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Without feedback, learning doesn’t happen. However, how we define feedback, and how feedback is used, might be moving us closer to short-term goals at the expense of long-term goals.

Some quick definitions.

Feedback is any information related to movement. It can take the form of intrinsic kinesthetic information that is created during any movement arising from intrinsic sources (i.e. feeling of the heart beating) or extrinsic sources (i.e. pressure of the water).

Feedback can also be extrinsic information from an outside source. Extrinsic feedback is also known as augmented feedback, in that it is provided in addition to the intrinsic feedback originating in the body. Augmented feedback is typically provided by a coach. Augmented feedback supplements the information detected by the swimmer, as well as adds information the swimmer cannot detect (i.e. you can’t see yourself move, but the coach can).

Augmented feedback is further divided into knowledge of performance and knowledge of results. Knowledge of performance refers to feedback about how movement was performed (your arm was bent, your head was high, etc…). Knowledge of results refers to feedback related to how successful movement was relative to a specific goal (your time was 30-seconds, your stroke rate was 60 cycles per minute).

Intrinsic feedback can also be divided into knowledge of performance and knowledge of results, although the distinctions are much less significant as compared to extrinsic feedback. Intrinsic knowledge of performance refers to internal kinesthetic feedback about the kinematic (movements/positions) and kinetics (forces involved) of limb and body movement. It is more general in nature.

In contrast, intrinsic knowledge of results is more goal-oriented in nature. Within a stroke cycle, there are key points/goals around which movement is organized. For instance, in breaststroke a key point is a position of full extension in the front of the stroke. Getting to this position effectively is an important landmark in the stroke cycle. Swimmers can feel their position and receive feedback as to whether they achieved the position effectively.

Other landmarks exist as well, each one providing specific feedback as to whether the stroke cycle is on track to achieve the intended kinesthetic goal. What happens between landmarks is less important, only that the movements help to achieve the transition from landmark to landmark.

Why does it matter?

1. The type of feedback swimmers primarily rely on has a dramatic effect on skill acquisition and retention.

2. Coaching behaviors have a direct impact on which type of feedback swimmers come to rely on.

Effects of Feedback on Performance

  • Providing augmented feedback is MORE effective when provided LESS frequently.

  • Providing augmented feedback is more effective when provided when REQUESTED by swimmers, as opposed to being delivered at the coach’s discretion.

  • When athletes are provided with either knowledge of results or knowledge of performance, both groups improve skilled performance. However, those individuals provided with knowledge of results improved more.

  • Learning primarily through augmented knowledge of performance feedback increases the likelihood of choking. Learning in this manner is a conscious process. When swimmers start to freak out at a competition, they start to think and they start to control. This is called reinvestment. Consciously trying to control movement during racing is a recipe for disaster.

  • Skills learned with less conscious involvement are less susceptible to reinvestment.

  • Skills learned through intrinsic feedback are better retained and more resilient to stressors.

  • Learning through intrinsic feedback is less conscious in nature and less susceptible to reinvestment and choking.

  • Learning through intrinsic feedback allow for individuals to discover solutions best suited for their individual character

  • Intrinsic feedback is information communicated in the ‘language’ of the body, whereas verbal instruction must be ‘translated’; critical information is less likely to be lost in translation.

  • Intrinsic feedback focuses on outcomes/results as opposed to processes/causes. Learning in this manner focuses on accomplishing tasks, trusting the body will find the optimal solution.

Impact of Coaching Behavior

Coaches typically provide augmented feedback in the form of knowledge of performance. This information is not provided at the swimmer’s discretion, but at the coach’s discretion. While this is somewhat problematic for the reasons described above, the primary issue is much more significant.

The biggest problem with high levels of augmented feedback is the underlying message about which sources of feedback are of value. With high levels of augmented feedback derived from the coach, swimmers begin to believe that augmented feedback is the most valid feedback source, dismissing intrinsic sources of feedback. Over time, access to these intrinsic information streams becomes impaired or cut off completely.

What is talent in swimming?

Feel for the water, or the equivalent.

What is feel for the water?

Access to accurate intrinsic feedback!

Improving the QUANTITY and QUALITY of intrinsic feedback (i.e. ‘feel for the water’) should be a goal of the skill acquisition process. Current coaching behavior typically works against this process in the pursuit of immediate changes in movement quality.

Individuals with better access to this information will be able to learn skills faster and learn a broader set of skills. Coaching behaviors that enhance access to and interpretation of intrinsic feedback will enhance skill acquisition in the short term and the long term.

Moving Forward

What does this mean for coaches?

The type of feedback that coaches typically provide, augmented feedback, can be useful. This is obviously the case for all of us who have seen technical improvement while using these methods. That is not in question. What I question is whether these results are optimally consistent and effective for ALL swimmers.

When choosing to provide feedback, coaches should focus on providing knowledge of results. When providing knowledge of performance, this information should optimally be provided only when requested by swimmers. The next best strategy is for the coach to provide feedback infrequently.

For optimal learning, coaches should focus on helping swimmers tune into and process intrinsic sources of information. At first this may be in a general sense, ideally progressing to effectively using this information to provide intrinsic knowledge of results relevant to key points in the stroke cycle. By doing so, you are developing ‘talent’ and enhancing the ability to learn.

It is a long-term investment.

How to do that? In the future, I’ll outline how coaches can help swimmers attune to intrinsic feedback through the tasks they assign and the manner in which they communicate with swimmers. In the meantime, consider what you can do and what this might look like.

The influence of feedback on skill acquisition and retention is another aspect of the move towards less mechanistic, more organic methods of skill development. The future of coaching lies not in instruction, but through the cultivation of tasks and environments that enable learning to take place, emphasizing the intrinsic feedback that many swimmers have tuned out, often as a direct result of our own well-intentioned and well-reasoned coaching practices.


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