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Coaching with Style Part II

In part I, we explored two fundamental, yet somewhat contradictory skills that coaches need to be successful in helping swimmers improve. Simultaneously, they must be able to plan over longer time scales to ensure the necessary work is performed, while at the same time possessing the ability to appropriately adjust those plans.

Most individuals naturally rely more heavily on one of these skillsets rather than the other. In part I, we explored the potential challenges that might arise with an overreliance on either skill. In part II, we’ll explore what to do about it.

Safety Nets

Weaknesses are never going to be developed into strengths, particularly when these weaknesses reflect our natural tendencies. These weaknesses exist for a reason, and fighting nature is typically a lost cause. However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing that can or should be done.

While we may never be able to eliminate weaknesses, we can marginalize their impact. By creating ‘safety nets’, we can implement strategies that help make natural weaknesses irrelevant, or at least much less relevant. It’s about creating new habits that allow for the retention of our strengths, while ensuring our coaching is not compromised by our weaknesses.

Safety Nets for the Flexible Coach

While the list of strategies below is relatively short, it can be a long process to effectively develop these skills. At a basic level, the flexible coach needs to do a better job of planning. However, it can take a lot of work to determine WHAT needs to be planned and HOW to organize that plan, even if this is occurring in the very fluid format the flexible coach prefers.

It takes a lot of knowledge, wisdom, and experience to plan effectively. It takes more of these traits to plan effectively in a manner that the flexible coach will prefer.

Here are the strategies.

Have a check list. Know what needs to get done that week, and know what needs to get done that day. Hold yourself externally accountable to ensure that the required work gets done. This provides you with the freedom to determine when and how that work is accomplished, while creating a system that ensures that it gets done.

The more detail you put into the checklist, the more likely it will be that all of the details get addressed over time. If it’s simply a superficial attempt at identifying the important factor, it won’t be effective. There needs to be a lot of thought given to what’s important, and it needs to be written down. Once it’s written down, it needs to be referenced.

Over time, the flexible coach needs to consistently go back and reflect on what’s been done as compared to what needs to get done according to their checklist. If they’re on track, proceed as planned. If not, there needs to be a concerted effort to make sure that the items being missed are incorporated into training sessions in whatever manner they choose.

Keep track of what you do. While the flexible coach doesn’t necessarily have to plan out a training session prior to practice, they would benefit greatly from writing down what they do after the fact. This will help them keep track of what actually gets done, and then allow them to compare what they’ve done with what still needs to get done according to their checklist.

As there are a lot of skills and abilities that need to be developed, this is very difficult to keep track of in one’s head. While I am sure that there are some individuals that can do so successfully and repeatedly, I expect that these coaches are the exception rather than the norm. Further, writing down what gets done ‘solidifies’ that information in one’s mind, and it also makes it less likely that the training sets and sessions will be inadvertently repeated.

By knowing what’s been done as compared to what needs to get done, it helps coaches be aware of what needs happen in the coming days, while still allowing the flexibility to implement the training they see fit on any given day.

Know your defaults. When forced to make decisions with limited time, we have all have training sets and styles that we prefer. Be aware of what these defaults are. If you find yourself consistently assigning similar or the same sets, or assigning similar types of work, stop! KNOW that you will tend to do this under pressure and force yourself to come up with alternative solutions.

Not only will this reduce the repetition and monotony of training, it will ensure that more of the critical training factors are addressed over time. These factors can be addressed in whatever manner a coach deems appropriate. However, they must be addressed.

Create themes. For each practice, create a general theme for the type of work you plan to do. This creates a very loose, and fluid structure, while ensuring certain types of work get done. Here is how the flexibility is retained-

You can choose WHAT you decide to do within that theme day based upon what you see. You can make it harder or easier or simply different dependent on what you’re seeing.

You can choose WHEN you deiced to implement a given theme, and you can make that call on the day.

You can choose how often you decide to implement a given theme.

With this set up, you have the structure of touching on the major types of training that do need to be addressed over time, while still providing the optionality of how and when the work gets done. It creates accountability without constriction.

Safety Nets for the Planner

Once planners recognize the potential liabilities inherent with their approach to coaching, they’ll need to do something about it to ensure they are minimizing their exposure to these common errors. Below are some simple strategies that planners can employ to ensure that they’re getting the most out of their coaching.

Relative to the flexible coach, there are more skills the planner may need to develop. The ability to effectively maneuver through the nuances of day to day changes in athlete readiness is a complex skill, and one that is difficult to develop. As such, there is more the planner will need to work on.

