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Building Capacities and Developing Skills

Successful coaching requires navigating and solving complex problems. There are so many variables that go into each performance, and these variables are constantly changing. It’s made worse as we’re not always aware of what these variables are, or that they’re changing. We’re actually pretty clueless most of the time.

To manage the situation, we often to resort to models of how the world might work.

"All models are wrong, but some are useful".

The value of models is that they simplify complex situations, and give us guidance on how to act.

I have explored different models HERE and HERE, and they can all be useful in certain situations to solve certain types coaching problems.

I have found value in having multiple coaching models at my disposal because they allow me to view coaching problems from different perspectives. It helps to view novel situations from multiple lens, rather than simply treating all situations the same, and trying to apply the same solution.

Further, having multiple models helps me to triangulate a solution. If multiple models suggest similar strategies, or similar components of a strategy, I can feel more comfortable that I’m taking the right approach. Each model can also add nuance to any potential solution, helping me adapt to the problem at hand.

Having models can be very useful.

The former Soviet Union took a very structured approach to training, and they seemed to like models they could apply to training. Here’s another that can be useful.

Yuri Verkhoshanky, another Soviet, was a Track and Field Coach who had some pretty interesting ideas, creating a novel model of organizing training. For those interested, he is largely credited with ‘inventing’ plyometrics and depth jumping.

He felt that training must solve two problems to allow for improved performance-

1. Realize an increase in specific work capacity and motor potential

2. Improve the athlete’s capacity to realize his motor potential in the competition exercise

Let’s take a brief look at what each problem consists of, then discuss how we can use this model to think about how to improve performance.

Increase Specific Work Capacity and Motor Potential

‘Specific work capacity and motor potential’ is simply another way to describe the ability to do certain types of work. A weightlifter has a very high work capacity and motor potential to lift heavy weights quickly. A marathon runner has a very high work capacity and motor potential to run for long distances at challenging speeds.

To accomplish a given task, certain physical attributes must be present for that task to be completed. Having ‘great technique’ is insufficient. At some point, the body must be capable of the outputs. If the body is capable, the potential to execute the task exists. If not, it’s simply not possible, regardless of technical excellence.

Every event in swimming requires that swimmers possess specific physical resources to compete successfully. For instance, a sprinter must be able to produce a lot of force very quickly, predominantly using the muscles of the upper body. A swimmer who does not possess this ability to produce these forces may be able to swim with perfect technique, yet lack the power to create the forces required to achieve the desired sped.

Using a simple non-swimming example, the muscles of the upper body must be of a certain size and strength to bench press 400 pounds. There is no way to improve technique to lift the weight if the muscles don’t possess a certain minimum level of size and strength. The bar is not going to move. Again, if that size and strength is present, the potential to bench press 400 exists.

The ‘specific’ aspect is critical as well. It’s not relevant if that same swimmer has the physical ability to run a fast marathon. That work capacity is not specific, or relevant, to the task of swimming 50m as fast as possible. Developing motor potential must be specific to the events that one wishes to improve. For the sprints, those physical resources will be largely those that aid in the development of speed and power. In contrast, the distances events require those resources often associated with endurance.

This is the critical point.

If you want to improve someone’s skills, they must possess the physical attributes required to execute those skills.

  • If you want a swimmer to possess a world class start, they must have the required leg power to execute that start.

  • If you want a swimmer to sustain a certain stroke rate and stroke length for a 1500m race, they must have the physiology to support those skills.

  • If you want a swimmer to achieve a certain velocity in the sprints, they must achieve a certain combination of stroke rate and stroke length, and they must possess the power required to for their skeletal structure to achieve that combination (it’s not the same for everybody!)

  • If you want a swimmer to achieve certain joint positions in their stroke, they must possess the mobility to achieve those positions, and the stability to control those positions.

Technique cannot exist without the physical prerequisites to achieve that technique. Some level of physical conditioning is required, and the development of those prerequisites must be AHEAD of the desired technical skills.

At the same time, possessing the required specific work capacity and motor potential is necessary, but not sufficient. It must be present, but it’s present does not guarantee success. Swimmers must be able to effectively USE that motor potential as well. They must have great technique.

Improve the Athlete’s Capacity to Realize his Motor Potential in the Competition Exercise

A swimmer can have all the physical resources in the world, yet be unable to use them effectively. They simply lack effective technique. We’ve seen the triathlete who can run a 2:30 marathon, yet age group swimmers can swim laps around. Clearly this individual possesses tremendous endurance, but they just can’t access it in the pool because they lack the technique. The same case can be made for the strong and explosive basketball player that is swimming for the first time. They even have height as well, yet they are still unable to compete with mediocre swimmers.

While these examples are extreme, the same principles operate on a smaller scale in our pools every day. We have swimmers who may lack the technical skills to optimally realize the physical capacities they possess. While this lack of skill may not be as obvious as our triathlete or basketball player, it is just as real. These swimmers are limited not by their fitness, but by their skills. To continue to improve they will need to learn how to better utilize the fitness they already have.

As a swimmer’s endurance improves, they should be able to execute a better combination of stroke length and stroke rate for a longer period of time. This improved endurance creates greater potential to swim faster. However, while they may now possess the physical resources to do so, they will need to improve their technical skill in order to realize the improved potential their physical fitness has created. Swimmers must learn to adjust their skills in race-relevant situations to take advantage of gains in fitness.

Where is the Limiting Factor?

This is where the model becomes useful. We know that we have two tasks to improve performance- develop the required fitness and learn to use it in race-relevant situations. When looking at our swimmers through this framework, we can begin to see what their needs are, and then design training programs to address these issues.


