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Time For a Change I

As any coach can attest, technical change is a very difficult process, particularly in older age group and senior swimmers. The typical approach consists of suggesting a change and expecting the swimmer to take ownership of the change, enhancing skill over time.

This approach can be effective with particularly skilled and/or motivated (obsessive?) swimmers. However, it fails to serve those individuals who either can’t differentiate nuanced movements or lack the attentional capacity to focus on those nuances for several hours at a time, or both.

Unfortunately, most swimmers comprise the latter group, resulting in what we see in most competitions, poor technique.

Beyond a lack of effectiveness, there are conceptual issues with this approach that have important implications.

One observation is that swimmers with multiple years of experienced have developed stable technical skills. This is great when those skills are effective, yet problematic when those skills are not sufficient for the desired performance levels.

A second belief is that if a swimmer demonstrates a new skill correctly once, they should be able to execute that skill at all intensities and levels of fatigue, immediately. This is obvious unrealistic.

When there is no attempt to progressively prepare swimmers to retain newly developed skills under the pressure of velocity or fatigue, they don’t those skills. Developing robust skills must be done in a systematic way over time to ensure that any changes hold up when they matter, in competition.

These two observations point towards two very important tasks that are often overlooked in the skill acquisition process.

1. Instead of imposing new skills on old, stable skills, these older skills must first be ‘weakened’ or de-stabilized.

2. Once an effective change has been established and understood, this change must be reinforced and stabilized under pressure.

As a consequence, I see the technical acquisition process as consisting of three stages-

1. Destabilize existing, problematic skills.

Frist, older skills must be de-stabilized or weakened by exposure to high amounts of movement variability. Swimmers must be able to perceive that other movement options exist and be kinesthetically aware of these differences.

From a physical standpoint, aerobic training and short duration, high velocity speed/power training are conducive to facilitating these changes, as fatigue is low in both cases. This is compatible with a ‘basic’ or ‘introductory’ training period.

2. Channel current skills towards more effective variants.

In the second stage swimmers are steered towards desired changes by including tasks that force swimmers to perform the desired change, as much as possible. The more that change can be directed through task design, as opposed to cognitive processes, the more effective these changes will be. With task design driving technical changes, moderate degrees of movement variability will still be present.

When considering training design, most training elements are compatible as you move through the middle of the season, ensuring the work being done now prepares swimmers for what must be done later. Importantly volume/intensity combinations must allow for desired skills to be expressed and maintained.

3. Stabilize updated skills to withstand competitive pressure.

Lastly, these newly developed skills must be stabilized through increasing exposure to competition relevant velocities and levels of fatigue. The major focus in training will be the development of race specific readiness, with the actual training content being dependent on the targeted events and the background of the swimmers in question.

Importantly this is not a 3-week process. It takes time and it is critical to be deliberate and thoughtful about the changes you intend to make. It is not a quick fix and the desired changes needed to make an impact on performance will not happen by chance.

Skipping one of these stages reduces the effectiveness of the change process. For this process to work effectively, it must be developed in line with a plan for physical development. These plans cannot exist in isolation. They are one and the same.

In a series of posts, I will outline some ideas as to how each stage can be accomplished effectively.

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