Jedi Mind Tricks
Great coaching is about facilitating change. To get faster in the pool, some aspect of performance needs to change. Better coaches are more effective at creating change.
When considering what differentiates good coaches from great coaches, we tend to focus on our plans and programs as the different maker in facilitating change. While these are critical elements of any attempt at change, particularly over the long-term, I feel we are over-looking the more critical aspect of facilitating change.
It’s how we communicate with swimmers on a daily basis during practice. Subtle differences in what is said, and how it’s said, make a big difference in performance outcomes in practices, which aggregate to performance outcomes in competition.
People struggle with change because it’s hard and because of the perceived danger of failing. Most of us aren’t interested in investing a lot of time and energy for an uncertain outcome. Think about how much effort you’re willing to commit to a desirable goal that you KNOW you can accomplish. Now think about how much effort you’re willing to commit to a desirable goal that seems difficult to attain. There’s a difference and that’s what can prevent change from happening.
Swimming often represents the latter. It requires A LOT of work, and it’s very uncertain whether we’ll accomplish our goals. There is no guarantee. As performance improves, it requires more work to improve, and often requires lifestyle change as well. In addition, the certainty of further improvement goes down. On both sides of the equation, the change process is becoming more daunting.
This represents a fundamental problem that coaches need to manage. Fortunately, we can affect this dynamic with our behaviors.
Here’s what we can do -
1. Make change SEEM easy. While it won’t be easy, we can create the impression that it is easy. By breaking the process into manageable steps with concrete actions, the path becomes clear and simple. Just do THIS. If we can make the large seem small, it helps swimmers move towards change. Words make the difference here.
2. Make success SEEM certain. It’s not only that change is HARD that presents a problem; it’s that change is uncertain. We don’t know if our efforts will be rewarded. The more we can reduce the uncertainty associated with change, the more likely swimmers will commit to change because they believe the effort will be worth it.
It’s pretty simple in concept, yet the impact is dramatic. It also has a large influence on HOW we communicate with swimmers. We need to do everything we can make change seem easy and certain.
With these concepts in mind, here are some strategies that can help swimmers move toward change, and faster swims.
What’s possible for you here?
As coaches, we’re often compelled to provide swimmers with goals and expectations about performance targets to hit in practice. This can be a very good practice as it provides both structure and accountability to swimmers who often need it. However, there is a lot of skill that’s involved in ACCURATELY placing expectations on swimmers. If you consistently ask for performances that swimmers can’t achieve no matter what type of effort they give, you’re going to erode confidence and trust.
There’s an alternative. Simply ask them what they feel is possible. You might expect that swimmers will take the easy way out. That’s typically not the case.
1. Most of the time, they’ll throw something out that’s as good or better than you expect. Most swimmers are honest with themselves about what they can achieve right now and aren’t looking for an easy way out.
2. Regardless of what they say, they almost always exceed that goal. And if they don’t, most will REALLY try to achieve it. After all, it’s what they said they could do.
3. If they exceed the goal, simply ask, ‘Now what’s possible?’ They’ll step it up. This happens within practices and between practices. Over time, coaches and swimmers are on the same page about what’s possible. However, it starts with the swimmer initiating the process.
When swimmers great their own goals and performance standards, they put forth more effort because they own the goal, and they really believe they can achieve it. When coaches exclusively prescribe goals, there can be a disconnect between what swimmers and coaches believe is possible, which can compromise engagement.
Give swimmers a chance to set their own goals. You may be surprised by their ambition, as well as their commitment to living up to their words.
Just be a little better.
Over ten reps, a ‘little better’ often turns into a major change. It’s all about establishing positive momentum LINK, and the best way to do that is one step at a time. It can be a major challenge for swimmers to bridge the gap from where they are to where they want to be. However, if we can get them focused on being SLIGHTLY better, we can get the process moving in the right direction.
This can be particularly challenging for coaches, especially when performance levels are pretty far from what we would expect. Our instinct is to demand and expect swimmers to immediately reach their typical performances. Yet the best approach is often to simply ask for better. Make it seem easy, ask for as little as possible, and once that’s accomplished, ask for more.
Before you know it, performances are much improved and swimmers are also learning a critical skill. They learn that they can turn around a bad situation, as long as they stay positive and focused on improvement, one step at a time. With practice, they get MUCH better at this and are able to turn practices and meets around much faster, often without our help.
They simply know what they need to do.
That was better. Now MORE. WAY MORE.
Say it, even if it wasn’t. Why? Because if they believe they’re making progress, they’re going to keep trying. If you can keep telling a swimmer it’s not good enough, they’re going to stop trying after a while. If you keep telling them it’s getting better, they’re going to keep trying. If they keep trying they’ll figure it out eventually.
The key is to tell them it’s better, and then tell them how to make it EVEN better. This provides the positivity and the accomplishment that fuels effort, as well as the direction needed to steer that effort. If you wait until the change is really good, you’ll be waiting forever. Get the positive cycle spinning by telling them it’s better and what they can do, even before they’re really is much of a change. They’ll make progress even faster.
One at a time.
