Almost uniformly, coaches tend to drive the learning process. They have the answers and they provide swimmers with those answers. This can certainly be productive in the short-term as change can be facilitated. However, consistently providing swimmers with all of the answers can have negative long-term consequences.
In training, swimmers typically have counter-productive thought processes, or they simply don’t have any control of what they’re thinking about. They’re tuned out to the vital information that is present at all times. They’re unable to manage and direct their thoughts in a manner that sets them up for success in training.
This is certainly going to have long-term performance consequences as compromised training is going to prevent optimized performance progression. Because they don’t practice these skills in training, they’re not going to be able to access them in competition. They have nowhere to turn when they’re struggling in a competition.
Coaches clearly understand, and often communicate to swimmers, that every stroke swimmers take is an opportunity to improve their skills. At the same time, coaches tend to ignore that every second of every practice is an opportunity to improve how swimmers think and how they focus their attention.
Winning mental skills are not going to be developed by chance. They’re also not going to be developed on the couch of sports psychologist. They’re going to be developed on a daily basis in practice with a structured plan that requires swimmers to engage in their training. While it can take time to create change, fortunately it is not a complicated process.
We simply need to ask good questions.
While coaches can’t control their swimmers’ thoughts, or much of anything really, they can begin to direct their swimmers’ attention by asking questions. By asking a question, we’re requiring an answer. An answer is going to come from the swimmers' thought processes.
Swimmers are going to learn to know the answers to the questions they’re being asked consistently. They’re going to learn to think differently.
As we’ll see below, there are a lot of benefits to a shift in thinking. More than anything else you are helping swimmers learn that they have CONTROL. When performance is not moving in the right direction, or they are struggling on a particular day, they have the power to make change and get it back on track. There is where true confidence is developed, and there is not much that is more powerful than that.
Same, better, worse?
After a repetition, or series of repetitions, coaches can simply ask swimmers, ‘Was that the same, better, or worse?’. To respond to that question, swimmers HAVE to pay attention to what they are doing and what information they are receiving. They also have to determine what that information means, and what they’re going to do about it.
While it’s easy to just TELL swimmers what we see, we are depriving them of the opportunity to learn what they are feeling LINK. Over time, improving attunement to the kinesthetic information the body is always providing can dramatically increase the ability to move through the water skillfully.
This strategy is particularly useful in two situations-
1. Learning new skills or modifying existing skills.
2. Turning around bad practices.
In the first case, we’re helping swimmers through the process of understanding the feedback that their body is telling them. The answer to the question of whether a change is positive is always present if swimmers are able to listen to the answer.
Beyond that, being able to FEEL a technical change provides the knowledge required to re-create those movements. If the change is going to stick, swimmers need to be able to feel it, and they can only do so if they’re actively paying attention.
In the second case, we’re helping swimmers learn how to make terrible practices less bad. This is a skill and it is primarily a skill of appropriately directed focus. Improving short-term performance is about focusing on what can be controlled in the momentum, and directing attention towards what can be improved NOW. The more small wins that can be accumulated, the more momentum will be created, and the faster performances will improve.
Here’s why it works-
We’re requiring engagement
If swimmers aren’t engaged, they’re not going to improve. Rather than asking or expecting swimmers to engage in what they’re doing, we require them to engage. The only way they can answer this question if they’re actually engaged in what they are doing. If they are going through the motions, they have no idea if it was the same, better, worse. They have to pay attention.
Get a real answer. If the swimmers waffle on their answer, they’re probably making it up. CALL them on it. Do that several times and they’ll start to understand that they need to have an answer, and that answer needs to reflect investment in their swimming. They don’t need to have super specific answers. They just need to have answers that speak to their engagement in what they are doing.
We’re facilitating autonomy
We are also depriving them of the autonomy to engage in their learning. Human beings are going to take much more ownership, give much effort, and produce much better results when they feel like they are in control of the process. Whenever we ask for a swimmer’s input, and requiring engagement, we are building autonomy.
