The Dryside Part III
As discussed in part I, life stress can significantly impact performance and health. In part II, we discussed how coaches can manage their training to reduce the impact of life stress. In this final section, we’ll discuss how coaches can help to COACH swimmers through the process of lifestyle change, which can serve to reduce stress and the impact of stress on health and performance.
While coaches can have control over the training program they employ and the environment they create, the time at swim practice represents a small fraction of each swimmer’s life. It’s easy for swimmers to make changes within a practice environment. Taking 2 extra dolphin kicks per wall is a relatively simple endeavor.
For swimmers to create effective buffers against stress, they likely need to make changes in how they manage life. Re-organizing your life to ensure you get more sleep and have less ‘stress’ is a massive undertaking, an undertaking that swimmers are often expected to attempt with little to no guidance.
This represents a tremendous challenge.
For most, the instinct is to educate. Unfortunately, while education is important, it is not the answer. Everyone knows they should sleep ‘more’ and eat ‘better’, yet very few are able to create meaningful change. It’s easy to provide information to swimmers and then say that the outside life is up to the swimmer to figure out. If coaches are to effectively help swimmers improve how their life choice impacts their swimming, they’ll need a different strategy.
It requires COACHING. You have to COACH swimmers on how to make changes outside the pool. Education is necessary, yet insufficient.
1. Educate About the Impact of Life. The process of coaching does start with creating an understanding about WHY life matters and the direct consequences it has on performance. While many swimmers might appreciate that they the importance of sleep or nutrition, they don’t always appreciate how these factors directly impact their performance.
2. Have an Honest Discussion. Changing life habits is challenging. Honest discussions about goals is required if real changes are going to happen, these changes must be aligned with long-term goals and it must be worth it to the swimmer.
For swimmers to make changes, it has to be worth it. Creating a dialogue around what swimmers hope to accomplish and what they’re willing to do to accomplish these goals will help to ensure swimmers are motivated to make change. Any change must be deeply connected to the goals of a swimmer.
The following questions can be a useful starting point, with the final question initiating the conversation about what changes swimmers are willing to make in their life to achieve their goals.
What do I want of my swimming?
Why do I want it?
How much do I want it?
What am I willing to do?
3. Small Habits Make the Difference. In many cases, change efforts start off with big goals and a lot of excitement. Unfortunately, this approach is the least effective. Once swimmers have identified what they want to improve, they should choose the smallest habit that they would like to develop and begin to implement behaviors to develop it. If asked how confident they are that they can make that change, they should be able to answer 100% without hesitation. Once that change has been established, swimmers can move on to another small habit.
Over time these small habits can make a big difference.
This process is about long-term change. It is not about quick fixes that aren’t sustainable. As stress management will generally create a positive impact on every aspect of the swimmer’s life, they are changes that will be valuable for the remainder of their life.
4. Establish Strategies That Work for Swimmers. As described above, swimmers have to value the changes and be willing to implement them for any lifestyle change to become a habit. As coaches, our role is to facilitate the discovery of behavioral changes that work best for specific swimmers. The best person to come up with these solutions is the swimmer. Coaches can and should lay out some basic ideas and principles, and swimmers should identify what will work best for them.
While this may seem like a long, drawn out process requiring a lot of time, it really only requires several brief conversations. The idea is to NOT make complicated lifestyle changes, but to build on small habits over time that makes a big difference. As opposed to telling swimmers to ‘be in bed by time X’ or eat a certain way, a real change process is about helping swimmers identify opportunities for change that resonate with their goals and are practical for them to implement.
When considering what areas swimmers can make major changes, there are a few areas of significance that could be focused on. Swimmers and coaches can decide what area is most likely to change, and where the greatest opportunities for change lay. In most cases, simple changes can make a big difference.
Swimmers need to sleep sufficiently, sleep consistently, and ensure their sleep is of high quality. An intervention addressing any of these areas is worthy of a swimmer’s attention. Swimmers can focus on being in bed longer, they can focus on creating more consistent rise and wake times, or they can work on improving the quality of their sleep through various interventions. Resources on how to accomplish any of these tasks are widely available. Again, look for small habits and small goals.
Simply, the major task is to get the appropriate amount of food on regular basis. For some, this means a focus on eating more and for some on eating less. Beyond an appropriate number of calories, what swimmers are eating and when they eat matters as well. Strategies will need to be developed to realize these changes.
Everyone needs some activity that allows them to relax and unwind. It could be anything and everything and will often be very different for specific individuals. Most important is the identification of what’s most valuable for the swimmer and then ensuring there is sufficient time for these activities to occur.
In most cases, swimmers are also students, and typically good students. When coupled with multiple training sessions per day, swimmers time because a precious commodity. The more swimmers struggle to effectively manage and use their time, the more they will struggle with stress issues as it will always seem like there is never enough time to do everything they need to do. By identifying strategies that allow swimmers to consistently get everything they need done, they can better manage their life stress.
Time management has an interactive effect on sleep, nutrition, and downtime as these aspects are usually the first sacrifices when the pressure builds up.
Life stress and sleep loss can dramatically impact the efficacy of a given training program. When performance fails to improve, coaches need to look not only to their practices and training plans, but also to the impact of life on a swimmer’s performance. Coaches have to main strategies to create effective interventions. In the first case, the stress imposed by a training plan can be modified either preemptively or reactively when expected or unexpected changes in life stress occur. This process is most effectively through awareness and careful monitoring of how swimmers are doing.
In the second case, coaches can help swimmers make lifestyle changes to reduce life stress, or to reduce the impact of life stress. There are multiple areas to improve and swimmers can and should focus on those areas they feel will be the easiest to improve. Coaches can help facilitate the process by asking good questions and help swimmers identify these points of intervention.
Coaches certainly can’t and shouldn’t control their swimmers’ lives. However, they can design training programs that account for and are flexible to the demands to life. As importantly, they can help swimmers develop habits that will serve them for life.