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Hard Work

The sport of swimming has a very rich tradition of hard work. Teams and individuals pride themselves on the ability to outwork the competition.

Without question, to achieve anything in life requires some amount of hard work. To achieve higher and higher levels of performance, more and more work is going to be required. As work ethic is something that is more or less within our control, and can be quite effective at helping individuals accomplish goals, it tends to receive a lot of attention.

I believe this attention is misplaced.

Hard work is NECESSARY, yet it’s not SUFFICIENT to improving performance in the pool.

While hard work is important, I am going to argue that an inappropriate focus on working hard is counterproductive, and this is evidenced in the instances where swimmers work very hard, yet fail to improve their performances. While these failures can be written off as a lack of talent, the ability to improve is independent of talent. While they may be limited in how fast they can swim, any swimmer can get faster.

As coaches, we’re focused on helping swimmers improve, and that is my context here. It’s true that some individuals may work very hard and consistently swim slower than their peers who do not exhibit any of the same work ethic. I certainly won’t deny that dynamic, yet it is not evidence for what I will be discussing. Some swimmers are simply better than others, and that will be the case regardless of the approach to training.

We always point to the examples which prove our point, while failing to acknowledge just as many examples that contradict our point. If a swimmer ‘does the work’ and fails to improve, especially if this happens more than once, then the work-based approach is problematic.

An alternative solution-

Focus on consistently improving performance in practice.

Rather than striving to outwork the competition or working as hard as possible, orient training towards performing faster in training over time. Measure what you are doing, and design training with the intent of consistently improving those numbers.

The focus of training should never be on how hard individuals are working. It should always be on how well they are performing. 'Well' can be defined by speed, and it often should be as this is the ultimate metric against which competitive performances are compared. It can and should also include the skillful execution of repetitions, working to improve movement patterns that will result in more speed at a later date.

To be clear, the work mindset can work, it does work, and it has worked. The problem is that is doesn’t ALWAYS work. The travesty is when people do more and get less back from it. Not only do they not accomplish their goals, they give up more to not be successful.

Just because a swimmer works hard doesn’t mean they’ll swim fast. In contrast, the performance approach will always work. If swimmers are able to consistently perform better across all of the training components, they will swim fast when it matters.

The catch is that the work mindset is a lot simpler than the performance mindset. It’s not hard to make practice hard. It’s hard to make practice better.

How does the difference in approach manifest itself in day to day coaching? Let’s examine some common questions coaches will ask themselves, oriented from both perspectives, and what the implications of those differences are.

Work Mindset #1- How hard can I make this practice?

This is often the approach coaches take to designing a practice. How can I challenge my swimmers? What is the most challenging set I can design? While challenge is certainly an integral part of any performance development process, being challenging is not necessarily the goal. A practice or a training set can be very challenging and very difficult, yet fail to help swimmers improve.

Making practice more difficult is easy. When in doubt, increase the volume and decrease the intervals. Simple. You’ve made practice harder and it took zero effort to do so. ANYONE could do this once, regardless of whether they coach. Instead of 5, do 10. Do them with less rest.

It’s not challenging to do, requires little skill as a coach, and it can produce results for many swimmers, at least at first. It is for these reasons that many gravitate toward such an approach.

Performance Mindset #1- How can practice be organized for swimmers to perform optimally?

If training sessions are continually organized to help swimmers perform optimally for the context, training performances will improve over time. If training performances improve over time, it is very likely that competitive performances will improve over time as well. Improving competitive performances is the whole point of competitive swimming.

What does performing optimally look like? It’s about asking swimmers to perform their skills at appropriate levels of intensity for appropriate amounts of time, depending on the context.

If performing race-relevant training, it’s asking swimmers to swim at the desired speeds over distances that they can achieve those speeds, with recoveries that allow them to repeat those speeds. During more aerobic training, it means asking for speeds that swimmers can sustain for the appropriate distances. Here too, recoveries must be appropriate to allow for repetition of good skills.

Performing optimally could be confused with performing maximally. It’s not about just doing a pre-competition warm-up and then 1 race with full recovery. It’s not about creating situations where swimmers can achieve speeds easily. It’s about moving training performances closer to what is required to perform in competitions, and this requires training in many contexts.

One concern coaches have, particularly if they are oriented towards a work-based approach, is that a performance focus is ‘too easy’. Of course, if swimmers are performing, and they are performing at the limits of their capabilities, they will be working hard. The difference between the two approaches is that hard work is a consequence of performance, and not the other way around.

Work Mindset #2- How can we increase the challenge of practice over time?

In this case, the focus is on increasing physiological stress, and it’s on increasing the challenge. More work, less rest, more effort. We’re trying to make practice harder. While this approach can be effectively for those that have not been exposed to high training loads before, it has its limits. There is only so much work that can be done within a given timeframe, and there is only so much work that can be recovered from. Further, most teams are restricted by training time in some capacity.

