Becoming a Wizard Part II
In part I, we explored the concept of becoming a wizard, where no technical problem is insurmountable and results happen fast. We took a look a the first two steps of this process, developing a deep understanding of technical excellence and then learning how to SEE that excellence in real time in multiple contexts.
In this article, we’ll look at the next steps, learning how to communicate this understanding to those that need to actualize it, the swimmers.
Having a perfect technical model and understanding how to perfectly adapt that model to each individual swimmer is useless if you can’t effectively communicate with swimmers. A critical aspect of communication is speaking in a manner that clearly demonstrates what needs to happen, and not much else. There is a difference between what a swimmer needs to know and what they don’t know. The amount of information that is ‘need to know’ is quite small, whereas the ‘don’t need to know’ is quite large.
Beyond distilling the important from the unimportant, communication is much more effective when it is limited in scope. Swimmers can often only focus on one instruction or skill at a time. By drawing attention to other aspects, you are distracting the swimmer. Keep it simple and keep it focused. Further instruction and feedback can be provided at a later date.
Timing is as important as content. If instruction and feedback are provided, give it time to settle before communicating again. Let it settle and let the swimmer work through. Further, know the context. Introducing a novel concept in the middle of a demanding set might not be the best strategy. Introducing a novel concept immediately before a championship race is not going to be very effective.
If you’re coaching engaged swimmers, they’re hopefully working on some aspect of swimming at all times. Providing unsolicited instruction and feedback may actually interfere with what they’ve chosen to work on. If you’re not sure, asking ‘what are you working on right now?’ can be very helpful in ensuring your communication will be effective. Whenever considering whether to speak, ask yourself, ‘Is this the right time for this interaction?’. This creates a small buffer that allows for the best decision to be made.
While brevity and direct communication is critical, the type of information and how that information is conveyed is critical as well. I’ve addressed the importance of language in multiple articles before-
The differences between external and internal cues, the use of analogy, the impact of positive versus negative instructions are all language variations that have a huge impact on performance. Unfortunately, these communication methods are not natural and must often be learned. With all skills, it takes time.
How to Improve Communication
With all change processes, awareness is key. How are you behaving now? How would you like to behave? What’s the difference? With answers to these questions, change can begin. Thoughtful reflection helps to guide the process.
Improving communication is the result of changing of how you interact with swimmers, and the style of the language you use. As described in the articles above, there are instruction and feedback can be more or less effective depending on how it is phrased.
To optimize communication, it’s valuable to re-train how you think about feedback and instruction. Translate your typical instructions through the lenses described in the articles above. Once you can ‘think’ in this language, it becomes instinctual. While it takes time, patience, and commitment, this method of communication ultimately makes a difference in how quickly and how effectively swimmers can learn skills.
Beyond learning how to best phrase instruction to swimmers on your own, it’s valuable to observe how other coaches are communicating with swimmers. Whether this is through in person interactions, reading books and articles, or watching presentations, coaches often share how they communicate with swimmers. Picking up on their descriptions, analogies, and strategies can be a way to shortcut the self-discovery process. With any idea, simply apply it and see if it makes a difference. If it does, continue to use it as appropriate.
Great communication is precise, direct, and effective. It’s often about what you don’t say as much about what you do say. You cannot un-instruct someone. As such, less is always more with communication as you can always do more when appropriate.
Think twice and speak once.
4. Translate to Feelings
As I’ve discussed before here and here, swimmers and athletes process information and move through FEELINGS, or kinesthetic information. All they know is how something feels. On the other hand, coaches process information and tend to communicate through what they see. Clearly, there is a disconnect between these two information streams.
This is one of the values of using video feedback. It allows coaches and swimmers to speak the same language. While this is one tactic that can be useful for facilitating change, there is a second, more useful one available. Rather than helping swimmers understand their perspective, coaches would be better served to appreciate the swimmers’ perspective. If coaches are going to facilitate technical changes, they must learn how to translate what they see into what the swimmer likely feels.
