As coaches, we all have biases or preferences based upon our experiences as swimmers, our experiences as coaches, our innate personality, and what we’ve learned formally or informally over the course of our lives. We see the world in a certain way due to who we are, what’ve learned, and what we’ve experienced.
In coaching, we all have preferences to as to how we like to coach, how we like to design training, and how we like to solve issues that arise. The preferences have likely developed because they’ve been successful in the past.
This isn’t a problem, until it is.
The difference is when we’re stuck in these preferences and aren’t able to see when they aren’t serving us as well as they could.
In many cases, our biases manifest themselves in the form of instincts. What is your gut telling you? What feels good? How do we prefer to design training? How do we prefer solve training problems? Having an awareness of your preferences can help you ensure your biases are working for your coaching, and not against it.
Our preferences can become problematic in how we design training and how we attempt to solve the problems that arise over the course of a season. We all have our ‘go-to’ solutions which have worked in the past. While these solutions may be the best course of action in the future, it probably won’t always be.
Are you aware of what your biases are?
When are your biases serving you? When do they move you towards optimal solutions?
When are your biases harming you? When do they move you away from optimal solutions?
Are you aware of the differences between the two situations?
With awareness, we can learn to identify when are instincts and biases are accurate and appropriate, and when they might be misleading you.
Training is designed to pre-emptively address performance ‘problems’. If a swimmer is too slow, a plan needs to be developed. These problems are ‘expected’ in that we know what they are ahead of time. With this knowledge, we can create pre-emptive solutions to solve these problems.
Our biases are expressed in the problems we chose to identify, as well as the problems we chose to solve. For instance, one coach may not see a lack of aerobic fitness as a problem for some swimmers, whereas another may see this circumstance as a major issue. The same could be said for a lack of distance per stroke, any other ‘issue’.
To identify your biases in planning training, consider the following questions-
What is your training designed to accomplish?
Are you considering physical, technical, psychological, and tactical problems, or primarily one aspect of performance?
Which of these areas is given precedence?
What problems are you actively seeking to solve when you design training?
What are your priorities when designing a training plan?
What is NOT prioritized in your training plans?
What is typically left out?
When might these priorities be more or less appropriates? When should they be reversed?
In spite of our best planning, unexpected problems will arise. Injuries, illness, poor performance, etc…will all show up. When presented with a problem, we all have instincts as to how we’re going to solve those problems. Our solutions are fundamentally related to how we see the coaching process as well as the solutions we have found to be effective for us in the past.
Rather than applying the solution that instantly comes to mind, it can be very valuable to consider your alternatives. Better options may exist, and a combination of different approaches may work even better. With awareness, we can step outside of our biases to identify the solutions that will be most effective, rather than immediately defaulting to our preferences. At the same, we may find that our biases exist for a reason and our go-to exist for a reason. They work.
Why might the opposite approach be an equally effective solution?
Why might the opposite approach be a superior solution?
Would a middle ground approach work even better?
In the examples below, I am not trying to create false dichotomies. It’s NEVER about choosing one or the other. In all cases, both are required for long-term success. However, almost every coach will have a default preference that they will go to when under pressure. The purpose is to consider where your preferences lie, and the contexts where these preferences cause problems for you.
With awareness, we can all make better decisions that will allow for the creation of fewer problems, and more effective resolution of those problems that do arise.
While the answers to these questions often depend on context and are not always simple and straightforward, they should provide you with a general sense of what your preferences may be.
Technique or Training?
Many coaches tend to set up their practice plans with the intention of developing skills or developing fitness. This is reflected in the name of the practice, the goals of the day, how practice is performed, how practice is modified, and what’s get done.
Consider the following questions-
Is each training day identified by the skills you are practicing, or the physiological systems you are training?
When designing a set, is your focus on what skills will be developed and practiced, or what the physiological stimulus will be?
If technique starts to break down, do you adjust the practice to ensure technique is maintained or do you continue with the training as designed?
How much technical degradation will you tolerate during challenging training sets? Hardly any or a significant amount?
If you change a set, is the decision based upon what you seen technically or what you see physically?
When time is limited, what are you going to do in practice; is there more emphasis on developing skills or developing fitness?
When providing feedback to swimmers, do you tend to inform them about their skills or about their effort and performance?
If a swimmer has a poor performance, do you tend to believe it was a technical issue (they didn’t find their stroke), or a physical issue (lack of fitness or excessive fatigue)?
