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The Root

As discussed in great coaching, the X Factor in coaching is separating the important from the unimportant. In a vast sea of choices, the best coaches consistently to choose to act in a manner that will most positively impact performance.

In coaching, we are faced with countless opportunities for improvements. From training deficiencies, technical deficiencies, cultural issues, and beyond, coaches can choose to focus their effort on areas that will impact performance. Within these categories, many countless opportunities exist.

We have options.

This is one of the reasons seemingly opposite training approaches can yield similar results. Different coaches are trying to solve different problems that relate to optimal performance. Some choose to focus on speed, others on technique, others on endurance, all yielding improvements in performance.

At the beginning stages of an athletic career, the number of options is much broader as many more opportunities for improvement exist. As performance improves, the strategies that will effectively continue to improve performance begin to dwindle. Further, the strategies that once worked in the past often fail to work as they did in the past.

When considering the flora all around us, the plants we see on the surface are the product of an effective root system. The vibrancy of the plant is supported by the strength of its root system. What we see is supported by what we can’t see.

The symptoms are determined by the causes. When faced with a series of symptoms, identifying the root cause is required if resolving the symptoms is desired. As with plants, we have to dig deeper to find the roots.

As a swimmer’s career advance, it becomes more and more important to accurately identify the root cause of the problem, to sift through the symptoms to identify where modifications need to take place to move forward successfully.

Superficial solutions will no longer be effective for advanced swimmers.

The need to identify the root cause is even more important when working with the social and cultural dynamics of a team. The underlying culture will express itself in many different ways, for better or worse. If long-term, positive change is desired, culture must change at a deep level. Facilitating that change is only possible when there is an understanding of the causes of behavior, not just the behaviors themselves.

With experience, observation, and education, coaches can become better able to identify root causes of the symptoms they see on displayed on a daily basis. This skillset is a learned one that coaches can develop. By asking appropriate questions, while possessing broad perspectives, coaches can all enhance their ability to work toward identifying and solving problems that have a significant impact on the work they do daily.

Questions to Consider

It may seem like a lot of work to ask these questions of ourselves prior to implementing decisions, whether major or minor. However, failure to do so increases the likelihood of making errors and the penalties for these errors can be significant.

The consequences of any decision, and the magnitude of these consequences, can rarely be predicted with accuracy. Further, we often can’t fully undo the effects of errors, and further interventions lead to more decisions with further opportunity for mistakes. As the initial problem is now worse, the potential for errors is even greater. Whether an issue of trust or continued employment, we are only allocated so many errors before we will no longer be in a position to make future decisions.

It is invaluable to get it right the first time. Here are some questions that can help coaches get it right.

What is REALLY going on? We all have our instincts and ideas about how the performance process works. These ideas have served us well in the past, and will often serve us well in the future. This question forces us to slow down and really consider our assumptions. Further, it forces us to consider if we are viewing the issue at a surface level involving symptoms involving symptoms, or a root level involving causes.

Continually addressing symptoms will simply reinforce the need to continually address symptoms. Identifying and addressing causes creates meaningful change. Thinking clearly about what the REAL problem might be will be up-front investment in time and energy that will be worth the time and energy saved by actually solving the problem the first time.

What type of problem am I looking at? When looking at a lack of performance, is the issue a technical, physical, psychological, or cultural problem? Is it all of the above? Correctly identifying where the problem originates will be required to successfully resolve it. If you mistake a physical problem for a technical problem, all of the skill work in the world won’t resolve the issue.

Is my model or paradigm accurate? How we identify problems determines how we attempt to solve problems. Our ability to identify problems is dependent on how we believe the world works. While it can be very valuable to view the world through multiple lenses (see below), we tend to settle into one paradigm as we move toward making a decision. Is how we’re viewing the world the most useful model for the given situation? Getting this right can greatly impact the utility of the solutions possible, and thus the effectiveness of decision that is ultimately made.

What am I missing? What am I overlooking? We are all quick to assume that we have it figured out. We assume our first answer is always our best answer. By assuming that there is more to the story, we can start to consider what else might be occurring. With that consideration, we’ll either gain insight or strengthen our beliefs.

