top of page

OPTIMIZING Performance Part II

In part I, we introduced the OPTIMAL theory of learning, which suggests that emphasizing autonomy, expectancies, and an external focus of attention have a synergistic effect on motor skill learning and performance. We explored how creating autonomy by providing choices can improve swimmers’ perception of their experience, as well as their performance. Choices, relevant or irrelevant, can have a major impact and coaches would be well-served to introduce choice into their training program.

In this article, will explore the second aspect of the theory, the importance of expectancies. It’s similar to the concept of training momentum, we’ve explored previously. You get what you expect, and when you expect success, it’s more likely to be achieved. Further, the more success you have, the more you expect it. A nice little positive feedback loop.

Interestingly, some of the most effective strategies we'll examine are very counter-intuitive. With that in mind, let’s see how we can set up an environment that is conducive to expecting success, and getting that feedback loop moving forward.


Swimmers who expect success are more likely to achieve it, largely because they are willing to put forth the effort required to accomplish their goals. Swimmers will try harder to accomplish goals they believe they can realize. There are very few people willing to work extremely hard to achieve a goal that isn’t possible. We’ve all seen swimmers ratchet up their effort level once they realize that success is possible.

The opposite is true as well. When swimmers feel they can’t accomplish something, they simply stop trying because it is not worth the effort. This is a situation we need to avoid at all costs. By tuning into what swimmers believe is possible, we can meet them where they are, and show them that more is possible.

When success becomes possible, effort increases. As coaches, part of our job is to help create situations and environments where a positive expectation of success is present. This expectation comes from how we create and set challenges, how we communicate with swimmers, as well as how we help swimmers learn to approach challenges.

On an individual level, there are some individuals who need more ‘evidence’ that success is possible to fully mobilize effort, whereas there are others who will go all in when even the slightest possibility of success is present. Recognizing this difference can help coaches decide how to present training challenges on an individual basis, as well as how to manage their communication with swimmers during sets.

Coaches can help to create the expectancy of success through the tasks they set and how they frame success. By presenting training tasks in a way that swimmers perceive they can accomplish, or at least have a reasonable chance of accomplishing, coaches can create an environment where success is much more likely. It is not simply providing motivation; it is about creating the circumstances where belief is instilled.

Initially, Set the Bar Low

While it may seem counterintuitive, I have found the best way to enhance training performance, particularly when swimmers are struggling is to lowerthe standard of success. When swimmers are struggling with performance, their expectancy of success can begin to drop. They then begin to invest less effort as success seems unattainable and a negative feedback loop begins.

To stop this cycle, coaches can re-label success or alter short-term goals to allow swimmers to experience success. By setting a minimum standard of performance, coaches can allow swimmers to begin a cycle of increasing confidence.

In terms of how coaches can re-label success, it is a matter of knowing the capabilities of the swimmers you coach and recognizing what they’re likely to be able to accomplish at any given point. The idea is to help them set goals that somewhat challenging, but very realistic. This combination will mobilize effort while still having a high likelihood of success.

A perpetual lowering of performance standards is not what’s being proposed. The idea is to find success and then build upon it by slowly raising confidence and the expectation of success.

Slowly Raise the Bar

Of course, if performance goals stay low, performance will stay low. Performance expectations must be raised if performance is going to increase. When swimmers experience success, it raises their expectations for success, and their expectations for themselves. The more success they have, the more they believe they can achieve.

It makes sense to take advantage of this pattern and slowly raise performance requirements. With every success, swimmers believe more is possible. Coaches can then ask for higher performances, which are more likely to succeed, and upwards we go. Coaches can create a positive feedback cycle by validating success, and then escalating the challenge. With each success more becomes possible and this process perpetuates itself.

One of the critical skills is knowing how much to increase the challenge by with each success. If the challenge is never escalated, there’s not going to be much growth or improvement. As a general rule, it can be useful to be relatively cautious when increasing the training standard. Training is a long-term process and there is almost always time to take the next step. However, training can quickly be de-railed by several overambitious training challenges that result in failure.

As mentioned above, some individuals require a lot more evidence of competency to develop confidence, whereas others need very little evidence. In the former case, coaches should be much more cautious when escalating standards as only a small number of failures can have dramatic negative consequences. On the other hand, those swimmers who require very little evidence of competency are relatively immune to failure and greatly bolstered by success. For these individuals, greater challenges with a smaller likelihood of success can be prescribed.

Create Manageable Chunks

While coaches can place significant challenges in front of swimmers, they have to be able to help swimmers break down the task into smaller challenges swimmers believe they can accomplish. In this case, coaches are tasked with helping swimmers learn to frame training sets in a way that seems manageable. For many swimmers, coaches may have to literally walk them through the set, encouraging them to focus on specific portions, rather than the set in its entirety.

As an example, when faced with a set consisting of 30*100m, swimmers may seem unsure as to whether they can accomplish the task. Coaches can frame it in a context that is familiar to the swimmer. If this task was assigned, the swimmer has likely completed 10*100m previously, the coach can tell the swimmer to focus on the first 10 100s, and after that the next 10 100s, and then the final 10 100s.

By breaking a large task into small tasks that swimmers have had previous success with, the relate to prior successes that reinforce a positive expectation of success.


The skill in creating positive expectancies is knowing how each of your swimmers reacts to and perceives challenge, and then providing tasks that are within their perceived skillset. Create positive expectancies is simply about getting swimmers to believe that success is possible. While I have outlined a few strategies, there really are no rules here, beyond an awareness of what each individual believes is possible, and what can be done to help them see that even more can be accomplished.

Each swimmer will react to challenges differently. With awareness, we can learn what those reactions are, as well as how to best modify our coaching tactics to best serve each swimmer.

Further Strategies

There are several other strategies that can enhance expectancies. Simply focusing on the positive aspects of performance (what was done well), can enhance performance. While it’s tempting to focus on what is done wrong, performance and learning is actually enhanced when focusing on what’s done right. Interestingly, performance can be improved even if you provide FALSE positive feedback. Keep it positive!

Expectancies can also be enhanced when swimmers are exposed to a highlight reel of their own performances. Swimmers want to see what they do well. This can be particularly useful leading into major meets. Further, swimmers want to know how they are doing compared to social groups. When swimmers are under the impression that they are performing well relatively to peers (even if they’re NOT!), performance improves.

Lastly, working to shift swimmers’ mindsets can be impactful. The more swimmers can focus on the learning process as one of growth and opportunity, as opposed to a reflection of innate ability, the more they expect to improve performance over time.

One of the biggest takeaways is that positive experiences REALLY impact performance, even if they’re false! The more coaches create an environment where success is expected, the more likely swimmers are to actually achieve success. The importance of expectancies to performance should resonate with coaching experience. We can all appreciate how confident swimmers exert more effort and how previous success is directly relate to confidence.

The challenge is how to engineer improved expectancies into coaching practice so that coaches can actively take advantage of the process, as opposed to allowing it to happen by chance.

Most often, we get what we expect. By increasing swimmers’ expectancies through language and training design, we can help to raise performance. There are no rules as to how this can be accomplished, just the result of our intervention. Be creative, observe what happens, and go with what WORKS.

To complete our exploration of the OTIMAL Theory of Learning, the final section will take a look at using an external focus of attention when instructing and providing feedback.

bottom of page