Baggage Part III
In part II, we explored physiological baggage. Physiological baggage is usually evident to coaches, as we can see the changes in movement and body language. Psychological baggage is just as impactful. Problematically, it’s much more difficult to recognize and appreciate.
The mind is engaged in every aspect of our daily lives. While we all appreciate and have FELT the physical impact of training, the impact of training on the mind and psychology is often under-appreciated. With any training session, competition, or even team meeting, there is a psychological component that must be considered.
The positive impact of any training session is going to be related to the amount of effort that is required to successfully complete that training session. It is often underappreciated that there is a cost that comes with effort, and that cost can extend beyond the physical. Giving effort is psychologically demanding and creates an impact that remains after the physical stress is removed.
There is an emerging field of research that looks at the impact of mental fatigue on performance. Across multiple contexts, performing a mentally challenging task prior to varying physical tests can reduce performance. Clearly the body is physically ‘ready’, but performances are not impaired.
For coaches working with student-athletes, we need to appreciate that school is going to impact training. Beyond that, training sessions that require significant amounts of effort and focus are going to cause fatigue beyond just the physical. Effort is not always physical. Any type of significant engagement is going to require effort. Highly technical training sessions requiring a large amount of focus and effort can have a major impact on readiness for subsequent training sessions even if the physical cost of training was relatively low.
For some swimmers, the cost of effort is greater than others. Some swimmers simply can’t consistently give high levels of effort within and across practices. It is going to be individual. After giving significant effort, some individuals simply need more time to recover, psychically or spiritually. Even if they are physically ‘ready’, they might not have the psychological resources to make it happen.
When observing how swimmers respond to training, it’s worth considering that the ‘fatigue’ they are experiencing maybe psychological as much as physical. If this is the case, it can allow for coaches to design training opportunities that are more productive. A physically recovered, yet psychologically fatigued individual can still perform productive training, provided that the engagement level is appropriate. Sometimes novelty does the trick as well.
When swimmers invest, there is a cost. The greater the emotional investment, the greater the cost. That cost might show up in the form of short-term performance losses.
Consider back to back dual meets. The first meet is against an arch-rival and the swimmers are excited all week and have great energy at the meet. They swim really well. The next day, the swimmers are flat and can’t match their performances. This letdown is as much a result of the emotional fatigue as it is the physical fatigue.
This can also happen during championship competitions, both from session-to-session and after the entire competition. A great finals session can be followed by a lackluster morning session. As championship meets are often won in the morning, this letdown matters.
While this dynamic is most likely to occur in the competitive scenarios described above, it can also happen following training sessions that are performed with particularly high emotions. Many coaches have noticed that training sessions following ‘test sets’ or race simulation training sessions are often compromised. While there is certainly physical baggage (fatigue) from these sessions, there is emotional baggage as well. Swimmers simply care more about their performances in testing situations because they are more closely indicative of race performance. The emotional investment has as much of cost as the physical investment.
So, what’s the point?
If there are short-term performance losses secondary to practice sessions or competitions that mean a lot, it’s probably an emotional issue as much as a physical issue.
What’s the solution? If you find yourself in this situation, swimmers can certainly continue to train in a productive manner. Lower stress training and lower engagement training are the answer. You can still do work that matters; it just has to be presented and performed in a manner that doesn’t require a lot of emotional investment. If the pressure is on constantly, some swimmers are going to crack eventually. It’s not just the effort required; the emotional engagement matters as well.
If you’re finding that emotional letdowns happen all the time, you’ll need to find ways to lower the emotional impact of specific training sessions. If these letdowns are secondary to competition, it’s a good problem to have because it means that your swimmers care. There’s not much to do in this situation, other than know a letdown is coming and adjust training accordingly.
In championship situations, swimmers and coaches alike have to find a way to disengage emotionally following a high energy session. Recovery requires stepping away emotionally. Staying locked in and hyper-focused is a great way
Emotional investment is critical to performance in training and competition. However, coaches need to be aware of the potential cost of emotional engagement, as well as how to balance those costs to allow for long-term progress and manageable outcomes.
When swimmers fail, there is a significant cost in terms of long-term motivation. For some, failure can be very devastating. For others, it is a tremendous source of motivation. There is a big spectrum as to how much failure any individual can tolerate. At the same time, everyone has their breaking point. It gets harder and harder to bounce back.
The number of failures also influences the impact, with cumulative failure often creating a cumulative impact. A series of relatively small failures can have the same impact as a significant failure. Each subsequent failure, either in training or competition, becomes more significant. Swimmers are putting it on the line when they compete, and there is a price to pay when it doesn’t work out.
While it’s easy for coaches to be ready to get right back to work, swimmers may be less ready to do so. They are carrying the psychological baggage of the previous failure.
How does this apply to coaching practice and what coaches can control?
It’s critical to challenge swimmers. Without challenge, there is no progress.
At the same time, coaches need to be mindful of how they challenge their swimmers because of the potential baggage that comes with challenges. While most coaches intuitively appreciate what’s to be gained if a challenge is overcome, there is often insufficient consideration as to the consequences of failure. These consequences can be real and sustained, compromising confidence and long-term motivation.
When designing training sessions, we need to be very careful about scaling challenges to individual ability levels. This creates a situation which maximizing challenge while protecting against the potential problems associated with failure. While it’s easy to shrug off an unsuccessful training set or training session as not a big deal, I would argue that it can be a very big deal. As described in On a Roll, momentum is real and every failure is moving swimmers in the wrong direction.
Coaches cannot control success and failure in competition. To a much greater extent, they can control success and failure in practice. As described in Optimizing Performance, the likelihood of success in enhanced when swimmers expect success. They expect success based upon past performances, both in practice and competition. Failure works against this dynamic.
While challenge is critical for long-term development, failure is the baggage that can come with challenge. Rather than viewing challenge as universally positive, we need to appreciate the potential downside and how that can affect swimmers psychologically. By doing so, coaches are more likely to design interventions which have the potential to improve performance and optimized psychological well-being, which is a critical component of performance in and of itself.
Coaches are typically focused on the positive. Relevant to this discussion, they’re focused on the benefits from training interventions. From physiological adaptations to learned skills, there is a lot to be gained from any practice situation.
However, any intervention is also going to have baggage. Even the perfectly designed training set or session comes with potential negative consequences. When managed effectively, these consequences can be neutralized or minimized. It’s when we operate without considering what ELSE could be happening that we can run into trouble.
While I’ve described some of the common problems coaches may run into, there are countless problems that could arise depending on the specific situation and the specific context. As such, coaches are best served by taking the concept and applying it to all of their decision making, while carefully overserving the effects of their decisions during implementation.
In this way, coaching practice can be improved by maximizing the positive impact of our interventions, while minimizing the baggage that comes with it.