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Dangers of Discipline

It’s commonly accepted that the more disciplined athletes are, the more successful they’ll be. Swimmers are often encouraged to ‘be disciplined’ and often complimented on their discipline. Without question, a level of discipline is required to achieve any objective. To accomplish goals, there are often activities that must be performed that we would otherwise choose not to do.

There is a level of discipline that is required to do what needs to be done. Some individuals are able to more consistently exercise this type of discipline, and they tend to accomplish their goals with greater frequency.

When a single coach is faced with a group of 60 youth swimmers in limited space, the importance of discipline becomes quite obvious. Without some structure, this situation will quickly turn into chaos. Little to no learning will take place, nor will physical development occur. Structure and discipline allow for ‘productive work’ to be done.

To start, it’s important to define what discipline is. Discipline is controlled behavior according to specified rules or codes. Discipline is something being done to athletes, externally or internally opposed (more on this later). Coaches can discipline swimmers through restricting their choices, ‘molding’ swimmers into an image of the ideal, or by establishing a culture that promotes specific types of behavior, while repressing other types of behavior.

Without a doubt, discipline has value. The advantage of discipline is the utility it has in getting productive work done. At the same time, this is where potential problems can arise. Discipline is not without its downsides. In this article, I’d like to consider discipline as a constraint that limits choice and decision making, with potentially negative consequences for their short-term and long-term performance.

One of the major warning signs of excessive discipline is the presence of compliant swimmers. They do what they are asked to the minimum standard expected, and they take no initiative at any point of the training process. They are passive and simply waiting to be told what to do. Another term used in some of the literature addressing these issues is docile, or submissive, athletes. They submit authority to the coach, and take no ownership of their swimming.

I’m sure all coaches can think of specific individuals who exhibit these traits. They are passive, unengaged, and simply going through the motions. They are incredibly frustrating to coach because they simply don’t seem to care.

While coaches are quick to assume that these qualities are innate attributes of specific swimmers, what if this isn’t the case? The thesis of this article is that these qualities arise not from innate attributes, but from commonly accepted coaching practices. Coaching practices thatexcessivelyuse discipline are actually facilitating this situation.

If our coaching practices required consistent and constant engagement and the exploration of performance, would these same individuals necessarily display the same attributes? I don’t believe so. It is also certainly possible these swimmers are not a product of our coaching practices and are being required to swim for other reasons such as parental pressure (more discipline!). Even in this case, it would be wise to consider how our coaching practices are making the situation worse.

The purpose of this article is not to suggest that discipline is a ‘bad’ coaching strategy. Discipline can be incredibly useful and necessary. At the same time, we must also be mindful of situations where discipline becomes excessive, or problematic.

If performances are improving, training is going smoothly, and swimmers are happy, there may be little reason for any sort of intervention. However, if issues exist and there are swimmers displaying submissive or compliant behaviors, it may be valuable for coaches to consider why.

How are current coaching practices facilitating the situation?

What changes could be implemented to address the situation?

These are questions worth exploring.

Beyond the frustration docility creates for coaches in the training environment, the profile of a compliant or docile swimmer is exactly the opposite of the profile required for successful racing. Racing requires decision-making, aggressiveness, and a willingness to fight for performance. While choices are often removed in the training environment, the irony is that swimmers must make the ultimate choice in competition, to fight for ‘victory’ or not. The more decisions are made for swimmers, the less opportunity they have to take ownership and experience their swimming. The more ownership they have, the more they have vested in the outcome, and the more they will strive to succeed.

While the element of choice is problematic, a further problem with discipline is that training environments can become predictable. Swimmers are often expected to achieve particular times over particular distances with particular rest periods. They know how to achieve performances in training, that might not always be representative of racing.

For swimmers to achieve their potential, they must be free to explore the full spectrum of what the swimming experience and the racing experience is all about. The deeper they can explore and understand how to react to change, understand the physiological feedback they receive, as well as how to adjust strategies to achieve outcomes as desired, the more they will be ready to race successfully. While discipline can be incredibly useful as described above, it can also become problematic when it excessively restricts the full exploration of the racing experience, or it creates swimmers who become compliant.

Discipline in Practice

Beyond raising the issues, it’s valuable to make these issues practical so coaches can facilitate really change. What does discipline look like at the pool? From a simple perspective, the presence of organization and decision making from the coach signal the presence of discipline. To reiterate, this is not bad or good; it simply comes with consequences that can be problematic or not, depending on the situation.

Consider the choices that are made for swimmers on daily basis, often without their input-

  • They’re typically assigned a lane.

  • They’re typically assigned what type of training they’ll be doing on that day.

  • They’re typically assigned a specific training time with a definitive starting and stopping time.

  • They’re typically assigned specific performance standards in practice (i.e. how fast they need to go, how many strokes they can take, how many dolphin kicks they need to take)

  • What constitutes ‘success’ is typically defined externally by the coach.

  • The amount of recovery between repetitions is typically regulated (i.e. the intervals).

  • They’re typically assigned the type of training equipment they can use at any given time.

