Coaches, athletes, and humans all want it all, and they all want it all right now. As a result, they try to do it all right away. This is particularly true when they’re feeling the pain of a recent failure. Unfortunately, this tendency rarely works to our advantage. They try to do too much.
Chase two rabbits, catch none.
When we work to change on too many fronts, we often get nothing. Too many swimmers are working on their head position, their breathing, their catch, the finish of their stroke, and their kick timing- all at the same time. Needless to say, these swimmers often change nothing.
Physical and technical can skills change, and significant physical and technical change is possible with patience and a directed approach. They key word is patience. Rather than working on every opportunity concurrently, a much more effective strategy is to focus on one skill at a time, make progress, and move on.
This sounds simple, yet most are unable to execute a strategy like this. Why?
While it’s easy to assume that swimmers are being distracted from what matters by the latest top 40 music hit or the drama in their life, and that’s probably a fair assumption, a major source of distraction is the coach. Simply, we are constantly and haphazardly changing what we ask swimmers to focus on, with little consistency.
We are chasing two (or ten) rabbits.
The performance process is going to be a lot more effective if coaches, and by extension swimmers, can learn to control their distractions, and focus on what matters most. By doing so, real change is possible.
Simply telling someone to do something does not create change
It takes TIME for changes to occur, and if we are consistently and unintentionally changing what swimmers are paying attention to, we’re preventing them from accumulating the necessary practice to work through that change. (As we’ll see later, there can be value in SYSTEMATICALLY changing focus, yet that’s not what I am referring to.) If we expect swimmers to focus their attention on what matters, WE must focus our attention on what matters.
Focusing on ‘keystone’ skills has a trickledown effect
While it can be overwhelming to consider addressing the multitude of issues some swimmers present, we can greatly impact the process by identifying the key opportunities, that when fixed, will make many other issues simply disappear. The more we can exclusively address high impact opportunities, the more of the low impact opportunities will simply disappear.
For instance, if there are major issues with body position or balance in the water, all sorts of compensations with the limbs are going to take place. Remove the underlying issue and the errors associated with the limbs tend to correct themselves.
As a practical example, consider a breathing action that has a large vertical and lateral component, rather than primarily a rotational component. Pulling the head and out is a going to cause a loss of balance when the lungs are lifted up and out, rather than maintaining stable pressure into the water.
To compensate, the body must find a stability somehow. This will likely take the form of compensatory actions in the limbs. The arm in the water may ‘brace’ or scull in the water, or the legs may spread apart of create stabilizing torques. Both of these actions require energy, and more importantly, they prevent the limbs from performing their primary role of creating propulsion.
It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see
This is one of my favorite coaching expressions. It refers to the ability to IGNORE what’s not important. The skill is in NOT seeing certain ‘flaws’. If you’re choosing to focus on skill X, you have to ignore when they make mistakes with skill Y. Put the blinders on and keep the focus where it needs to be. This is really hard to do, and it takes a lot of discipline. The results are worth it.
Swimmers will follow your lead. The more disciplined you can be with controlling your distraction, the more disciplined they will be in controlling their distractions. Provide feedback, instruction, and encouragement about what matters, and they will pay attention to what matters.
Picking One Thing
Implied in choosing one point of focus is that this selection is critical to facilitating positive changes. The idea is not just to focus on one component, but to focus on the component that is most likely to improve performance over time. While it’s fairly easy to identify errors of performance, as almost any coach can do that, it’s much more difficult to identify THE error that should receive preferential focus when making change.
The reason that this is difficult to do is that there are multiple considerations for deciding where focus should be placed, and these considerations may suggest different solutions. Beyond that, understanding some of these considerations requires a very deep understanding of what is happening, and that understanding only comes with a lot of practice, experience, and knowledge of what is happening.
Here are some of the factors that should be considered-
Choose causes rather than effects. If we chase symptoms rather than causes, we will be constantly chasing symptoms. It’s critical to identify what the fundamental opportunities are, and what needs to be done to address these opportunities. A failure to do so will result in a failure to facilitate change.
Accurately identifying causes rather than effects requires a deep understanding of what is happening at multiple levels of performance. While this understanding is difficult to come by, it will make coaching much more effective and efficient.
Make actionable choices. As much as possible. You may be able to identify clear causal problems, yet if it’s not easy to act in a manner that solves those problems, it’s almost irrelevant. Occasionally, clear problems arise without clear solutions. While it makes sense to seek out solutions to those problems, immediately effort should be directed towards problems that can be solved, and can be solved in the immediate future.
Choose easy outcomes. Some changes are easy to make. Some changes are really difficult to make. Some goals are easy to achieve. Some goals are really difficult to achieve. We want to focus on what we can accomplish successfully and simply. This helps to build momentum, and it will allow for change to occur quickly and significantly.
