Checking the Boxes Part I
When designing training sessions, the goal should always be to optimize the opportunities to improve performance. We want to provide as many opportunities for swimmers to develop ALL of the skills and abilities that are required to race successfully. This includes all of the physiological abilities, of which there are many, all of the technical skills, of which there are many, as well as all of the psychological skills, of which there are also many.
A fellow coach described the process as ‘checking the boxes’, and I’d like to work with that theme to create more awareness around the need to address all aspects of performance. If we want to actually ensure that all aspects of preparation are addressed, we need to actively plan for their implementation.
For any given training session and any given training set, we want to check as many boxes as possible to provide the best opportunity for swimmers to improve their performances in the pool.
While this is intuitive, and most coaches believe they’re already doing so, coaches often limit their training design to one or two elements. Typically, there is an over-emphasis on the targeted physiological adaptations at the expense of technical and psychological skills. If performances are to improve over time with consistency, all of the components of performance need to be addressed over the course of a training week.
As importantly, the more ALL of the different aspects of performance can be stressed within one training set, the more representative that set becomes of the realities of racing, and the greater likelihood that better training will lead to better racing.
As an example, coaches could design a ‘technique set’ and follow it with a ‘training set’. Written as such, both needs would be met during the practice. However, training sets performed with poor technique aren’t going to help anyone and practicing technique slowly without physical stress isn’t going transfer to racing. Checking boxes is most effective when those boxes are checked SIMULTANEOUSLY within any training exercise.
Let’s take a look at the major boxes that need to be checked, as well as some considerations about how to best check those boxes. Then we’ll explore some strategies to concurrently address all of the performance needs.
Let’s start off where most coaches start their process- they identify the key physiological adaptations and design training plans that have historically successful. How will the chosen training structure (volumes, intensities, etc..) facilitate the desired physiological outcomes?
Coaches are pretty good about creating physiological goals and implementing training plans to address these goals. Ask any coach for their ‘weekly plan’ and they’ll most likely be able to tell which energy zone (VO2 max, threshold, lactate, etc) they’re focused on for a given day.
Beyond creating appropriate goals, there are plenty of resources available to learn more about effective training designs that serve to accomplish these goals. From books on swimming, to physiology texts, to guidelines published by governing bodies, these resources are readily available.
At the same time, I would encourage coaches to look into how other sports develop physiology, as it can provide alternative options that can become very useful when we need strategies for checking multiple boxes beyond just the physiology.
It is VERY rare, to see coaches who are not considering physiology. At the same time, there are can be errors of omission in planning physiological development. These dynamics have been described on this site previously.
Within the training continuum, there are multiple training components that need to be addressed in a given week. For coaches looking to improve the ability to incorporate all of these components in a fluid manner, it can be very helpful to simply list them out. Once you know what needs to get done, you can begin to prioritize different components. Once you have established priority, begin to organize your training week in a manner that optimizes exposure to the prioritized components, complementing that work with the other necessary training components.
This process allows for coaches to get all of the work in they believe necessary, while doing so in an organized and coherent way. As I described previously, there are multiple areas that need to be addressed in a dryland program, and I simply refer to my list to ensure that all of the required areas are addressed in a given week. Through this process, the necessary work gets done. The same process applies for swimming training.
More often than not, this box is being checked by just about every coach. At the same time, a little more thought can allow coaches to fill in any gaps that might be developing, and do so in a manner that flows seamlessly within and between practices.
Ask any coach what separates successful swimmers from less successful swimmers and they will probably say technique. Ask those same coaches to show you their plan for developing technical skills and they’ll most likely look at you with a blank stare. Further, ask those same coaches to show you how they work to improve technical skills within a training session and you’ll get some drills in warm-up, and not much else.
Why is there such a disconnect between what’s important and what gets done?
My feeling is that it’s easy to manipulate and see progress in training related parameters. Particularly during endurance training. It’s HARD to change skills and these changes are so incremental that they’re difficult to detect, especially in the short-term. The payoff is rarely immediate.
If skills really are important, and we expect them to change, we need to plan for those changes to take place over the course of a season and we need to provide opportunities for learning in practice, all the time.
What are the various subsets that need to be addressed?
If you’re working on ‘turns’ or ‘butterfly’, it must be appreciated that there are likely multiple aspects of those skills that need to be specifically addressed. Which are most important?
If you go through this process, you’ll discover that there are a lot of skills to develop and not a lot of time to do it.
First, you’re going to make choices about what you want your swimmers to learn. There may be 20 aspects of great freestyle, but your swimmers are only going to be able to address a couple, especially when they’re working on improving other strokes, turns, underwater kicking, etc…
Second, you’re going to have to take advantage of every lap to make sure all of the important boxes are checked.