Beyond the challenge of actually creating ‘harder’ practices, just because practice was harder does not mean it was more effective. A ‘hard’ practice does not ensure that swimmers were swimming at relevant speeds with relevant skills. It’s quite possible to be hard without achieving these objectives, and that makes one wonder what signals are being sent to the mind and body about how to adapt.

Performance Mindset #3- How can we set training up so swimmers can swim faster over time

In contrast, a performance approach is working towards making practice faster. We’re looking for faster and faster training performances over time across all the training elements. The purpose here isn’t to simply make practices ‘easier’ to allow for faster speeds. If a coach were to double the rest periods on all of their training elements, swimmers will probably swim faster.

That’s not the point.

The idea is to facilitate faster performances over time in comparable training sets. While this seems intuitively obvious, it’s not necessarily how coaches go about designing training. While there may be an implicit assumption that this should happen, it will only occur through happenstance if there is not an explicit intention to facilitate PERFORMANCE.

It is this intention that separates the two approaches. While they may look similar at first, they begin to diverge over time. In the former case, creating more challenge is the goal, whereas creating more speed is the intention in the latter approach.

Training has to be set up to allow for performance to progress over time. This has to occur deliberately, and if it is not occurring, adjustments need to be made to allow it to occur. This will require foresight and a plan for the development of the skills and abilities that contribute to performance. It’s not enough for practice to be hard, it has to be fast, and it has to create the platform for faster speeds in the future.

Work Mindset #3- Did the swimmers work hard today?

Coaches often evaluate practices based upon how physically distressed their swimmers look at the conclusion of practice. Apathy, slow movements, and flushed skin are often indicators of a job well done. Coaches LOVE when swimmers proclaim the practice to have been ‘so hard’. Of course, the difficulty of a training session has no direct relevance to its long-term impact on performance.

A ‘really hard’ practice may have resulted in slow performances, terrible technical skills, and damaged confidence. A practice that swimmers can’t successfully complete is necessarily hard, yet repeated unsuccessful performances does not make a recipe for long-term improvement. While challenge and hard work are requirements for performance development, their presence alone does not indicate a successful experience.

Performance Mindset #3- Did the swimmers perform better than they have before for the context?

How did swimmers perform relative to past training sessions performed under similar conditions? If swimmers are consistently swimming faster than they have in the past, and they’re executing they’re skills better than they have in the past, it’s safe to assume that they are making progress. If swimmers are consistently making progress in training, they will start swimming faster in competition sooner than later.

Successful training is judged by successful performance. Successful performances are going to be defined by the context of the training sessions, and should be compared to prior training sessions of a similar nature. It is what swimmers actually do that is important. The effort it took to accomplish those performances is secondary to whether the performances occurred in the first place.

It’s important to point out that there is a difference between simply designing easy practices so swimmers can be successful, and actual training progress. While the former is a short-term strategy that can be effective for improving performance, it will only work in the short-term. There must be strategies in place for long-term development, and a reduction in training load will only work for a limited amount of time.

Should ‘hard work’ ever take precedence over ‘performance’?

There will be points of time were blocks of hard work are necessary to facilitate absolute performances. No swimmer is going to be able to continue to beat their best performances on a daily basis for any extended period of time. In between those performances will be periods where swimmers are not performing at their ‘best’. There may be periods where necessary increases in training loads decrease the ability to perform maximally. However, within those periods, performances in training should be moving forward in the context of whatever work is being performed.

This is a different approach than simply dumping a lot of work on swimmers, ignoring the performance component, and then seeing what comes out on the other side. Required increases in training load are important, yet there must remain an orientation towards performance, even if those performances are not maximal. Within a period of increasing training load, there should be gradual increases in performance within that context.

If not, swimmers are simply becoming tired, and this increase in fatigue is not necessarily rewarded with faster swimming down the line, especially performances have not controlled for along the way.


Swimmers will be judged in competition by their ability to complete their races faster than their competitors. Racing is a performance. If we expect swimmers to perform in competition, we must expect them to perform in training. Rather than working simply working hard, developing and expressing the skills required for speed over the necessary training elements must be developed.

This can be accomplished by tracking performances across all aspects of training and ensuring that they are moving forward. If they are not moving forward, we need to examine why they’re not moving forward, adjust, and get the process back on track.

If we lack those skillsets, then it is critical for coaches to then develop the skillset to problem solve and ensure that performances are able to improve over time. This requires a comprehensive understanding of what swimming fast is all about.

No one cares how hard swimmers work. They care how fast they swim. While effort is going to be required to accomplish anything of value, it is the accomplishment that will ultimately be judged. As such, all efforts should be oriented and valued based upon their ability to move closer to that accomplishment, rather than valued on their own.

It is about performance, and performance must drive the process.


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