Becoming a Wizard Part III
In part I, we explored the process of becoming a wizard, where any technical problem can be solved quickly and easily. Developing that skill set starts with a deep and thorough understanding of swimming movement and be able to see it. In part II, we discussed the importance of and strategies for effectively communicating this information.
5. Design Great Tasks
Verbal communication can be an effective strategy for facilitating change. However, designing tasks that minimize the need to communicate verbally is even more effective. By designing appropriate tasks, we can place swimmers in an optimal position to learn skills. Further the better the task is designed, the less needs to be said to a swimmer, and the more effective what is said will be.
A simple example is swimming with a closed fist, particularly against a small resistance. When doing so, swimmers are forced to use their entire forearm to create propulsion, or they simply won’t go anywhere. Related to wizardry skill #3, it teaches swimmers what it FEELS like. Coaches can describe a high elbow catch, vertical forearm, open arm pit, etc. over and over again. It will work for some swimmers some of the time. However, when you design a great task, most swimmers will be placed into the correct positions most of the time.
Really great drills do this as well. The challenging part is creating a task that is as similar to full stroke swimming as possible. The further away the task is from regular swimming, such as many drills, the harder it will be to transfer any learning back to full stroke swimming. This is true even if a given drill does an excellent job of helping swimmers feel a small component of the stroke. If that feel is created in an isolated manner, integration back into full swimming is much more challenging.
Always ask the question, ‘how can you help a swimmer learn a skill WITHOUT having to instruct them?’ Then ask, ‘how can I create tasks that most closely resemble full stroke swimming?’ If you can find an answer to these questions, you’re well on your way to wizardry.
This is a critical step in the process, and requires the greatest departure from standard coaching behavior. Due to the vast number of technical errors present in most swimmers, designing tasks that correct skills WITHOUT direct intervention is hugely valuable. A key ability in wizardry is helping swimmers learn without have to instruct. Let the task do the work.
How to Develop the Ability to Design Tasks
I’ve outlined many of the strategies surrounding task design in prior articles. These articles can be found below-
Reading these articles, as well as the some of the books listed in the resources section, is a great way to begin to a get a foundational understanding of the framework for coaching in this manner. With this foundation in place, we can begin the process of experimentation with what works.
The more we have a solid model in place, and are clear about what we would like to teach, the easier it becomes to design effective tasks. Once a solid movement goal can be envisioned, the process of realizing it becomes much direct. Reflect on experiences that have worked in the past is a great place to start from as both a source of inspiration, as well as confidence.
As with many of these skills, there are no shortcuts. It is a process of continually working to get better. Design a set, reflect on whether it accomplished the desired objectives, alter it as necessary, try again, and repeat. The critical aspect is paying attention to how the swimmers reacted, and how the process can be improved.
6. Have Multiple Ways to Solve the Same Problem
Wizardry is about finding solutions to unique problems, and doing so quickly. Every situation is slightly different, and the more options you have to solve a given problem, the more likely you’ll be equipped to solve the problem in front of you.
Different swimmers conceptualize ideas different. They have different experiences and these different experiences color how they move through and interact with the water. If you only have one strategy to teach a flip turn, and it’s not working, what are you going to do? When you have five strategies that can get the job done, you’re able to quickly run through them all to find the solution that’s going to work.
Different strategies can be comprised of different methods of explanation, different cues, or different tasks that all work towards the same end. There may be some that work more often than others, and these strategies can be employed first, followed by ‘back up plans’. With experience, not only can a variety of strategies be created. Eventually, it becomes easier to identify which solution will work for a given situation.
How to Develop Multiple Ways to Teach the Same Thing
Coaches are all working to solve the same problems. Whenever another coach speaks, presents, releases a book or video presentation, get the information. They’re going to give you at least one solution to a problem that you haven’t considered. Add it to the bank. Eventually, you’re going to need it. Coaches are problem solvers and if someone has a solution to your problem, you might as well use it if it works.
