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Teacher, Leave Them Kids Alone

When considering the effectiveness of any skill acquisition intervention, the ultimate litmus test is whether the desired changes show up in championship competition.

It’s not whether the desired skill was performed during a drill. It’s not whether the desired skill was performed during slow swimming. It’s not whether the desired skill was performed during fast swimming. It’s not whether the desired skill was performed during fast, fatigued swimming.

It’s not even whether the desired skill can be executed during an in-season meet. It has to be the targeted championship meet, under pressure.

If they can’t, or don’t execute during championship, the process was incomplete or ineffective.

Even if you believe they choke in a championship context, it doesn’t matter. It’s still a technical problem and a ‘you’ problem. Building technical resilience to psychological pressure is part of the process.

My guess is that most skill acquisition efforts miserably fail this test. With this standard for effective skill acquisition, the methods we use and the plans we create need to change accordingly.

While not EASY, the process is simple.

1. Identify the right problem and the right solution.

3. Do it right in training.

4. Do it right at high speed for short distances in training.

5. Do it right at high speed for longer distances in training.

6. Do it right at high speed over race distances with various physiological pressures in training.

7. Do it right in a race with low psychological pressure.

8. Do it right in a race with high psychological pressure.

9. Do it right when it COUNTS.

Clearly, this is a long process. You’re not going to get to run through this process 10 times with each swimmer during each season. You’re going to get 1, maybe 2 opportunities for each stroke. The better you are with the first 2 steps, the more opportunities you’ll have. I’ll discuss that in more detail below.

The latter 6 steps require patience, commitment, and sound training. Bob Bowman has described how training is about conditioning strokes. This is exactly what is happening in steps 3-8. You must require technical excellence and you build the training program around requiring technical excellence.

Most coaches are familiar if not comfortable with the training aspect of the process. I’ll focus my attention on the first 2 steps, that without executing successfully, render the rest of the skill acquisition process useless.

Identify the Right Problem and Solution

When considering technical improvement, correctly identifying technical opportunity is the first step. By correctly identifying the right problems, you will simultaneously solve multiple technical symptoms that are created by a singular root cause. This will make your interventions more effective.

The impact on performance of the whole process will be determined here. Take your time and be confident of what needs to change first.

Some ideas that may help you better evaluate these opportunities.

  • Understand biomechanical principles. What needs to happen? If you’re not sure, then buy a book.

  • Understand cause and effect. Is what you are seeing a symptom or a cause? Refer back to your principles.

  • Understand what is considering ‘ideal’ technique, while always being mindful of biomechanical principles. Buy a book, attend a conference, call a friend.

  • Watch what the best are doing and identify commonalities. Youtube is FREE!

  • Know what’s important and what’s not important. See above for how to do that. Is it cause or effect?

  • Be able to SEE what is going on when swimmers are swimming, preferably in real time. Get better at this by watching A LOT of video at various speeds of swimmers of varying abilities.

It takes a lot of time to become skilled in this area.

Do it Right

Once you’ve identified the technical opportunity, the next challenge becomes helping the swimmer learn how to execute the desired change.

Your goal needs to be for the swimmer to learn the desired change as fast as possible and be able to accurately differentiate when the change is being performed effectively. You want to do this with as few words as possible.

If you’re good, five minutes is a reasonable time frame for a significant technical change. That is how fast the change needs to be and for the swimmer to have a crystal-clear representation of what needs to be accomplished.

To do this, swimmers must be placed in situations where they can receive significant sensory feedback about the desired change. Swimmer learn through sensation, so we must provide them with that sensation to facilitate learning.

Speak in sensory language. Instead of telling swimmers what to, explain to them what they will have to feel. They interpret. By extension, instead of describing the desired skill, describe what they have to do achieve it and what it will feel like. This often involves OVER-correcting to get the swimmer where you want them to be. Describe what they need to feel and they’ll do what they need to do.

Provide CLEAR objectives. ‘Slice your hands through the surface of the water’ is very different than ‘raise your hands higher in the water’. In the former case, the swimmer will receive unambiguous feedback about what they’re doing. Every repetition will let them know how they doing. This will keep them on track.

