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Problem Labeling

As coaches, our success is largely determined by our ability to solve problems. These problems could directly relate to performance in the form of technical, physical or psychological challenges. Or they could relate to administrative, cultural, or logistical issues. In almost all cases, we’ll face all of these problems daily.

Whenever our solutions aren’t working to expected degree, we either externalize blame (‘They just won’t do what I say!!’), or we continue to search for a different solution. In this article, I’d like to take a step back and examine the prerequisites for solving a problem. In many cases, success can be determined before we even begin the process of solving a problem. The real process starts with identifying a potential problem, and then labeling a problem.

Choosing to label a situation as problematic, and then describing that problem accurately and specifically, will set the stage for the determination of an effective solution. Errors in identifying and labeling a problem can create situations where finding a solution is incredibly challenging.

Thus, it’s worth considering the different aspects of identifying and labeling solutions to put ourselves in the best situation to solve them. A lot of what follow may seem like semantics. However, how we choose to view any situation greatly impacts how choose to interact in any situation. Small differences in mindset can have a major impact on outcomes.

Identifying Problems

We’re very quick to label situations as problematic. Not all situations that involve discomfort are necessarily problematic. The longer we can delay designating a problem, the more likely we’re able to frame the situation accurately. In many cases, problems can really be opportunities, and this difference in perception can have a significant impact on long-term outcomes.

Whenever possible, we want to avoid problems. The best way to avoid problems is not to create them through our identification process. Problems are EVERYWHERE once we start looking. However, if we’re cautious about identifying them, we can train our perceptions to see situations in a manner that favors positivity, and ultimately more effective outcomes.

When you think you may have a problem, it’s worth asking the following questions. It may help you avoid creating a problem for yourself, and if you really do have a problem, it will help create a better understanding of what your problem really is.

Why am I aware of the problem?

Any situation is coming to your attention for a reason. What is that reason? That is the starting point. What outcomes are you concerned about? What is the threat? What is the opportunity? Who is affected? Who is not affected?

Where am I feeling the pain? Why am I feeling the pain? Who else is feeling the pain?

A situation is ‘problematic’ when it becomes painful or distasteful in some manner. Understanding the nature of that pain is valuable in helping to understand what is really going on. A more globally informed perspective on a given situation is more likely to result in effective action.

What aspect of your life is affected? What aspect of your identity is affected? What is threatened? Is it culture, it is status, is it health, is it performance? Where the pain is being felt will greatly influence what may need to be done, and the timescale over which an intervention might need to take place.

When considering why you’re feeling the pain, it’s worth considering if the pain is ‘real’, or it’s really due to YOUR inappropriate reaction to a situation. Curiosity is incredibly valuable here. When multiple people are affected, is everyone reacting inappropriately or does it lend credence to the problem? It’s worth considering who is NOT affected, as well as who is. The differences between the groups can be very informative as to what is actually happening.

Is it actually painful? Is it really a problem?

A lot of ‘problems’ may be blown out of proportion. Sometimes, what we think is ‘pain’, really isn’t. We can’t react to everything as there are limits on our time and energy. We have to decide what is a ‘real’ problem and what is real pain.

What is the opportunity?

We don’t want to have problems. However, opportunities are great. Whenever problems can be re-framed as opportunities, it completely changes our perspective on what needs to get done to move forward. The more often we can identify problems as opportunities, the more likely we’ll institute change that is positive.

Problems tend to narrow our thinking whereas opportunities expand our thinking. This will almost always lead to greater long-term progress. As such, we are greatly served by identifying opportunities as opposed to problems.

Labeling Problems

How we label and describe problems will determine the solutions we generate to solve those problems. When problems are labeled, there is a degree of accuracy that is required to allow for effective solutions. If we are describing the problem inaccurately, the likelihood of choosing and implementing an effective solution is low.

Below are labeled problems-

We have a weak culture.

Johnny has no feel for the water.