Experimentation and innovation are going to be the main drivers of developing options. When working with individuals, it will require problem-solving, applying the model you’ve developed, adapting the model, as well as using and building upon the strategies used by prior coaches.
From this process, we simply need to be patient and accumulate options. Over time, you will be presented with more and more novel situations that require novel solutions. Bank those solutions and remember them for when you need them. If you’re not a patient person, there’s another option.
Constrain yourself. Create hypothetical situations where your favorite strategies are not possible. Say you love your power towers for teaching swimmers to hold water. Now imagine you can’t use them. You could use chutes or cords or plastic buckets or… For any given situation, force yourself to find new solutions. Sometimes plan B ends up working better than plan A. While these situations will often present themselves anyway, we can accelerate the accumulation of options, and improve our imagination, which we’re going to need add some point.
Having options is good. You never know when you’ll need them.
7. Individualize an Intervention
The final stage in wizardry is the ability to quickly identify and solve problems on an individual basis. You need to correctly identify the problem and then determine which of your many solutions will best solve that problem. We previously talked about the importance of options; here is where you use them.
It’s all about recognizing patterns, making a choice, evaluating that choice, and then adjusting as necessary. As you have to see a lot of problems to start to recognize patterns, it’s a skill that takes time to develop.
How Learn to Individualize
Coaching is a visual craft. You must be able to see when movement is appropriate. Fortunately, the best way to develop a great eye for movement is part of the same process required to learn what constitutes great movement. Watch A LOT of video, and then pay attention in process.
Once you can see what the problem is, you have to test your solutions to see if the work. If solution #1 works, you’re good to go. If it doesn’t, move on to solution #2. And so on. It’s an iterative process. The better you are, the faster it goes.
Here is the golden rule of creating an effective intervention. Interestingly it was learned from an iconoclastic bodybuilder, and later reinforced by a track coach.
If you’ve chosen the right intervention, the positive effects should be evident very quickly.
If there is little to no change, you’ve chosen the wrong intervention. Move on. If there’s any change, stay with it and give the swimmer some time to process the task and work through it. With time, you’ll learn to quickly identify whether you’ve chosen the right strategy, as well as learning how much time is appropriate to let the swimmer work through the strategy.
When solving new problems, rely on your experience, an understanding of the foundational principles, as well as clarity about what REALLY matters. From that point, it comes down to following something of a check list of the common problems and typical solutions. It may require a series of very quick intervention to test your hypotheses. Use that feedback to inform the next ‘test’.
To some degree, every intervention will have some novelty because it’s the first time for that specific swimmer. Look for the commonalities first, and then identify what might be different about the current situation, as well as the implications of those differences for what must be modified.
Become a technical wizard is the result of a long-term and never-ending process of developing a series of skills that ultimately enhance the effectiveness of any technical intervention. Those skills are interdependent as ability in on area depending on ability in another.
While it can be beneficial to develop these skills in sequential order, and this will happen to some extent organically, it is also valuable to develop these skills concurrently. Even though these skills build upon each other to create an effective intervention often requires all of these skills for a given change. As such, once a potential change has been identified, all of the skills of wizardry become required for that change, and you’re forced to learn them. Over time, your skillset expands as your ability to solve problems expands.
As your technical ‘model’ continues to be updated, and it should always be refined as you learn the nuances of swimming, it requires an upgrade in all of the other skills. You must be able to see the update, communicate it, create tasks to develop it, have multiple ways of facilitating change, and learn to individualize those strategies. These upgrades will happen naturally out of necessity.
Creating technical change is possible. For effective coaching, it is required. As with all relevant skills, those who are more skilled have an advantage. As a coach, the ability to consistently effect technical change in a rapid manner is a significant coaching advantage, and provides your swimmers with tremendous opportunities to go faster, quickly.
There is a reason very few coaches have this ability. It is very hard to develop, and it takes a lot of time. However, I believe that this skill can be learned by anyone by conscientiously working on the sub-skills described here. While it may look like magic to others, it is simply the accumulation of a lot of working focusing on what matters, and what works.