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Bite the Bullet or Graded Exposure? Part I

Coaches are constantly faced with choices that have potentially unclear outcomes. Because of the multi-factorial process that determines performance, we don’t necessarily know if our decisions will result in improved performance. If performances changes, we don’t always know why, and we will make future decisions based upon our interpretation of what we see.


As I’ve referenced before, coaching is all about solving problems. We have to solve performance problems and we need a variety of strategies to that accomplish that task, each appropriate to the context we face.


Let’s take a situation that we often face. We’ve identified a physical limitation that needs to be addressed for performance to continue to improve. For instance, we realize our swimmer is lacking in some major fitness component. They don’t have enough speed, they’re lacking strength, they don’t have the mobility to get into effective positions, or something similar. How do we approach creating a training program that can rectify these issues?


A change in the training content is clearly warranted. However, we have options as to how to approach the situation. In this article series, we’ll explore the two extremes, understanding that they are part of a spectrum of options. By understanding the extremes, we can better understand how choices along the spectrum may play out in practice.


At one end, we can create a large shift in training in the attempt to create the desired change as fast as possible. I’ll describe this approach as ‘biting the bullet’ and getting it over with as soon as possible. On the other side, we can take a more patient approach that relies on graded exposure to the desired stimulus. Rather than trying to create change quickly, we’re going to slowly increase loading in the required direction, using a more patient and conservative approach.


These two approaches provide a very different sets of risk factors and potential benefits, and it’s important to understand both when deciding what strategy to implement when addressing a limitation. Of course, options in the middle are possible, and even preferable. With an understanding of the extremes, we can best appreciate the potential impact of the approach we choose to take.


Bite the Bullet


This is the aggressive approach. We’re going to make a big change and work to address the limitation as fast as possible with single-minded focus. From the start, the swimmer is going to be exposed with very challenging, novel stimuli that will be a significant challenge. There will be a lot of struggle in the beginning, and it can feel overwhelming to the swimmer. The thought is that this sparks a massive adaptation that is realized quickly, resulting in improved performance.


The Benefits


Change can happen fast and the change can be significant. When you need a change quickly, this strategy can work, and it can work really well. In a very short amount of time, swimmers can become different athletes. This approach works in terms of time efficiency. It allows goals to be achieved rapidly, and then coaches can move on to the next goal.


The benefit is largely singular, but it is VERY significant.


The Drawbacks


The main drawback of large shifts in training to address specific issues is that big changes can lead to unpredictable outcomes. With high reward comes high risk. We’ll take a look at the specific manifestations of this unpredictability below.


Performance Crashes


When there is a large shift toward one type of training, the TOTAL performance response can be unpredictable. You may see benefits in the targeted area, but total performance may crash due to neglect in other areas. Beyond a conflict in training types or neglect of other elements, a big shift often implies a large stress. A large stress is going to be handled unpredictably.


We can all tolerate short-term stress pretty well. While it’s not much fun, we hold up pretty well. Until we don’t. Performance is often fine and then it just craters. With major shifts in training, we don’t always know when that crater is coming. Even if we used the same approach before with the same group of individuals, it’s never the same situation. A small change in context can result in a large change in outcomes. Even if we believe we’ve timed it right, there are always surprises.


Once performance falls apart due to stress-related errors, we have a new set of problems.


Perpetually Unbalanced Training


If you feel the need to make a dramatic shift in one area of training, that implies that training, or at least the outcome, has become unbalanced. When the solution to creating an imbalance is through the strategic use of further unbalanced training, you run a very high risk of perpetuating the problem. Unbalanced training is going to continue to perpetuate imbalances, UNLESS you can time it just right and switch tactics at the right time.


While it’s certainly possible to do so, and possible to do so with some consistency, it becomes MUCH more challenging when group sizes expand. Further, the only real way to learn how to do this is through trial and error. It takes times and there will be failure along the way. Fortunately, the lessons learned in terms of time scale/volumes/intensities/etc. apply to many swimmers, they definitely don’t apply to ALL swimmers. The lessons you learn may or may not be appropriate for the specific swimmer in front of you.


Best case is that a drastic shift re-balances the performance and addresses an issue. The middle ground is that an issue is addressed, but a new one created. In this case, the operation was a success, but the patient died. Worst case is more imbalances are created and the situation is simply worse. It can happen.


If you find yourself in this situation, the best approach can be to stop, take a step back, and start again with a balanced program. While t may take more time to get back to where you want to go, at least you get stability and a sense of control of the process.




Beyond the potential performance effects of an aggressive approach, injury risk increases as well. Whenever there is a shift in the type of training, even if volumes and intensities are similar, there is a shift in the bodily systems that are being stressed. As importantly, how those systems are being stressed is going to change dramatically as well.


‘Being in shape’ goes beyond the ability to perform and how someone looks. It also dictates what they can tolerate. If there is a shift in training, the muscles may be ready to tolerate that shift, but the joints and tendons may not be because they’re not ‘in shape’ for that new training. This is how you get hurt. Big changes in training are one of the most common ways of getting injured. If one part of the body isn’t ready, it’s going to go.


Once you’re hurt, there is very little you can do other than wait. The only real solution is some sort of rest, and there is no way to circumvent this process. Depending on the timing, this can kill a season. While swimming is not known for catastrophic injuries, injuries of overuse are certainly common. These injuries can be even more insidious as you can usually train through them for a while, and ultimately make them worse than they need to be.


Psychologically Challenging


This approach is really hard and it’s not rewarding, especially in the beginning. The struggle is real and significant and there is often not much progress to start. It can take a while for the body to respond and adapt to the point where progress is seen. During that interim period, swimmers can really struggle to push through and stay engaged. While it’s easy to say ‘too bad, that’s what it takes’, why make something more difficult than it needs to be? Our goal should be to create effective AND efficient training programs.


When might this strategy be best?


When time is limited and you have to make a big change, biting the bullet can be an appropriate strategy. This is particularly true when you have to change the strategy after a limited period. This time restriction limits how severe the change can be, and how long it would last, both factors that drastically increase the risks involved.


Mitigating the Risk


As I’ve described above, although this strategy is high reward, it’s also high risk. As such, we should try to maximize our exposure to the reward while minimizing our exposure to the risks. Here are some strategies that can accomplish these goals.


Be somewhat conservative and limit the TIME you’ll devote to addressing the change.  The less exposure to a big stimulus, the less risk there is. The longer you, the more the risks accumulate. AND the longer you go, the less potential benefit there is. If you create a HARD deadline before the intervention begins, regardless of outcome, it can prevent emotional decisions in the moment.


Have an exit strategy.  What are you going to do AFTER this intervention? When you have a concrete goal you’re working toward, and an actionable plan to accomplish it, you’re much less likely to do something stupid. Planning isn’t perfect, but it allows you to consider your choices and think about the consequences of decisions. This makes a big difference in terms of minimizing risk.




When we’ve identified a potential problem, we have a choice as to what we can do. Sometimes the best solution to just bite the bullet and try to solve the problem as fast as possible. In part II, we’ll explore the patient approach.




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