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It's Not What You See, It's What You Don't See

It's not about what you see. It's what you don't see.

This is some of the best coaching advice I have ever come across. It probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Coaching expertise isn’t the result of identifying problems. It comes from identifying the right problem and being willing to ignore the rest. The expertise comes from not seeing what doesn’t matter, freeing attention for what does matter. Only with this selective attention can the necessary focus and energy be given to solve the problems that manner. Solving problems is what matters.

Any coach of any ability can identify 10 ‘errors’ made by any given swimmer. The unskilled coach will provide equal attention to all of these problems, unable to separate those that matter from those that don’t. The task is not to identify technical problems, but to solve them.

The inability to prioritize, and thus ignore some problems, prevents unskilled coaches from creating change that enhances performance.

From a technical perspective, coaching expertise comes from the ability to ignore the skills that don’t matter, so swimmers’ attention can be directed to acquiring the technical skills that do matter.

So how do coaches go about achieving selective ignorance?

Identify the Right Skill

This is the hardest part. To know the ‘right’ skill requires a fundamental understanding of what actually matters. As importantly, you have to know what DOESN’T matter.

How do you get there? Coaches must understand the underlying principles constraining swimming performance, study what the best are doing, and experiment with what works. This takes years, and you’ll never get there. Be patient.

This understanding must then be integrated into the specific context of each situation. Part of understanding what matters is the ability to differentiate what a swimmer can fix from what they can’t fix. Know the difference. If they can’t fix it, it doesn’t matter because it won’t change.

If a swimmer has a 10-inch vertical jump, they will be limited in their block clearance during a start. You can’t coach it, so don’t try. It will just frustrate everyone. However, you can address the issue over time through devoted strength training. This is an example of knowing what matters and identifying the RIGHT solution to solve the problem.

Once you know what matters, IGNORE the rest. Always. It’s about what you don’t see.

Focus On One Skill

Have swimmers learn one skill at any given time. While you can work on different skills and different tasks throughout the course of a practice or week, at any one time there should be one focus.

When providing points of focus or setting task instructions, it is the coach’s job to draw attention to one critical component of performance. Swimmers need to know what they’re trying to accomplish with clarity.

When multiple areas of focus are introduced, focus will be diluted and progress will be impaired. Focus on what is important and ignore the rest.

Watch Intentionally

When watching practices, coaches should pay attention to what matters, pay attention to the specific skills each swimmer is working on, and ignore the rest. Focus on the signal, not the noise.

Watch for changes in the quality of execution. Watch for stability of change, both acutely and over time.

Just as the swimmer must be disciplined to stay on task, we as coaches have to stay on task by focusing on what matters. It’s about what you don’t see as much as what you do see.

Provide Specific Feedback

When providing feedback, only provide feedback about the targeted skill or task. When working on a new skill, swimmers will make mistakes in other aspects of execution. This is just noise. Ignore it.

Failure to do so will shift the swimmer’s attention from what matters. By changing what you’re providing feedback on, you’re shifting the direction of attention, which will compromise the ability to learn the desired skills and accomplish the desired tasks.

As appropriate, let the swimmer know how they’re progressing in their movement search, and steer them as necessary, only providing feedback that will help the swimmer execute the present task.

It's not about what you see. It's what you don't see.

Expert coaches are not defined by their ability to identify problems. Expert coaches are defined by their ability to solveproblems. The ability to effectively solve problems is determined by the ability to ignore the irrelevant problems and appropriately focus attention on what matters.

Expert coaches are able to determine which technical errors matter, and which don’t. They can differentiate between cause and effect.

Most importantly, they have the wisdom to see what needs to be seen and coach what needs to be coached, while ignoring the rest.


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