Look for impactful outcomes. Changing the orientation of one’s ring finger is probably not going to make a dramatic impact on performance. Altering a gross error in body alignment is going to make a big impact. In both cases, a single change is made, yet the impact of each change is dramatically different.
Shotguns before sniper rifles. When focusing on one particular skill, we want to make sure that the skill we choose positively impacts as many other skills as possible. It has a ripple effect throughout the rest of the stroke. In contrast, some changes may not do much to create an impact beyond the change itself.
Appreciate the trade-offs, and make a choice. Typically, there are not options that satisfy all of the considerations above. There may be some changes that are fairly easy to implement, yet don’t result in dramatic impacts on performance. The opposite is true as well. Trade-offs exist. When choosing where to focus, these trade-offs must be made, and a choice is necessary. Make the choice, see what happens, and go from there.
Implicit in these considerations is that there must be a lot of knowledge and a lot of awareness present to effectively decide where to focus attention. This is where the skill of coaching emerges. Appropriately identifying change opportunities takes a deep understanding of what is happening, the factors influencing what is happening, and what to do about it. While the best coaches can make this look easy becoming a wizard, that ease is built upon a thoroughly developed skillset.
Initially, coaches can and should drive the process of choosing what and where to place attention. Most swimmers are simply unaware and unable to appropriately place their focus. Swimmers must learn to actually focus their attention. Many swimmers are simply just swimming, without much attention given to anything other than their favorite song. Coaches can facilitate the process of paying attention by asking great questions require attention from swimmers.
Coaches should act from the perspective of helping swimmers learn these skills from the beginning, rather than simply providing what to focus on. They should see the process as one of a ‘transfer of power’ at all points, acting in a manner that facilitates changes rather than dependency.
That being said, there can be critical times when coaches should provide a strong sense of direction, either in times of ‘crisis’ or when the stakes are very high and swimmers need assistance. However, I would argue that these situations arise only when the appropriate skills have not been adequately learned ahead of time.
Over time, it can be very valuable to ensure that swimmers are part of the process of assigning attention. Doing so will increase swimmer’s commitment to change. They will commit to the changes they have chosen to address. Beyond that commitment, swimmers will also have insight into what changes might be beneficial, as well as what changes they feel most confident in making.
In most cases, swimmers will select to address changes that they feel they complete successfully, whereas coaches may assign changes that swimmers do not believe they can accomplish, or do not perceive as beneficial. In which case do you feel the outcome is more likely to be a positive one?
As described in previously, swimmers can and will assume responsibility for directing the change process when provided the time and support needed to acquire the skills. Swimmers can learn to effectively manage this process, relying on coaches when they face particularly challenging problems.
One vs. One at a Time
It’s possible to focus attention on different aspects of change within a given time period. However, that does not mean that there can be a different focus at the same time. There must be separation, and the focus should be rotated across whatever time scale you feel is appropriate. If this is the route you take, consider the following-
Ensure that each focus is high impact. When choosing to focus on multiple changes, the considerations for selecting the best opportunities still apply. If a given change doesn’t satisfy the majority of those consideration, don’t include it. Stick with what is going to have the most impact with the least effort, even if this is only a small number of changes.
Ensure that the attention is not spread too thin. It can be tempting to try to address a lot of different issues. While this can be effective if swimmers are able to effectively shift their focus, the problem becomes when too many changes are being attempted. There is simply not enough time to spent in any one area. While it may seem more productive to focus on more, the results are often less.
Maintain temporal separation. It’s important that swimmers continue to focus on one opportunity for improvement at any one time. As swimmers become more skilled at attentional control, they can learn to switch focus on ever decreasing time scales. They can learn to shift on a session to session basis, then a set to set basis, then a repetition to repetition basis. However, this is all contingent on maintaining the appropriate focus at any one time.
The focus can change, provided swimmers are able to selectively focus their attention. This must be learned. Further, it can be tempting to try to address many different problems. There must be continued discipline to focus on what matters most.
What swimmers focus on during practice is ultimately going to determine what changes are going to be facilitated on a day to day basis. It’s easy to get the impression that coaching is about providing swimmers with as much information as possible about what mistakes they’re making and how to fix them.
Unfortunately, this is opposite of what should be done. Coaching is about identifying the critical skills that need to be developed for each swimmer, and ruthlessly focusing on those skills to the exclusion of everything else. The rest is just noise. This process works even better when these skills are developed separately.
The critical skill in coaching is not being aware of all of the opportunities for improvement. The critical skill is to know which opportunities matter most, and ignoring everything else. Then coaches must help swimmers learn to do the same.
How do we know if we’re being effective? We know by looking at how swimmers are placing their attention in training-
Are they engaged with what is happening?
Are they minimizing the number of changes they’re attempting to make?
Are they focusing on what actually matters?
Are they learning to drive the process themselves?
If we can answer yes to these questions, swimmers are on their way to faster swimming.