Describe outcomes as opposed to movements. As opposed to providing the swimmer with a solution, give them a problem. In breaststroke, swimmers need to return to a position that minimizes drag at the completion of each stroke cycle. Instead of telling swimmers how to position the body, provide the problem conceptually and let them find the solution practically. Give them tasks that magnify feedback about position. If they really struggle, you can provide some guidance.

Be as vague as possible and as detailed as necessary. When you describe the change, you want to provide them as little information as possible. The more information you provide, the more they will think. The more they think, the less they feel. The less they feel, the longer it will take for the skill to be automatic and robust. This is the opposite of what you want. You can always provide more information if necessary, but you can never take it back. Start with less.

Use analogy. Analogy is a terrific way to use outcomes to guide movement without providing specific solutions, while also providing as little information as possible. Tell a swimmer to ‘blast of the wall like a rocket ship’ instead of ‘place your feet shoulder width apart with 90 degrees of knee bend’. The analogy will get them 95% of the solution and then minor adjustments can be made. The converse is definitely not true. Importantly, the former requires minimal cognitive engagement.

Design effective tasks that require the desired changes. Provide swimmers with tasks that provide clear, magnified feedback about how well the task is performed. It should be crystal clear as to how successful they are. In this manner, they learn to feel the appropriate execution of the desired skill without having to ‘think’ through movements. When feedback is clear and relevant, learning accelerates. Consider the swimmer working on upper body stability while dolphin kicking. Placing a 5-10# weight in their hand will require much greater stability, as well as enhance the swimmer’s awareness of how much movement is occurring. It is MUCH clearer than when a coaching describes the action and provides feedback. The feedback is in the language of the swimmer.

It’s important to appreciate the commonalities of all of these strategies. They seek to minimize cognitive engagement and maximize sensory exploration. There is a BIG difference between the two. While you always want engagement, you want that engagement through sensory exploration as opposed to thinking about limb placement and position.

The less cognitive involvement, the more ‘organic’ the changes will be. Importantly, these changes will be more robust against the increasing pressures of the training process. Under physiological pressure, it becomes harder and harder to think. However, you can still feel.

The skill in facilitating skill acquisition is identifying the right problem and then creating learning opportunities that allow for that learning to happen quickly and deeply. The more effective you are in doing so, the sooner you can train these skills. Without the training, the learning doesn’t matter.

Further, when swimmers learn deeply and quickly, they are better able to assimilate multiple changes. However, I caution that the more simultaneous changes you attempt, the greater the likelihood none will succeed.

Chase two rabbits, catch none.

Working the Process

Once you’ve moved on to the ‘training process’, it becomes more about reinforcing reengagement, realigning focus, and upholding a standard of technical excellence. The coach’s responsibility is now to design effective practices that progressively challenge technical effectiveness and physiological capacity.

Where do ‘drills’ fit in? They can be useful as reminders to get someone to feel the change or remember the feeling of the change. Occasionally, they can be used to develop physiological capacities that support skills. However, understand that the drills are not facilitating the change. At this point, the change needs to be demonstrated during increasing training loads and this is the process that will result in improved technique, not drill work.

It is important to stay with the major technical change and ignore the rest. If you see an error that is not the major change, IGNORE IT. If the error is that important, you screwed up the first step and you didn’t pick the right problem to fix.

It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see.

Either wait until the next cycle, or do damage control.

Be better next time.

If it’s not that important, it’s not that important, so don’t worry about. Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) was well known in his wrestling days for a simple saying, ‘Know your role and shut your mouth’.

Moving Forward

This approach requires LESS teaching and more learning. It requires a lot more planning and a lot more preparation. The skill in coaching is being able to effectively identify skill acquisition opportunities and be able to provide deep learning opportunities for swimmers to robustly learn these new skills.

In this sense, teaching is obsolete. Ideally, we can introduce conceptual problems to swimmers, place them in feedback- and sensory-rich environment, and then starting training these changes as they learn them. Learning and training are the same process.

You have to accept that fewer skills will be taught, but the important skills will be learned completely. The learning process is not complete until skills can be demonstrated when it matters.

Many coaches give up on skill acquisition, in practice if not words, because it is HARD and the skill set required to facilitate change is not easily accessible or discussed.

If this process seems really hard to do and it looks like a lot of work, you’re right.

It is.

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