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Death By 1,000 Cuts

I'd like to pose a question to move toward an idea that approaches technical development and skill acquisition from a different perpective.

What's are the technical differences between Michael Phelps and your 'average' national level, sectional, or age group swimmer?

My thesis is that it’s probably not 1 or 2 big errors. It’s 1,000 small errors that add up to major differences.

The mistakes I am referring to include, and are certainly not limited to, the following-

  • Subtle differences in arm/leg timing

  • Subtle differences in limb/torso timing of rotation/undulation

  • Subtle differences in force application

  • Subtle differences in shaping the limb to apply force

  • Subtle differences in engaging with the flow of the water

  • Subtle differences in active streamlining of the WHOLE body, which is constantly shifting position

  • Subtle differences in head position

  • Subtle differences in breath timing

  • Subtle differences in spinal shaping

  • ETC…

I would argue that the higher the level of the swimmer, the magnitude of these errors, but not the number of these errors begins to decrease. The reason? See problem #1 below.

Consider a swimmer who makes a major technical change. Everyone agrees that it is ‘better’ and what happens? Performance improves by .06%. Why? Because there are 999 other problems that haven’t been addressed.

(I understand that there are anthropometric, physiological, and psychological factors involved in performance. They DO matter. However, I feel improvements in technique provide the greatest opportunity for improvements in race performance, particularly as a swimmer moves through their career.)

Problem #1 You can’t even SEE these errors.

Some of them are so subtle, you literally can’t know they’re occurring. You only see the result, the accumulation of their effects, which is a (relatively) slow swimmer. How do you plan on coaching something you can’t see, can’t articulate, or can’t provide feedback on?

Problem #2 Even if you could see these errors, are you sure you know the best solution for that individual?

Individuals have different levels of mobility and strength, different limb lengths, different flotation points, etc…What works for one swimmer might not work for another swimmer. You might trade one error for another. The critical consideration is that PRECISION matters. Are you sure your solution is better than the one the swimmer came up with?

Problem #3 Even if you could see these errors, and you know how to fix them, how do you plan on TEACHING all of them?

Instructing swimmers through all of these issues for every swimmer on the team and actually training these swimmers to retain all of these changes during races is a hopeless endeavor. There is not enough time or energy to realistically address all, or even some, of the technical shortcomings presented.

In summary, swimmers are making many small technical errors that have a cumulative and very real effect on performance. We cannot see many of these problems. Further, instruction-based teaching is an insufficient strategy to solve these problems.

So, what to do?

We need a new way to approach learning. Here are some ideas that might help facilitate that process.

#1 Accept the reality of the problem. We don’t know what we don’t know and we CAN’T know what we don’t know. Welcome your ignorance and operate with this in mind. With this mindset, realistic solutions become possible.

#2 Provide a variety of RELEVANT sensory experiences to enhance intrinsic kinesthetic information. The answers lie in each swimmer’s body and the answers are in the water.

#3 Provide broad-based technical principles so that swimmers can use their feedback to solve technical problems. If swimmers understand the goals of movement (reduce drag, maximize propulsion, sustain rhythm), they can work to solve gross motor problems where the details take care of themselves.

#4 Provide outcome-based tasks that provide swimmers feedback about the effectiveness of their movement. Swimmers need specific tasks that allow for the calibration of their sensory systems to performance outcomes.

#5 Focus on guiding swimmers through the learning process by requiring engagement, asking questions, and facilitating curiosity. Focus less on providing technical feedback and instruction. Avoid giving swimmers the answer.

#6 Sit back and watch swimmers figure out what you NEVER could have taught them. There are skills that coaches can’t teach that swimmers can learn. Give them a chance to do it.

I’ll be addressing each of these components in the future.

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