The Dryside Part II
As discussed in part I, life can have a tremendous impact on the training program, including the rate of improvement, injury risk, and incidence of illness. In this article, we’ll explore how coaches can control their training plans and training environment to work with life.
Working with Life
There are several strategies coaches can consider when working to maximize training progress while reducing the risk of illness and injury. In general, these strategies fall into two categories, managing training and coaching life. Both will be explored below.
A quick note. There is a big difference between helping swimmers develop sound habits and providing psychological services. Individuals with major life stress may require psychological assistance and coaches can help to encourage the use of a psychologist. There is a difference between a performance psychology problem and a psychology problem. Coaches would be well served to know the difference.
In some cases, life creates challenges that go way beyond the pool. When major life-changing events occur, swimming is no longer a priority. Coaches should be centered on providing emotional support, not on determining how to salvage the swimming season.
The response to life stress can be very individual. I’ve coached swimmers preparing for major examinations such as the MCAT or LSAT. Some handle it fine, whereas others struggle tremendously in the pool during that time. Most important is that the coach and swimmer have a mutual understanding of what the current priority is, and making decisions that align with that priority. Awareness matters.
More than any other factor associated with the performance improvement process, coaches have control over training plans and training activities. To a large extent, coaches can control what happens in practice and they can control the environment they create.
Preemptive Training Scheduling
For the most part, coaches control the scheduling of practice and training activities. This control can be effectively leverage through the following strategies to provide the best opportunity for swimmers to training without compromising health.
1. Long Term Planning. The most intuitive and effective strategy is to be aware when major sources of stress will be present and adjust training accordingly for these periods. For coaches working in the academic context, get a sense of when the majority of intensive testing takes place, such as mid-term or final exam periods. During these periods, providing opportunities for less stressful training can be very valuable. Training doesn’t necessarily have to be easier or less effective, just less stressful. This may include the use of lower intensity training, slightly reduced training volumes, less frequent training, or slightly less pressure on performance.
By knowing the academic calendar ahead of time, coaches can schedule their training plans to account for these periods of increased stress. Most training programs vary the amount of stress over time. Coaches can use this variation to their advantage by planning stressful training at times when swimmers are most able to benefit from it, while less stressful training can be planned for periods of greater external stress.
Beyond the academic calendar, each context may have particular events or periods that are uniquely stressful. The same principles can be applied to ensure that particularly hard training periods are not occurring
2. Provide Opportunities for Sleep. While some constraints typically exist, coaches usually control the weekly training schedule. Coaches can either design training schedules that at least provide the possibility of achieving sufficient sleep durations. Scheduling 6 mornings per week that all start at 5am will provide a challenge for even the most diligent swimmer. As morning sessions may be a requirement for swimmers to achieve the necessary training volumes, coaches may need to get creative to ensure sufficient sleeping opportunities are present. The solution may be periods with no mornings or less frequent, shorter morning sessions, with creativity as the main obstacle for effective planning.
Whether swimmers take advantage of these opportunities is a different consideration, which will be addressed below.
Reactive Training Scheduling
While effectively planning training can reduce the number of potential problems, it certainly won’t eliminate them from occurring at all. Coaches must be able to react to what they see progressing over time, as well as what they see occurring on a daily basis.
1. Monitor Emotional State. As discussed in How Are You Doing?, a few simple questions can provide tremendous insight into the emotional state of the swimmers you coach. This information can be used to help coaches remain aware of how their swimmers are handling life. With consistent monitoring, coaches can watch for changes over time that signify potential problems.
When there are major changes in emotional state that indicate increases in stress, coaches must decide what adjustments, if any are warranted. If there is an indication that the stress is significant, or will be prolonged, an intervention may make sense. How coaches choose to intervene, whether reducing volume, intensity, or giving a day off, is the art of coaching.
2. Be Aware of At-Risk Individuals. There are some swimmers who you know have high levels of background stress in their life due to life circumstances. The individuals may experience unexpected variations in stress and coaches need to be in tune with how these individuals are experiencing life. As coaches will have, and should have, little control over the stress levels these individuals experience at any one time, coaches must be able to quickly and effectively react to changes in readiness. Failure to do so will only compound the stress the swimmers are experiencing.
Without being overbearing coaches may need to pay closer attention to the emotional status of these individuals, looking for any potential issues, and then deciding on the best course of action.
While it seems intuitive to modify training during periods of increased stress, there is also value in swimmers being able to manage high stress levels for brief periods of time. Challenge is required for growth so always modifying the challenge is depriving swimmers of opportunities for growth.
