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A Framework For Changing Skills

One of the biggest challenges in swimming is helping swimmers improve their skills.


And since improving skill is a huge part of helping swimmers go fast, it’s an important challenge to overcome.


There are a lot of difficult aspects of the process, and in spite of our best efforts, it doesn’t always work out.


This can be incredibly frustrating when you and your swimmers dedicate the time, effort, and energy to improve and have nothing to show for it.


In fact, there are some very famous coaches that have said skills don’t improve in senior swimmers.


Fortunately, it’s just not true.


However, HOW you go about working on improving skills is going to impact how much success you have in developing your swimmers’ skills and helping them accomplish their goals.


I’m going to go through some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past that really hindered my ability to help swimmers improve their skills, and how I altered my approach to facilitate progress.


Hopefully, these lessons can give you some ideas to implement into your coaching, save you time and energy.


Mistake #1 Treating All Swimmers The Same


Your tall male swimmer is going to swim differently than your short female swimmer.


Your breaststroker with a great kick is going to swim differently than your breaststroker with a poor kick.


Expecting everyone to swim the same is going to be a recipe for disaster.


Yes, they all have to satisfy the basic principles of fast swimming, creating propulsion and reducing resistance, but the exact strategy they use will be different.


I tried to put everyone in the exact same mold, and more often than not, it didn’t work as I expected.


Mistake #2 There Is No PLAN


Just about every coach has a training plan.


A detailed training plan.


And if there is no plan, it’s foolish to expect reliable and predictable results.


Why would it be any different with skill development?


I didn’t have a skill development plan, and unsurprisingly, skill development was inconsistent and underwhelming.


Mistake #3 Separating Skills And Training


I would do my skill work completely separate from any sort of intense training, and just expect it to show up under pressure.


Worse still, I would ask them to focus on their skills in situations where they were unable to do it well.


If we spent some time working on dolphin kicking, I’d ask them to do 6 strong kicks during a really hard set.


They weren’t ready for that, and they just couldn’t do it.


If I worked on skills in isolation, I’d expect them to just magically appear under pressure, and that’s just not how it works.


Mistake #4 Relying On Instruction


When trying to improve skills, I would tell swimmers what to do.


Maybe I would give them some feedback, and then I would expect it to be fixed.


Telling a swimmer what to do and expecting it to change isn’t coaching.


That’s hoping.


There’s no plan, there’s no follow up, and it relies on children and young adults to focus on the exact same thing for extended periods of time.


And I can only talk to one swimmer at a time, so it’s not particularly efficient.


AND swimmers learn best by feeling skills, not verbal instructions.


Swimmers need to FEEL what they need to do, as opposed to being TOLD what they need to do.


I didn’t do that.


Solution #1 Help Swimmers Find THEIR Best Skills


Because swimmers come in all shapes and sizes, it’s difficult to know exactly how they should swim.


You can’t know the perfect head position or the perfect arm angles.


However, you can help them understand the principles and give them opportunities to find solutions.


Swimmers need to move water backwards and they need to swim with as little resistance as possible.

Different tasks can help them figure out how to move water and stay streamlined, without having to prescribe specific positions.


Having swimming use tennis balls, parachutes, and stroke counts is going to teach them more about creating propulsion then telling them exactly how to set up their catch.


You get individuality without instruction, and you get better outcomes.


Solution #2 Have A Plan


Just like having a training plan, I started creating a skill development plan.


I identified which skills I wanted to improve, I identified how I was going to improve those skills, and how I was going to challenge those skills over time.

And just like with a solid training plan, things started to change. 


While plans don’t have to be perfect, having one makes it’s a lot easier to navigate progress over time.


Solution #3 Integrate Skill Development And Training


Beyond having a skill development plan, I designed skills and training into the same workouts.


Every set has a skill development goal and a training goal, and they work together.


And they improve over together over time.


When skills and fitness are developed in tandem, swimmers develop the ability to execute their skills in tough situations.


They can swim well at speed, they can swim well over distance, and they can swim well with fatigue.


Just like they need to do in races.


Next Steps:


Skills can improve with the right approach.


  1. Uses task that help swimmers find their best skills.  Which ones can do the teaching for you?

  2. Having a skill development plan.  Which skills are you going to focus on, and how are you going to improve them over time?

  3. Write workouts that challenge swimmers’ skills AND their physiology.  Work to develop both and you’ll get both.


By implementing these simple solutions, you’ll start seeing skill change consistently and reliably.


If you’re looking to make this even easier, and you want to know which skills are the most important for helping swimmers go fast, I lay it all out in Stroke Fundamentals


Just as importantly, I show you which strategies are most effective for developing skills.


If you want to improve your swimmers’ skills, consider grabbing a copy here.




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