Why might I be wrong? What if the opposite were true? These questions require coaches to see a different perspective. As with the questions above, it can help coaches appreciate the potential impacts of their decisions prior to implementing those decisions. Poor decisions are often made because they are hasty, made without a full understanding of the potential negative effects. These questions allow coaches to considered the negative, as well as positive effects a decision may have.

Will my solution actually work? What gives you the confidence that your approach will be successful? Are you confident you have used the right perspective, identified the right cause, and chosen the right solution? As mentioned above, you only have so many available mistakes, and some mistakes can be particularly challenging to undo.

The ability to justify your is useful for evaluating the decision process, retrospectively. While we shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes, we should be able to justify our decisions. If we do make mistakes, we can then trace our thought processes and identify where we erred, thus learning from the experience.

What solution solves multiple problems? While a given solution Many problems, regardless of the context, are often related to other problems. The deeper the cause identified and addressed, the more of these related problems can be solved. A good way to identify if you’re addressed a true cause is to consider the potential impact on other problems.

As an example, swimmers showing up late to practice may be the symptom of a deeper issue that manifests itself equally in other behaviors. Identify the real reason and these related problems may be resolved. If you simply punish swimmers for being late, only this singular problem will go away.

While the questions above can be effective, they are not the only questions that have utility. Any question that requires coaches to slow down, think carefully, and consider all options will be of great value.

Strategies for Building the Skill of Insight

While the above questions are a great starting point, their value is determined by how well they can be answered. While asking effective questions can start the process, howthose questions are asked and answered will determine just how effective they really are.

The quality of answer is going to be determined by the skill set possessed by coaches as they approach these questions. With more preparation and experience, coaches can get to useful answers, both effectively and efficiently. The following suggestions can help coaches through the process of developing the skill sets required to best answer these questions.

Learn Broadly. The more perspectives one has on performance, and the deeper each of these perspectives, the more opportunities you can perceive and the more tools you have to realize these opportunities. If you are unaware of how a problem may be caused, you’ll be frustrated in trying to solve that problem. The value in different perspectives is not always apparent until you need them.

Education about different training approaches, how swimmers move through the water, how humans and athletes think, and the culture of teams can all provide different perspectives about how performance is determined. If coaches aren’t familiar with all of these dynamics, they’ll be unable to fully appreciate the problem they are trying to solve. The more models you have to work with, the more opportunities you have to understand.

This education can take many forms. Communication with other individuals, reading, and observation are most valuable. Curiosity and a simple appreciation of the many different impacts on performance can help develop this skillset. Over time, deeper connections can be made between different ideas and different fields. These connections greatly enhance the ability to find root causes.

Some ideas about how to learn broadly, particularly for beginning coaches, can be found here.

Think Critically. With a broader perspective, and more possible options, it becomes important to critically consider the short-term and long-term impacts of all of these options. If a given choice is made, what are the likely outcomes? How will these effects create an impact now and in the future?

Once you feel you understand the situation, asking ‘is that really true’? can have great utility in requiring a little more consideration. While the short-term effects are typically more obvious, it is the long-term effects that the most impactful. These effects are what will ultimately determine whether a decision is the right one.

Decide Slowly. Hasty and impulsive decisions often lead to regrets at a later point in time. While gut reactions and instincts can often be very accurate, these instincts are not always the best course of action. Patience and reflection can allow for further insight, especially when emotions are running high initially.

With experience and improved pattern recognition, these decisions can start to happen sooner. At the same time, emotional separation can always be valuable, and when patience is possible it can be valuable to slow down critical decisions as a different perspective may emerge.

Observe. Once you embark on a course of action, look for both the obvious and unobvious impacts of that decision. Be slow to assign cause and effect, using the same series of questions mentioned above when considering what happens. The narrative to you assign to what you observe will have a significant impact on your choices in the future.


Understanding the root cause of any problem can help coaches more effectively create change, as opposed to continually addressing different symptoms. The process of correctly identifying and solving problems starts with a broad understanding of a variety of moving parts interact.

From training to technique to psychology to nutrition to culture, there are many interactions that can influence what you see on a daily basis. With a deeper perspective, better questions can be asked and more useful answers can be provided, helping move coaches closer to their goal of creating change.

With curiosity and a simple question, ‘what is really going on here?’, coaches can continue to get better at separating cause and effect, allowing for effective decisions that facilitate the desired outcomes.

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