Coaching is challenging because one is operating in a complex environment with many variables, delayed feedback, and uncertain outcomes. It’s really hard to evaluate what is happening, and even harder to determine what is leading to the performances we see on any given day or when it matters most during championship competition.
Counter-intuitively, what’s needed to successfully navigate this complex world is NOT complicated or complex solutions and strategies.
What works really well is simple.
Having simply heuristics, or rules of thumb, that work in the vast majority of situations is critical to making decisions within short times or with incomplete information.
I’d like to discuss a simple strategy that can be used for deciding how to design sets that stand the best chance of facilitating progress.
One concept that’s undoubtedly critical to improving performance is progressive overload. To get better, swimmers need to consistently perform ‘better’ in training.
‘Better’ can be defined in any number of ways-
Better performances (times, distances, volume, density, consistency, etc.)
Better psychological focus (defined in any number of ways)
Better technique (defined in any number of ways)
Better tactics (defined in any number of way)
With improved training, you’ll eventually see improvements in competition. To create better training, swimmers need to be challenged in what they are asked to do, and they need to be successful with these tasks. There needs to be an overload.
Too much overload is going to prevent progress because swimmers won’t be able to recover from the training and successfully adapt to it. Too little overload and there will be no stimulus for progress.
The challenge becomes that the window between too much and not enough is not very large, particularly as swimmers advance. The window begins to shrink as more and more work is required for improvement, yet the ability to recover from that work does not necessarily improve to the same degree.
This is further complicated when we consider that each swimmer has a varying ‘window’. They’re all capable of handling different degrees of overload and they all need different levels of stimulus to get better. AND their window can change on any given day depending on nutrition, sleep, life, etc.
As alluded to earlier, this can get messy.
It’s complex, and it’s critical to keep it simple if we’re going to navigate our way through the complexity successfully.
We need a simple solution.
What do they need to do?
What can they do?
It’s a simple process that coaches can walk through each time they write a practice, and it’s simple enough that they can adjust for individuals.
It’s about being aware of what each swimmer wants to accomplish, what they’re currently capable of, and what you think the next appropriate challenge should be.
All that’s required is observation, a little reflection, and the willingness to make changes.
What Do They Need to Do?
The starting point for any discussion is what needs to be accomplished. It’s about identifying the outcomes we’re looking for.
What is the goal?
We need to know what performances swimmers are looking to achieve. What events do they want to target? Different events will require different skillsets and different physiological resources to be successful.
How fast do they want to go?
Beyond the specific events swimmers are looking at, there needs to be a sense of how fast we expect to swim. Swimming a 50 second 100m freestyle takes a different level of training than a goal of swimming a 60 seconds 100m freestyle.
Once a realistic goal has been established, we can start to define the performances that need to be pursued during practice.
What does it look like?
With a defined event and performance goal, we can then start to envision what such a performance looks like. It can be modeled by what has been done in the past. For the majority of swimmers, what does a 50-second 100m free look like? How is it performed for most individuals? What are the commonalities? That is what we need to orient training towards.
What skills do we need?
What skills characterize successful performances in the events we’re targeting?
How many strokes are taken?
What range of stroke rates are employed?
How many dolphin kicks are done?
How consistently are these skills executing across each lap?
It’s critical to know HOW performances are achieved, and what skills make up these performances. Ultimately, we need to develop these skills if we hope to achieve the performances they allow. Knowing what great swimmers are doing allows up to have a model for performance that we can train towards, while allowing for individual differences.
We have to clarify what we’re trying to accomplish. Not only do we need to know the performance, we need to know what performances need to happen in training, and what skills need to be developed to allow for the performances in training.
If we don’t know the destination, it becomes very difficult to get there.
What Can They Do?
We now know what needs to be done. The next step is evaluating where each swimmer is, both from a performance standpoint
What are they capable of in training?
What is each swimmer’s best training performances across a spectrum of different training contexts? More importantly, what are each swimmer’s best recent training performances across a spectrum of different training contexts?
If provided with a specific set, can you reasonably estimate what they would be able to do? Can you do that with all of the swimmers you coach?
It’s critical to have a sense of what each individual can do. To effectively challenge swimmers without overdoing it, we need to know what they’re capable of.
What does the training currently look like?
Beyond how swimmers are currently performing, a foundational consideration is what the training currently looks like from a global perspective. Determining the next step in training is built upon knowing what the current workload looks like. Future training should be an extension of current training.
Determining what to do next is informed primarily by what is being done now.
What is their current skillset?
Beyond the performances they can create that represent the physical resources they possess, what skills do they have? How skilled are they at dolphin kicking? How would you evaluate each component of the strokes they race in? Where are they lacking and where are they sufficient?
How well can they focus?
A critical consideration in designing training sets and sessions is the degree to which swimmers can maintain focus, how long they can maintain focus, and the speed at which they can re-focus. If we consistently ask them to perform tasks they can physically perform, yet are unable to engage psychologically, the outcome is the same as if they couldn’t perform those tasks physically.
We need to have an accurate assessment of their ability to create and sustain focus over the course of a training set so that we can assign tasks that they can handle successfully.
How confident are they?
Psychologically fragile athletes need to be handled with more care. They are at greater risk for prolonged setbacks following failure in training. For these individuals, it makes sense to be more conservative when assigning training as the psychological consequences of failure are more significant.