This is key. Whenever possible, communicate with swimmers about the singular effort that they have in front of them. Focus on the one repetition, the one set, the one practice, especially when you’re in the middle of it. As much as possible avoid talking about what’s in the future. Swimmers can only control what they’re working on in the moment, and if we can make big tasks seem small, we can make the process seem manageable. Only worry about performance on the present repetition.
How do you feel your XXX is going?
You’ve drawn attention to the fact that this area is something that they should focus on. Regardless of what they say in response, you can be sure that they’ll be focused on it in the next rep. Instead of providing criticism, you’ve re-engaged the swimmer in what they need to do to be successful, and you’ve done so in a way that’s going to promote autonomy without any negativity.
They also might have something to say that’s particularly insightful, which can further help the process along.
Focus on what swimmers are doing WELL.
We tend to focus on what swimmers need to fix or improve. We see opportunities for change and so we communicate these opportunities. However, when swimmers are consistently bombarded with what they need to improve, it makes the process seem daunting and challenging. There is SO much to fix.
Instead, look for what swimmers are doing well. It builds their confidence, it builds their self-efficacy, and it makes future changes seem less challenging because their confident in their skills. It’s easy to view this as ‘coddling’ swimmers. Rather, I encourage you to view it as coaching in a way that will get better results. If swimmers are confident in their skills, they’re more confident in their ability to make changes. Change seems EASIER and their past success makes it seem more CERTAIN.
You’re doing a really nice job with your...
This is a great way to facilitate change without providing criticism. Occasionally, you’ll see someone who is doing an okay, but not great job with a certain skill, and you’d like them to clean it up. Our typical response would be to point out the problems we see. In contrast, try complimenting them on their skill.
Here’s how it works.
By pointing out something they’re doing well, they’re going to focus on it during the next repetition. Because the feedback was positive in nature, they’re going to approach that focus in a positive way believing that they can do even better.
You get what you want in regards to technical change, and it’s done in a way that leaves swimmers feeling good about themselves, confident in their skills, and more likely to work hard at changing them. The more often they can feel good about what they’re doing the better.
Never follow a compliment with a criticism.
The compliment sandwich is BS.
If you need to provide some criticism, do it. It is what it is, and that’s probably all they’re going to hear anyway. You might as well give it to them straight. No one appreciates it being sugar-coated, particularly when the sugar isn’t very sweet.
If you want to provide praise or a compliment, let it stand on its own. By providing criticism after a compliment, even a very mild one, is going to greatly dilute the impact of the praise. It’s almost as if it wasn’t said. Simply say what was good and move on. The criticism can wait, especially if you’re looking for the long-term impact of the positive statement.
The ONLY exception is when they are learning a new skill and you are adding the next aspect to it. This is more instructional in nature and you’re simply providing the next step of what needs to get done. It’s not criticism, it’s future direction.
It might take the form of ‘really good with the rhythm of the pull. Now let’s add the kick to it.’ That’s different than ‘really good with the rhythm of the pull. Next time see if you can do a better job with your breathing.’ The first case is appropriate; in the latter case, it’s probably be better to separate the comments if you want to have a bigger impact on confidence and skill acquisition.
Make it not a big deal
Even if massive changes are required, speak about them as if it’s not a big deal, at all. If we create the impression that the required change is a colossal undertaking, it’s going to intimidate our swimmers. The tone we use and the words we use are critical to how swimmers perceive the process. Use neutral words and speak in a nonchalant tone. Swimmers pick up on it. Do everything you can to minimize the expected challenge. If you’re obviously unconcerned, swimmers won’t be concerned either. Then they’ll be a lot more likely to fully commit to making the change.
Present opportunities, not problems
If you recognize a change opportunity, present it as such. Swimmers don’t have stroke problems, or fitness problems, or psychological problems. They have opportunities. Communicate with them in this manner. Instead of telling them something wrong with their swimming, talk to them about how a small change can make a huge difference. They’ll be focused on what there is to gain and the ease with which it can happen, all without creating any hang-ups about perceived shortcoming.
Act in congruence with what you say
None of these strategies will work if you don’t believe it. If you don’t get excited when they’re slightly better with each repetition, the swimmer won’t get excited. If you’re not into it with the praise you provide, it won’t have the same impact. If you’re not positive when they’re struggling, it won’t give them the confidence they need to push forward. If you say it’s not a big deal, but ACT like it is, they’ll know it’s a big deal.
Words need to be backed up with congruent action to be maximally effective. It takes the impact to the next level. You have to believe in what you are doing and that belief will show up in your behavior.
Coaching is about creating change. Effectively creating change is the accumulation of many small skills that add up to a major impact. One of these skills is how we choose to communicate with swimmers on a daily basis, particularly during challenging training sets. In many cases, the strategies we tend to default to are often less effective than the counter-intuitive approaches addressed above.
The best part about these tricks is that the more you use them, the more swimmers learn to use them for themselves. If you always focus on one repetition at a time, they start to focus on one repetition at a time. If you always harp on being slightly better, they start to try to be slightly better. If you focus on what they’re doing well, they’ll focus on what they’re doing well. It’s a wonderful positive feedback cycle that takes times to develop. Once is does…
While it takes time to adjust to these strategies, the benefits are worth it. Not only do performances improve, swimmers are happier throughout the process as well. It doesn’t get much better than that.