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Checking the Boxes Part II

In Part I, attention was brought to the need to consider planning training from physiological, technical, and psychological perspectives. Further, there is a need to examine all of the sub-components within these broader categories. If we expect swimmers to learn all of the skills required for effective racing, we must identify those skills and plan learning opportunities for swimmers to develop those skills.

While physiological development is often considered in depth, there is a typically a lack of attention to integrating technical and psychological skills into training in a meaningful way. For those individuals who have taken the time to create their check list of critical skills, it quickly becomes apparent how much needs to get done, and how little time there is to do it.

The challenge becomes how to incorporate and integrate all of these skills into a seamless training plan that allows for the achievement of the desired objectives. Doing so requires identifying priority elements, evaluating trade-offs and training baggage, and looking for opportunities to combine complementary training elements. The goals is to create training sessions that are extremely dense in learning opportunities that swimmers can effectively navigate. Doing so reduces training redundancy and enhances learning.

Below are some strategies coaches may find useful in identifying and solving these potential coaching problems.

Getting Practical

Hopefully, awareness of aspects of the training design beyond physiology has been established. While awareness is a critical aspect of creating change, it’s only a starting point. Changes in coaching practice need to follow. Below are some strategies to go from awareness to change in coaching a day to day and set to set basis.

1. What Matters Most?

When designing training sessions, we have to establish what the priority is. Between psychology, physiology, and technique, what matters most? Once established, the remainder of the training session or training set can be built to support that objective. There is never a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; it just needs to be clear. At the same time, if the same objective is ALWAYS the priority, other components will be left underdeveloped.

For instance, let’s say the primary objective for a given training set is aerobic fitness development. In this case, the training parameters need to be set up to ensure that aerobic fitness is developed. Once that basic structure is in place, we can look at our options to check technical and psychological boxes.

As long as these secondary objectives are conducive to, and hopefully enhance, the primary objective of aerobic development, anything is possible. A technical focus on distance per stroke, a set number of dolphin kicks, or a turning component would all work well here. From a psychological perspective, we can work on developing the confidence to finish races strongly by requiring that the final 50m is the fastest 50m segment for each repetition.

In contrast, if a technical goal is primary, then the training design must first be conducive to achieving this goal, and physiological and psychological goals can then be placed to support and enhance the achievement of the primary objective. The same would be said of a primary objective that is psychological in nature. We would then set up training and technical objectives that would support the achievement of enhancing a particular aspect of psychology.

While there may be a priority for any given practice or set, there still needs to be an effort to check ALL of the boxes as deeply as possible as often as possible. If done well, checking all of the boxes will not only accomplish more objectives, but will allow for the achievement of the primary objective to be deeper and more representative of competitive situations.

2. What Are the Trade-Offs?

It can be challenging to consider how to implement training situations that accomplish multiple objectives at the same time, particularly when first working through this issue. At first, it may seem like your options are limited and compromises are inevitable. As opposed to settling on a compromise, consider the following question-

How can you have it both ways?

The goal is to be able to accomplish multiple objectives simultaneously without compromise, and hopefully allowing for better outcomes for both objectives.

To do so requires considering the potential trade-offs between approaches. For any given decision, how does that decision impact all of the boxes you’d like to check? For instance, imagine you’ve designed a race development set which is going to really stress the metabolic systems and race fitness. You’d also like work on stroke efficiency and are considering adding a stroke count element.

On one hand, overly restrictive stroke counts may limit the ability to swim fast and stress metabolism, even if it promotes efficient swimming. Conversely, allowing swimmers to swim with any stroke count may allow short-term performances and fitness development, while limiting the long-term development of swimming efficiency and performance. A solution that allows both goals to be achieved is required.

Having it both ways may require some innovation and it may require departing from traditional means and methods of implementing training. It all comes back to how can I solve this problem in a way that allows for all goals to be accomplished.

3. What’s the Baggage?

Implementing any type of work is going to have unintended consequences which must be considered. Once we appreciate what the baggage might be, we can work to mitigate these potentially negative effects.

Similar to the second question, the impact of including additional components has to be thought through, and the focus has to be as much on what there is to loses as what’s to gain. If adding a technical component takes away more than it gives, it makes no sense to include it. Coaches are well-served to consistently be aware of the impact of including training elements to ensure that the amount of training baggage is limited. It is a matter of identifying baggage and managing or eliminating potential trade-offs.

4. How Can We Get the Most from The Least?

How can you check as many boxes as possible for the least amount of work? The more boxes that can be effectively checked during a training session, the faster swimmers will improve. Successfully accomplishing this goal requires careful planning, diligent implementation, and consistent observation of how swimmers are reacting to the tasks they are undertaking. The point is not to do less, but to create a higher effective density of learning. If you are able to increase density AND perform the same amount of work, swimmers will progress faster.

There will be a limit. Swimmers can only engage in so many tasks at once. This limit is also individual in that certain swimmers can handle work that requires a greater degree of ‘engagement density’. In general, swimmers should be successful more often than not. If they are consistently failing to accomplish the objectives of a given training set, the density of the challenge may be too high.

Fortunately, the ability to focus and engage with multiple tasks and detail can improve over time. Patience is required and consistently challenging the ability to engage in training will allow swimmers to grow in how they work through training sessions. It also requires establishing a high standard of engagement, and consistently reinforcing this standard during each training set of each training session.

As discussed in part I, creating a list of the tasks you’d like to address is the starting point, as it allows for the identification of the tasks that need to be incorporated over a given time period. Once that list has been established and prioritized, coaches can set about allocated time to each of these tasks, pairing complementary tasks to ensure that engagement and learning opportunities remain as dense as possible.