Pay attention to mood. Attitude and mood provide great insight into how swimmers are perceiving training. If attitudes are consistently worse than normal, you likely have a problem that will require change. This can be subtle- less smiling, less laughter. A shift from normal is what to look for.

This dynamic operates at a group and individual level. If the group as a whole is off, change needs to happen for everyone. If everyone is struggling, it’s likely a training problem the impact is similar for all. If an individual is behaving differently, adjustments can be on an individual level. This can often be a lifestyle problem (outside stress, poor sleep, etc), as changes are only showing up at an individual level.

It’s important to look for a CHANGE in attitude. Some individuals are miserable all the time. That’s not necessarily a problem. It is a problem when they become MORE miserable. Likewise, some individuals are extremely upbeat. If they become just upbeat, it may indicate problems are beginning to develop.

If the group is QUIET, that’s an indicator that change might be needed sooner than later, and they might not be ready to perform to the level you’re expecting.

We’re looking for short-term changes as well as prolonged changes. One-off, short-term changes can occasionally be ignored. In some respects, it’s very valuable to conduct training sessions when swimmers are NOT optimally prepared. This helps to expand their ability to overcome challenge. However, if these short-term changes are recurring frequently, or they occur at critical time points, an intervention make sense. When any negative change is prolonged, change is required.

Pay attention to performance. If performances are consistently worse, you have an issue and change is needed. While there will be individual days where performance is not going to be good, you’re looking for trends. Often, several mediocre days are of more concern than one really bad day. When performance flatlines or begins to regress, there is an issue with the plan and change is needed.

An unappreciated danger is when swimmers are consistently ‘train well’, yet at similar levels of performance. They are simply repeating workouts of similar quality. While this may seem to be a good sign, it can actually signify stagnation, and the only really solution is a change. If change is not part of the plan, there needs to be a deviation in the plan.

As with mood, differentiate between group problems and individual problems. Group problems are usually caused by training issues whereas individual problems are usually caused by lifestyle factors. While a training change might be the necessary change in both cases, failing to address lifestyle issues won’t address the real problem in the long-term.

Adjust the numbers, not the content. If you’re seeing degradation in attitude or performance, an easy way to retain the integrity of your plan while providing recovery is to simply drop the volume and the intensity significantly for a short time. You can still do the same TYPE of work, you just make it a lot easier. Do a VERY easy version.

This is particularly effective if the swimmers are just not ready on a given day.

You don’t have to change the structure of your week, you still touch on the training elements that were planned, and the swimmers get a psychological and physiological break. Further, it’s easy to hop right back into the planned work.

Be conservative. The more aggressive the planned approach, the more likely you will have to be to change everything, and that is something the planner does NOT want to do. The more aggressive the training approach, the more likely it is that fatigue will accumulate in unpredictable ways and adjustments will have to be made. With more aggressive changes in training content, there is a greater likelihood of unpredictable and unexpected reactions by swimmers.

If a plan is desired that can be consistently followed, it needs to be relatively conservative. A conservative approach has built in safety valves. An aggressive approach does not. There needs to be planned strategies for allowed fatigue to dissipate. Changes in training content should be gradual to ensure that the reactions can be managed. Larger changes will be more unpredictable in nature, necessitating more changes to the plan, which planners are inherently hesitant to make.

Inject novelty. You have to deviate from the norm in unpredictable ways to break the routine. This can be done in any number of ways. The extreme planner can even PLAN these changes into the program. However, the changes need to be planned in a way that’s not predictable or routine, or it simply becomes part of the established routine.

This can take many different forms, whether a change in training content, the format of the content, change in training groups, or performing very different type of training. As long as there are breaks to the routine, and swimmers perceive these changes to be breaks in the routine, it can help to reduce the inherent monotony of training.

Blow it up for a day. Every once in a while, do something totally different. Play a game, send them home early, let them have some fun. It’s important that these events do not become part of the routine either. You can’t simply do the same thing every time, and it can’t be predictable as to when these events are going to take place.

The excitement and the fun generated by these types of activities can last for a LONG time. In some cases, they can be planned out. In others, they need to be implemented when mood and attitude seem to be low.

Don’t plan the specifics out too far in advance. This is probably the most important strategy for the planner. They can create a general plan that is to be implemented over an extended period of time, while only creating specific plans that are to be implemented over short periods of time.

The general plan is a loose progression of the types of activities that need to be addressed over time. It’s a list of all the boxes that need to be checked, and the approximate order in which they should be addressed and emphasized. Coaches can and should have a pretty solid framework for what should happen at this level.

The specific plan is what is going to actually happen at practice today or tomorrow. The further into the future the specific plan is created, the more likely that it will need to be changed because it will not as accurately reflect what swimmers are capable of. It may not be challenging enough, it may be too challenging, or it may be comprised of the wrong types of work.

