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Drive My Car

As coaches, we want to develop technically robust swimmers who are able to execute their skills in any context. Better swimmers are more technically consistent, regardless of speed, fatigue, or psychological pressure.

Technical parameters are consistently impaired during the last quarter of all 100 and 200 events. While this is certainly due to physiological fatigue, it also due to our technical RESPONSE to fatigue. Swimmers who are better able to retain their skills under physiological pressure will swim faster.

We’ve all coached swimmers who lacked technical durability under psychological pressure. While surely psychological skills (attentional control, emotional regulation, task-specific focus, etc…) play a role, I believe that how technical skills are acquired and stabilized influences the resilience of those technical skills against psychological stress.

How do we get there?

Steering Wheels

For swimmers to be able to be bulletproof under pressure, they need to modulate, control, and retain skills to be able to steer their way through fatigue. As described in FEEDBACK, they ideally do so with intrinsic feedback.

Intrinsic feedback allows swimmers to identify the steering wheels of the stroke around which swimmers orient their movement to hit specific positions. In the case the result (achieving a position) supersedes the motions in between.

These positions act as kinesthetic check marks that guide the execution of successful skilled performance. Establishing robust, effective swimming comes from identifying these critical checkpoints conceptually, learning to understand their sensory signature, and finally training to consistently achieve the desired checkpoints under physical and psychological pressure.

Building Robust Skills

Using the concept of a steering wheel or checkpoint, the process of training these aspects of stroke can begin. If done successfully, swimmers can be expected to develop skills that are more robust to the psychological and physiological stressors of competition.

1. Identify Critical Skill Components

While there are logical checkpoints that can be determined through biomechanical principles, this can vary for certain individuals. These checkpoints can be derived from a mechanical understanding of the stroke, as well as through communication with each individual as to what needs to ‘click’ for successful performance. These are checkpoints that are already being used by the swimmer. If these steering wheels are serving the swimmer effectively, it makes sense to build upon these sensations.

  • Transition points in the stroke can typically serve as good checkpoints.

  • Checkpoints should be easily defined and provide clear feedback to the swimmer about their achievement.

2. Secure Kinesthetic Awareness

Once the critical steering wheels have been identified, swimmers must develop the ability to unambiguously assess whether they have achieved each checkpoint. This can be accomplished by designing tasks that require swimmers to successfully achieve these checkpoints.

These tasks can and should be varied slightly to provide variation to enhance an understanding. Small deviations through the use of additional equipment, varying velocity, or other additional constraints can develop to develop the sensory sensitivity to distinguish varying degrees of success.

Armed with this sensory awareness and clear kinesthetic understanding of movement goals, swimmers will be more attuned as to whether they are achieving desired technical checkpoints. Even though they might not always be able actually DO anything about it, they’ll know if they are off track. Awareness is the first step towards change.

3. Train to Make Each Steering Wheel Incredibly Robust

Once the critical steering wheels have been identified conceptually and understood kinesthetically, the focus needs to shift to ensuring that those steering wheels become resilient against the pressures of competition. This should be done in several contexts to ensure that technical skills will hold up in all situations.

Physiological Pressure

Ensuring resilience against physiological stress is the most straightforward objective. This will take the form of any and all training that you feel develops the physiological systems to race effectively.

The critical distinction is that the focus of these sets needs to shift slightly. The swimmer’s goal needs to be on ensuring that each check point is accomplished successfully. The physical challenge of each set needs to be scaled so that there is an individually appropriate balance of success and failure, both having utility in the learning process.

The nature of these sets ultimately need to move towards the specific velocity and physiological requirements of competition.

Technical Pressure

The thought process behind these interventions is similar to enhancing kinesthetic awareness, but there is more focus on TRAINING as opposed to learning.

Training tasks should include extraneous technical challenges while swimming at high(er) velocities and level of fatigue. The swimmers have to work through the extra noise to make sure they lock in on the checkpoints. In this case, it is the varied technical tasks that challenge technical stability as opposed to physiological stress.

For instance, butterflyers can be required to achieve various technical checkpoints while swimming with their head up and constantly varying head position or breathing pattern. This can be further varied by constantly changing the equipment swimmers have to execute skills with. In doing so, swimmers learn to decipher what is important, make rapid adjustments, and lock onto the critical points under pressure.

Force Production Pressure

Wrist weights, elbow weights, ankle weights, power towers, weight beltst, cords, etc… By requiring swimmers to find and control each steering wheel under load, swimmers are challenged technically in a novel way. When they can successfully control the steering wheels under load, they will be better able to execute these skills in a variety of context. Different types of resistance will provide different challenges.

Using butterfly as an example, one of the checkpoints may be achieving full extension of the arms in the front of the stroke with hips up. This can be challenged by the use of a weight belt. When swimmers are able to successfully achieve the proper position, in spite of the weight belt, this steering wheel will be more robust to perturbations during competition.

Psychological Pressure

Meets, single effort swims, and race rehearsal swims with consequences can be useful to make sure swimmers are psychologically resilient. Swimmers can learn to focus on what is important, and with graded exposure, can learn to do so with more and more distractions, either external or internal (pressure). Many options exist here. What is important is to ensure that the focus remains on executing the specific skills required for success.

To build robust technical profiles that hold up in competition, systematic strategies are necessary. It is critical to identify the crucial technical points that swimmers use to navigate the stroke. Once these checkpoints are identified, they must be understood intrinsically. Once that process is complete, these checkpoints must be hardened to the pressures of competition.

Because these skills are learned in a variety of contexts while focusing on intrinsic feedback, swimmers can rely on that feedback, as opposed to conscious thought, to carry them through a performance. A greater reliance on physical sensation reduces the risk of reinvestment or choking. Swimmers learn how to drive the car in many contexts. As a result, they know what they have to do, they know how to do it, and they believe they can.

Competition is unpredictable. Skill is paramount. Swimmers must develop the ability to execute their skills under pressure when it matters. By stressing the critical technical components in as many ways as possible during training, we can help swimmer's develop the skill to execute in championship racing.

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