  • They are typically instructed HOW to swim (move your arm like ‘this’, lower your head)

  • Etc…

Due to all of these constraints, organization is prioritized and swimmers are being disciplined towards a specific ideal that is deemed ‘best’. The more constraints that are placed, the less ‘room’ swimmers have to maneuver, ultimately leading them to feel trapped, and restricted. The perception of being trapped can lead to swimmers behaving in a docile manner, where they stop taking initiative, stop exploring, and simply wait to be told what to do.

As discussed from a skill acquisition perspective, constraints can also be liberating in that they move swimmers towards novel movement patterns. However, when constraints are excessive and never change, the number of movement opportunities becomes restricted, removing the opportunity for variability and novel movements.

The situation is analogous when disciplinary constraints are constant and unwavering. When appropriate, discipline can help swimmers move towards novel behaviors. The negative aspects of discipline emerge when choices are limited and swimmers are constrained into behaving in narrow and restricted ways that may not be best serving swimmers’ goals, and potentially harming health.

As we’ll explore below, each of the sources of discipline described above are also opportunities for coaches to help swimmers to take owner of their swimming.

A Tangent

Discipline isn’t necessarily externally imposed. Swimmers can certainly discipline themselves to adhere to specific training regimens, sleep regimens, social regimens, nutrition regimens, etc… in pursuit of accomplishing specific goals. This type of discipline can be extremely valuable as a complete absence of nutritional restraint, a lack of training, or erratic and insufficient sleep times can all derail the pursuit of goals.

The danger is when these restraints become overly restrictive and psychological distress occurs a result of the inability to maintain specific regimens. At this point, internal discipline becomes as problematic as it becomes useful. Further, excessive discipline can also prevent swimmers from exploring situations where ‘less’ discipline is more useful than more discipline.

Using nutritional practices as an example, a rigidly applied rule of ‘no sugars’ can work against a swimmer when calories are needed during heavy training, as simple sugars can effectively fulfill this function. Further adhering to rigid sleep schedules can prevent swimmers from sleeping in when it would be very beneficial to do so in the presence of excessive fatigue.

While the purpose of this article is not to explore the potential dangers of internally imposed discipline, it’s important for coaches to be aware of how their disciplining practices can facilitate the development of excessive internally imposed discipline. This can occur when coaches consistently impose disciplinary practices, and establish a culture of great discipline. The extreme example would be the development of eating disorders facilitated by rigidly imposed ideal body images.

Again coaches, need to be aware of the potential dangers of their disciplining practices, and how they manifest in swimmers own disciplining of their behaviors and choices. With awareness, coaches can also begin to spot individuals who are displaying excessive internal discipline. While coaches may not have the tools to manage these situations, they can refer swimmers to the appropriate professionals.

Facilitating Change

Once coaches become attuned to some of the dangers of discipline, they can begin to modify their coaching practices to mitigate some of the negative effects of discipline, while reaping the benefits of imposed discipline. Three valuable strategies in achieving this outcome are to provide choice, change the context, and to explore alternative constraints.

Provide Choices

There is also an emerging body of literature that creating autonomy for athletes can enhance performance across a variety of contexts. While these changes in performance are relatively small, they are real.

An interesting finding in this line of research is that the presence of choice is more important than the nature of the choice. In other words, seemingly unrelated and inconsequential choices can have a significant impact on performance and learning outcomes. Coaches don’t have to hand their swimmers the program; they can simply provide options for swimmers in any number of situations.

Whenever possible, provide options. When you can do so without compromising the integrity of your training program, there is no downside. There is nothing to lose and the benefits add up over time. As coaches become more and more comfortable with affording all swimmers options in the training environment, the nature of these choices can continue to expand to a broader spectrum of possibilities.

Change the Context

As described above, one of the potential problems with discipline is that it removes options. By excessively constraining options, swimmers may be prevented from exploring all possibilities for action.

As an example, coaches may always structure training in a certain manner because it is deemed most optimal. From the type of training, to the order of training, to the location of training, coaches can change provide alternative ways to explore performance that provide the same training stimulus. In many ways, change can provide added stimulus as it allows swimmers to explore novel aspects of performance that were previously inaccessible due to restricted opportunities.

The following options are a brief sampling of what is possible.

  • Swimmers can choose their own lane, or coaches can change the criteria by which they assign lanes.

  • Swimmers can be provided a menu of training options for the day.

  • Swimmers can be provided a window of time during which training must be performed, as opposed to a rigid starting and stopping point.

  • Coaches can provide swimmers with a range of performance standards in practice, or consistently change those standards as opposed to repeating the same standards.

  • Success can be defined by the swimmer.

  • Recovery intervals can be arbitrary and dictated by each swimmer’s readiness.

  • Swimmers can be provided with the option to choose their training equipment for a given set.

  • Swimmers can choose what to focus on during their swimming, exploring novel concepts to use.

  • The environment, or where training takes place can be changed. Each set can start from the opposite of the pool, or the lane lines can be removed, or swimmers can travel across the pool.

  • Etc…

Each of these options may be more or less feasible, and more or less useful depending on each coach’s situation. Many more opportunities for changing the context exist, and are only limited by their creativity. Changing the context helps swimmers interact with performance in novel and ways that more fully explore the totality of the swimming experience.

