Go With The Flow
Great training sessions flow from start to finish. They run smoothly from start to finish. Every swimmer knows what needs to get done and every coach knows what needs to get done. And it gets done.
Practice just flows.
As a coach, if you feel like you are running around like a chicken with its head cut off, there’s probably not a whole lot of flow. When practice is really rolling, coaches and swimmers are all engaged, doing what they need to do to get faster. The value in establishing a great flow to practice is that better work gets done. When this is consistently repeated over time, performance is enhanced. Further, it’s simply a better experience for all involved.
Where does great flow come from? It comes from total engagement with no distractions. The role of the coach is to create an environment where engagement is required, and uncertainty is eliminated. By doing so, there is a much better chance for practice to flow smoothly.
Below are factors that can affect the flow of practice, and some strategies that coaches can use to prepare for and execute a great practice.
Set Clear Expectations. What are the expected performance outcomes? What is the expected standard of performance? How are swimmers going to execute their training and how are they going to know what success is? If coaches aren’t clear about what needs to get done, it’s not going to get done the intended way. If practice isn’t performed the intended way, it’s going to kill the flow of the training session, especially if coaches need to continually stop practice to re-explain what needs to get done.
As coaches, we have to know what we’re looking for and to know how to communicate what we want if we expect to get it.
Provide Clear Feedback. Once swimmers know what is expected of them, they want to know if they are accomplishing the tasks. Ensuring that you have practice set up to provide clear feedback about the achievement of training tasks (times, etc…) is critical to maintaining focus.
Eliminate Ambiguity. Ambiguous instructions, ambiguous sets, and ambiguous expectations will all KILL flow. There needs to be total clarity as to what needs to get done and how it needs to get done. Any source of ambiguity can create uncertainty and distraction. Uncertainty and distraction will destroy the flow of the training session as swimmers won’t know what to do, or they won’t fully commit to what they are doing.
Ambiguity can be best eliminated through clear, simple instructions and setting clear expectations. If necessary, have swimmers reiterate those instructions and expectations so you know the necessary communication was received and interpreted correctly. Know what needs to be communicated and have a plan for communicating that information effectively.
Time It Out. Plan out your training session so you know how long each aspect should take. Make sure that each section lasts for the duration of time that you have allotted. If you try to cram in more than you can fit, you’re going to rush or feel rushed. Once that happens, focus shifts from executing practice effectively to trying to finish practice. This is going to disrupt the flow of the practice. Focus on getting done what’s possible to get done. Getting greedy will only ruin the overall quality of the work performed.
Know What Needs to Be Done. What are you going to have to do during practice to make it run smoothly? Where are you going to have to be physically? Where will you need to interact with swimmers most? Which swimmers will need the most encouragement, guidance, accountability, etc…? These questions need to be answered ahead of time and there needs to be a plan as to how to make it happen. With time, experience, and familiarity with the group you work with, this will happen much sooner and much more intuitively.
Know Your Role. What do you need to do as you coach? How are you going to use your skillsets to facilitate a great practice? Know what you need to do at each point in the training session to make that happen. Think it through ahead of time and create a plan to make it happen. The more consistently you go through this process, the more intuitive it becomes. Make it a habit.
Clearly Communicate Sets. Swimmers have to know exactly what they are doing if they are going to do it well, particularly when they are tired. They need to know the details and they need to know what they have to do at each step of the way. Their focus needs to be on execution, not remembering what to do next.
Communication works both ways. If your audience has a limited capacity to absorb and retain what they’re expected to do, adjustments need to be made so that they are able to execute what is asked of them.
While it can be frustrating that some individuals can’t retain instructions, it’s ultimately an adjustment that coaches will have to make if they expect practice to run smoothly. This could require simplifying sets, or it could require an alternative means of communication for specific individuals. The best set in the world is useless if swimmers can’t understand it or remember it. Know your audience and ask them to execute what they can execute successfully.
