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Knowing Nothing

Ignorance is not bliss. For the coach, it can be incredibly frustrating.

This is particularly true when you believe you SHOULD have all the answers.

However, if you realize you CAN’T have all the answers, you can move towards ways of coaching that not only allow you to not have answers, they require you to do so.

When freed from the requirement to have all the answers, you can focus your attention on the real problem, helping swimmers find the answers for themselves.

I know nothing, and it’s liberating.

I know nothing about skills.

Each swimmer has different limb lengths, different muscle attachments, different strength levels, different flexibility levels, and different combinations of these factors. More so, a swimmer is not just ‘strong’ or ‘flexible’, they may be in some joints and not others, and these combinations are unique.

These are simply the structural differences.

There are innate differences in other systems as well. Individuals have differing abilities to perceive information from the environment (i.e. pressure differences in the water), and swimmers will have a different sense of rhythm. Swimmers will have natural tendencies as to how to organize cyclical movements. This will be different for each person.

For all these reasons, I simply can’t know what an optimal movement solution looks like. There is no universally applicable model that applies to all, or even anyone.


There are physical laws that apply to all of us. There are movement principles that apply almost as universally. There are movement problems that need to be solved. In the case of swimming, the primary problem is how to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. There is not a ‘right’ solution, only a ‘better’ solution if it results in a faster time.

To solve that problem, we need more propulsion and less drag, and we need to do all of that with as little effort as possible. There are rules only in the context of the results.

If you expose swimmers to a spectrum of movement problems to solve, particularly those that REQUIRE more propulsion, less drag, or better rhythm, swimmers will begin to gravitate towards movement solutions that result in faster swimming. Importantly, they will find solutions that work for THEM and their unique characteristics.

I know nothing about training.

Coaches love concrete, prescriptive training plans. They want to know exactly how much to do, exactly what to do, and exactly when to do it.

If you ask most coaches, they’ll be happy to tell you exactly what YOU should do.

I wish I had that knowledge and wisdom. Unfortunately, I don’t.

Some observations-

  • Different swimmers respond differently to different types of training.

  • Different swimmers respond differently to the different combinations of volume and intensity of the same types of training.

  • To make matters worse, different swimmers respond differently to the SAME types of training at different times, both in the short-term and the long-term.

  • While it seems obvious that this might apply when comparing a distance swimmer to a sprinter, the above is true when comparing individuals that swim the same events. Sometimes the differences are dramatic!

In the 1990s, Gary Hall, Jr. and Alex Popov were competing against each other in the sprints. They had very similar performance levels. Their training programs were COMPLETELY different.

Swimmers have different genetics, they’ve had different training experiences in the past, and they have fluctuating levels of stress on daily basis. ALL of these factors dramatically how swimmers will adapt to training in the short term and the long term.

While the past provides clues, what has worked before doesn’t always work again, particularly when repeated in its exact form. Life stress changes how swimmers adapt to training. Training itself changes how swimmers adapt to training.

Assuming you know exactly what should be done today, let alone in 8 weeks from now, is likely to cause more problems than it will solve.


There are certainly specific types of training that generally need to be performed over time. They ‘work’, and the above is not to imply they don’t. However, we need to be cautious with blanket prescriptions, acknowledge that the same training program is not going to be optimal for all, and be ready to adjust.

Observe on a daily basis how the process is going. Observe deeply. Accept that you DON’T know exactly what you should do. With this acknowledge, there is a much greater likelihood that our observations will be a lot more deliberate.

Look as carefully for signs that the process is NOT going well as for signs that the process IS going well.

Assume nothing. Trust your intuition.

Ask swimmers what has worked for them in the past. When they say crazy stuff, pay attention. It may be a clue as to what makes them great, even if it makes no sense. I’ve had swimmers tell me they thought some stupid stuff helps them swim fast. I thought it was stupid. They didn’t swim as fast as we both thought they could. We added the stupid stuff. They swam faster.

Keep it simple. Simple training programs allow for us make small adjustments that can create a significant impact. If a training program is really complex, it’s hard to know what to do when problems arise. Keep it simple, adjust slowly, and observe.

I know nothing about optimal pacing.

Optimal pacing is not about hitting certain pre-determined times at certain points. HOW you hit those times is as important as IF you hit those times. Whether it was easy or exhausting is going to have significant bearing on the outcome.

Effective racing is ultimately the result of swimming as fast as possible, using as little energy as possible, while sustaining an effort that is JUST under what will allow them to finish successfully. It is living on a razor’s edge. Too far under the edge and there isn’t a full effort. Over the edge and there is catastrophic failure. Both are reflective of underperformance.

That razor’s edge is reflective of an internal state. It is within the swimmer. As a coach, I certainly can’t see that or know that in the moment. I can certainly see it after the race, having witnessed the swimmer charge to the finish, or implode.

There is also a difference between what’s required to perform the fastest possible race, and what is required to win. While they often go hand in hand, and there is a lot of value in ‘swimming your own race’, sometimes ‘swimming your own race’ isn’t good enough to win.

