Boredom is a real problem in training.
Bored swimmers are not psychologically engaged and disengaged swimmers will certainly not benefit from training as much as an engaged swimmer would.
While it would be easy to castigate swimmers for being bored, lecture them about ‘what it takes’, and be otherwise unsympathetic to their plight, that’s probably not going to help the situation. This isn’t about abbreviated attention spans or the ‘iPhone’ generation.
The problem is not that practice isn’t ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’. The problem is that practice tends to be repetitious, routine, unfold in predictable patterns, and there’s often little variation in training stress.
Psychological boredom is also likely a sign of physiological boredom. A bored swimmer signals that physiological adaptation is grinding to a halt as well. Stable (i.e. not improving) performances in training are also a warning sign.
Overtraining/underperformance has been related to a quantitative metric known as training monotony, which is calculated by dividing the average training load by the standard deviation of the training load over a given time period.
This metric is objective and related to the nature of the training that is actually performed. It has nothing to do with whether swimmers are engaged, committed, etc…High training loads that do not vary much lead to overtraining/underperformance. While reducing training loads is not likely a long-term option, managing the variability is.
If your swimmers look bored and act bored, that’s a problem. Importantly, it’s not their problem, it’s your problem.
This isn’t to suggest that we remove accountability from swimmers. Instead, we can examine how coaching practice contributes to the situation. As coaches, we need to consider how our coaching is facilitating boredom and what we can do about it. The cost of not doing so will be disengaged and physiologically stale swimmers, regardless of their motivation levels.
Which comes first, psychological or physical boredom? Does it matter and if so, how does that change our approach?
Swimmers have very different tolerances to monotony. How can we identify low/medium/high monotony-tolerant individuals?
How can we manage monotony in a closed environment (pool) with limited space, time, and ability to design and offer numerous training programs?
How do we manage the need for variability with the need for specific and consistent training that facilitates adaptations? Too much variability, minimal adaptation. Too little variability, stunted adaptation.
Variability can exist at different timescales. How far out do we need to consider? Week, month, year, quad? What is actually noticed by swimmers?
Variability becomes monotonous as well. Humans eventually pick up ANY type of pattern. How do we vary our variability?
Vary the types of hard work. 3 days in a row of threshold work will be not be tolerated as well as three days in a row of equally hard work of different, especially if this pattern is repeated frequently. At the same time, if you never do 3 days in a row of the same type of training, it could be a novel change!
Include varying levels of PERCEIVED stress over the course of a week and month. The key point is to differentiate between what you perceive and what they perceive. You’re not doing the training.
Create routine, vary the routine, and then completely change the routine. Swimmers do like consistency. Pick a pattern/routine, be consistent for a while, and then change everything.
Day to day practices need to FEEL and be PERCEIVED as different from each other.
Be aware of the patterns you fall into. If you’re not sure, ask your swimmers. They’ll know.
If you have a weekly cycle, change it every month or so. You don’t have to change what days you have practice, which is likely not possible. However, you can change what you do on which day.
Pay attention to when specific kids check out. For those who check out early, how can you give them a small, logistically feasible twist that is PERCEIVED to be a big change?
Allow choice in training. Individuals who need more of a change will choose that change. In this way, self-regulation can occur.
Each year needs to be set up differently or consist of a major change. For a high school/college swimmer, the 4th year can be tough if it is the same process as the 3 previous years.
Few swimmers experience a true quadrennial plan, and fewer experience multiple quadrennials. Quadrennial variability likely only applies to individuals swimming professionally. I am also not sure that variability can really be perceived at that time scale. Rather than offer solutions, I suggest that individuals working in this realm be aware of this potential issue.
In many cases, a small spike of novelty (we’re playing water polo tonight!) can have a long-term effect. Of course, the same trick or the same pattern of novelty (i.e. Friday night) becomes monotonous as well.
This post isn’t about making training fun. This post isn’t about coddling swimmers and avoiding the realities of training. There are certain tasks that need to be accomplished in training. These cannot be circumvented.
The argument is that repetitive and unvarying training loads and training content impairs the training process, for both physiological and psychological reasons.
Effective coaching will consist of doing what needs to be done in a way that is most effective and efficient. This requires examining our current practices and reflecting on how we are balancing the two complementary needs of consistency and variability.
This is another example as to how effective training design goes well beyond ‘knowing your energy systems’. We must continue to raise the bar, if we are to help ALL swimmers improve, reliably.
Managing the balance between consistency and variability is another skill that separates the most effective coaches.