If a swimmer is underperforming, do tend to assume that the problem is technical in nature, or do you feel that is usually a fitness issue?
Look for the patterns that emerge in your answers as they will likely inform about your preferences and biases toward action.
Speed or Endurance?
When faced with a performance plateau, coaches often see the solution in terms of speed or endurance. The perception is that the swimmer will improve with a focus on speed or a focus on speed.
From one perspective, the faster you are, the easier it is to maintain a submaximal speed. You can take out a race at the same speed with less effort. At the same time, all the speed in the world is useless if you can’t sustain it. Endurance certainly matters.
Both perspectives have merit. The problem becomes you move too far in one direction and are unable to prepare swimmers with an appropriate balance between the two attributes. A large part of the skill of coaching is knowing when each perspective is more appropriate. Consider your answer to the following questions-
When is a speed-based approach the best solution?
When is an endurance-oriented approach going to work better?
When is a balanced approach going to be best?
What approach will work better in the short-term? Does that change when considering the long-term?
Which approach do you tend to favor?
Do you tend to see problems as a lack of speed or a lack of endurance? How does this perception show up in actual training content?
Volume or Intensity?
Volume and intensity complementary concepts that influence each other, while tending to move in opposite directions. As such, coaches tend to emphasize one over the other during their practices. While this choice may seem similar compared to the above section, it is not necessarily the same choice.
While certain levels of volume and intensity are required to develop either skillset, there is a lot of range to work with. You can certainly create an intensity-based endurance training program, as well as a volume-based speed program.
Consider the difference between 8x1000m with 30 seconds rest as compared to 15x200m with 90 seconds rest. Both sets are definitely going to develop endurance qualities. However, the 2nd set is going to allow for a lot more intensity than the first set, and there is going to be a lot less volume.
From a speed perspective, there is a big difference between email@example.com minutes and 12x25m@5 minutes. Again, both will be focused on speed qualities, with one approach allowing for more intensity with much less volume.
Do you prefer so solve a particular training problem with more work or faster work?
Would you do rather do less, faster? Would you rather do more, slower?
Do you design sets with a certain volume in mind, and then settle for whatever intensity can be maintained for that volume?
Do you design sets with a certain intensity in mind, and then settle for whatever volume can be maintained for that intensity?
Will you modify a set because the swimmers aren’t swimming fast enough, even if that means less volume, or do you make sure the planned volume is achieved?
Pool or Land?
Over the last 20 years, there has been an increased emphasis on training outside of the pool. As most coaches do not have unlimited time and all swimmers have limited energy, coaches must effectively allocate time and energy between training in the pool and training on land. This allocation is going to be a result of what we believe will be the most effective use of that time and energy.
What percentage of your time is spent on land versus in the pool?
If you had more time, would you increase the amount of time in the water or in the pool?
If you had less time, what would you remove from the program?
Are you more excited to work with swimmers in the pool or on land?
Do you believe performance improvements are driven by land training or pool training? How does this belief change with different situations?
Where do you believe the greatest opportunity for improvement reside?
Strength or Fitness?
Assuming you do value land-based training, there are many options as to what to focus on, just like work done inside the pool.
Do you see land-based training as an opportunity to focus on strength or fitness work?
In what situations is this most true? In what situation is this less true?
Why do you believe this to be true?
Does your training tend to reflect this belief?
In what situations is this most true? In what situation is this less true?
Once you have a sense of your biases, it’s important to begin the process of questioning how well they serve your coaching. Consider if you’d answered many of the above questions in the opposite manner.
What might your practice sessions look like if you answered your questions in the opposite manner?
How might your coaching be different?
When would this opposite approach be more appropriate?
When would the opposite approach be less appropriate?
When would a combination of the two extremes be most appropriate?
By considering an alternative view on the coaching process, we can create the opportunity to expand our options with tools that may help us enhance our swimmers’ performances.
Coaching effectively is about identifying potential problems and solving them effectively. We all have preferences and biases in terms of the how we approach the performance improvement process in the pool. The more awareness you have about how you chose to execute this process, what you do, and what you don’t do, the more you can effectively make appropriate decisions.
Great coaches have options, and they know how to apply these options appropriately. By understanding our biases and preferences, we can identify situations where we may be using our options ineffectively. Further we can identify situations where we need to expand our available options.