Suzy needs to get tough.

Mark’s timing is off in his breaststroke.

When a problem has become labeled, many of the potential solutions are eliminated. There is a finality to the decision. This is incredibly valuable if the problem has been labeled correctly. It focuses attention to the solutions that can have a positive impact.

If you’re struggling to find an effective solution, it may be because the ‘problem’ has labeled incorrectly. We tend to label problems in relation to perceived similarity to previous experience, as well as the context of previously effective solutions. While the can work if the identified problems are truly similar, it can be an issue when the situation is novel. In most cases, each situation we find ourselves in will be novel in some manner.

Beyond the accuracy of labeling a problem, we must be specific in how we label each problem. Vague descriptions do not lend themselves to specific solutions. Specific problems lead to specific solutions. Of course, the specificity must be paired with accuracy, or we’ll simply develop specific solutions that is ineffective.

Using our example problems above, we can create a greater degree of specificity in labeling problems.

We have a weak culture as compared to Our swimmers consistently fail to attend the required number of practices.

Johnny has no feel for the water as compared to Johnny takes 4 more strokes per lap than is necessary.

Suzy needs to get tough as compared to Whenever challenges arise, Suzy struggles to perform.

Mark’s timing is off in his breaststroke as compared to Mark executes his pull at the same time that he recovers his legs.

Even these examples may require greater specificity to yield effective problem-solving. The more specific the problem can be labeled, the more specific the solution can be. The trade-off is that with greater specificity comes the greater likelihood of making an error of accuracy. We must then be constantly vigilant about evaluating our problem solving, and aware of the potential for mis-labeled problems.

Scope of Problem Labeling

Here is where problem labeling can become challenging. Our ability to correctly label problems is limited by our perception of how the world works. Our perception of how the world works is limited by our experiences and our knowledge. The broader our experiences and knowledge, the more problems we can accurately label.

If a coach has limited knowledge and experience with swimming technique, they will rarely perceive technical problems and may often mislabel technical problems as physical problems or some other source. Performance problems can be related to technique, training, culture, social issues, sleep, nutrition, etc.

While coaches don’t necessarily need deep knowledge in each of these areas, they must have an awareness of how these factors might affect performance, and what the ‘symptoms’ of potential problems look like. Coaches can either label the problem, or refer to individual specialists with the skill set to label the problem accurately. This can greatly help the process of correctly labeling problems.

Go Slow!

Once problems get labeled, it’s hard to ‘un-label’ them. Be very cautious when deciding how to describe a problem with finality as this will dictate the path that is taken to create a solution. The larger the problem is in scope, the more important patience becomes. A minor technical issue may not require much deliberation. A team-wide socio-cultural issue probably requires significant deliberation and consultation with others.

Once you start down the path towards finding solutions, it’s very challenging to back up and reconsider the original assumptions about what is actually happening.

Solving the Problem

At this point, it’s about intervention. Most of the articles on this site are directed towards potential solutions. If the problem has been correctly identified and labeled, there is a solution out there. Someone has been in the same situation as you and wrote a book or given a presentation outlining their solution. Or you know that person.

It’s simply about finding that solution and executing the implementation of that solution. Whether cultural, administrative, or performance-related, an appropriate solution should yield positive results almost immediately. If not, it’s time to figure out what went wrong.

It Could Be Execution

If we have the right solution, but the implementation of that solution is performed poorly, the outcomes aren’t going to be favorable. Fixing execution is typically a simple, though perhaps not easy process. We have to reflect back on what didn’t get done and make sure it gets done. If there is a shortcoming in execution, it can typically be resolved quickly if the will is there.

Execution is the first place we should look when determining what caused a lack of resolution. Evaluate the steps that needed to be executed and figure out what needs to be done better. If execution was on point, it’s time the consider whether the solution was the right one.