In contrast, we can be more aggressive in pushing the challenge for those individuals with more robust confidence. They are less affected by training failures and seem to bounce back quickly. The consequences of failure are much smaller, allowing for greater risk when assigning training, at least from a psychological perspective
How consistent are they?
I’ve discussed the critical importance of consistent training in the past. For those with greater consistency, we can be more aggressive with their training as they have demonstrated the ability to be resilient and bounce back consistently. For these individuals, you have a better understanding of what to expect.
For swimmers that are much less consistent, it’s important to be more conservative because what you can expect is so much more variable. If you catch a swimmer on a bad day, you may grossly overestimate their abilities, which is going to make the situation worse. As outlined previously, it’s critical to work on establishing consistency, and doing so often requires a patient, more conservative approach.
How well are they handling the training?
Are the swimmers dominating the training sessions, or are they holding on for dear life? If it’s the former, it tells you that swimmers are ready to move forward and the training is currently well-balanced. They have room for more overload. If it’s the former, caution is warranted as aggressive increases in overload may prove to be too much too handle.
To effectively assign training, we have to have a good sense of what’s possible based upon what has been demonstrated through recent performances. All of the above considerations may differ significantly across different types of training. Be honest and realistic about what each swimmer is capable of, and use that information when moving forward with training design.
We know where each swimmer is right now, and we know where they need to go. It’s now time to put all of that information to work to figure out how to design practices that represent an appropriate challenge for those individuals that are going to perform them.
Creating an appropriate challenge is a fundamental skill in coaching. Consistently get it right, and swimmers will improve. Consistently get it wrong, and they won’t.
What’s the next logical step?
Based upon what’s been done in the past, where the swimmer is right now, and where they need to go, successive training sessions should represent the next logical step. The next step is often a simple progression that is informed by what’s been done and what needs to get done in the future.
What can we ask of the swimmer that represents a small, yet meaningful step forward?
Instead of trying to hit the high end of what may be possible, shoot for the low end. You want to go for better, yet only slightly so. Great training is about establishing momentum and the best way to establish momentum is to start small and be consistent.
The next step should be small, yet still significant.
How can you ensure success?
A key consideration is that the next step should have a high probability of success for those individuals the sets are designed for.
How have they responded in the past?
How successfully have they been training recently?
How consistent is their training?
We can’t predict future training responses, and we can’t predict what swimmers will be capable of on any given day. However, if we look at past training history, and especially recent training history, coaches can get a reasonable approximation of what individual swimmers will be capable of.
The more in tune you are with what your swimmers are capable, the more able you are assign training that will be appropriate appropriately challenging and met with success. ‘Knowing your swimmers’ is all about careful observation and learning what their capacities are. Note not only what they are capable of, but also what they are consistently capable of, as the latter is what you are likely to see on any given day. Just because they’ve done it once, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it every time, or even every week.
The important consideration is to create a bit of a buffer in what you are asking, leaving room for a sub-par performance, while also allowing for the opportunity to take advantage of a great day. This allows for a greater probability of success, preventing situations where swimmers are falling short with any regularity.
As an example, creating a training set that includes intervals that a swimmer could only complete on their best possible day is not leaving a buffer. It stands a chance of blowing up if a swimmer is having a stressful day, didn’t sleep well, etc. In contrast, you can always increase the challenge if individuals are lighting it up.
This doesn’t only apply volume and intensity considerations. It applies to every aspect of practice, from physiology, tactics, skills, and psychology. Whatever you ask them to do, make sure it’s grounded in the realities of what they are capable of doing on that day with a high probability of success.
How can we increase the challenge during a training set?
Should we increase the volume?
Perform more repetitions?
Perform fewer repetitions?
Increase the repetition distance?
Shorten the repetition distance?
Take more rest?
Take less rest?
Increase the speed?
Increase the resistance?
There are a lot of options. To make progress, we only need to move forward in one area. While it can be tempting to push forward on multiple fronts, it runs the risk of overdoing it. Further, you want to continue to have options for progression so that you can string out the progression as long as possible. This is the concept of maintaining training potential.
We have to decide which direction we’d like to take the training, and then decide which approach stands the best chance for success. If we want to increase the speed component, certain changes will be most beneficial. If we want to move in an endurance direction, different changes will be more beneficial.
Beyond the magnitude of change, the direction of the change needs to be considered as well. This decision is best informed by where we want to go to. Certain changes are more conducive to certain goals, and our decisions should reflect that. Continuing to increase volume usually doesn’t make much sense for sprinters. It usually does make sense for a lot of distance swimmers.
It’s important not to make training design a massive undertaking listing all of the answers to all of the questions above, creating a spreadsheet to analyze the responses, and then deliberating. Carefully consider and reflect upon where each swimmer individual is at, take in all that information, and trust your intuition. After reflection, whatever your gut is telling you is going to be the best answer. Get the information, and then trust your instincts.
Designing great practices is simple. Know where swimmers need to go, know where swimmers are right now, and consider what the next step is to start to bridge the gap. It takes careful consideration of what the desired performances demand, careful observation of each swimmers’ current abilities, and a plan to decrease the distance between the two.
It may feel like there are a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered. If these questions haven’t been considered in the past, then it can be a lot at first. However, this process speeds up over time to the point where it can become almost instantaneous.
You just know where swimmers want to go and you just know what they’re most likely capable of any given day. It becomes intuitive. With this intuition, we get better and better at determining the most important question, what’s next?
When we can answer that question with accuracy, we’re well on our way to designing practices that stand the best chance of consistently improving performance.