Having interacted with a lot of teenage males, I’ve noticed that a lot of them play A LOT of video games.
While it’s easy to claim that games are simply entertainment because they’re exciting and fun, I don’t believe this is the case. While these characteristics might attract the casual gamer, I don’t think it accounts for the serious gamer. In the past, I’ve also watched friends play games that are REALLY boring, yet they’ll play for hours, much to my disappointment.
For those that game consistently, the reasons for continued playing are quite different. It’s because games are challenging, and it’s rewarding to overcome these challenges. Further, the challenges are structured in a very systematic manner that keeps gamers coming back for more.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t feel that the current generation of swimmers are lazy or less committed. I feel that the real issue is the training environment is not set up for how our youth are wired. One only needs to look at the CRAZY time, energy, and emotional commitment kids will make playing video games. Clearly, young men in particular, are willing to do the work to accomplish goals.
The question is WHY? What about video games engages kids in a way that swimming practice does not. This article will explore these characteristics, as well as provide some ideas that coaches can apply to their practices, regardless of how they train their swimmers.
The challenge with many swimming practices is not that they are ‘too hard’; it’s that they’re structured in a manner that doesn’t optimize reward and motivation. Swimmers can’t relate to it. That’s not a generational problem. That’s a coaching problem. Learning from video game design is a tremendous opportunity to solve this problem.
Below, I’ve outlined 5 characteristics of video games that encourage consistent engagement. Importantly these ideas apply to all different training styles. It’s not just for race-pace training or sprint-based training. I challenge coaches to use these same strategies implemented in video game design to work towards making practice a game that swimmers want to beat. If we can accomplish that task, we will create an experience that results in happier and faster swimmers.
In video games, the goal is clear and there is one goal at a time. Do this right now, then do this. As importantly, goals are sequential and they build upon each other. With so much uncertainty in the world, youth respond to clear direction and a clear path. It’s obvious how the accomplishment of each goal leads to each subsequent task. Video game designers get this right.
During swim practice, goals are often left unstated, remain ambiguous, or simply don’t exist. There certainly isn’t any connection between the goals of today, the goals of tomorrow, and the goals of next week. Kids respond really well to knowing exactly what they need to do right now. The more we can create clear, concrete goals with clear, concrete expectations, the more swimmers will respond to the certainty.
From performance standards, to rules, to technical requirements, the more we can provide swimmers opportunities to accomplish concrete tasks, the more they will feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of direction. It should be crystal clear whether a set and practice were successful. Video games are unambiguous and our practices can benefit from that clarity.
How to Implement in Practice
This is pretty straightforward. Define the goals of each set. What are we trying to achieve? How does that relate to long-term goals? What does success look like? Define success for each swimmer, and even better, help swimmers define success for themselves. For each set, have multiple ways to be success to ensure that swimmers are staying engaged.
Creating clear goals not only facilitates engagement, it creates a shift towards outcome-based, goal-directed training, similar to the constraints-led approach described previously. In this sense, the constraints become the rules of the game.
Sometimes coaches are afraid of clearly defining success because it also clearly defines failure. However, swimmers prefer to know where they stand. They want clear goals and they want to know if they are achieving them.
However, they want realistic goals. They can tolerate failure, a lot of failure, if they believe success is still possible. One only needs to look at how many times youth will attempt the same level on a video game, despite failing over and over.
Clearly defining realistic goals for each swimmer is a key skill in coaching. It’s easy to assign lofty, yet unachievable standards. In contrast, setting challenges appropriate for each individual is much more difficult, but the reward is much more engaged swimmers.
The factor is directly related to the previous characteristic of video games. Clear goals are typically associated with clear and instant feedback. When you make an attempt, you want to know if it was successful or not. In many practice situations, swimmers often receive inadequate feedback, whether from their coach or due to the nature of the practice design.
Clear goals are useless if it’s not clear whether they are being achieved. While it’s common to claim that young people can’t handle failure, I find the opposite to be true. Instead of making it ambiguous whether goals are accomplished, great feedback can help make it completely unambiguous whether goals are being accomplished or not. Once that’s clear, we can go about teaching that failure is not final.
No one has a problem with failure when they know they can overcome it. That’s what coaching is all about. Clear, honest, and direct feedback is the way to facilitate this process. Providing instant feedback in the midst of failure is how coaches help swimmers learn to overcome it.
How to Implement in Practice
I’ve discussed the importance and the nuances of feedback before on this website. There are multiple ways coaches can enhance how feedback is used in practice.
