifetime best then they win the bet. Make the entire team swim a relay by themselves. If there are 20 swimmers then each swimmer must swim a 50 Free. If the relay goes faster than 10 minutes then they win the bet. You can get the splits of each swimmer in the race and give the group updates as the relay goes on. They will start cheering for each other and throw in some really fast swims.
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