It Could Be the Wrong Solution

Assuming execution is effective, and the problem has been identified and labeled appropriately, we could be implementing the wrong solution. Some strategies simply don’t work out. Previously effective solutions may not work quite as well when the situational context differs slightly.

To create resolution, it may take a slightly revised solution, or a completely revamped one. At this point, it’s about tinkering and problem-solving based upon how effective the originally implemented solution was. If it was close, small adjustments may be all that’s required. If the solution didn’t work at all, a very different approach may be useful.

Even though a previously effective solution didn’t work, it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem was incorrectly identified. In many cases, seemingly opposite approaches can work effectively. One only needs to look at the spectrum of training approaches that work equally well for the same events.

If multiple solutions have proven ineffective, we may need to consider whether we’ve accurately and specifically labelled the problem.

It Could Be the Wrong Problem

If we’ve chosen and executed multiple effective solutions for a given situation, it’s possible we’ve labeled the problem incorrectly. In this case, it’s time to start over, challenge assumptions, and re-assess the situation.

It starts with the identification process described above, working to each question in light of any new information. With these answers in mind, we must work to accurately and specifically address the problem. Depending on the scope of the problem, it can be useful to look for outside insight into the situation. Everyone has their own expertise and experience, all of which can be valuable in working towards an appropriate description of what is happening.

In many cases, we’ve made one or two inaccurate assumptions. This can be due to a failure to gather as much information as necessary, or because decisions were made in haste. In many cases, problems are labelled incorrectly due to our failure to fully appreciate a situation from multiple perspectives due to a lack of knowledge. For instance, we may continually perceive performance problems as training related if we have inadequate technical knowledge.

For this reason, leaning on the perception of others is incredibly valuable as each person can offer a different angle.

Be Reflective

The whole process of identifying, labelling, and solving problems is a complex one. Throughout the process, there are many opportunities for inaccurate assumptions and presumptions. We can combat the possibility for error with awareness and curiosity.


What are the signs that our decisions are effective or not? Are we really paying attention or just assuming that the process will unfold as planned? Catching the subtle warning signs and intervening early is going to be much more effective than waiting until something HAS to be done. The price of doing so is simply paying attention.

Awareness is not about evaluating whether the process is going positively. It is more about actively looking for evidence that you’ve identified or labeled the problem incorrectly. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re on the right track, as there will always be evidence to support this stance. However, if you’re looking for potential problems, you’ll notice any that might arise. With awareness of those potential problems, you can evaluate whether they need to be addressed.

While being confident in our decisions is critical, we must have enough humility to consistently evaluated where our path is the correct one. As I’ve described before, it’s a balance that can be challenging to maintain.


If you’re struggling to appropriately solve problems in your coaching, it’s very possible that how you are viewing the process of identification and labeling of problem has short-comings. Why? In many cases, it stems from a narrow understanding of the dynamics of the performance process. We often have a limited perspective on the physical development process, and grossly overlook the influence of psychological, technical, and cultural issues.

How can we resolve that problem? Be curious. Learn more about what might be affecting performance beyond the training plan. Be curious about the other factors that contribute to performance. How might they influence what you are seeing? What could be causing the situation that is NOT related to energy systems, conditioning, etc.?

With a curiosity about the full dynamics of performance, we have a greater chance of more effectively labeling and intervening when potential issues arise.


Coaches are judged by their ability to solve problems. The ability to solve problems starts with the ability to identify and label problems. Unfortunately, coaches are VERY quick to identify and label problems, moving on to the discovery and implementation of solutions.

By drawing attention to the process of identifying and labeling problems, we can make our problem solving much more effective. The more time we spend carefully considering the dynamics of the situation in front of us, the more likely we are to accurately determine what is really happening. The more we understand the situation, the more likely we are to create solutions that will be effective.

Time invested up front will save a tremendous amount of time on the back end. Much like creating a great base for performance yields superior long-term improvement, the skill of problem identification and labeling is the base for effective problem solving. And solving problems is what great coaching is all about.

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