Consistency Kills Part I
Everyone can agree that the more consistently a swimmer trains at a high level, the better the training outcomes, and the more likely the swimmer will improve performances in competition, eventually.
Consistency of performance. In most cases, performance breakthroughs, in training and competition, follow periods of very consistent training. This training may not be particularly spectacular, and it may not even be progressive in that swimmers may repeatedly perform at the same, albeit high level. It is following these periods that major breakthroughs often occur.
Consistency is also an important aspect of competition. In swimming, most championship level competitions involve preliminary and finals sessions, and more swimmers are competing in multiple events. We’ve all seen swimmers who are all over the place in these meets, performing superbly in one event and atrociously in another. For those in team competitions, the ability to be consistent will have significant ramifications for the team beyond those for the individual.
Consistency is important in training and competition as it creates the foundation for effective training and performances. Yet there is little discussion about how to ensure that swimmers are able to perform consistently, and even less discussion about how to help wildly inconsistent swimmers develop into consistent trainers and performers.
What traits, what skills, what abilities allow for some individuals to train with great consistency, while others continually struggle to do so for any extended period of time? I’d like to offer some perspective on this issue below.
If you can accept that consistency in training is an important aspect of performance, then you can accept that coaches need strategies to help swimmers improve their consistency in training and competition.
In the training world at large, there is a lot of discussion about the importance of recovery to facilitate improved training outcome. There is a tremendous focus on sleep, nutrition, stress management, and training organization to improve performance. And rightfully so. These factors can make a significant difference in terms of enhancing the quality and the consistency of training.
Grossly inadequate training schemes, sleeping habits, and nutrition habits should be addressed. However, I would argue that most individuals are not inconsistent because of shortcomings in these areas. Assuming the absence of crazy training schemes, sleep disorders, and crazy diet practices, I’d like to introduce the idea that training achieving consistency is actually much simpler than it is made out to be. No particular resources are required.
Consistency in Training
More than anything else, consistency is a habit. Consistency in training ultimately comes from the expectation of consistency in training. When coaches and swimmers expect and require consistent performances in training, they get them, eventually. Coaches and swimmers have different roles in the process of developing consistent training habits and different habits are required of each. We’ll explore those below.
While some swimmers innately hold themselves to a very high level of performance, most swimmers need the guidance of a coach to be able to envision and then achieve consistently high levels of performance. It is up to the coach to set standards of performance, and then hold swimmers accountable to those performance standards. Consistency is a result of the expectations of the coach and the performance standard that coaches require.
The primary role of the coach is to set achievable training standards and require that swimmers achieve them. These initial standards do not need to be particularly challenging. It is about establishing the HABIT of meeting performance expectations. This aspect of the process is about establishing positive momentum.
At this point, while swimmers aren’t necessarily learning, coaches are setting the precedent that set training tasks are expected to be accomplished successfully.
However, once coaches start to escalate the performance standards, swimmers will begin to struggle. It is at this point, that remaining consistent becomes more challenging and a new aspect is added to the coach’s role. The coach must then focus on relentlessly encouraging and requiring performance.
At first, swimmers will likely struggle significantly. As swimmer may not have yet established the skill set to perform under pressure, the coach must be relentless in helping the swimmer remain focused on the current task. Their role is NOT to provide the specific strategies swimmers can use to ‘figure out’ how to be consistent in overcoming challenge. They are responsible for helping swimmers developing the resolve and the willingness to continue to strive for performance regardless of the context.
Coaches need to focus on effort and engagement. Even if swimmers are unable to be successful, coaches must require swimmers to engage their effort in attempting to achieve the set objectives. With this approach, swimmers are learning how to continue strive for performance, even if unsuccessful. Without this effort, there is no possibility for swimmers to consistently be successful in training.
Consistency in training arises when coaches are relentless in requiring consistent training, continually reinforcing that the idea that the swimmer has to figure it out. For this process to be effective, it must be done in a positive and supportive manner. Accountability is about support and engagement, not ridicule. Set standards and help swimmers find a way to meet the standards. For swimmers to become consistent, coaches must be consistent in what they require and how they support swimmers to meet these requirements.
Setting the Stage for Progress
When trying to improve, many swimmers and coaches focus on raising the level of training by raising the upper end of their training performances. They try to push forward and improve the maximal level of performance. They try to make the good days better.
Roughly speaking, progress in training and performance in competition will be reflective of the average level of training performance. Every swimmer has better and worse days. For the more consistent swimmer, the performance spread of these better and worse sessions will be smaller. As training is the result of the average level of performance, I would suggest that coaches and swimmers should focus on the improving the bad days.
By definition, poor training sessions offer the most room for improvement. The focus should be on improving these sessions where there is the most to be gained. As the bad sessions become better, the average level of training improves. By raising the minimum level of performance, average performance as a whole will improve, even if the swimmer does not swimmer faster at the top end. An elevated average performance level will provide the stimulus for the good days to become better, eventually.
Beyond the impact of improving the average level of performance, consistency in training also sets the stage for breakthroughs in training. Almost all training breakthroughs are preceded by a series of consistent if unspectacular training sessions. The breakthrough always comes after consistency. By performing at the same level over and over, the stage is set for the next level of performance. If this consistency is not present, the likelihood of progressing to the next level of performance is much lower.
While this consistency, or plateau, can be frustrating in the moment, it is often the precursor to something special. By reframing plateaus as consistency in preparation for progress, swimmers are better able to tolerate protracted periods of stable performances. It is simply preparation for the next level of performance as adaptive processes are fully realized. As the breakthrough might be right around the corner, maintaining consistency becomes even more important.
This can all be directed and managed by the coach.
In part II, we’ll explore what swimmers can do improve their consistency in training