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Why Bad Practices Are Great

Over time, our performances reflect our averages. Meet performances are typically the average of our training performance. Championship performances are typically the average of our meet performances.

The main purpose of competitive swim training is to improve championship performance. Where do we put our focus to consistently get better in championship meets? We have to improve average in-season competitive performance. Improving in-season competitive performance is the result of improving average training performance.

This is all pretty straightforward. As we have much more control over daily training performance, the real question becomes ‘how do we improve average training performance?’

This is where we have to make choices. In most cases, swimmers and coaches place their focus on trying to swim faster in practice, often placing the emphasis on making their best performances better. Whether in the form of test sets or regular training, we try to go faster.

While this can be effective, I’m not sure it’s always the best approach for many swimmers.

Competitive performance is going to be the result of the average training performance, not necessarily reflective of that one practice where every aspect was perfect. We all remember those practices where we start to dream about what’s really possible. While these practices may indicate what’s possible in the distant future, it says little about what’s possible right now.

To get faster, we have to improve our average performances. The best way to get faster is not to improve our best practices, but to improve or get rid of the bad practices.

Here’s why.

The Spread. Good practices are often tightly bunched. The difference between a great practice and a good practice is often pretty small. The difference between a good practice and a bad practice is often really big. Improving a bad practice will have a much bigger impact on the average than improving a good practice simply because there is so much room for improvement.

Ease. It’s really hard to improve good practices. It’s really easy to improve bad practices. Bad practices can be improved with focus and effort. It doesn’t matter how tired someone is, they can always perform better. The good practices are going to be really difficult to improve, and the margins are so small. A great practice is only going to be slightly better than a good practice, it’s not going to shift the average very much.

In terms of improving the average, the biggest impact is going to happen by going faster during the bad practices because the room for improvement is so much larger. If you improve the bad practices, average performances will go up and the good practices will improve anyway.

Psychological Resilience. Swimmers don’t learn psychological skills on a couch. They learn those skills in practice during really challenging situations. The best place to do that? Bad practices. ‘Being tough’ is mostly about making the right choices and focusing on the right tasks during challenging situations. It’s a skill and skills need to be learned in the right situation. While bad practices can be frustrating, it’s the PERFECT situation to work on building psychological resilience. It’s here that swimmers can learn to focus their effort on what can be controlled, and it’s here that swimmers can learn to overcome adversity. It’s the best place for swimmers want to be if improvement is their objective.

As I’ve discussed before, consistency is also skill. The better we get at being turning around bad practices, the easier it is to do. Fortunately, the same skill set applies to competition settings. Eventually, swimmers will be in a championship setting where it’s not clicking. Those that have learned to turn around bad practices will be able to figure it out. Those that have not, won’t be able to.

Making Change

When practice is going poorly, it’s time for coaches and swimmers to get excited because it’s a huge opportunity for improvement. Here are some ideas about what to do about it.

Better is a better goal than best. When practice is going poorly, swimmers and coaches get frustrated. This frustration is magnified when everyone compares their current performances with their best performances. This is where we get into trouble.

Swimmers get overwhelmed by the difference between where they are and where they want to be. It seems too daunting and they feel like they have no control. Where they need to focus is on what they DO have control over. And that’s the next repetition. And it doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be better.

Be slightly better. Progress is progress and ANY progress is a good thing. Rather than focusing on how far the true goal still seems, focus on the process of getting better by any means. It can be performances, stroke counts, the number of dolphin kicks, anything. The idea is to get better at some aspect of the set, and move forward from there. It’s a game of inches.

Set low standards. Setting low standards may seem counter-intuitive. However, it makes success seem possible and encourages swimmers to mobilize their effort to meet those standards. Once those standards are achieved, you ratchet them up. Once the new standards are achieved, you increase them again. It’s an iterative process that starts small and builds momentum.

The hardest part is the start. Making the start seem manageable and the odds of success high helps swimmers get on the right track.

One at a time. Worry about the repetition about to be completed, and what needs to happen on that repetition. The rest don’t matter. Again, we’re trying to make the process manageable. Bad practices usually bring about frustration, and frustration can lead to a loss of effort. Effort is what is going to save the practice. Taking one repetition at a time can make change seem possible in the face of a daunting task. It makes the big seem small. While it is challenging to help swimmers think this way, once they’re able to, it leads to much better consistency.

Pick one thing. Bad practices are usually bad in a lot of different ways. It’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed by how many different aspects of practice are going poorly. A loss of focus and a loss of effort are exactly what doesn’t need to happen to turn practice around. As opposed to being concerned with what could be improved, pick ONE aspect and make it better, just slightly better. The EASIEST option is often the best option to select. Simply start making something better.

All of these strategies are directed towards one purpose. Making change seem manageable. Bad practices stay bad or get worse because swimmers are overwhelmed by how far they are from where they want to be. These strategies shift focus to what can be controlled, and what feels manageable.

Once they gain some positive momentum, confidence grows and practices start to turn around fast. Of course, sometimes they don’t and these situations are where swimmers learn how to keep trying.

When these strategies are used, swimmers will find that not only can they improve their practices, ‘bad’ practices often turn into some of their best practices. It’s precisely when expectations are lowest that the prospect for improvement is the highest.

Remember, it’s an opportunity. Bad practices are an opportunity to learn how to improve, an opportunity to learn how to be psychologically resilient, and an opportunity to learn figure it out.

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