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Can Skills Change?

‘You can’t change a mature swimmer’s stroke.’

-Just about every senior age group and college coach

I’ve always found this to be a particular strange stance, as performance improvements are facilitated in almost every other sport through the development of technique, at any age. How is swimming any different?

At the same time, coaches often talk about the critical importance of technique and often use technical superiority to explain why some swimmers are faster than others. Read any swimming book or attend any swimming clinic and the topics are often centered around technique.

When these ideas are coupled together, I just get confused. What am I missing? Are skills important or not? Why does this disconnect happen? Why is technique professed to be so important, yet coaches don’t believe skills can change?

Even if coaches say that technique is important, their practice behaviors don’t reflect those statements. Technique is given little priority. Actions speak louder than words.

Below are some reasons that coaches may believe that skills can’t change.

Technique is highly influenced by body structure. As discussed in Shapes and Skills, the expression of skill is greatly influenced by the shape of the body and its structure. To a large extent, this structure can’t change. In this regard, the general STYLE that swimmers use may be highly resistant to change. However, there is a big difference between the STYLE a swimmer chooses to use and the skilled expression of that style.

Expecting Janet Evans to swim like Ian Thorpe, or vice versa, is foolish. However, that doesn’t mean that both swimmers can improve their skills in a manner that works for them. Very few individuals will be able to swim like either of these swimmers. That doesn’t mean their skills can’t improve, it just means that their skills need to be improved within the right context.

There is no PLAN for changing skills. Most coaches have some sort of plan for their training. Whether it’s a weekly set up, a shuffling of energy systems, or some progression over the course of a training season, there is a plan in place. You wouldn’t expect swimmers to develop their fitness if there wasn’t a plan. If a coach said you can develop fitness without a plan, you’d look at them like they’re crazy.

Yet the same coach can say ‘you can’t change strokes’ without any pushback even though they have no plan. If you want something to change, particularly skills, there needs to be some sort of concrete plan for facilitating that process. To expect any change without any forethought is not a great strategy.

A lack of planning leads to poor results, which leads to the belief that skills can’t change. However, this poor outcome reflects a poor process, not an inevitable outcome.

Instruction is not a particularly effective method. Simply telling a swimmer what to do is not coaching. It is providing that swimmer with a piece of information that may or may not be useful. As with above, there must be a plan for how to help swimmers translate any communicated information into a technical change, and then progress the ability to execute that change under increasing levels of stress.

Beyond this need, swimmers best learn through sensation. Sensation, not spoken word, represents the language of movement. The more we can provide sensory experiences, the more effective skill changes will be. Swimmers need to FEEL what they need to do, as opposed to being TOLD what they need to do.

Again, by using fewer effective strategies, the impression is created that skills can’t change. In reality, we simply need better strategies.

Training expectations are not in line with technical expectations. Imagine a coach wants Suzy to improve her dolphin kicks. She typically does zero dolphins kicks during her aerobic freestyle sets. What would be an appropriate change? Adding 1-2 dolphin kicks per wall, not 6. AND the intervals, speeds, and distances might need to be adjusted to ensure she can do the extra kicks. If training is not adjusted to what she can do, she’s not going to do it!

Another example would be a coach that learns that stroke count is important, so they start putting stroke count restrictions on their swimmers WITHOUT adjusting volume, speed, or recovery intervals. How effective is this going to be? Not very effective as swimmers quickly fail to meet expectations. The kids are GOING to make the intervals, and if you keep telling them to go faster, they will, stroke count be damned.

There are multiple reasons that coaches believe you can’t change a swimmer’s stroke. However, all of the reasons described above can be influenced by better coaching practice. My response to any coach who says, ‘you can’t change an older swimmer’s stroke’, I would simply respond that ‘YOU can’t change a swimmer’s stroke’.

How to Do It

Swimmers can change their skills, and they can change their skills in significant ways that positively impact performance. The question simply becomes how to do so. Below are some strategies than can be effective.

Expect to make change. If you believe that change isn’t possible, it’s not going to happen. If you believe that change is possible and you expect to make change, you will figure out how to do so sooner than later. The improvement process starts with the attitude and belief that improvement is possible.

It all starts with challenging the idea that improvement is not possible.

Get better. With an expectation that change can happen, coaching skillsets will need to improve if changes aren’t happening. Look to other sports, study biomechanics, read about swimming technique, find out what other coaches are doing, educate yourself about motor learning, watch championship performers, figure it out. If it’s possible for skills to change, and you don’t have the skillsets to facilitate that change, the limitation is you. Find a way to get better.

To facilitate technical change, coaches must have a better understanding of what is required for great swimming, how to communicate effectively, and how to design effective learning opportunities. These skills all take time to develop. Invest the time, energy, and money if necessary to get better.

Have a plan. If there isn't a concrete plan in place, change isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t have to be a rigid hour by hour, day by day plan; there simply needs to be some concrete goals and strategies in place. If you know where you want to go, and you have a sense of how to get there, you stand a much better chance of getting there.

Know what skills win races and how to develop them. Actively plan this development process, much like you would plan for the development of physical fitness. What days are you going to work on what skills? How does this change over the course of a season? How does the type of work change?

Integrate training and technical learning. Skill development and physiological development do not exist in isolation. In both cases, you are TRAINING, whether it is the development of the body or the development of movement skills. These plan needs to be integrated in a unified whole so that they are working together to accomplish the same objectives. If physiological and technical development are working against each other, change isn’t going to happen.

There should be physical and technical objectives for each practice and set, and these goals should be complimentary. Stroke length development goes well with aerobic development. Introducing challenging stroke length requirements is not going to work well with 100m race efforts, unless swimmers have been specifically prepared to execute these sets. Similarly expecting 15m underwaters during short course, aerobic freestyle sets is probably a stretch as well. The plans must work together.

Conclusion

Swimmers can change their strokes, and these changes are not superficial in nature. They can win races. However, for real change to occur, it starts with a perspective that change is not only possible, but critical for continued performance improvement.

Once we believe change is possible, the strategies required begin to emerge. We need to have the skillsets to change skills. We need to have a plan to mobilize those skillsets. And we need to integrate the learning of skills into every aspect of practice.

It all starts with belief.

‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’

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