Conversely, every time we provide the answers for them, we are robbing them of their autonomy. While it may allow for a better short-term results, consistently taking control from swimmers is a losing proposition in the long-term.
We’re requiring evaluation
Rather than simply telling swimmers what to do, what was wrong, and how to fix it, we’re helping to show them the process of how to do this for themselves. As coaches, we rely on what we can see, which is different from what swimmers can feel. If we constantly provide feedback, swimmers won’t feel the need to pay attention to what they are feeling. If you provide the answer, they’re not going to listen to what their body is telling them.
Unfortunately, the sensations swimmers have access to as a result of their movements are a critical source of information. Not only is it likely ‘better’ than what a coach can see, it is also a constant source of information. If swimmers are dependent on coaches for information, they are limited by the ability of the coach
When swimmers are able to evaluate their own performance, we’re helping them learn how to coach themselves on every lap. We’re not only increasing the quality of feedback, we’re greatly increasing the quantity of feedback. Swimmers have constant access to what they need to improve.
Beyond the inherent value of kinesthetic information, when swimmers determine their own problems and evaluate them, they have autonomy. By building their evaluation skills, we’re enhancing their ability to continue to manage their own swimming independently. As described above, this has many benefits.
We’re implying responsibility
If we are asking swimmers to evaluate their swimming, the implication is that they have a responsibility to facilitate their improvement. By showing swimmers that they have the ability to engage and assess, the implication is that they now have a responsibility to do so.
We are taking the responsibility for improvement away from ourselves as coaches, helping swimmers understand that they must take responsibility for their progress. When we stop providing the answers, and expect swimmers to come up with their own answer, the message is clear. Improvement is an active process and you must participate in it if you hope to improve over time.
We’re building self-efficacy
Too often, we simply tell swimmers how WE thought they did. This is especially true when they are learning new skills. While positive feedback can boost confidence in the initial and uncertain stages of learning, the deepest and most significant sources of self-efficacy are unsurprisingly self-derived.
By requiring evaluation and implying responsibility, swimmers are going to have to identify their problems, and then DO something about it. Eventually, they’re going to be successful in identifying obstacles and overcoming those same obstacles. This is how self-efficacy is built, and self-efficacy is VERY powerful.
When swimmers learn that they can control their performances and move beyond ‘how they feel’, they start to train and race at another level.
What was good? What could be better?
Here, we’re helping swimmers learn how to get better swim to swim, set to set. Most swimmers simply swim. They accept their performances and they are under the impression that there isn’t much they can do about it.
Of course, this is completely wrong.
Swimmers DO have the ability to control their performances, they do have the ability to improve, and they have the ability to change. As coaches, we have to create the environment that allows this process to be facilitated.
Coaches can help swimmers learn to change the way they think by require to think in new ways. We do that by asking questions. By asking ‘What was good? What could be better?’, we’re requiring swimmers to continue the evaluative process, as well as helping them frame what has happen as a plan for moving forward.
Here’s why it works-
Reinforcing the positive
It’s also critical to ask these two questions in the stated order. START with the positive, and then move on to the opportunity. It requires swimmers to constantly give themselves positive feedback.
Coaches and swimmers like to focus on the negative aspects. By constantly asking swimmers what they did well, we’re reinforcing their self-confidence in themselves. Whenever I ask this pair of questions, a shocking number of swimmers will literally ignore the first question, or simply be unable to provide answer.
They live in a constant state of criticism, an unintended consequence of ‘coaching’. While this criticism is well-intentioned, it can often leave swimmers focused on all of their short-comings, which is antithetical to the confidence the training process should instill in swimmers. We can reverse that process by requiring swimmers to state their successes out load, not matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
This dynamic is really important on a daily basis when working through the challenges of training. Most swimmers will not show up to practice completely recovered and ready to go. It is going challenging at first to orient towards performance, especially when it’s not coming as easily as expected or hoped for.