If you want to win, swimmers need to do something different, either by responding to unexpected tactics, or by using unexpected tactics of their own. Swimmers need to be prepared for both, not by just by being aware of the possibility, but by deeply knowing how to manage both. While it may require taking a chance, it’s much less of a chance if the swimmer is prepared to do so.

All of these realities become more and more important as the race distance extends, although they are certainly relevant for every event with perhaps the exception of a short course 50 freestyle. Even then, I’m not convinced it doesn’t matter.


If swimmers must be able to FEEL appropriate pacing, and KNOW their physiological limits, they have to experience them in practice. They must learn what effort levels are sustainable and what effort levels are not, and they must learn to manage that process.

They must also learn how to manage effort levels while using unfamiliar pacing strategies. Further, they must learn how to finish races well when they DO go over the edge. They must find a way. It will happen, and it might happen when it matters most. If a swimmer is prepared, they’ll be able to adjust.

To do so, they must continually practice going right up to the knife’s edge, and go over it. By exceeding one’s limits, in a variety of contexts, they begin to learn where those limits are. By doing so in a variety of contexts, they learn not only the similarities of what that edge feels like, but also what it feels like in different situations (i.e. fast start/slow start/a lot of speed changes/etc). By doing so, they are prepared to race.

Further, beyond understanding effort distribution, swimmers must also understand how to swim as fast as possible with as little effort as possible. This is a critical aspect of pacing. The only way to do so is to practice it, and this type of practice is often overlooked because by definition it is EASIER. In this case, easier is most definitely more effective.

Rather than simply rehearsing speeds over and over again, assuming we KNOW what swimmers can handle, perhaps they would be better served to manage the perceptual aspects of RACING, by tuning in to the answers the body is already giving them.

I know nothing about their psychology.

We have no direct access to someone’s thoughts. We can only infer their thoughts based upon their actions. Unfortunately, our inferences are often incorrect. This becomes a problem when we chose to act on our inferences, particularly when we don’t approve of the behaviors of our swimmers. This typically makes the situation worse.

As has been discussed before, a swimmer’s perception of what has happened in the pool is as important as what actually happened in the pool. For better or worse, perceptions do not always match reality, and it is easy to assume that it does. In many cases, it does not, and I can’t know how they feel a race went or practice went based solely on the outcome.

I don’t know if they feel their training plan is right for them. I don’t know if they are happy with their experience. I don’t know if they are happy with me. All of these factors impact their ability to improve, and I don’t have the answers.

I have no idea what thoughts are running through a swimmer’s mind as they walk onto the pool deck, step up to the block, or push off the last wall of their race with victory on the line. Are they confident? Are they concerned? Are they threatened or challenged?


Ask them.

What are you feeling?

What are you thinking?

What is working?

What is not working?

When are you at your best?

When are you at your worst?

How are you doing?

Listen to the answers. Treat them as real. Give them control.

What are YOU going to do about it?

What do you see as potential solutions?

NO ONE likes being told what to do. Start a conversation and help them find the answers for themselves. You may be surprised by what they are thinking, as well as the solutions they come up with on their own.

I know nothing about their life stress.

I simply don’t know how stressful a given swimmer’s life is. I don’t know how stressful that swimmer perceives their life to be. While it may be easy for me to say with incredulity, ‘What do you have to worry about? You’re in college!’, that may be very different from what they experience in their life.

For better or worse, LIFE affects training performance AND the adaptation to training. This is not my opinion, It has been documented on several occasions HERE, HERE, and HERE. More perceived stress results in compromised training adaptations. Same stimulus, worse outcome.

Our perceptions as coaches are not particularly relevant. It doesn’t matter what we believe. It matters what they believe. If a swimmer believes what they are facing is stressful, it is, and we need to be aware of that.


Ask a simple question, ‘How are you doing?’. If the answer changes, or the way the answer is delivered changes, it’s time to pay attention. If the trend continues, it’s worth considering adjustments.

Rather than assuming ‘college life is easy’, ask about it. If they seem like they are struggling a bit, they are. If that struggle persists, it’s going to compromise training sooner or later. You then have the choice to work with or against that reality. Being conservative has little downside. Continuing to be aggressive can ruin a season.

You don’t KNOW where they’re really at with life. Ask, and adjust accordingly in a conservative manner.

Use safety valves that account for unexpected stressors. If you’re always pushing to the limit, you’re going to exceed it.


Coaches are often seen as omnipotent sources of information and knowledge. Unfortunately, we operate in a complex performance environment where many known and unknown factors interact to create unpredictable outcomes. In many cases, we simply can’t have all, or even most of the answers.

By acknowledging the that we don’t have all of the answers, we acknowledge that we could be wrong. By acknowledging that we could be wrong, we can look for strategies that protect us from our ignorance.

It also requires us to consider how we can provide situations for swimmers to find answers for themselves. Whether that comes from training environments where they are forced to find performance-based solutions, or simply starting a conversation.

Effective coaching doesn’t necessarily come from having all the right answers. It comes from having the right questions, which allow for swimmers to discover the answers for themselves.


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