In the first case, directly interact with swimmers at appropriate intervals to provide the feedback they need to evaluate their performance. If you set a task, it’s your obligation to let swimmers know if they are accomplishing it. Clearly defined goals are useless when paired with ill-defined feedback. What’s the point of having a goal if you don’t know whether you achieved it?
You could be providing performance feedback (times, stroke rates, or technical feedback). You can also help them interpret any feedback in the context of their goal. Are they where they need to be? Where is there opportunity for improvement? Many swimmers simply don’t know how to interpret feedback. While it may seem pretty straightforward to us as coaches, swimmers often need to be taught what to do with the information they receive.
In video games, the successful accomplishment of tasks (at least when I was playing video games) is often CELEBRATED with banners, fireworks, and other visual displays. Use the same concept with your swimmers. Get excited about the accomplishment of daily goals. Your engagement and your excitement are critical feedback and reinforcement that this is important and you’re doing a great job.
Equally valuable is teaching swimmers to evaluate their own feedback. They can count their strokes, they can get their own times from a digital clock (which are accurate enough for most training tasks), and they can learn to interpret their own intrinsic feedback. The latter is most valuable, and is a skill that needs to be learned (see HERE for more). Letting swimmers choose when they receive feedback has been linked to better performances and more satisfaction. The best way to do this is to help them get their own.
Lastly, and most importantly, design training sets with clearly defined that provide their own feedback. Design sets where accomplishing the task is its own feedback. As an example, you could swim 8x25m against a resistance cord, where you have to complete the full 25, and you can only take 20 strokes. If the swimmer accomplishes the task by getting to the other end within the stroke count parameters, they receive instant feedback of this success. If they don’t, they know they need to do something different.
This set can work to help swimmers work on their force application and efficiency, as shortcomings in either area will result in failing to reach the other side, or taking too many strokes. Importantly, feedback about success is instant and it is built into the task through the clearly defined goals. This one example of how goals and feedback work together. As we’ll see below, choosing and appropriately scaled challenge is also critical to this process as well.
Most video games have multiple difficulty levels. They also have tasks that progressively increase in their difficulty level. This allows players to experience success along the path toward improving their skills and abilities. They build positive momentum and players are able to gain confidence.
If a given task is too difficult, a gamer will eventually just give up. Humans don’t continually try to accomplish a task that’s not possible. Video game designers know this, and they WANT you to keep playing, so they design scaled challenges for all playing abilities. If no one plays, they make no money!
Swim coaches would be wise to learn from this strategy, as we pay much less attention to providing appropriate challenges. As opposed to providing everyone with the same practice and expecting lower level swimmers to ‘rise to the standard’, provide appropriate challenges to appropriate individuals. If a swimmer believes they can be successful, they will put A LOT more effort into accomplishing a goal. Ironically, by lower standards initially, you are more likely to achieve the higher standards eventually.
How to Implement in Practice
As detailed in Living On The Edge, great training is about providing appropriate challenges to individual swimmers. To provide good training, we need to provide appropriate challenges for our swimmers. How do we know what’s appropriate? Pay attention!
In general, it’s a sound approach to start with easier challenges and then slowly ramp it up. As most training seasons start with pretty mild training, use that time period to begin to gauge what swimmers are capable of. Then slowly increase the challenges as you move through the season, paying close attention as you go.
As opposed to only paying attention to how the group is performing as a whole, which is important, pay attention to how each swimmer is responding. Was practice a particular challenge today? Was it what you expected? Where they better or worse? We then have to predict what they should be able to handle the next time around. This is a continual, iterative process where we get better at understanding our swimmers.
Beyond paying attention, constant reflection about how the process is going will help coaches better appreciate how to provide the best challenges to each swimmer. We will be wrong, so it’s valuable to be conservative, as well as willing to scale back if the situation demands it.
As explored in Optimizing Performance providing choices, regardless of their relevancy, can enhance athlete experience, and as importantly, performance.
In school, and most athletic experiences as well, youth typically have few options and little control over how their activities are performed. They have very little autonomy over their life and their choices. Enter video games. They all for various levels of engagement, the pace is dictated by the gamer, the challenge is dictated by the gamer, and the commitment is dictated by the gamer. These choices all result in a more productive and empowering experiences.
With all of this freedom, kids love it. Contrary to what might be expected, the freedom to choose actually results in MORE engagement and BETTER performances.
In contrast, swim practice is typically very controlled, very structured, and swimmers are provided with minimal choices about how practice will proceed. While practice is often structured in this manner for very good reasons, the flip side is that it can very constraining. No one is forcing video gamers to play, yet when provided the choice, they consistently make that choice.