Particularly when swimmers are really struggling, it is critical to build on the positive and find the small wins. They need to build positive momentum, and it starts with how they talk to themselves. In these situations, the tendency is often to focus on the negatives. This focus on the negative tends to stem from either a sense of frustration or simply focusing too much on trying to improve mistakes. Regardless, the outcome is a process steeped in negativity.
Instead, it is incredibly valuable to focus on what is being done well and build on that. By building on the positive, each baby step forward is progress towards a better practice. Positivity is often the path forward rather than focusing on what is NOT being done well.
As above, we’re building self-efficacy here because swimmers are controlling this process, and they’re learning that they have the ability to control their path by creating change.
Creating short-term rewards
Training is a long-term process of delayed gratification. It is often months (or longer!) between winning races of significance or achieving personal bests. It thus becomes critical to include rewarding experiences on a more regular basis.
While it may seem insignificant, by simply acknowledging the positive aspects of each set and each rep, we are helping swimmers accumulate small, yet significant wins over time. They add up to something very large.
These small positives contribute to the global perspective of training and swimming. Swimmers begin to see training as more and more of an intrinsically rewarding process because they are acknowledging all that they do well every day. They are ‘winning’ every day.
Beyond this simple accumulation of rewards, this enhanced positively also makes training more productive, leading to better practices. Over time, better practices will result in performance breakthroughs in training, which provide an even bigger reward. As more small wins swimmers accumulate, more significant training breakthroughs will follow, and they will occur with greater frequency.
The more we can make practice a rewarding experience, and not simply a means to an end, the more effective each practice will become. Swimmers will also enjoy the process that much more. This shift can be facilitated by a simple shift in the self-talk that occurs on a daily basis.
Framing as mistakes as opportunities
By phrasing the question as ‘what can you do better?’, it helps swimmers start to re-frame obstacles as opportunities. As described above, too often we can get wrapped up in our challenges and this can create a cycle of negativity. However, we do need to address challenges and obstacles, as they’re not going to magically disappear. In this case, re-framing challenges as opportunities retains a positive framing while still allowing swimmers to address these challenges.
This builds upon the deliberate choice to have swimmers reflect on their successes. As much as possible, we’re trying to create an environment where the focus is retaining a positive outlook, and building upon success. By framing mistakes as opportunities, we are able to do so while addressing shortcomings.
Implying a plan
When swimmers identify what was good and what could be better, we’re helping them discover what they should focus on during subsequent repetitions. Too often, swimmers simply swim. By directing swimmers towards an evaluation of their past performances, we’re implying that they should organize a plan for future repetitions. As a results, swimmers are more likely to have a goal when they push off the wall.
When swimmers are asked both questions, they ultimately have a choice as to which direction they want to proceed. They can choose to continue to build upon what was successful during prior repetitions, or they can choose to address the opportunities that have presented themselves. While choice is valuable in its own right, it serves a particular purpose here in that it allows swimmers to decide where they can be most successful.
Swimmers will typically gravitate towards perceived opportunities for success. If they believe they can make a change, they will do so. If they’re confident in their ability continue to execute certain skills well, they’ll continue to focus in that area. Further, if they did something well in a certain area, they can choose to continue to build on that success with even better performances.
While the impact of these questions is pretty obvious in the short-term, the longer-term impact is just as significant. There are many ways that these simple questions can help swimmers to change their internal thought processes, ultimately changing how they approach training and competition.
Confidence is probably the fundamental psychological trait that defines successful swimmers. Confidence comes from having DONE something. By consistently overcoming challenges, making change, and experiencing success, swimmers will grow in confidence. The more often this occurs, the more confident they will become, increasing the chances that they will be successful. It all starts with directing attention towards what can be controlled and managed.
