Find A Way
In competition, swimmers are all by themselves. They alone must overcome whatever technical, physiological, psychological, and emotional challenges they may face if they wish to accomplish their goals. At that point, they are aided only by the skillsets they possess.
They must find a way to be successful, regardless of the circumstances.
With careful observation, it becomes apparent that some individuals seem to find a way consistently, while others fail to do so with just as much consistency. The ability to get it done is a skill. As with any skill, it can be learned.
I’d like to offer the perspective that our coaching instincts are actually undermining swimmers’ ability to learn this skill. In our coaching, we are perceived as experts, so we do what experts do. We provide solutions to problems. While this can be productive, providing an individual with a solution robs them of the opportunity to find the solution for themselves.
The expert coach is not one who provides solutions, but the coach who can create problems for swimmers that allow them to find solutions that are useful in competition. If you know what solutions you want them to find, you can create the right task that can only be completed successfully by discovering the desired solution.
Coaches can enhance swimmers’ performance by providing them with problems to solve versus solutions. Here’s how.
By requiring swimmers to engage with specific designed tasks in practice, they will enhance their skills. This is particularly true when the tasks are created with the intention of eliciting solutions that require improved skills. These changes are more likely to be retained when swimmers discover them for themselves.
Improve Problem-Solving Ability
Not only will swimmers discover useful solutions, they will improve their problem-solving ability, enhancing their resiliency in novel contexts. In addition, swimmers are more likely to retain solutions they discover for themselves organically, as opposed to solutions that are imposed upon them.
Most importantly, allowing swimmers to discover solutions to problems builds their self-efficacy, or their belief in ‘how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations’1. This creates a positive feedback cycle where swimmer’s belief in their ability increases their effort which increases the likelihood of achieving goals which reinforces self-belief.
By confronting challenging tasks, failing, trying again, and ultimately succeeding, swimmers learn to be resilient. They learn that they can control outcomes and they learn that effort and intention result in success eventually. These individuals are more likely to remain engaged in challenging situations and find solutions.
In many cases, solving problems in practice will require laser focus on the task at hand in spite of numerous distractions such as fatigue, failure, frustration, boredom, etc…Swimmers who learn to focus their attention in practice will be able to do so in competition.
When implementing this approach in practice, the following guidelines can help to enhance practice outcomes.
Constrain Tasks to Shape Solutions
By creating rules about performance, coaches can restrict potential solutions which will force swimmers to find novel solutions. As an example, a given set might have both a time goal and a stroke count goal. The stroke count goal will remove certain solutions. The same could be used for the number of dolphin kicks per wall. If you would like to move swimmers towards a new solution, you have to create rules that prevent them from using their favored solution. Using the above example, placing a stroke count limit would force swimmers who favor stroke frequency to find a new solution for swimming fast. Better tasks direct individuals to better solutions.
Step It Up
When swimmers find success, coaches need to step it up. This can take the form of changing the context or tightening the rules. You could require swimmers to swim faster, take shorter recoveries, swim longer, take less strokes, change equipment, etc… The idea is to ensure that swimmers are constantly challenged to find effective solutions to the problem at hand.
Same, But Different
Learning requires repetition. However, these repetitions need to be novel or else nothing will be learned. Coaches can create repetition and novelty at the same time by slightly altering the constraints and the set up, so that swimmers are working on the same problem, but in a different context. This can take the form of slightly different distances, changing training equipment, switching back and forth between tasks. The main idea is to work on the same problem but do so in a slightly different format.
Allow for Failure and Encourage Risk-Taking
To learn new solutions, swimmers have to be challenged. With challenge, comes the prospect of failure. Coaches have to facilitate an environment where failure is not punished and risk-taking is encouraged. Swimmers have to know that effort is what is important and failure is part of the process. At the same time, coaches must teach swimmers to respond to failure by evaluating their approach, formulating a new one or solidifying the current one, and trying again. Coaches must encourage this process.
Focus on The Goal, Not The Solution
Coaches can focus swimmers’ attention on accomplishing the goal. In their communication, coaches should direct attention to whether the goal was accomplished or not, and then encourage swimmers to find a solution to the problem. Attention should be on goal attainment, not the specifics of the solution. Avoid providing solutions and focus swimmers on whether or not they are accomplishing the goals. If not, suggest they try something new without providing specifics. If swimmers don’t know what to do, provide vague suggestions that provide swimmers with options, without providing specific instructions.
Below are some specific areas that creating problems can serve to enhance training and competition outcomes.
Coaches can help shape swimmers’ skills by creating tasks and sets that require specific solutions that may be novel for swimmers. Swimmers can learn how to manage stroke counts by constantly changing the stroke count requirement. They can learn how to manage the relationship between stroke count and speed by placing shifting requirements on both parameters. Underwater kicking can be addressed by requiring specific kick counts with an element of speed. They must find a way they to execute the kick and speed requirements and doing so will require changes in technical execution.
All of the above can be performed with different types of training equipment that shape solutions. Coaches can move swimmers toward different solutions by designing tasks that prevent swimmers from using their preferred solution and force them to work with novel solutions.
Pace work is great. However, simply swimming repetitions at a specific speed is not always representative of race conditions. Coaches can create situations where swimmers are under significant fatigue and THEN require them to hit pace. They have to find a way to execute skills and accomplish a task under duress. This challenge can be further enhanced by applying technical requirement (stroke count/kick count/breathing pattern/etc) to each repetition. The type of fatigue (aerobic/anaerobic/muscular/lower body only/upper body only/etc) can be varied so that swimmers learn to execute in all conditions.
While this takes the form of any type of training, by viewing the process as presenting problems for swimmers to solve, coaches can change the way they coach. Different sets provide a problem for swimmers to navigate. They must learn to control their physiology and performance in a way that allows for the successful completion of the set. Coaches can get more from training sessions by requiring swimmers to oscillate their physiology through speed changes and varying amounts of recovery. Swimmers become better at managing their stress throughout a set. This process is even more powerful when combined with technical requirements.
A New Role
From this perspective, the role a coach plays shifts from an expert providing solutions to a facilitator of the learning process. The expert coach will create training tasks that provide competition-relevant learning opportunities for swimmers. Once appropriate tasks are assigned, it is the coach’s responsibility to create a safe environment where effort is rewarded and risk-taking is encouraged. Following repetitions, coaches can help facilitate the learning by asking questions that help swimmers process their efforts and consolidate their learning.
In this way, coaches can help swimmers consistently find a way to take ownership of their performance and accomplish specific goals, a skill that will transfer to competition.
1Bandura, Albert (1982). "Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency". American Psychologist. 37 (2): 122–147. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.37.2.122.