This is only problematic in that once that plan is made concrete, the planner becomes much less willing to deviate from that plan. They feel that the plan is reflective of what must happen, and they become unable to change it, even when it’s obvious that change is appropriate. The solution is simply to avoid making finalized, specific plans until necessary. This can help coaches avoid the creation of plans that shouldn’t be followed.

As far as the how far out should specific plans be created, it depends on the person. Some coaches will be comfortable a week out, some a day out. Much more than a week is going to create problems.

How far out a coach can plan will be influenced by their inclinations as well as the consistency with which their swimmers perform. Erratic swimmers allow for less flexibility in terms of specific planning. The more coaches adhere to the strategies above, the more likely they’ll be able to get away with longer projections.

Plan long-term, adjust short-term. Planners need to get comfortable with adjusting. Even the most effective plans will need to be adjusted, and that is a skill that planners must develop and employ. For those that are most comfortable with a planning approach, they can even develop contingency plans based on the possible adjustments that may be needed. This can help to lessen the challenge of adjusting on the fly.

What Do Both Coaches Need?

Both coaches need to be very clear about what needs to be done to be successful. They need to know what needs to happen in the short-term and the long-term. If there is not a crystal-clear image of what needs to happen, it’s not going to happen regardless of how planning is approached.

Between the skills that need to be developed and the training that needs to be done, both coaches must know where they are going. This is the same for both. Where they differ is how they prefer to get the work done. What is consistent is having a clear image of what that work must looks like.

Know Your Tendencies

When coaches are aware of their default approach to coaching, they can better implement strategies that will play to their innate strengths while marginalizing their weaknesses.

  • Are you a rigid planner?

  • Do you prefer to coach what you see and design training in the moment, or plan training from practice to practice based upon what you see?

  • Do you need more planning to ensure that all training objectives are addressed and achieved over time?

  • Do you need to be more flexible with your training approach to ensure you’re matching the physiological and psychological states your swimmers are presenting to you?

Most coaches will find that they answer different questions affirmatively. This provides an indication of where one’s tendencies lay. This knowledge can help coaches make better decisions to ensure that they are not falling into the traps their natural style can create.

If a coach knows they tend to plan rigidly, they must pay closer attention to what adjustments need to be made TODAY based upon how the swimmers are presenting themselves. If a coach knows they tend to design training sessions on the fly, they need to be more structured in knowing what skills and types of work need to be addressed in the short-term. Doing so will make actually enhance each coach’s strengths, rather than compromising them.

What can coaches learn from each?

From the flexible coach, the planner can learn the importance of adjusting training based upon the present readiness of the swimmers. The best plan in the world is of little use if the swimmers are not ready to perform it. Skilled flexible coaches can read their swimmers well and adjust accordingly, something the planner would do well to emulate.

From the planner, the flexible coach can learn the importance of systematically addressing all of the important aspects of swimming fast. The planner makes sure the required work gets done by planning it out ahead of time. The flexible coach may not need to strictly plan this work. However, they would be well-served to be very aware of what needs to get done, and ensure that every necessary aspect of performance is addressed within an appropriate time frame.

Moving Forward

There are two fundamental coaching skills that must be present for coaches to be successful.

Coaches need to have a sense of what needs to get done over time. They must have direction. They must have a ‘plan’. For some, this might simply be a very clear idea of what’s required. For others, it might be a very structured and detailed long-term plan.

As importantly, coaches need to be aware of what’s possible today. On any given day, swimmers will be more or less ready to perform. They will also be more or less ready to perform different types of training. An effective coach will be able to determine this level of readiness, and then adjust their training to accommodate whatever fluctuations exist.

These two skills are necessary to answer the following questions that ultimately guide what determines improvement, and that’s what is done during practice on a daily basis-

  • What needs to get done eventually?

  • What are swimmers most ready to accomplish today?

When the answers to these two questions are consistently in alignment, fast swimming is going to result. The challenge becomes when the answers are not in alignment, consistently over time. This implies a failure to plan appropriately, or a failure to effectively manage the unpredictable day to day variations that will be present in the process.

Some coaches will rely more on the longer-term planning aspect to achieve success, and others will rely more on day-to-day observations to guide their coaching. It’s critical to appreciate that BOTH skills must be employed if coaches are going to be consistently successful over the long-term. If one of these skills is lacking, all of the problems described above are going to manifest themselves over the course of a season.

The answer is to recognize your tendencies, and then create and implement strategies to protect yourself from yourself. When this is done, and done well, coaches will be able to provide swimmers what they need to swim fast, in the short term and in the long term.


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