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How Are You Doing?

As the coaching profession continues to move forward, in conjunction with the expanding presence and efficacy of technology, there has been increased influence of ‘sports science’ in coaching. While certain technological innovations are of significant value, I’d like to explore some alternatives for those individuals without the financial resources or time to invest in technological strategies. I’d also like to address whether these technological interventions are effective, particularly when basic approaches are not being employed effectively, or at all.

Specifically, I’d like to address the topic of daily readiness and performance monitoring. From heart rate variability to biomechanical/blood monitoring to sleep monitoring to daily questionnaires, there has been an explosion of monitoring tools available to coaches to assess readiness to train, or to track recovery. As these strategies employ some level of technology, they can appear to be valuable additions to

For many coaches, these options can seem very overwhelming if they lack the background to understand what is being monitored. Further, many coaches simply don’t have the time or the money to practically implement these strategies. This can leave coaches feeling as if they are somehow missing out on some important aspect of coaching.

If you have a specific issue (i.e. an anemic athlete), then specific monitoring strategies (i.e. testing for iron status) can have real value. While any and all of these tools can have value in specific context, they are not always better solutions than those available to all coaches, especially when if they’re not used in the right context.

In this article, I’d like to assure swim coaches that options exist for those unable or unwilling the invest the time and money into more sophisticated monitoring systems. Not only are these options cheap (free!) in terms of the financial cost, they also require very little time and can be easily integrated into practice design.

I’d like to put forth a simple two-part process that coaches can use to effectively monitor daily readiness and performance of the swimmers they’re working with. The first step is to establish a simple dialogue with your swimmers. The second step is to monitor performance. A stopwatch is all that’s required. How this information is used is what defines expert coaching.

1. How Are You Doing?

The simplest and most effective question a coach can ask is, ‘How are you doing, today?’. While any derivative can be used, it’s valuable to keep the question as open ended as possible to allow for the widest range of possible answers. Let the swimmer answer however they feel appropriate.

By asking this question, you’re gaining insight into the swimmer’s affect, or general emotional state. The answer to this question will provide a tremendous amount of information about how they’re handling life. Their response will be reflective of their emotional state and their emotional state will be reflective of their physiological state. Feelings are not just subjective perceptions, they are integrated reflection of real physiological phenomena. For those interested, the work of Antonio Damasio is relevant.

Once the question has been asked, it’s critical to listen and watch the response. What’s critical is not the actual response, it’s a change in the response compared to baseline. What you’re looking for is deviation from the norm. Some swimmers will always be really negative, some will always be really positive, and a lot will be somewhere in between.

When the swimmer that typically says, ‘I’m great!’ responds with ‘I’m fine.’, something is going on and you’d better take note. Likewise, some individuals might tell you they’re doing terrible every day and be just fine. That’s just a reflection of their general disposition.

Beyond the verbal response, it’s important to listen to the tone in which the answer is delivered, as well as the body language that is being used. Many swimmers know what the ‘right’ answer is but fail to control their tone or body language. Sometimes you can tell there is an issue just by watching body language.

If necessary, coaches can follow up with different variations or questions, depending on the initial response. Some individuals like more interaction and some like less, and this is easy to pick up on with awareness.

In many cases, monitoring affect is particularly valuable because affect can begin to trend downward prior to major changes in performance. It is a warning sign that there may be performance losses in the future. In some cases, swimmers will feel poorly yet still be able to perform. If this trend continues for several days, there may be trouble ahead. A common occurrence is when swimmers are able to perform during practice yet say it just didn’t feel right. This indicates a mismatch between effort and performance, where effort was able to compensate for decreased readiness. Over time, increased effort may no longer be able to compensate if readiness continues to decrease.

The following questions can be more useful for those that like more interaction. They can take place after practice are useful to gain a full perspective of how the swimmer perceives the progression of their training.

  • How was practice today?

  • Do you feel that you’re making progress?

  • Are you sleeping okay?

  • How is life outside the pool?

  • How is school going?

As useful as these answers can be, they need to be interpreted with context. They must be calibrated against performance.

2. The Stopwatch

In swimming, performance is simple. Time is the metric that determines the quality of performance. The stopwatch is the ultimate monitoring tool in swimming yet may not be used as effectively as possible. The more effectively we can track performance over time, even intuitively, the better we can help to guide the training process.

