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If It Makes You Happy

When considering the effectiveness of a given practice, coaches often evaluate the volume and intensity of the work performed, the precision of the technical work, and the effort and engagement of the swimmers.

These are undoubtedly valuable aspects of the training process, and certainly should contribute to an accurate evaluation of the short- and long-term efficacy of training.

I’d like draw attention to another critical component of an effective training session and training process, emotional affect.

The emotional state in which a swimmer leaves a practice will have long-term consequences on how effective the training process will be more.

  • How did the training session impact emotional affect, acutely?

  • How is the training process impacting emotional affect, chronically?

  • How did the swimmer feel training went?

  • How did they feel after training?

Why It Matters

Swimmers who have positive experiences and positively perceive their training, are more likely to come back for more. The more often a swimmer leaves training feeling happy, the more excited they’ll be to return, which will positively impact their attitude in practice, which will enhance their experience, which will enhance their affect, and round and round we go.

Of course, the converse is true as well.

Impact on Affect

What affects affect in the training context? I’ve highlighted four major aspects that can have a significant impact on emotions- peer relationships, coaching behavior, physical response to training, and goal achievement.

Peer Relationships

As coaches, are we providing our swimmers with opportunities to socialize and have fun with their friends, before, during, and after training?

Are we encouraging interactions that promote a sense of camaraderie and unity? In what ways are we discouraging these interactions, either passively or actively?

In many cases, the social aspect of sport is the primary reason why individuals participate, and this dynamic is not just representative of lower levels of sport. It is present throughout all levels of sport.

The more opportunities we find for swimmers to feel like they are part of a team, the more positively we can affect their emotional state.

Coaching Behavior

As coaches, we can choose to focus on performance, in terms of outcomes and results, or mastery, the process of self-improvement. An exclusively performance-focused environment can cause dissatisfaction in many individuals whereas a mastery-focused environment can greatly enhance swimmer satisfaction.

This is not to say that performance is irrelevant, just that how it is framed can have a significant impact of swimmers’ perception of the process. As coaches, while we can choose to create whatever environment we prefer, it is important to be aware of the impact of our choices.

Performance-focused environments will facilitate a fear of failure and prevent the willingness to learn and take risks that are necessary for long-term progress in any endeavor. A mastery-based environment does the opposite. As humans, we all value improvement and an environment which serves this need will positively impact emotional states.

Further, the more we can create situations of autonomy, the more positively swimmers perceive their training experience. These opportunities for autonomy do not have to be high in number and they don’t necessarily have to significant in scale. They do have to be present and the expert coach can find opportunities to provide choice within the training structure without abdicating their responsibilities as a coach and moving toward a laisse-faire training environment.

Physical Response to Training

The physical response to training is critical as emotions arise as manifestations of physical changes within the body. They have real physical meaning.

It’s not necessarily that we as coaches need to accurately predict and control this component. However, we need to appreciate the impact it does have on the emotional response.

If swimmers do not believe their body is physically responding in an appropriate matter, it will certainly affect how they perceive the entire training process.

How many times have you heard swimmers say, ‘I was fast, but it just didn’t feel right.’? While this is certainly an opportunity to highlight the discrepancy between how you feel and how you perform, it is also insight into potential problems.

This discrepancy is a warning sign that the body is not responding as expected to training stimuli, particularly if this happens with increasing regularity. It’s an important cue that swimmers are picking up on, even if they don’t understand it.

This contradiction will affect how swimmers perceive the session from an emotional aspect. There will be a perception of dissatisfaction. Consistently unfavorable perceptions will become problematic.

Goal Achievement

Swimmers love to achieve goals, particularly when they are self-referenced. How are we setting up practices so that swimmers can consistently accomplish goals?

The more consistently we are able to do so, the more consistently swimmers will positively perceive their swimming experience. The relative ratios of failure and success determine self-efficacy, which determines willingness and eagerness to approach new challenges.

Was the practice engineered so that each individual can perceive that something of significance was accomplished? Did this happen in reality?

By setting clear, challenging, and achievable goals for each training task for each individual, we can provide the opportunity for swimmers to pursue mastery. When done well, we can provide them with the tools to do so successfully.

Our ability as coaches to accomplish these tasks will determine how frequently and swimmers experience success and they perceive their training.


It is all about performance.

I’m not here to be anyone’s friend.

This isn’t a social club.

Swimmers should be able motivate themselves.

Training isn’t supposed to feel good.

These are all fair points and worthy of consideration. In every case, we can either chose to move with or against the dynamics of the mind and the body, and the nature of reality.

All of the above statements neglect the emotional component of training and performance. Consistent fear and dissatisfaction will demotivate and further reduce engagement in the training process. This creates a vicious cycle where dissatisfaction impairs training and leads to further dissatisfaction.

Why would we want that? How can we justify our attitudes if they move us further from our goals as coaches?

As swimmers age, training can become more monotonous and progress becomes harder and harder to achieve. As such, it becomes more and more important to consider emotional affect because it is more and more likely to be negatively impacted.

Emotional affect is an important aspect of the training process that is often underappreciated when designing and evaluating training. By valuing this component, coaches can better facilitate motivational processes, as well as more completely evaluate the efficacy of the training program.

The old adage ‘happy swimmer, fast swimmer’ is truer than we might imagine, and when we begin to reflect this wisdom more consistently in our coaching, good things will happen.


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