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Effort Versus Intent

We’ve all coached the swimmer who consistently puts tremendous effort into their training and their races, yet that effort is not necessarily rewarding with improvements in performance. They just want to get to work, work hard, and expect the performances to be there. Unfortunately, they rarely are.

Effort is not enough. Effort is simply physical output and physiological strain.

For long-term performance enhancement, both in training and competition, swimmers need to learn swim with intention. They need to have a clear process of how they expect to execute their swims in practice and in competitions. Always. High level performances do not happen by chance.

By focusing on intention, and having a clear goal of what’s to be accomplished, swimmers will typically mobilize more effort as clear intentions tend to facilitate effort more than anything else. When swimmers have an intent and know what they are trying to accomplish, they then have a frame of reference from which to evaluate the effectiveness of their actions. They have a process that yields performance.

For long-term improvement in performance, effort is not enough.

Fortunately, coaches can help swimmers develop the skill of swimming with intent on a daily basis in each and every training session. While providing specific points of instruction can be useful, it doesn’t always allow swimmers to take responsibility for their swimming. As the guidance provided by coaches doesn’t have the same meaning as internally driven objectives, these points of instruction are less likely to be sustained when training becomes challenging. Providing answers doesn’t help them learn to set and create their own intention.

Swimming with intention is all about finding answers to performance problems. For swimmers to really learn to engage and train with intent, they need to learn how to ask questions, and they need to learn how to ask the right questions. This is where great coaching can make a huge impact. By asking questions of their swimmers, coaches can help swimmers learn which questions have the most value, as well as what defines the spectrum of useful answers.

The following questions can be useful for coaches to help swimmers to learn to swim with intent, a skill that takes time to develop, yet yields tremendous benefits. Training becomes more than just working hard.

What are you working on right now? For many swimmers, the initial answer probably won’t be much more insightful than a confused look and an uncertain response. That’s because most swimmers aren’t working on anything in particular other than ‘working hard’. While hard work is a necessary component, it is insufficient. Intent is required as well.

By repeatedly asking the question, swimmers eventually get the idea that they need to have an answer. In turn, they start to work on specific aspects of their performance. While at first what they choose to work on may not be the best use of their time, they need to learn the habit of intention. Once they’ve established the habit, coaches can work with swimmers to start focusing on the skills and abilities that matter most.

It teaches swimmers that swimming with intention is their responsibility. They are expected to have a plan and take ownership of their swimming. Swimmers realize that the answer to this question, and their focus during training, might as well be productive.

What does success look like for you in this set? With a goal comes directed action and mobilized effort. By allowing swimmers to define their own success, they can select training objectives that have meaning and relevance to them. They are also more likely to select objectives that believe they can achieve. When swimmers believe they have a reasonable chance of accomplishing a task, they are more willing and able to put in the required effort to accomplish that goal.

By asking swimmers what they believe is possible, we can also get a sense of their expectations for themselves. When we feel these expectations are below their capabilities, we now have the information to gradually nudge them towards what we feel is actually possible, thus also adjusting their expectations of themselves. Swimmers then begin to practice with intent of achieving more significant performances.

Once we know how swimmers define success, we can help them expand their definition of success. Effort-based swimmers are often tied to the clock, using it as the only measure of success. While performance is undoubtedly the ultimate goal over time and should almost always be a part of the process, it can occasionally be a distraction if how those performances are being achieved in a way that is not productive for long-term success. While it’s difficult to swim a 50 free in 19 seconds ‘poorly’, there are a lot of unproductive ways to swim a 30-second 50 freestyle.

Broadening the training goals of all swimmers can help them understand a larger spectrum of improvement opportunities, and ultimately help them achieve higher performances.

How did that repetition go? Did you accomplish your goal? Was your swim in line with your expectation? Was the performance in line with the goal? Was it in line with how it felt? This line of questioning allows swimmers to begin to evaluate their own swimming. Their performances have to have value and meaning. It needs to matter to them if success is achieved or not. Over time, coaches can start to help swimmers understand the nuances of what to look for and how to evaluate their swimming by guiding them through the process of asking the right questions.

If the repetition was successful, coaches can re-affirm the attempt and encourage swimmers to continue to execute their swims with intent. If the repetition was unsuccessful, coaches can help swimmers determine what needs to change. It may be a shift in focus, the need to refocus, or a change in strategy. Further questions may be necessary to help facilitate this process. The key message is to reinforce the need to continue to search for solutions, regardless of the challenge. Either way, coaches can encourage engagement, effort, and reinforce the importance of swimming with intent.

An added benefit for coaches is that this question provides information from the swimmers that coaches would otherwise not have access to. Coaches can gain insight into what swimmers are feeling, what their thought processes are, and how they are approaching each repetition. While it’s easy to assume what this information may be, you may be continually surprised at what swimmers have to say.

What did you do well? Swimmers are motivated by success. Success comes from building on success. Swimmers need to acknowledge what they did well. Regardless of how poorly training or competition may be going, something must be going reasonably well.

When swimmers are really struggling, they can develop a negative orientation that can start to spiral and make the situation worse. Affirming success can put the brakes on negativity and begin to build positive momentum. They need to recognize and celebrate success. Overcoming obstacles comes from slowly building upon success, even if that starts with very small successes. They have to start somewhere.

The purpose is not to promote naïve positivity. The purpose is to help swimmers learn to find and focus on what is done well, and then build upon it, as opposed to dwelling on failure. This provides swimmers an avenue in which they can channel their intentions toward making progress.

Acknowledging success helps swimmers lock in on what works and increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. This can be enhanced when coaches get excited and reinforce each swimmer’s success. Success breeds success and finding success is a habit which can be reinforced by coaching behaviors.

What can you do better on this repetition? Re-calibration. After an effort, swimmers will receive feedback about performance, as well as a sensory information about their execution. Based upon how they perceived the execution of the previous repetition, swimmers need to decide whether they need to adjust their goals for subsequent repetitions. A subtle change may be required, a significant change may be required, or the goal may be retained. Regardless, swimmers must set a standard for the coming repetition. Doing so mobilizes effort and creates direction.

Moving Forward

Ultimately, these are all questions that swimmers must ask themselves throughout training sessions if they wish to train with intent. Initially, coaches will have to facilitate this process by asking questions that require swimmers to engage in their training. Over time, these questions become habits that swimmers internalize and they learn to swim with intent.

While the questioning process and interactions between coaches and swimmers can be cumbersome at first, the process quickly streamlines as swimmers begin to understand what is expected and a common language emerges. The process evolves into quick phrases where maximal information is communicated quickly for maximal impact. Be patient and the rewards will recover.

As coaches, the more we can encourage intention as opposed to effort, the more likely we will help swimmers train productively and make progress. By consistently asking questions of our swimmers, it forces them to engage in their training. They will be unable to answer these questions unless they engage in their swimming and their performances. Eventually, they learn to ask these questions of themselves and they start to swim with intent.


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