Jim Richardson Interview

Jim Richardson is the Women’s Swim Coach at University of Michigan. I have been fortunate to work with Jim the past four years on the refinement of his dryland training program. Jim is one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable coaches that I know. His passion for learning and willingness to innovate inspire me.

What are the most essential requirements for a successful conditioning program? I believe that you need a plan for conditioning which will enhance the preparatory, competition, and championship phases of the season. Second I believe that you need exercise modules which can be applied in a systematic manner to produce optimal adaptation. Finally I believe that you need a competent conditioning coach who understands that conditioning is part of the bigger picture – optimal sport performance.

What are the most common mistakes in conditioning? 1) a lack of understanding of the specific sport performance elements which need to be enhanced through conditioning; 2) a lack of understanding of how and when to apply conditioning components based on a seasonal performance progression; and, 3) doing exercises which become an entity unto only themselves.

What is “functional training” from your point of view? To me functional training means conditioning in a manner that requires the involvement of the entire body – especially the stabilizing muscle groups. Training programs which are systematic and incorporate progressively developing exercises which are multi-plane in nature and require rhythm, coordination, and stabilization, characterize “functional training” to me.

What do you do to make training more functional? I try to break down swimming movements into sequential components and then look for exercises to enhance those components. I look for ways to add resistance to those component movements without disrupting the “flow” of the movement. We try to develop a plan which appropriately addresses both the protagonistic and antagonistic (when appropriate) aspects of movement.

How important is specificity? I don’t think that the conditioning movement needs to mirror the specific sport movement. I fact, I tend to prefer movements which will enhance the components of swimming movements without trying to duplicate those movements specifically.

What aspect of conditioning athletes is most difficult and how have you tried to address it? The most difficult aspect is trying to have the athletes understand that conditioning is a year-round, progressive process where the cumulative effect will have the greatest influence on swimming improvement. We try to educate the swimmers regarding their need to continually improve their level of fitness and athleticism.

With the plethora of information available how can you determine what is best? I rely on experts who have a track record of success. I try to read a lot and then seek the opinions of those I trust.

Where do you stand on nature versus nurture? How much difference can training make? I think that both nature and nurture are important. The research of K. Anders Ericsson and Carol Dweck makes important points regarding the significance of nurture in producing excellence in performance. The science of epigenetics is revealing startling new information about how our nurturing can affect our genes. I believe that training makes all the difference in performance excellence. Expertise research clearly indicates that practice over years can overcome a genetic talent advantage. You can’t make chicken salad out of turkey, but you can make some great turkey salad!

What is the sure sign that a self proclaimed conditioning guru is not a good source of advice? The person has no track record of performance improvements with an accompanying development of healthy lifestyles. They are most often dogmatic, authoritarian, and inflexible.

What do you differently with the female athlete in terms of conditioning? I think women need to spend more time maintaining a program of conditioning which will maintain their optimal body composition. Three to four bouts per week of 45 minutes of conditioning which involve the quadriceps muscles is a must for most of our female athletes. We also do a lot of upper body strength development. Those are the major differences from men to me – difficulty in maintaining functional body composition, and a lack of upper body strength.

What has been the biggest innovation in training that you have seen during the course of your career and where is the biggest room for innovation in training athletes? In swimming the two biggest innovations have been the development of significant out-of-water conditioning programs and the body balance / anchor technical work pioneered by Bill Boomer. I think the biggest room for innovation in training swimmers lies in the continued development of dryland conditioning programs and their integration with water training.

What's the biggest issue in training athletes today? The biggest issue is getting reliable performance improvement information that helps good athletes become excellent athletes. Information garnered from gifted athletes and their coaches is not always applicable to developing an athlete.

Who has been a role model in your career and why? I have had a number of role models in my career. My high school coach, Ron Goins, was also a biology teacher. He coached us to love racing and competing and we never swam out of fear of him. Doc Counsilman was the consummate teacher / scientist / coach. He set the bar for developing a systematic training program based on a comprehensive approach to performance. I admire Tony Dungy because he has proven that you can reach the highest level in your sport through teaching, honesty, trust, and empowering your athletes. Finally I admire you, Vern. You’ve stayed true to your passion; you are not afraid to ask the tough, important questions; you continue to study and learn about all the elements of human performance; and, most importantly, you are willing to share with those who really want to learn.

What are the biggest professional challenges have you had to face? Working with people who don’t “get it” the way I do. People in positions of authority or support who are superficial in their understanding and appreciation of sport performance, and who do not have a passion for making a positive difference are a source of real frustration for me.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? Dislike? I most enjoy teaching and helping young people discover “new” things about themselves and their world, and then watching them make changes to improve their lives. I dislike working with people who are not committed to those whom they are serving.

Did there come a time in your career where you were faced with a "fork in the road?" If so, do you ever revisit the decision you made or didn't make? In 1997-99 our team went through a lot of internal turmoil. The size and standing of the team dropped significantly. I considered resigning and leaving coaching. I decided that it was my responsibility to “right the ship.” I’m glad I decided to stay and work through the problems. I learned a lot of important things about myself and coaching that I think have made me a better coach.

What inspired you to get into the field you are in? I have always had a passion for understanding the elements behind human performance and I enjoy teaching. I love to see the triumph of the human spirit.

Is failure ever valuable? I think that failure can always be valuable. It contains a lot of valuable information if it can be viewed objectively. It can provide the seeds for success if you know what to look for. It provides information about performance.

Which changes now taking place in your field that should be encouraged, and which resisted? I think there is a desire among young coaches to learn more about training paradigms. We need to bring more successful coaches and training experts together to discuss what we are learning from a systematic approach to training.

We need to resist the increasing distance between collegiate athletics and the educational environment of the university. Fewer administrators and coaches have backgrounds in education. More are coming from a business or a professional coaching background. I believe that this trend is to the detriment of both collegiate sport and the student-athletes.


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