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Analyzing Colleges/Coaches

How SwimIntel Creates College Swimming Analytics

Jamie Bailey      |      Jan 16, 2024


While coaches have always used data to evaluate potential recruits, student-athletes have primarily relied on anecdotal advice to evaluate coaches (e.g. “Bob is a great coach”). One of the unique things that SwimIntel does is we analyze every college swimming program and coaching staff that we track using a data-driven methodology. That equates to several hundred evaluations every year across every major division in college swimming. This gives student-athletes and their families a quantitative analysis of each team they are researching.

This article will go through the criteria SwimIntel uses to create analytics for college swimming programs/coaches and why that criteria is used.

Great Coaches Develop Talent Anywhere

While there is a correlation between how much funding a program has and its recruiting, there is no such correlation between funding and how much faster a program makes its swimmers. Great coaches develop college swimmers at any level. The ability to make swimmers faster throughout their college careers is a critically important metric when evaluating coaches. You will find large, well funded programs that seem to only make their swimmers slower. You will find small, poorly funded programs that develop unbelievable time drops from their athletes.

There is so much that goes into athlete development and happiness. Great coaches know how to make swimming fun and fast. Lesser known programs have some of the best coaching staffs in the country, which is why student-athletes should keep an open mind when it comes to their outreach. SwimIntel focuses on swimmer improvement and retention when evaluating college programs and coaching staffs to help potential recruits find programs that are a great fit for them.

Criteria 1: Average Swimmer Improvement Through Junior/Senior Year

The first criterion used for evaluating college swimming programs is the average amount of time swimmers drop from their best events through their Junior/Senior years. This metric takes into account all Junior/Seniors/5-Year Seniors/Graduate Students on the current active roster. Only the two best events from these swimmers are used in the calculation as these are the events of focus for each swimmer. The best time achieved in college (any year of college) is used for each calculation and compared against the best time achieved in high school (any year of high school). The events selected as each swimmer’s “best events” are chosen based on times achieved in college. In other words, a high school distance swimmer that transitions to a sprinter in college will have their sprint times selected as their “best events”.

Why is this metric important to potential recruits? Swimming in college is a major commitment. If you plan on spending that much time staring at the bottom of the pool in college, you should be confident that the work you put in will get results.

Is there a difference between men’s and women’s JR/SR improvement? Yes. In 2022-2023, the average improvement for women in Division I through JR/SR year was 1.47%. For men, 2.54%. Some colleges are better at improving either men or women while others are similar. Each college is different.

Do colleges that recruit elite swimmers have worse improvement than other colleges? No! Great coaching staffs improve swimmers of any level. For example, University of Virginia women had some of the top recruiting classes in the last few years and also have some of the best JR/SR improvement rates in all of Division I.

Do highly selective academic colleges have lower improvement rates? Yes, overall there is a statistically significant drop in JR/SR improvement rate at schools that are extremely academically challenging. However, some exceptions really highlight exceptional coaching staff/environments. For example, Emory consistently improves both men’s and women’s swimmers at an above-average rate while also being academically highly selective.

Criteria 2: Average Swimmer Improvement Through Freshman Year

The second criterion used for evaluating college swimming programs is the average amount of time swimmers drop from their best events during their Freshman year in college. This is calculated much like Criteria 1 but only takes into account time drops in year one of college. Any swimmer on the current active roster contributes to this metric as their Freshman time drops/adds are used in the calculation (even if they are a Senior).

Why is this metric important to potential recruits? This metric captures how well student-athletes acclimate to the academic, athletic, and social environment in their first year of college.

Is there a difference between men’s and women’s FR improvement? Yes. In 2022-2023, the average improvement for FR women in Division was -0.12% (the average female college swimmer adds time in their Freshman year). For men, 0.70% (time drop).

Do bad FR improvement rates correlate to bad JR/SR improvement rates? No, not necessarily. Several college programs have below average Freshman improvement rates that have well above average JR/SR improvement rates. Training styles, academic challenges, environment, etc. can influence first-year performance.

Do swimmers who swim in a meet their Freshman year and then redshirt count in this metric? Yes! A swimmer is classified as “active” during their Freshman year if they swim in at least one official meet. If that swimmer is then redshirted and never swims in a taper meet, those times still count toward this metric. While that may not seem fair to the coach, athletes are often taken by surprise by the coaching staff that they will be redshirted. The more a coaching staff redshirts, the worse this metric becomes.

Criteria 3: Freshman to Sophomore Retention

The third criterion used for evaluating college swimming programs is the retention rate of Freshman swimmers. This metric is calculated by counting the number of active Freshman swimmers who come back as active Sophomore swimmers. To be classified as an “active” swimmer, one must swim in at least one official meet for the school that year.

Why is this metric important to potential recruits? It can be difficult for recruits to determine how happy team members are in college on a single official visit. Actions speak louder than words. A high attrition rate can be an indication of issues with either recruiting, culture, or environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How often/when are these metrics updated? SwimIntel updates each college profile at least twice per year. The first update is after mid-season taper meets (Dec/Jan). The second update is after conference/NCAA championships (Mar/Apr). Profiles may be updated on request or to correct inaccuracies.

Are there situations where a coaching staff has below-average data but are still great coaches? Yes! There is always more to the story than three numbers. Some coaches are new to a program and are cleaning up a toxic culture, which can take years. Many college coaches put academics first, which makes it difficult to achieve above-average improvement rates at more academically rigorous schools. Some coaches have bad luck with injuries some years. Recruits should always take the opportunity to learn as much as they can about a coaching staff during the recruiting process.

Why does SwimIntel use the average of all swimmers on a team and not just the top swimmers? Coaches will often cherry-pick past and current swimmers to highlight improvement on social media and in recruiting materials. SwimIntel publishes individual swimmer improvement data in addition to the overall averages. However, great coaches treat all incoming swimmers as equals and leave no one behind. The overall average reflects the team as a whole and not just specific individuals. All swimmers on a team count equally.

Aren’t you unfairly punishing teams that frequently redshirt Freshman or Sophomores? No!! Few swimmers want to be redshirted because they still have to balance grueling practices and academics but do not get to compete. If anything, we aren’t punishing unwanted redshirting enough.

How can a coaching staff receive below-average evaluations but still be at the top of their conference? Some coaches are simply great recruiters. Some colleges are one of the only fully funded swimming programs in their conference (i.e. they can give out max scholarships). Fast incoming swimmers can win conference championships without ever improving. However, being a great recruiter is not the same as being a great coach.

How accurate is the JR/SR improvement metric for teams with very few Junior/Senior swimmers? With any dataset, the more data you have, the more accurate it is. A small team with only two Junior/Senior swimmers may not have enough data to judge how well a coaching staff develops college swimmers by looking at its average JR/SR improvement rate.