Providing MORE choices presents swimmers with the opportunity to take ownership of the process. These opportunities do not have to be significant, and any choice can make a huge impact. While it can be very uncomfortable to provide options for swimmers, these options are almost always rewarded with increased engagement and effort.
Video games let kids choose the path, and this is one of the biggest attractions of video games. In 99% of cases, there is no ‘real’ reward for video game success. Most will never make any money, there is no public acclaim, and NO ONE else could care less about whether a game is beaten. Yet many still CHOOSE to do the work. As coaches, we’d be well served to take note.
How to Implement in Practice
As described in Optimizing Performance providing choices, even inconsequential choices can make a huge difference. Something as simple as the type of music can make a big difference. As swimmers become more comfortable with making choices, we can provide them with more meaningful choices.
For younger swimmers, providing very simple choices can make a huge difference. It almost doesn’t matter what they get to choose. As swimmers mature, encouraging choices that have more impact on their training and performance can help swimmers take ownership of their swimming and improve their performance. This is particularly true when we as coaches help them reflect on the impact of their decision-making process.
A fear of failure does not exist in video games because they can simply try again. If they’re unsuccessful, they simply try again. There is no judgement about success and failure. It’s simply a learning opportunity. As you work through a video game and encounter a challenge, you simply keep trying and failing until you figure out how to accomplish the task. This can certainly be a frustrating process, but it’s not a demoralizing process. Kids get discouraged, but they don’t give up because it’s simply part of the game.
In swimming, we can create this same environment in practice. It requires access to multiple repetitions and a tolerance of failure that accompanies the learning process. If enough repetitions are not provided, there won’t be sufficient opportunities to learn, so there needs to be a culture where continued effort in the face of failure is embraced.
Creating an environment where failure is perceived as learning facilitates the mindset of continual effort. In a video game, there’s no restraint on effort because if a mistake is made, you’ll get another chance. Failure is not only tolerated, it’s not even worried about.
In video games, every effort is seen as learning one more part of the task. The mission may be ‘failed’ on every attempt, but when something new is learned each time, it’s perceived as a positive step in the process. With swimmers, failure tends to be seen as permanent. It’s not seen as a form of feedback that is providing clues about the small steps in the learning process. Each step that brings swimmers closer to achieving a goal is progress, even if it’s still a ‘failure’ because the goal isn’t achieved.
How to Implement in Practice
Encourage risk-taking. Never criticize failure. Re-frame failure as a learning experience. Be relentlessly positive. Whenever struggle happens in practice, everything we say as coaches either reinforces the idea that failure is an opportunity, or failure is to be feared.
As many swimmers will struggle to frame failure positively, coaches will need to be vigilant about continually framing challenge failure as a positive. Coaches need to help swimmers work through the learning process by begin to value trial and error and the importance of small wins. If the performance is .01% better, or the skills were slightly better, or one more dolphin kick was used, success has been achieved. On the next repetition, the attempt is to improve again slightly.
Swimmers tend to view the process as black and white, as success and failure, rather than an iterative process that is made up of small wins. It is up to coaches to help swimmers learn this process. Progress is made with small improvements in the midst of failure, and this can only happen if swimmers are willing to continue to work through these failures.
As coaches, we tend to reflect on how ‘kids have changed’ and ‘no one is willing to do the work anymore’. We only need to look at the video game phenomenon to realize this isn’t true.
Gamers are willing to work for countless hours with no real reward beyond self-satisfaction. While it’s easy to perceive it as simply a ‘game’, those that take it seriously experience a lot of frustration, much like swimmers do. Yet, they keep coming back for more, and there’s a reason for that.
It’s an intrinsically rewarding experience.
Video games are specifically designed to encourage continued engagement. They have clear goals, provide instant feedback, progressively challenge gamers, allow for and require autonomy, and they allow for continued effort. There is a systematic attempt to structure these strategies in a manner that keeps gamers gaming.
As coaches, we can employ all of these strategies to create a training and competition environment that are rewarding for swimmers and produce better outcomes. It requires a directed effort at restructuring how we set tasks and how we facilitate the achievement of those tasks.
Swimmers are willing to a lot of really hard work, particularly when it’s clear what the value of that work, they always know where they stand with their efforts, the challenges are appropriate, they have control of their path, and they can re-frame failure as opportunity.
In many ways, these are already elements of most training programs. However, with a little effort and creativity, coaches can create an experience that optimizes all of these traits to create a program that results in happier and faster swimmers.