In the sport of swimming, most coaches are familiar with the concept of ‘good kids’. We know exactly what it means if another coach describes a swimmer as a ‘good kid’.
How would we explain the concept to someone outside of swimming? With a little reflection, and a lot of honesty, I believe this phrase more or less translates to ‘a swimmer who does exactly what I say, when I say it, without ever complaining.’
This article expands on these ideas and sets the background for the concepts expressed below.
As a coach, having an army of ‘good kids’ might seem like a good thing. However, as Dr. Denison described, there may be a cost. That cost might not only be a psychological one, but a performance cost as well.
Problem #1. It assumes that we, as coaches, have all the answers. We don’t.
I have outlined the potential short-comings of an instructionally-based in previous posts. Beyond those arguments, the impact on athlete ownership is significant as well. Nothing takes ownership away from a swimmer then telling them to fix a skill when they are already deeply engaged in working on a separate skill. If this happens often enough, they’ll just wait for you to tell them what to do because there is no sense in taking any initiative. That’s docility.
Biological adaptation is a fairly unpredictable process. As coaches, we can do a pretty good job, most of the time, with most swimmers. ‘Pretty good’ isn’t good enough. A willingness to accept our fallibility is a good step forward to better managing the process. Some humility might allow us to ask swimmers how they perceive the process is unfolding. Their perception is definitely more relevant to the final outcome than our perception. Asking would help. Listening would help more.
Ever have a swimmer perform worse than you expected? Me, too. Instead of talking about ‘missing a taper’ or blaming psychological strength, maybe we should also consider whether the swimmer no longer felt they owner their performances, consciously or not? How might our coaching behaviors have contributed to that outcome?
Problem #2. Totally compliant and docile swimmers (i.e. ‘good kids’) have shifted responsibility for their swimming to the coach, if only subtly.
Who washes rental cars? Who makes bed in a hotel room?
We are more invested in what we own. The only person who can swim the race is the swimmer. They have to be all in.
In performance sport, where outcomes are measured in hundredths, everything matters. If coaching behavior is creating docility in any way, it matters. Conversely, any opportunities to shift ownership back towards swimmers will be rewarded is well.
The solution is not to sit in a circle prior to practice and ask, ‘what would you like to do today?’ Leadership is critical and everyone needs to know where they’re headed and how they going to get there.
The solution is to develop an awareness of coaching behaviors and a consideration of the unintended consequences of our decisions. With a more holistic understanding of each situation, we can make better decisions and reduce the likelihood of unexpected outcomes, where we’re left wondering just what went wrong.
Every time some measure of control is enforced on swimmers, even with great intentions, there is a potential cost. That’s not a bad thing, we just have to understand what they cost might be.
How can we really develop ‘good kids’, those who love to swim, take responsibility for their performance, actively search for solutions, and do so in a manner that is most rewarding for them?
If we can create that environment and that experience, they’ll swim fast and have an experience that they will look back on with great pride, not bitterness or indifference.
How much fun would that be?