In many cases, swimmers don’t understand how different something will need to feel in order to actually be difference. This is something that coaches can help swimmers learn. Part of our technical communication, in terms of both instruction and feedback, should focus on what swimmers should expect to feel. If were asking them to move their arm toward the middle, we probably need to communicate that it will FEEL like it has crossed way past the center line. This is one simple example of communicating through feel.
By communicating with swimmers in the same language, we give them the best opportunity to learn new skills. Rather than expecting them to translate our communication, we’re better served to translate for them, and then communicate that information.
How to Learn to Translate Skills into Feelings
A major aspect of the skill translating skills into feelings is developing a library of what great movement should FEEL like. How does one do so?
During warm-up at meets, what are other coaches suggesting swimmers do? While competition might not be the best setting to try to modify technique, the instructions coaches use could be very useful. Pay attention, add it to your library, and if it makes sense, see if it works during practice.
As with coaches’ suggestions, pay attention to what other swimmers are saying at meets during warm-ups or after races. This is particularly true of high-level meets. Use this information as appropriate. If it has an impact and creates the change you want, roll with it.
With the advent of personal media streams, high level swimmers are also producing content of their own. While you may not be particularly interested in the details of their life, they’ll occasionally provide insight into what they’re working on in practice and competition. They may describe how they conceptualize swimming and their skills. If they do, use that information as appropriate.
If you don’t have regular access to elite swimmers, don’t worry. Simply ask your athletes what swimming feels like, particularly in regards to skills that they are successful with. Their thought processes may be useful for other swimmers. It’s worth a try.
Coaches have been working to solve the same problems for years. They’ve all discovered various solutions to these problems, and many of these solutions describe how great skills should feel. The more you read and watch, the greater likelihood for coming across these solutions. Transcripts and video from clinic presentations are often available for little money. Buy them. If you get one ‘trick’, it’s worth it as your library of tricks adds up over time.
If you have a particular problem you are struggling, ask another coach. They’ll have insight and they’ll have solutions. Try them, and if they work, use them.
Beyond relying on what others have done or experienced, it’s possible to build your kinesthetic library yourself. What were your experiences as a swimmer. What really resonated with you? Regardless of whether you were a successful swimmer, any insight can be potentially valuable. How do you know? Try it during practice with a swimmer and see if the desired change is realized. If not, don’t use it.
If you’re inclined, hop in the pool and problem solve. The same process can be undertaken with any movement regimen. Whether on land or in the pool, your own awareness of how your body moves can inform the process of movement of your swimmers. It can help you tune into how movement works, and that skill can be applied to watching and communicating with your swimmers.
Anticipate what the change will feel like. We know that a small change will be perceived to be very dramatic. Keep this in mind when communicating with swimmers. They will need to over exaggerate the change to make it happen. Give them a shot by emphasizing this exaggeration. In contrast to the strategy above, coaches don’t necessarily need to know how the movement ‘should’ feel in ideal situations when suggesting a relative change. They can simply contrast where the swimmer is with where the swimmers needs to be, consider how that change in position would feel, and then amplify those differences.
Over time, it becomes easier to communicate through sensation. With everything, it takes practice. It’s not critical to get it right the first time, every time. If your suggestion doesn’t work, simply re-frame it or exaggerate it until the effect is created. If you tell them what they should expect to feel, as opposed to what they need to do, you’re giving them a concrete target to search for. Because of their internal feedback systems, they can judge success for themselves. Use that feedback system!
All of the knowledge in the world is useless if you can’t communicate that information with the swimmers you coach. The words you use and the type of information you provide has a dramatic impact on results you achieve.
Fortunately, we can all get better at communication and the specific strategies that are more effective have been outlined here and by others. There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence for their use.
We simply need to change how we choose to communicate, moving from what’s convenient to what is effective.
The golden rule- it doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is what changes.