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Coaching as Sculpture

Sculpture is an art form where the artist works in three dimensions. Classically, one could perform sculpture by carving (removing material from the object) or by modelling (adding material to the object).

This reflective of two very different approaches to achieving the same goal. In one instance, we are focusing on what must be added and in the other, we are focused on what must be taken away.

This is a very useful analogy for how to work with swimmers. In many cases, we emphasize what is lacking and must be added to achieve success. We are looking to add technical changes, we are looking to add to our training, we are looking to add psychological skills, and we are looking to build culture.

While this approach can be helpful, we may be better off focusing on removing the obstacles that swimmers are encountering. How can we remove unnecessary technical elements? How can we remove counter-productive training practices? How can we keep psychology simple? How can we remove behaviors harming our team cultures?

While he may not necessarily have meant it in the same way that we’ll discuss here, Eddie Reese once said something along the lines of ‘the genius is inside the swimmer’.

By extension, it is not our job to ‘make’ swimmers. It is our job to remove the obstacles that prevent swimmers from realizing their potential. While this may seem like semantics, I feel it represents a fundamentally different way of viewing the coaching process.

It is about clearing the path, so that swimmers might achieve their objectives.

‘Clearing the path’ is distinct from the problem of ‘bulldozer parents’ who remove any obstacle that might stand in the way of their children. We clear the path as coaches by providing the opportunity for swimmers to confront the limitations that are preventing them from achieving their goals.

In many ways, it is the opposite of ‘bulldozer coaching’. We are forcing swimmers to confront their challenges. And we are providing them with specific opportunities and strategies to do so.

The questions we need to ask of ourselves as coaches become-

  • What is standing in the way of this swimmer right now?

  • What will be standing in the way of this swimmer in the future?

  • What can I do about it that will have the most impact?

If we look to remove obstacles, we can become more effective in facilitating improvement. Let’s take a look at some simple ideas that may help with various situations that coaches experiences on a daily basis.


Coaches are quick to add skills to their swimmers’ stroke. Do more of this and do more of that. I believe that this is the opposite of what will prove to be successful.

Great swimming is dictated by what doesn’t happen. Great swimmers do LESS, rather than more. It is less skilled swimmers that are already doing too much. They have extra movements that disrupt alignment, whether it is moving up and down or side to side. They have extra sculling motions that are preventing them from pulling effectively. Their hands are moving all over the place. They have extra movements that prevent them from swimming with great rhythm.

  • What is preventing Suzy from maintaining great alignment?

  • What is preventing Johnny from moving with great rhythm?

  • What is preventing Bobby swimmer from creating direct propulsion with each arm stroke?

The best swimmers look effortless because there is so little happening during their strokes. Only the essential remains. It looks easy because they have removed every extra movement and every inefficiency. You are left with only the skills that are critical for speed.

We would be wise to emulate these swimmers. Instead of adding to the movements of our less skilled swimmers, we should cut away the unnecessary, leaving the beautiful sculpture that was already there. This should result in less deviation from ideal alignment and more direct propulsive actions.

Using constraints during skill acquisition is effective primarily because they serve to remove undesirable options. Well-placed constraints ensure that the only appropriate ways of moving are available. Swimmers aren’t told what to do, they’re simply placed in an environment where the poor choices are unavailable.


While training is often viewed from the perspective of building capacities, building fitness, building speed, creating adaptation, etc, it’s also a process of removing physical limitations. What is preventing swimmers from achieving their objectives? These are the issues that need to be addressed in training.

It’s less about fixing weaknesses and more about looking at removing obstacles by addressing specific areas. Weaknesses are less likely to change, and we’re not looking to ‘add’ strength. We’re viewing obstacles as opportunities and looking to remove them.

  • What is preventing Bobby from finishing his races?

  • What is preventing Sally from possessing front half speed?

  • What is preventing Mikey from achieving the desired range of motion to execute his skills?

Another issue is that we often fail to consider what aspect of a swimmer’s training is holding them back. What is being done that is actually holding a swimmer back?

  • Is the total training load too high?

  • Is too much volume being done?

  • Are swimmers training too often?

  • Are certain types of training being performed too intensely?

  • Is there an overemphasis on a given area of training?

  • Is the right type of training being performed for a swimmer’s events?

  • Is the right type of training being performed for a swimmer’s physiology?

In many cases, we don’t have to add to what’s being done. We need to remove some of the work that is producing negative effects, work that is producing baggage.


Swimmers run into trouble when they lock into negativity, and when they are unable to focus on what is important in the moment. Great psychology is less about the presence of positivity and more about the absence of negativity. You can’t necessarily be ‘more’ positive and consistently trying to ‘be positive’ feels pretty silly.

What swimmers and coaches can do is let go of negative thoughts. When they come in, acknowledge them, and then move on. Negativity isn’t intrinsically bad, as it can create awareness of potential problems. When it sticks around is when the problems begin. Help swimmers improve by facilitating the ability to move on from negative thoughts.

Effective training and competition psychology is determined largely by task-specific focus. In this case, improving focus is less about being hyper-aware of the object of focus, and more about limiting the impact of distractions. Distractions WILL come and they will come often. Those with great focus simply let them go. They’re not more focused on what’s important. They’re less focused on what’s not important and that focus is limited in duration.

The key psychological skill?

Let it go.

Teach swimmers to let it go and they will be in a better psychological state with greater consistency.


Changing culture is hard. However, it’s critical for any organization to move forward. When trying to improve the cultures of our teams and our training groups, we often focus on how we would like our swimmers to behave. We focus on what we want them to do, often pushing back against the current cultural norms. This is challenging for any individual, certainly for the young people we coach.

Instead, it’s worth considering how we can remove the obstacles to the behaviors we want. What can we do that makes it easier to behave in the desired manner? How can we make it more difficult to behave in less desired ways? How can we create change via subtraction, removing the negative options so that all that is left is the desired behaviors?

By focusing on removing the negative aspects of a culture, and by removing obstacles to desired behaviors, culture can be changed with greater effectiveness and less struggle.


Hopefully, the ideas presented above have stimulated some thought about how to approach problem-solving in coaching. While we are quick to ‘add’ when faced with a problem, we may be better served to focus on removing what isn’t working.

Not only does approach tend to be more efficient as less is being done, it actually addresses the root issue. While it may require a deeper understanding of what is really going to best identify what needs to be removed. That may require more education and an improvement in coaching skill.

Another simply analogy that may serve to clarify the concept.

If you haven’t bathed in days, the solution is not to add a bunch of cologne or perfume to overpower the bacteria. The solution is to bathe and wash the bacteria away. The best of perfumes will be useless, while the shortest of showers will solve the problem just fine.

Subtraction before addition.

David was already in the rock. Michelangelo simply had to remove what was presenting everyone from seeing him.


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