It’s always worth taking an extra 2 minutes to make sure everyone knows what’s going on if that allows the set to be performed correctly. Over time, swimmers should pick up on how coaches create sets and there is more flexibility in terms of how detailed sets can be.
Optimize Group Size. We all have our limits in terms of the group size we can handle, and that limit will also depend on the type of group you’re working with. What size group can you handle and still ensure that everyone knows exactly what they’re doing? What size group still allows you to accommodate for different skill levels? What size group allows you to communicate with all of the swimmers and provide clear feedback?
Challenge Appropriately. Practices flow best when swimmers are engaged in what they are doing. Swimmers get engaged in challenging sets that they believe they can accomplish. When the bar is too low, swimmers won’t need to mobilize their abilities to meet the challenge. They won’t fully engage in the training. If the challenge is too high, a lack of success will frustrate swimmers to the point where they begin to disengage.
Finding the appropriate challenge will set the stage for great engagement and great engagement will help practice flow smoothly. Coaches can better calibrate optimal challenge points by watching their swimmers, tracking their progress, and honing in on what they can do. With awareness, coaches can become better and better at determining what each individual is capable off.
Build Upon Previous Work. Part of the skill of challenging appropriately is knowing what has been done previously. If you are performing a certain type of training, what happened the last time it was performed? What’s the next logical step? What are they ready for now? Building upon what was done before provides swimmers a familiarity and a frame of reference, clearer goals, and an expectation of what is possible.
Beyond building upon prior training sessions, each set should be building upon the previous set. When done well, each set will not only facilitate skill and physiological development by itself, it will help create the conditions for the subsequent set to be performed optimally.
Be Prepared Before Practice. What training equipment needs to be available? How does the pool need to be set up? It all needs to be done before practice starts, not during warmup. Any activity that is a distraction from practice is going disrupt the flow of the practice. A great practice starts with a great warmup. If coaches are distracted by other duties, swimmers will pick up on that distraction, leading to their own distraction. When warm up is not done with the proper intent, execution, and focus, it’s harder to set the tone for the remainder of the training session.
Bring the Juice. Swimmers respond to energy. If you have energy and intensity, swimmers will respond. Each coach has their own way of providing energy, and they need to go with what works best for them. Some coaches will have a focused intensity, while other coaches will be much more vocal and animated. The specific type of energy is secondary to the presence of energy itself.
While everyone has their own personality traits, coaches can choose to behave in any manner that they choose, and this behavior can become a habit. If you want to behave in a certain way, act that way. Over time, it will become a habit that becomes part of your coaching practice.
Be Calm. If you are rushed or hurried, swimmers will notice. Unfortunately, swimmers always seems to have LESS urgency the more rushed you are. If you’re flustered, they get flustered and they stop listening and stop thinking. This makes coaches more flustered and practice starts to spiral away.
Being calm is not synonymous with a lack of energy; it is synonymous with focus and engagement. The more patient you are, the better each training session will run. Have an urgent energy, while taking your time to make sure swimmers are clear on what needs to get done. It is a nuanced skill that makes the difference.
Re-Set. If the flow is off and practice is not going smoothly, stop, re-set, solve whatever is causing the problem, and try again. It’s better to save a practice, even if that means changing what was planned. If the problem is understanding, make sure swimmers understand. If the problem is expectations, make sure they are clearer. If the set is incorrectly designed, make the adjustments.
Great coaches are not only able to design great practices, they are able to do what needs to be done to ensure that practices are executed correctly. If there is an issue, they find it, adjust, and get practice back on track.
A lot goes into creating and executing an effective training session. There are a lot of small, yet critical skillsets that all combine to facilitate a great practice. All of these subtle factors contribute to the difference between a well-executed practice, and a poorly executed practice. It all starts with great preparation.
While many of these decisions and processes can become habitual and intuitive over time, it begins with recognizing what needs to get done and making sure it happens, even if the process is robotic at first. The best coaches know what they want executed, and they know how to make it happen.