Consistency Kills Part II
Consistency is a habit and consistency is a skill. Swimmers who are consistent in training will not only perform better, they’re more likely to be consistent in competitions. In part I, we touched on why consistency is so important, and what coaches can do to set the stage for consistent performances.
In this article, we’ll explore what swimmers can focus on to improve their consistency in training and competition.
The first step towards being consistent in training is the willingness to continue to strive for excellence, regardless of the difficulty of the situation. As described above, coaches can help facilitate this skill set. Once swimmers have learned to train with resolve, they can learn the specific skillsets required to overcome challenges.
For most, these strategies are not intuitive, and will likely need to be introduced by the coach. For both coach and swimmer, it requires a new way of thinking during training. Most swimmers lack the cognitive tools to stay focused on what matters and learn. Coaches must facilitate the environment and the opportunity for swimmers to learn these skills. This is a HUGE part of coaching, beyond designing training programs and technical learning opportunities.
The following strategies are most useful when coaches help swimmers learn to employ them, appreciating that no one strategy is ‘better’. Whether is it is useful for any one swimmer dictates whether it’s use is appropriate. Instead of ‘thinking positively’, swimmers are better off focusing their thoughts towards action. By focusing on what can be done, swimmers learn that they are in control of the process and can take action to create change.
When placed in challenging situations, it is up to swimmers to learn the strategies that allow them to figure out how to meet performance standards, regardless of the circumstance.
One repetition at a time
Many swimmers get themselves into trouble by focusing on the entire practice or set, as opposed to the specific repetition they are about to complete. The more they can focus on the now, the less likely they are to be overwhelmed by the total challenge.
What can I do right now?
As with the challenges above, swimmers are often focused on the entirety of the task as opposed to what they can control in the moment. This question forces swimmers to stay in the moment, and to stay with what they can control. By focusing on what they can do in the moment, they are more likely to swim with intention and purpose, enhancing performance and consistency, now.
What is most important right now?
There are always multiple options for action at any one point. Swimmers who are able to overcome obstacles are able to evaluate their options and decide what the most important objective is. They have the opportunity to try different solutions to see if they are effective. With practice, they become better and better at making the right choice, right away.
What is going well? What could be better?
Simple. As opposed to focusing solely on the negative, create positivity by recognizing what is going well. There is ALWAYS going to be something positive happening in practice and there is always something that can be improved. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with frustration. The best way out is to find something good and build upon it. The focus shifts from performance to progress. If you are moving in the right direction, it’s okay if you’re performances aren’t where you want them to be. You can get there eventually with progress.
While swimmers may not be able to control their performance, they can control the process of improvement. This simple strategy can help swimmers develop positive momentum within a training practice. As the swimmer is choosing what to focus, it further establishes a sense of control over the process of getting better. There is ALWAYS something every swimmer can do right now to get better on the next repetition.
Can I do this?
When facing a challenge, most individuals try to motivate themselves by saying, ‘you can do this’. However, swimmers are better off evaluating ‘can I do this?’. Why? By asking the question, swimmers are forced to evaluate their physical and mental resources, evaluate what has worked, and then come up with a plan to make it happen. If they decide yes, then they have to figure out how. Blindly assuming success doesn’t help swimmers learn HOW to make it happen. Asking the question does.
Did it work? What can I do about it?
When swimmers make an effort to do something different or improve on a given repetition, they need to evaluate whether their strategy worked. If it did, they should continue to execute that strategy until it no longer leads to further improvement. If it didn’t work, swimmers need to decide if it was an issue of strategy or execution. They need to try better or try different. With consistent exposure to this framework, they learn how to evaluate their own progress.
All of these psychological processes become HABITS when practiced consistently. They can be learned by anyone. All that is required is consistent exposure to challenging environments, a willingness to experiment, and accountability from the coach.
At first coaches, may need to prompt swimmers with these questions and require swimmers to verbalize they’re answers prior to the next repetition or the next set. By doing so repeatedly, swimmers start to develop the habit of asking these questions of themselves. This process accelerates when swimmers actually see the benefit, when they get through a set they didn’t think they could. They learn to value the conversations they have with themselves and they come to understand the power they have over every situation in training. The process starts with coaches requiring a new type of internal conversation during practice.
The most valuable lesson that swimmers will learn throughout this process is that how you feel has nothing to do with how you will perform, either in training or competition. The corollary is that how the practice or competition starts has nothing to do with how it will end. You can always make it better.
As swimmers become more consistent, they become more confident. They know they can get it done, regardless of the circumstances. They learn that they’re in control of their performances as opposed to being at the mercy of how they feel. They can rely on themselves to make it happen, which is truly empowering.
They will learn that their perceptions of fatigue are not always indicative of how fatigued they actually are. By focusing on the process of getting better instead of the current performance levels, swimmers can remove these perceptions and make progress towards their goals.
I’ve seen individuals transition to much more consistent swimmers and develop these skills. Over time, they simply have fewer bad training sessions and the bad training sessions are less bad. For most swimmers, they may not even have to swim faster in practice to get better. If they simply make their poor training sessions better, their average performance levels in training will improve and they will improve. In many ways, the best strategy for improvement is to be less bad more often.
Consistency in Competition
As with practice and probably more so, many swimmers believe how they feel the day of competition as indicative of how they will perform. Unfortunately, many/most swimmers do not feel great on the day of competition. When swimmers are more consistent in practice, they learn that how they feel is irrelevant to how they perform. Soon enough, they figure
This particularly problematic at meets, where the question most often asked by coaches is ‘How do you feel?’. Not only is the answer to this question irrelevant to performance, there is nothing the coach or swimmer to change the situation.
A much better alternative is ‘What do you need help with to perform well today?’. In this case, the coach and swimmer can decide if something needs to be done to facilitate a better warm up or help to groove technical skills. The focus is on managing the situation, not reinforcing the connection between ‘feel’ and performance. As with practice, swimmers are oriented toward personal accountability and problem solving.
Further, as this skill has been practiced during training sessions, swimmers will often have developed a series of solutions for specific situations they encounter in competition. They’ve learned how to overcome specific technical and physical problems in practice and can use those same tools to improve readiness in competition. They’re problem-solving abilities and specific solutions become most valuable when it matters most, in competition.
Consistency is a habit. It starts with coaches establishing clear performance standards for every training activity, and then requiring performance on a consistent basis. Critically, the accountability process is one of encouragement and support. Throughout the process, coaches will be most effective not by providing solutions, but by requiring swimmers to ask themselves the critical questions that will provide the strategies framework for finding solutions.
It is then up to the swimmers to find solutions to training problems, regardless of how they feel. Their willingness to struggle and to figure it out will be related to the coach’s ability to create an environment that supports the challenge of creating consistent performances. Establishing these habits in training will not only improve training performance, it will facilitate the development of habits that also transfer to the competitive environment.
Swimmers will rise to the level of performance that is expected of them. As coaches, we set that standard. Great coaching goes beyond setting these standards. We are also responsible for providing swimmers with the tools for meeting these standards, regardless of the context.