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Let’s Talk About Our Feelings, Part II

As described in the first part of this series, the creation of appropriate tasks is the first step when enhancing effective skill acquisition through intrinsic feedback. Lest I gave the impression that coaching becomes a passive activity, I would like to clarify that coaching remains a VERY active process.

The difference is what is said and what is left unsaid. What we say and do during practice, has a significant influence on how swimmers’ orient their focus, pursue goals, and process the kinesthetic information that they are finally tuning into. We have to help them learn to FEEL the water.

Below are three main objectives that our communication should accomplish. Coaches need to clarify intention, ensure engagement, and guide information processing.

Clarifying Intention

Swimmer need to know the purpose of every training to task. They need to know the specific problem they are trying solve.

They need to know the specific goals they are trying to accomplish with each repetition. They need to know the result they are working to achieve.

Ensuring Engagement

Once the goal and purpose, coach’s communication should focus on the retention of task focus and engagement. The best way to do this?

Ask questions.

What was your time on that one?

What was your stroke count on that one?

How did you feel your performance was on that repetition?

What did you do well on that repetition?

What needs to be better on this repetition?

What’s going really well right now?

How are you going to bounce back on this repetition?

These questions can’t be answered if swimmers are singing pop songs or daydreaming.

Aid in Information Processing

The final priority is to help swimmers learn to process the (hopefully!) novel information they are receiving.

Again, questions can be very useful. In this case, it is more useful to direct their attention towards specific actions or movements. For example, ‘Were you able to stay stable through the torso on that repetition?’. This is particularly useful when you know they WEREN’T stable. It can help them attune to the fact they have a problem, without really pointing it out. Make them figure it out.

Through this process, we can draw attention to points of interest while helping swimmers clarify the sensory input they get, learning to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant.

An important distinction. I believe it is important to ask how that repetition FELT as opposed to what they THOUGHT about that repetition. The focus should always be on the kinesthetic, not the cognitive. Every opportunity to reiterate this should be taken advantage of.

Feedback can be provided, but I would suggest you only do so when requested by the swimmers. In addition, I would suggest that you always have the swimmer verbalize their own feelings prior to providing your own. For instance, if they ask, ‘How was my head position?’, you can simply respond, ‘you tell me your assessment and then I’ll tell you mine’.

The idea is to ‘wean’ swimmers off of feedback provided by the coach, moving towards the feedback within their bodies. Over time, swimmers will learn to appreciate and prefer their own feedback, only requesting augmented feedback to double check their perceptions. Swimmers who KNOW they’ve got it figured out are the most self-confident and self-assured. This is the type of swimmer you want!

When providing feedback, being really vague is usually helpful for our purposes. My favorite is the ambiguous half-nod, more of acknowledgement of their assessment than a provision of my own. For swimmers who seem particularly dependent on feedback, try to find a way to make sure that the swimmer knows you’re paying attention, while minimizing the information you provide.


The hard part is that you have to accept that you are not in control. It is up to the swimmer. Sometimes the answer is obvious to you, but they have to figure it out for themselves. Providing the answer might seem like a solution in the short term, but it will ultimately short circuit the learning process. Be patient and don’t give it to them. It will be worth it.


Fortunately, the coach retains a very important and very active role in the skill acquisition process. Beyond designing effective training exercises, coaches must still lead swimmers through those exercises. By clarifying purpose, ensuring engagement, and aiding information processing, coaches can greatly influence the learning through process through their interactions.

The HOW has changed, but the impact has not.

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