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Baggage Part I

Baggage is the stuff that we don’t want that comes with the stuff we do want. It’s the extra we’d rather do without. In the coaching context, it’s all of the secondary and unintended consequences of our well-intentioned interventions.

In this article. I’d like to explore how we often overlook the negative effects of our interventions, while taking a look at some specific examples. The hope being that coaches can make better decisions, and less often find themselves wondering, ‘what just happened?’

Whenever coaches learn about a novel approach to addressing a performance problem, whether in the form of a training set or training drill, they often focus of the positives of using this solution, while failing to consider the potential negative impacts. A similar process happens when coaches are deciding which strategies to use on a daily basis. The focus is on how swimmers will benefit, while failing to consider the negative impact of any decision.

Any intervention is likely going to have both positive AND negative effects. While the positive effects are what we’re after, it’s important to also consider the negative impacts of any intervention. Over time, these effects can accumulate, and in some cases, begin to outweigh the positive effects. At that point, significant problems are going to emerge.

As coaches, we do a great job of identifying the positive, while doing a less great job of identifying and appreciating the negative. This is the baggage. Ideally, we’d like to create interventions that maximize the positive impact and minimize the negative impact. The first step is to appreciate that negative effects actually exist, and that they always exist to varying extents.

With awareness, problem-solving, and practice, we can all improve our ability to design and implement interventions that are most effective. This improvement can come not only from improving the positive impact, but through reducing the negative impact.

To be clear, baggage is not universally ‘bad’. It just is what it is, and by appreciating it, we can manage it. As we go through the specific types and examples, I’m sure it will be evident when baggage is acceptable and even necessary. The key is to understand the process that is happening, so we can keep an eye on how much baggage is being created, and when it becomes a problem.

Below, we’ll explore three different types of baggage that often emerge from training- technical baggage, physiological baggage, and psychological baggage. Further, we’ll examine specific examples that can help to clarify how baggage emerges within a training set.

Technical Baggage

With any intervention, technical baggage can be introduced. Technical baggage is any secondary, or unintended impact on technique that comes along with any training task. Typically, technical baggage comes in two forms. In the first case, it is the secondary impact on technique during drills that deviate from full stroke swimming. In the second case, it arises from the secondary consequences of training interventions.


Any training drill is isolating or emphasizing some portion of the stroke. As a result, that same drill is removing or de-emphasizing some aspect of the stroke. This isn’t good or bad, just part of the process managing skill improvement. However, the problem becomes when the potential positive impact of a technical drill is considered, and the potential negative impact of a technical drill is not considered.

This is especially true when drills are repeatedly used over time. These negative aspects can begin to seep into full stroke swimming. If coaches aren’t aware of this possibility, they won’t look for these negative changes and won’t notice them until the problem is obvious.

Let’s use an example to clarify this problem. Catch-up freestyle is a drill commonly used by coaches to focus stroke length, creating patience in the front of the stroke, setting an effective catch, and/or to emphasize the legs. When used appropriately, catch-up freestyle can help swimmers learn any of the above skills. At the same time, catch-up freestyle dramatically impairs effective timing and rhythm. The drill, like just about any other drill, has baggage.

If you perform a large volume of catch-up drills without balancing out the potential issue of altered rhythm, these negative rhythmical aspects may start to creep into full stroke swimming. It’s therefore important to consider both the beneficial and negative aspects of any technical drill, especially if the drill is going to be used in larger volumes. Know what the drill is doing, in all respects.


The training process is typically concerned with physiological development. When physiological development is the priority, coaches are often focused on the impact of training activities on training adaptations. However, all training activities require movement and technical swimming. Thus, any training activity during practice will impact technical skill, for better or worse, and that impact must be considered.

Let’s use an example to clarify the concept. Consider the standard kickboard. Using a kickboard can isolate the legs and allow for a strong training effect to be created. However, using a kickboard generally results in a body position that is not conducive to fast swimming. The head is up, the back is arched, and the hips are low; not positions you want to be in to swim fast.

While this is not inherently problematic, it can be problematic if these body positions are carried over into full stroke swimming. So, the investment in physiological development of the legs is not without a potential cost to body position. The idea here is that when coaches are aware of some of the negative impacts of their interventions, they can be mindful of strategies to maximize the positive impact while minimizing or eliminating the negative impact.

Back to the kickboard example. It’s not necessarily a problem that body position is compromised. It only becomes a problem when the impact on body position outweighs the benefits of developing the legs. Where the point lies, and if it’s ever a significant concern, is up to coaches to decide for themselves. However, it is only through awareness that the issue can be considered. It’s important to note that some technical compromise can be acceptable if it furthers training improvements. The acceptable amount of compromise is up to coaches to determine for themselves.

Moving Forward

EVERYTHING we do is affecting technique. Whether those effects are positive or negative will depend on the situation and the task at hand. If we are aware of the potential negative impacts any training activity has on technique, we can better design interventions that more swimmers in a direction more favorable to fast swimming.

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