Many coaches employ test sets or indicator sets. While there is nothing wrong with these specific sets, the thought process is potentially problematic. I would argue that EVERY set is a test set and EVERY practice provides information relevant to performance progress. By tracking performance on a daily basis, coaches can adjust training on daily basis, as opposed to waiting weeks before changing training based on a single training set.

Swimmers and coaches should be aware of relevant performance times during each practice session. With known performances, coaches can ask the following questions to get a sense of where the process is moving.

  • How does the performance compare to best performance?

  • How does performance compare to recent performance?

  • How does performance compare to the effort given?

  • Was the performance reflective of the effort given? Was is harder or easier?

  • HOW were the performances achieved? Were appropriate stroke rates and stroke counts used?

  • Did the swimmer feel the swim, set, or practice was good? Were they satisfied with the set or the practice?

Once coaches have a sense of what actually happened, they can start to evaluate those performances by asking some of the following questions.

  • Are performances moving in the right direction?

  • Are performances aligned with expectations? Were they faster or slower?

  • Is this a temporary deviation, or an extended one? Is an intervention or adjustment needed?

  • Are swimmers tired? Is that expected based upon the training goals?

  • How do the performances align with current training goals and training sessions?

Once these questions are answered, coaches can decide what they want to do with the information.

  • Is a change warranted?

  • Is a slight adjustment required or a drastic change?

  • Are multiple individuals struggling, or one or two?

  • Is the problem arising primarily from the training program, lifestyle factors, or an interaction between the two?

  • Where is the most effective point of intervention, for short-term and long-term progress?

Of course, this isn’t a formal process. It can happen very quickly, and as coaches gain experience, it will happen faster as each situation becomes less novel. It should be noted that while time is the ultimate arbiter of performance, how the times are achieved is also of critical importance. When considering if performances were achieved successfully, the achievement of other tasks goals should be assessed. As an example, if there is a certain stroke count expectation, a faster performance achieved at the expense of stroke count wouldn’t necessarily be successful. This could apply for any other task goals.

With concrete performance criteria, coaches can compare the most important subjective assessment of readiness (how are you?) with the most important objective assessment (speed). With these two variables, coaches will capture the vast majority of the information relevant to ensuring training is well managed. By focusing on what matters most, coaches are able to guide the training of a large number of individuals.

Managing Responses

The purpose of monitoring is to allow for interventions when there is an indication that the process is not going according to plan. The hope is that an effective intervention can be employed before it is too late. However, effective interventions require the awareness of appreciating when intervention is appropriate, or not. There is a big difference between what is happening on a single day versus what is happening over time.

There tends to be an implicit assumption with monitoring training that negative changes should be regarded as bad. However, the decision-making process is more nuanced than negative changes are ‘bad’ and positive changes are ‘good’, regardless of the metric. There has to be context for the decision-making process.

Single Responses vs. Trends

The needs to be a distinction between whether a given observation is a single point, or part of multiple, consecutive readings. Swimmers are going to have bad practices and they are going to have days where life is taking it to them. If you’re paying, these days will be evident. However, when considered as isolated events, these hiccups aren’t worth deviating significantly from whatever plan exists.

They’re just part of the process.

However, when a series of poor performances or consistently negative affect become part of a larger trend, it’s time to consider what approaches need to be taken to get the process on track. The value of a monitoring system is that it alerts you to a problem. It does NOT tell you what to do. That’s called coaching. In general, it’s probably best to make smaller adjustments that provide more recovery and see how the swimmer responds.

A stressful examination can throw off the training process for several days, and overreaction would be to dramatically change the training program. It can be very valuable to ride out any turbulence, as major adjustments can cause more problems than they solve. That being said, watch for the signs that an intervention is necessary, and when it is, act thoughtfully and decisively.

  • How many days have been a struggle?

  • Has something similar happened in the past? Did the swimmer bounce back quickly, or was it the beginning of a larger problem?

  • Is it one individual or the entire group?

  • Is it performance AND affect that are changing, or is just one changing?