How do you do that?
You’ve likely already checked the physiology box for a given practice. You know what physiology you’re targeting. The question becomes-
How can I introduce a technical skill learning element into EACH aspect of practice, that is not only complementary to the physiological goals, but synergistic? How can I make practice better?
The goal is to ensure that the technique box is being checked as often as possible, preferably during every lap of every practice. For those looking for starting points on how to improve the learning opportunities they provide their swimmers, simply click on the skill acquisition of this website tab for articles and ideas about how to enhance this process.
As with training, I would suggest that coaches list out ALL of the technical components they believe are important for success in swimming. This includes starts, turns, finishes. Once you’ve made that list you can then decide what REALLY matters, and what you’re willing to address. While there are no right or wrong answers, there are mechanical principles that matter, and certain elements tend to be consistently important for fast swimming.
You may decide that X is important, but you’re not willing to devote time to addressing it. That is OKAY, although you have to accept that your swimmers likely won’t execute those skills very well. While you can't do it all, there is a big difference between skipping a skill by CHOICE as opposed to sloppy coaching.
Once you decide what you’re going to address, there must be an active effort to include those components on a daily or weekly basis to allow for consistent improvement over time. IT WILL NOT HAPPEN BY CHANCE! You’ve got your list and you can simply check the boxes to provide the best opportunities for swimmers to learn skills that will improve performance.
Especially at first, it takes a concerted effort to make this happen. This is even more true if there has been little to no technical planning in the past.
Even more so than the technical aspect of performance, coaches give even LESS consideration to how psychological skills are being developed in training. Ironically, we typically blame poor performances on poor psychology, the very attribute we provide the least support for!
If we expect swimmers to approach racing in a certain way, we need to provide them with the opportunity to learn how to do so. Beyond racing, swimmers need help learning how to manage their thoughts and their focus throughout practice. Both skills will dramatically improve training and competition performance.
Some questions to consider-
How are we helping swimmers learn how to frame their thoughts during practice, to facilitate the development of thought processes that will help them win races?
How are we helping swimmers develop task-specific focus?
How are helping swimmers learn how to learn, and the thought process that doing so requires?
Specific thoughts lead to specific actions and changes in thought processes or patterns can lead to changes in how swimmers behave. If coaches want to influence behavior, there will need to be a concerted effort to affect thoughts.
As with technique, integrating psychology starts with identifying what you’d like to develop in training. List every psychology skill you believe is valuable. What thought processes and psychological skills are critical for performance?
Once the list is created, priority must be given to those skills that will have the greatest impact. Some psychological skills are foundational to others. It makes sense to develop these skills first. From my perspective, the most important skills to develop are task-specific focus, confidence, and developing engagement/the ability to learn.
Once priorities are established, it’s time to consider how those skills can be developed. In the links above, I’ve provided some strategies for the skills I believe are important. Coaches can certainly choose different skills as well as develop their own strategies to improve those skills.
The critical consideration is that these skills must be developed IN TRAINING, not during separate ‘classroom’ sessions. Like all skills, improvements in psychology come from practice in relevant situations. That means during swim practice and during challenging sets. The primary role of the coach is to facilitate dialogue and create awareness of what thoughts process are occurring.
If coaches are aware of the skills they’d like to develop, they can create a plan to develop those skills, and then implement that plan to make it happen, just like developing physiological and technique.
Once a checklist for psychological skills has been established, and ideas for developing those skills have been created, it’s time to insert those learning opportunities into training sets that have already been developed. It is simply a manner of steering focus in a deliberate manner.
While conscious planning is often required at first, these skills will begin to be seamlessly integrated into practice. As much as swimmers will need to change, coaches will need to change. It will take for coaches to adopt their practice habits, just as it will for swimmers.
While a critical foundation of coaching, creating training plans that develop physiology are only one component of the entire training process. To create the be opportunities for swimmers to improve racing performance, technical and psychological components must be identified and incorporated into the training process as well. Within all three broad categories, various sub-components exist well.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to do. Getting that work done requires creating more sophisticated training tasks that address all of these components within each practice. While it’s easy to view these components in isolation, the most effective learning environments will be designed in a manner that is integrative in nature. Psychology, physiology, and technique cannot exist independent of each other, and effective training tasks will be designed to train all components simultaneously.
Doing so requires a new skill set that coaches must work towards developing. While it may start with developing various skills in isolation, there needs to be a move towards integration. The more this task can be accomplished, the greater the likelihood of providing swimmers the best opportunity to improve racing performance.
In part II, we’ll explore how to do so.