Pairing complementary training tasks is key to ensure training density remains high. By pairing tasks that work together well, more can be accomplished with less, all without overwhelming or frustrating swimmers. To do so effectively requires planning so that these tasks are paired out ahead of time and organized in a manner that swimmers can handle. Poor planning and sequencing of otherwise effective task combinations can impede efforts to increase task complexity and the depth of engagement.

5. Start Small and Be Patient

Instead of going from considering only physiology to targeting physiology, skill, and psychology on every lap of every practice, be patient. Implementing effective training is a skill and skills take time to develop. Start with your current ability level.

Choose to focus on increasing one of the three components in your practice design. At first, do so for one set of each practice each day. Plan well and execute to the best of your ability. As you get more comfortable, simply increase the duration of practice were multiple components are addressed simultaneously. Eventually, add the 3rd component for one set and go from there.

As with all skills, it takes time. Be patient and allow skills the time they need to grow.

Organizing and Designing Practices

While the strategies outlined so far have been more conceptual in nature, it’s time to begin the process of creating training elements swimmers will actually navigate. A great practice has clear objectives, accomplishes those objectives, and has a smooth flow to it.

When it comes to designing practice, start simple. Answers a series of quick questions and go from there.

What needs to be accomplished today?

What tasks best accomplish these objectives?

At what point in practice will each task be performed optimally?

What was done yesterday? What will be done tomorrow? Do I want to compliment those tasks or create contrast with those tasks?

What tasks can be combined?

How is this best achieved?

How much time is required for each practice segment?

How can all of these tasks be organized so that practice has great flow and there are smooth transitions from task to task?

These questions can be answered in terms of concepts and generalities. It is about creating a skeleton of training session where concepts and frameworks are identified. At the next stage, actual training sets will get created and the details really matter. With a practice skeleton laid out with objectives, time allocation, and task order, coaches can then begin to flesh out the details of what will actually be done.

A common mistake is to design sets and THEN try to fit them into a framework of practice. While this may allow for a particular set to be effective, it’s effectiveness can be diminished when the set is not created within the context of the entire practice. Designing effective practices starts with creating a framework for practice, and then creating sets to support that framework.

Designing Sets

Once the practice structure has been established, it’s time to fill in the blanks with what will be implemented.

As with designing practices, it useful to run through a checklist of questions that need to be answered to ensure coaches are creating the best learning environment they can. An important distinction between designing practices and designing sets is that coaches also need to be ready to implement the set. In many cases, effective implementation will require modifications and adjustments to match the task with each individual’s capabilities on that day.

When constructing each set, the following questions can be considered to create the best environment for productive work-

How much work is needed?

How fast does it need to be done?

How much rest will they need?

What work was done the last time a similar set was performed?

Are we ready to make progress? What’s a reasonable expectation for progress?

What are ‘levers’ can be manipulate to scale the training tasks for different individuals?

When struggles happen and adjustments are needed, what parameter will be adjusted (physiologically, technically, psychologically?

By answering these, questions coaches consider all the different options they, and begin to narrow down those options that are most appropriate for accomplishing the stated goals. These questions help provide direction and allow for coaches to hone in on what really matters. As importantly, they create a framework for making future training sets better.

After practice, it’s worth reflecting on how each set went, both to identify what went really well and what could have been done better. The following questions are a starting point for establishing a reflective process that’s critical to refining coaching skills.

Was the objective accomplished?

What went really well?

What should be retained for future sets?

What could have gone better?

What are some potential solutions to address these issues?

Were problems the result of design, implementation, or both?

Reflecting upon what actually happened is a starting point for improving future sets. It’s important to focus on what was done well as much as what needs to get better. We want to retain the effective strategies as much as we want to modify those strategies that could be more effective. While this process can become more informal over time, having a structured process can be very useful for those who been less reflective in the past.

Separate or in Conjunction?

As coaches learn to incorporate all three performance components into their practice, it can be valuable to start with focuses on each component separately, or with minimal demands from the other components. Not only will this strategy better align with the coach’s current skillset and comfort, it will be more easily handled by the swimmers. There will be a learning curve for swimmers to manage multiple components simultaneously.

Start with what everyone can handle, and then go from there. Ensure that success is more common than failure, and slowly increase the complexity of the tasks that are assigned, and the expectations that come with more challenging tasks. When pushing the boundaries, start with a singular set, or a portion of a set. Once handled well, do more and/or increase complexity.

Over time, coaches will get better at designing more effective practices, as well as implement those practice. These are two different skillsets and may not improve in conjunction. Be patient!

At the same time, coaches should strive to learn to combine all of the elements together, and execute those training sets and training sessions. The goal is to provide appropriate learning environments and push swimmers to the boundaries of what they can accomplish. The more effective the training designed, and the more effective these sessions are implemented, the more swimmers will have to learn to win. This is seamless coaching. We may never get there, but trying to get there allows up to get better.


In this article, I’ve tried to create awareness of how training design is often approached from a purely physiological perspective, and how incorporating technical and psychological factors into training design will expose swimmers to more of the skills required to enhance performance.

For many, formalizing this process by ‘checking boxes’ can help to ensure that all of the required skills and abilities are addressed within a given time period. As we all have our biases and blind spots, time must often be taken to make sure that every aspect of performance is being addressed. Over time, this process can become a lot more intuitive and informal, although it can always serve as an audit to confirm that you’re staying on track.

One of the dangers in coaching is that we can being to focus in on 1-2 specific parts, while ignoring the wholistic perspective. By checking the boxes, performance enhancement becomes more likely as we provide appropriate opportunities for swimmers to develop all of the skills and abilities they need to race effectively.

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