Building upon confidence, when swimmers are successful, they start to see themselves as being successful. They believe in their ability to make change and control outcomes. This comes from overcoming challenges. The more swimmers overcome difficult challenges in training through appropriate focus, the more they believe they that they will be able to do so in the future.
One of the biggest obstacles to long-term success is the ability to overcome obstacles. By overcoming small challenges on a daily basis, swimmers learn that they can overcome large ones.
Swimmers learn to take control of their swimming. They understand that they have the ability to make change and influence outcomes that they may have previously felt unable to affect. They then start to take initiative and then work towards solving problems on their own accord. They start to coach themselves, often discovering problems and solutions that coaches don’t even consider.
As coaches, we’re limited in our ability to effectively intervene. We can only see so much, and we definitely can’t feel what swimmers are feeling. By engaging swimmers and requiring them to invest in their swimming on a repetition to repetition basis, we’re helping them learn how to manage their swimming and solve the problems that arise on a daily basis.
Swimmers have a lot more information available to them than coaches do. If swimmers are able to participate and drive the change process, that process is going to proceed a lot more effectively and efficiently, often in ways coaches would otherwise be unable to anticipate.
Turning around bad practices
As discussed HERE, the greatest opportunity for long-term performance progression is by improving poor practices rather than improving great practices. Improving poor practices by relatively small amounts can have a major impact on long-term improvement. Some swimmers are much better than others at doing so because it is a skill.
While it may come naturally to some, most must learn how to do so. By asking swimmers simple questions, you are providing a blueprint for improving practices one swim at a time, by focusing on what can be controlled. Over time, swimmers become better and better at doing so. It is a skill that continues to improve, and as confidence builds in the skills, the improvement accelerates.
While this skill has value in and of itself, an equally significant benefit will be described.
Turning around bad competition warm ups
There are a lot of competitive situations where swimmers simply don’t feel ‘good’. Whether their strokes feels off, it’s been a long meet, or they simply didn’t sleep well, it’s not clicking. For many a swimmer, that meet or that race is over before it starts. For those individuals, who have consistently practiced answering these questions in training, there is hope for the following reasons.
They’ve learned how to problem solve. ‘Feeling bad’ isn’t a state of permanence. It’s a temporary problem for which there is often a solution. For those swimmers that have consistently solved this same problem in training, they’ve developed a skill set for solving this particular problem. They can work through it and make it happen.
They know many of the answers. Most of the time, the solutions are not unique. For a given swimmer, there are a few tricks that help them get their stroke back. There may be a few tricks that help them physically. They key point is that they’ve already discovered these answers in TRAINING. They know what to do.
They have the confidence that it will work out. Most swimmers give up because they don’t feel like they can figure it out. They’re hopeless. In contrast, the practiced swimmer KNOWS it will work out because they’ve actually DONE it multiple times. They don’t panic, they focus on what they can control, and they find a way.
While this might not sound like a big deal, it is. I guarantee championships, medals, and personal bests have been achieved or not based upon how swimmers reacted to how they felt in warm up at major competitions. Those that are able to move beyond that and figure out what needs to get done will have a significant advantage over those that cannot. It is a learned SKILL.
It's Up to You
How swimmers think will determine what swimmers do. The more their thoughts are organized and structured in a way that is going to facilitate their goals, the more likely they are to achieve those goals. The challenge then becomes helping swimmers change the way they think.
We can’t simply tell them what to think, or that they should think differently, or that they should see a sports psychologist. We have to show them how.
The easiest way to do so is to ask the questions that they should be asking themselves throughout the course of practice and competition. By asking these questions, they’re forced to go through the process of answering them.
When we’re consistent in asking appropriate questions, swimmers will be consistent with appropriate thought processes. Once they realize the benefits of answering these questions, they’ll ask the questions themselves. They’ll be able to solve technical and tactical challenges, as well as learn how to manage their performances in challenging situations.
Swimmers can learn how to coach themselves, and they can learn to control their training. All it takes are a couple good questions.