Expectations

More so than the being aware of the actual responses, a critical part effective monitoring is comparing what is happening to what you expect to be happening. It is the difference between expectations and reality that signals some sort of intervention may be necessary. When there is significant deviation between what is expected and what happens, it’s probably time for an intervention.

Changes in performance and affect can be reflective of either negative or positive change. There are four possible situations to consider, which are examined briefly below. Accurately knowing what to expect is important because it allows you to effectively interpret what you are seeing.

1. Negative changes in performance and affect can be negative. There is always a very real possibility that the training program is ineffective in terms of the magnitude and direction of the load, and change is necessary. If process should be moving forward, and it clearly isn’t, adjustments need to be made. The specific adjustments that will be required will depend on the specific situation.

2. Negative changes in performance and affect can be positive. If training is particularly hard in the short-term, it is not unexpected for performance to drop, or be less consistent. In general, physical and psychological stress will be higher. If performance and attitude start to dip a bit, that means that training is hard, a necessary stimulus for adaptation. Further, there is value in learning how to perform in poor physiological states, stressing that performance is an expectation, regardless of the context.

3. Positive changes in performance and affect can be positive. If swimmers are swimming fast, they feel good, and are happy, this is most likely a great situation, especially when it’s expected. Keep rolling.

4. Positive changes in performance and affect can be negative. This situation may seem to be the most counter-intuitive. However, if you are in the middle of a very heavy training block and everyone is going personal bests and bouncing off the walls with energy, the training might not be quite as stressful as you’d planned, either for the group or specific individuals.

How do coaches know if changes are problematic? Experience and reflection. The more experience you have, the more appropriate your expectations are of a given situation. You simply know what to expect as you’ve seen given situations play out before.

The process of gaining effective experience can be expedited through reflection. By asking some of the following questions, coaches can consider what they are seeing and evaluate whether expectations were in line reality. More importantly, they can discover WHY there were discrepancy.

  • Did you expect them to swim fast today? Are you surprised that they did or didn’t? Why? What factors contributed to this discrepancy?

  • Do you expect swimmers to be struggling? Has training been particularly hard as of late?

  • Were your expectations realistic? Were they unrealistic? Are you sure? What makes you feel that is the case?

  • How does the current goals of the training program impact swimmers?

By reflecting on whether performances were aligned with expectations, we can begin to understand why misalignment occurs, and use this information to better align our expectations with reality.

The Value of Technology

The metrics of performance and affect are integrative. When there is a problem, you don’t necessarily know where the problem came from. This is where specific monitoring tools can be useful and may require more advanced technologies. At the same time, the value only is more evident when you have a significant issue. Once you have a known problem, it can be useful to monitor specific metrics when you know what you are looking for. As an example, when it becomes obvious that sleep is an issue, the best strategy is to consult with a sleep specialist. If there is a nutritional issue, nutritional monitoring becomes important.

Unintended Consequences

As a brief consideration, one of the potential drawbacks of consistent and extensive monitoring systems is that people don’t like to be monitored. They don’t want coaches or even medical staff to know personal information. Many monitoring systems can feel intrusive and controlling to athletes of all types. If coaches chose to use various technologies, they should consider the perspective of the experience of being monitored.

Conclusion

With all coaching, we are essentially providing an educated guess at any one point as to what will ultimately help to improve performance. We are making a prediction about what will be most useful, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, these predictions are not particularly informed, or accurate. We don’t know what’s going to happen.

As such, it becomes critical that we have feedback as to how the coaching process is going. This helps guide our decision-making process so that we can correct our errors. While many sophisticated strategies have been suggested to manage this process, coaches are best served by using two critical sources of information as the beacons which guide decision making, swimmer well-being and performance.

The swimmer’s perception of well-being is a deep reflection of the physiological state of the body. If they consistently feel off, the internal physiological state is likely shifting towards a compromised one. This feeling often is often reflected and correlated to various physiological markers used to monitored training. It is a warning sign. When coupled with performance trends, coaches can gather a wholistic sense of the training process with very little information.

Performance and the improvement of the performance is a complex process. As such, we need simple strategies to effectively manage the process, especially when working with multiple individuals at the same time. By focusing on the integrative metrics that really matter and are reflective of many factors, coaches can best access the information they need to make informed decisions about how to continue to improve performance.

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