For these individuals, they possess good technical skills for their performance level, yet lack either the strength and power to execute these skills at high velocities, or the endurance to sustain the skills they can display. In both situations, an emphasis on training will allow for better performances.

If they are underpowered, they may need to spend time developing physical strength on land and/or in the water. They may also need to simply spend more time swimming fast in practice with regularity. For the individual unable to sustain their skills, they’ll need to spend more time in situations where they’re forced to do just that. More skill-focused endurance work relevant to their races will help here.

It’s critical to accurately assess what type of fitness these swimmers lack, as this will inform the training approach that needs to be taken. If the underpowered swimmer and the swimmer lacking endurance are both given the same training program, it won’t be optimal for both. Determining the right approach will make the difference.

*Please note that I when I refer to ‘undertraining’, I am not implying that they aren’t training hard enough or long enough. I am simply stating that their performance is limited by their fitness rather than their skills. They will enhance their performance with a focus on developing physical outputs.*


In contrast to the undertrained swimmer, the underskilled swimmer is likely the hard-working swimmer that stands out in land-based training. They’re strong, they’re fit, and they’re almost always characterized by great work ethic. The problem is that they lack the technical skills to express all of this fitness.

For these individuals, a skills-based approach is going to allow swimmers to develop the ability to demonstrate the fitness they already possess. They must learn how swimmer better. However, this is not so much about doing drills. It’s about learning how to execute better skills under situations of increased speed and fatigue. Ideas about how to do so can be found HERE and HERE.

As these individuals have reached their current performance levels because of their fitness, and are likely very aware of this, there must be a concerted effort to continue to maintain that fitness. At a minimum, these swimmers must believe they are doing so.

The Spectrum

While it can be very useful to present physical and skill development as two distinct processes, this is of course a simplification.

To develop specific work capacity, you must have effective technique to appropriately execute the physical training exercises. To express good technique, you need to have the physical resources to do so. It’s a circular phenomenon and the processes are co-dependent on each other. Separating the two processes can be somewhat reductive, as they are inseparable in many ways.

HOWEVER, this is where the model can become useful as separating the two processes is what allows us to simplify the process and lock in on what is really important in the moment.

We’re back to seeing these two aspects of training as lying on a spectrum. At one end you have exercises that purely develop physical attributes with little to no impact on technical development. Take a bench press for example. This can certainly develop the strength and musculature of the upper body, but it’s going to do little to improve technical skill in the pool.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have activities that provide little to no stimulus for physical change, yet can provide the opportunity for the improvement of technical skill. An example here could be any type of technical work or skill work that is performed at very low speeds and very low levels of exertion. There is going to be little to know physical training, while swimmers will have the opportunity to learn to better move through the water.

In the middle, there is more nuance and more of a blending of the two processes. If you perform resisted swimming with a focus on stroke count, is this a technical exercise or a physical exercise? Clearly there will be an impact on both. To emphasize the physical side, you can create a little more overload, while potentially compromising technique slightly. Similarly, to ensure optimal technique you can make sure that any activity is well within the swimmer’s physical abilities.

It can also be useful to consider an overload-specificity spectrum exists, as I described in Component Construction. This idea can also be useful within the Capacities-Skills model. The more you believe the training issue is a capacity problem, the more overload would be appropriate. The more the training issue is a skill problem, the more specificity would be useful.

By separating the processes, coaches can start to evaluate what types of activities they are performing, how much time is spent on these activities, and how the relative emphasis of each activity changes over time. They can get a better handle on the extent to which they are developing physical capacities or technical skills. They can then decide whether this distribution is in alignment with their goals, as well as how to identify which approach is going to be most valuable for each individual.

When looking at seasonal development, there is probably going to be more overload training to develop the physical abilities earlier in the season. Later in the season there is more race-specific work to learn to use these newly developed physical abilities in competitive situations.

While it can be useful to separate the two processes, we can ideally find activities that achieve technical development and training objectives at the same time. If we can develop skills and fitness concurrently, the process is going to be much more harmonious. By combining the processes, the very tasks that build physical capacities will also teach swimmers how to use those capacities. For more on how to accomplish this task, click HERE and HERE. This approach is particularly useful when there are major physical AND technical problems.

Even if we’re able to achieve this conjugated approach, conceptualizing the physical and technical development processes as distinct, can still be incredibly valuable as a problem-solving tool.


Coaching is about solving complex problems, often with simple solutions. Models can be useful during the problem-solving process.

This is not a perfect model, but a useful one.

The big takeaways-

If you want to improve technique, the physical requirements to perform the desired skills must be in place. Swimmers must have the mobility to get into position, as well as the strength and endurance to achieve and sustain certain combinations of stroke length and stroke rate.

All the physical resources in the world are useless unless effective technique allows for the realization of these resources in competition. Physical fitness doesn’t matter if you can’t use it because of poor technique.

Some swimmers are undertrained. They are limited by their fitness, not their technical skill. Improving performance will result from a focus on developing physical characteristics and a maintenance of technical skill.

Some swimmers are underskilled. For these individuals, a continued focus on improving physical characteristics is not going to be successful unless they develop their skills

Optimal training occurs when both skills and fitness are developed in synchrony. Ideally, these two processes are not split. Physical and technical development should happen concurrently. However, it can sometimes to be useful to consider them as separate processes, to better identify performance solutions.

If you have a swimmer that is resisting improvement, it can be helpful to consider if they are ultimately limited by their physical attributes, or their technical attributes. This can help to inform the relative direction of the training process, and where an emphasis should be placed. This emphasis can be subtle in all but the most extreme cases.

If swimmers have better physical resources, and they know how to use them, they’re going to go fast. Our job is to help them get there.


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