While change can be scary for coaches who are comfortable with the success they’ve experience using their current methods, coaches may very well find that they prefer these ‘new’ ways of coaching with swimmers. The temptation may even be for the ‘new’ to become the ‘standard’. However, keep in mind that new is not better, and over time ‘new’ ways of coaching can become equally as disciplining as those that they replace.

Explore Alternative Constraints

When swimmers are constantly exposed to unvarying training schemes, distances, intensities, or recovery intervals, they have set expectations about what is possible and what is success. This can limit their exploration of their skills and abilities because they may be overly concerned with a narrow definition of success. Further, their past experiences may place artificial limitations on what they believe is possible.

By changing the constraints created within each training set, and exploring novel ways of establishing these constraints, swimmers can explore performance in novel ways, exercise choice, take risks, and learn more about what is possible with their swimming. In many cases, they are free to choose how they swim. Below are some examples of how using alternative constraints can lead to novel experiences.

  • Use distances that have little psychological meaning (i.e. 125, 175, 225 etc).

  • Use distances that swimmers typically are not exposed to.

  • Constantly vary training distances to challenge the ability to achieve a rhythm.

  • Constantly vary rest periods so swimmers have to learn to read and manage their physiology.

  • Unpredictably shift intensity so swimmers are forced into physiological states they typically avoid.

  • Start and stop training sets from the middle of the pool.

  • Perform swims for duration instead of distance.

  • Prescribe effort levels instead of performance times.

  • Conduct parts of practice or an entire practice without the use of a pace clock.

  • Prescribe a recovery time (i.e. 20 seconds rest) instead of a strict interval (i.e. start each repetition every minute).

  • Prescribe recovery periods that are not based on time (i.e. 5 breaths, 10 bobs, or a heart rate of 120).

  • Use active recovery instead of passive recovery.

Coaches have a lot of options as how to explore different constraints, above and beyond those listed above. Options are only limited by each coach’s ability to recognize the opportunity to reduce disciplinary practices and create situations for swimmers to more fully experience freedom to experiment with new ways of engaging in performance.

While swimmers may initially struggle with these novel training interventions, or struggle to fully challenge themselves. While this can be frustrating for coaches and swimmers alike, as both groups may feel that the training was wasted, it is actually a sign that opportunity for improvement is present.

Some part of performance is being missed with typical, rigid protocols. Either swimmers have ‘figured out’ these sets due to consistent exposure, they’ve adapted to the stress they create, or these sets are incomplete in the stress they provide. By changing the context, swimmers are exposed to a more complete representation of what racing entails.

In most cases, they must learn how to manage effort, speed, and engagement without the guidance provided by known distances, rest periods, or intensities. By providing unfamiliar situations for swimmers to navigate, they have the opportunity to learn these skills.

As above, these novel interventions are not necessarily different, they simply provide a different perspective and allow for new ways of exploring swimming. Coaches must consistently be attuned to whether these novel sets begin to excessively discipline or restrict swimmers in ways that the original coaching practices began to do.


The purpose here is not to call for an entire overhaul of training programs that are typically employed. The purpose is to stimulate thought as to how current practices may be creating situations where discipline is exercised in an excessive manner, and what the negative consequences of doing so may be.

By rigidly imposing specific rules and structures, we may be limiting how swimmers learn about their bodies and their ability to perform. Practice contexts are often predictable, strictly organized, rigid with strict rules, and very clear expectations about what is ‘good’ or bad’. While this can be beneficial in many situations, it can also be problematic in that swimmers may begin to look externally for direction and motivation. They become docile.

In contrast, there is no instantaneous feedback during racing, swimmers cannot rely on coaches for feedback or motivation, and races certainly don’t unfold in a predictable manner. Swimmers must be able to set self-determined goals that have significance, create strategies to achieve those goals they believe in, as well as manage those strategies during the unpredictable environment of racing and competition.

The main question coaches can ask is, ‘How are current training practices rigidly imposing discipline on swimmers, and how can change be used to allow swimmers to more fully explore everything encompassed by racing and competing?’

While certain types of skill acquisition and physical development are required for success, coaches can explore alternative approaches that are designed to accomplish these goals equally well. By doing so, it can provide swimmers with the opportunity to more fully experience all of the aspects of their skills that apply to racing at a high level. In addition, such approaches can expose swimmers to stimuli that traditional interventions miss.

From a performance perspective, it’s important to remember that we are ultimately training to race, and racing is anything, but a rigidly imposed, highly predictable sequence of events. Anything can and will happen, and swimmers need to be prepared to meet the challenge through confidence in their ability to choose effective actions and race with confidence. The ability to do so is built upon the ability to take ownership of what they believe is possible, as well as the ability to read situations and determine the best course of action. This skillset can only be developed with some level of freedom, and coaches have the choice whether to provide these opportunities to their swimmers, each and every day.

Special thanks to Dr. Jim Denison and his research for the origin and inspiration of these ideas. Links to his research can be found in the resources section of this website.


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