Riddle Me This
The Riddler was a famous nemesis of Batman, known for constantly posing riddles to anyone who would listen. While the Riddler’s intentions were often self-serving, all coaches stand to learn something from Mr. Nygma, the power of a good question.
The majority of coach-driven interactions tend to be instructive in nature. Information exchange is often one-way, with coaches providing swimmers feedback, advice, or encouragement. While this can approach have utility as coaches have valuable wisdom to impart, it ignores the most valuable information the coach-swimmer dyad has access to, the intrinsic feedback swimmers get from their body and from their water. I would like to posit that this information stream should be the focus of coach-swimmer interactions that focus on skill acquisition.
While coaches don’t have direct access to this information for obvious reasons, swimmers often don’t either because they have been taught not to value it, as the coach is often seen as the expert. This significantly limits the effectiveness of the learning process.
How can we reverse the situation? What a great question. The answer, of course, being…questions.
Effective questioning teaches swimmers to engage with the feedback they are receiving, while placing the onus on swimmers to solve their problems. Not only will this enhance the capacity for skill acquisition over time, it will enhance self-efficacy and self-confidence.
Instead of pointing out an error, ask the swimmer how they felt they performed. For instance, ask ‘how was your body position during that last 25?’, knowing full well it was terrible. Because it is a question, it isn’t perceived as criticism, and doesn’t contain the associated negativity, while still serving the purpose of drawing attention to the problem at hand. This can be used for any aspect of performance you would like to draw attention to. As a bonus, swimmers have to assess what they felt during each repetition, improving sensory awareness.
Enhancing Kinesthetic Awareness
How much pressure did you feel on you left arm compared to your right? Most swimmers will respond to that question with a blank stare. However, over time they can learn to tune into their kinesthetic information. Once they do so, their ability to detect and correct technical opportunities will be greatly enhanced. Coaches can direct this process by drawing attention to specific movements and body areas.
By consistently asking swimmers questions about what they’re focused on, what their stroke count was, how many dolphin kicks they took, what their time was, what their goal for this repetition is, etc…, coaches can require engagement. Particularly when questioning is consistent, swimmers KNOW that the questions are coming and they prepare for those questions, by engaging in each training session.
How can you take one less stroke? How can improve one second without changing your stroke count? How can you sustain your rhythm over the last 25? How can you maintain your body position over the last 25? By presenting big picture problems to swimmers, coaches can help swimmers focus on the challenges that are presented within the training session that would otherwise go unaddressed. As opposed to providing an answer for the swimmer, which may or may not be accurate, swimmer must find it for themselves.
Encouragement typically takes the form of ‘You can do it!’, or the equivalent. While encouragement and support are certainly valuable, they often fail to tap into the deepest reserves of resilience and determination. Next time a swimmer faces a significant challenge in practice or otherwise, simply ask, ‘How are you going to do this?’ The swimmer doesn’t need to articulate an answer (they shouldn’t), but they do need to find one for themselves. That will force them to take stock of their resources, mobilize those resources, and find a way to get it done. Of course, if the answer they come up with is, NO, then there probably wasn’t much you were going to help with in the first place!
Similarly, if a swimmer is struggling during practice or competition, simply ask ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Again, the swimmer can assess the situation, marshal their resources, and commit to action in way they believe in. When a swimmer is able to do this consistently, they begin to learn that they are in control.
Through the use of effective questions, coaches can return responsibility TO swimmers, instead of taking responsibility FROM swimmers. Not only will this ultimately help swimmers tune into the feedback they are receiving from their body and the water, it will be build the self-efficacy and self-confidence critical to long-term progression.