Many swim enthusiasts consider Gary Hall, Jr. to be:
The Greatest Sprinter in the History of Swimming
Sprint freestyle legend Gary Hall Jr., one of Fitter and Faster’s original stars, is getting back in the pool.
The 3-time Olympian took his first steps back into the sport by signing on as the executive director of the Santa Ynez Valley Community Aquatics Foundation near California’s Central Coast that purchased the warmup pool from the 2016 Olympic Trials. It will be the centerpiece of a new aquatics, wellness and sports medicine facility.
After all, who better to help break in the Valley’s historic new pool than a 10-time Olympic medalist?
“It’s been a while since I’ve been on the pool deck,” says Hall, who’s kept in shape by playing tennis. “I just wanted to reconnect with some clinics, reconnect with swimmers and get my feet wet again.”
Hall was among those forward-thinking swimmers who realized a sea of change in freestyle technique, with the focus tilting towards core strength and trunk rotation and got on board. “I love seeing a new generation improving upon what we started exploring,” he says.
Explosiveness is another key part of the equation, especially for sprinters. And he says there are ways to build that, even if your team doesn’t have blocks to practice starts regularly.
“You never hear a swim coach tell you to go out and play tennis or basketball or soccer, but that is going to make you lighter on your feet and better at starting,” he argues.
On the pool deck, he encourages coaches to skip a long warmup set in favor of 15 minutes of quick-reaction exercises. “A lot of people do upwards of 2,000 yards to warm up their bodies, but what are you doing to start firing up those neurons?”
He also plans to make sports psychology a centerpiece of his Fitter & Faster Clinics, which is fitting for the sport’s original showman. Eight years before USA Swimming turned the Trials into a spectator event with fireworks, Hall hinted at how fun the most stressful swim meet on Earth could be by walking out for the finals at the 2000 Olympic Trials dressed in a boxer’s robe and shorts, throwing punches behind the blocks.
He wants to show young swimmers “how to deal with race preparation and avoid pressure and psychological burnout.”
“Growing up, I was expected to be a swimmer,” says the son of three-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall Sr., whose footsteps he was predestined to follow. “There were expectations and there was pressure, but that came from other people, like coaches and teammates. It did not come from my father, which is why it worked out.”
Learning how to cope with that kind of pressure is something that is “probably under-addressed in swimming — how do kids deal with pressure coming from their parents, whether it’s intentional or unintentional?”
He continues, “Race preparation is another big one. We’ve all known great practice swimmers. But for whatever reason, they would go slower in a meet than they could do in repeats at practice. Why is that? I want to help swimmers prepare for the race experience, which is different from the practice experience. I’ve picked up a few tricks from working with a number of brilliant sports psychologists throughout my career.”
Coaches and parents need to be aware that “there are a lot of different personality types, and the same approach doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not really possible to do a rah-rah speech that will affect each swimmer on the team the exact same way. Just acknowledging that aspect alone is more than what age-group swim coaches talk about in terms of sports psychology. If you had to create a pie chart of the time you spend just swimming repeat laps versus working on race prep – like starts or sports psychology–what would that pie chart look like? It’s a huge imbalance.”
Hall points to an old quote from Mark Spitz, which argues that swimming is 90% mental, and says that’s especially true at the sport’s highest levels.
“Take the finals of the NCAAs, for example,” he says. “Each one of those finalists is physically capable of winning the race. But oftentimes, the winner is determined by the sports psychology component or what coaches too often refer to as the intangible. Is it entirely intangible, or can it be practiced the same way you do with other forms of training? I think it’s something you can practice, refine and improve upon.”
Sports psychology is something that should be practiced year-round, he contends. Things like visualization exercises will come off as a “bunch of hooey” if the coach waits until taper to introduce them. “It won’t work if you only do it for a week and a half right as you are altering what you’ve been doing for the previous six months,” he says.
So how does Hall convert “practice swimmers” to his philosophy of race prep? It can be as simple — and silly — as jumping around on the pool deck, swinging his arms and making grunting noises.
“I try to win them over by relating, because I’ve been there,” Hall says. “I’ve gone through this experience my entire life. I feel an ability to connect to anyone who’s going through that themselves. Sometimes a change of perspective is all that’s needed.”