However, there is a big difference between acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress can be managed well by most. Chronic stress will cause problems for almost everyone. There must be relief somewhere. While we can plan for acute phases of intense challenge, these periods need to be followed by phases of recovery.
In addition, the nature of the stress influences whether training modification are appropriate. It’s foolish to insist that someone rigidly maintains their training schedule while traveling for the death of an immediate family member. Yet if someone consistently mismanages their time, you’re not helping them by modifying training to bailing them out.
Coaches must balance the need to account for life stress with the need to challenge swimmers. Training modifications are not always the best approach. As coaches, while we can choose to continue forward with the planned training, we need to bear in mind that potential risks we undertake when doing so. Careful observation is required to make sure that the downsides of this approach are minimized. While appreciating the challenge is required, coaches should remember that-
It’s not worth it if multiple swimmers get sick.
It’s not worth it if multiple swimmers get injured.
It’s not worth it if academic performance is significantly compromised by rigid training programs.
Create a Supportive Environment
As referenced above, strong social support can help to mitigate the impact of life stress on performance and injury risk. While coaches aren’t going to be able to create familial social support if it’s lacking, they can create an environment where swimmers feel supported by their coaches and peers. At a minimum, coaches can work to create an environment that’s not unsupportive. This alone can have a tremendous impact on the available support a swimmer perceives.
1. Coaching Environment. Coaching behaviors are either supportive, unsupportive, or neutral. What’s said, what’s unsaid, what’s done, and what’s not done all communicate to swimmers the level of support provided by their coaches.
If you’re the last to know about any potential problems, you’re probably not perceived to be very supportive. This could be due to what you do, as well as what you don’t do. How do you react to emotional distress? When you notice someone is struggling, how do you relate to that individual? Do you even notice when individuals are struggling? Do you care?
If you feel you’re a supportive person, but don’t seem to ever know why individuals are struggling, you may just not be paying much attention to what’s going on. Watching for shifts in attitude and emotion is the first step towards creating a supportive environment is being aware that support is required.
Some simple steps-
Talk to your swimmers and express an interest in who they are.
WATCH your swimmers and be aware of changes in emotion or attitude. ASK what’s going on in an appropriate manner at the appropriate time (i.e. not in front of everyone else).
Avoid assuming what the problem. Again, ask and then listen.
Appreciate that swimmers have other aspects of their lives beyond swimming. While you don’t have to compromise on expectations, acknowledging that other stressors exist will go a long way.
Listen without judgement. You don’t always need to provide a solution.
When it comes to accountability, comment on the behavior, not the individual.
When swimmers are struggling with specific issues within the support, actively help them solve their problems.
If this isn’t your skillset, and you’re not that interested in developing it, it’s pretty important to have other coaches on staff who excel in this area.
2. Peer Environment. Creating a culture of support amongst peers is a powerful strategy for creating strong social support. How are swimmers allowed to treat each other? The more that swimmers feel supported by their teammates, the stronger their support network will be. Creating a culture of support is a task of the coach. Swimmers will often reflect the behavior of their coach. If the coach demonstrates supportive behaviors, the swimmers are more likely to model this behavior. A culture of support will allow individuals to learn how to be supportive of their teammates.
Some simple steps to improve peer social support-
Talk about the importance of social support. Make it transparent about why it is important, as well as how swimmers can support each other.
On an individual level, help swimmers understand how their actions are supportive or not.
If you see supportive behavior, directly reinforce it by letting the individual know you saw what they did and why it was so important.
If you see unsupportive or counterproductive behavior, help swimmers understand that their behavior isn’t useful, and provide them with strategies that might be more effective.
Encourage specific individuals to reach out to other swimmers in need.
Help make swimmers aware that that their teammates need support, without breaking confidentiality about the specific nature of the problem.
Allow opportunities to spend time with each other outside of the pool. This may be more or less appropriate in different contexts as it may already be occurring.
The more coaches can encourage social support amongst teammates, the more they can create a positive experience for all team members. Relative to the context of this article, stronger social support can provide a buffer against the injury and illness risk that grows when life stress rises unexpectedly.
There are many strategies coaches can employ to account for life stress in both a preemptive and reactive manner. With awareness, coaches can better plan their training as well as modify that training as needed. Further, the social environment they create can go a long way toward creating a culture of support that will ultimately create a buffer against life stress. Through these strategies, coaches can work to limit the impact of life stress on performance and health.