top of page

Learning or Performing? Part I

There are two productive forms of training, learning and performing, and they are both critical for developing competition day performances. At a basic level, learning environments are designed to create struggle and problem-solving, whereas performance environments are designed to facilitate the achievement of performance.

Performance training is critical for swimmers to create stability of performance. While you’re not necessarily looking to facilitate the development of better performances, you are seeking to develop better consistency of performance.

Performance sets are designed to make sure performances are achieved and consistency is developed.

Performing in practice is a critical part of getting great swims in meets. However, it’s important to remember that performing is not necessarily learning. You are not expanding the possibilities of performance, you are consolidating and solidifying the performance potential that has already been established.

In contrast, learning environments are more about exposure to unmastered tasks, with less concern about absolute performance levels. The focus is on learning and mastering new or more difficult versions of familiar tasks. The environmental requirements for these two types of sets are very different, as are the intention and structure of the training sets. One is not necessarily more challenging than the other, they are simply accomplishing different goals.

In general, we tend to spend too much time performing and not enough time learning. The danger of too much performance-oriented training is that it only allows for the rehearsal of the abilities swimmer already possess. To take a step forward, they need to focus more on learning, even if this means that performances aren’t quite as ‘good’ on any given day.

Let’s take a look at some of the defining characteristics of both of these training styles.


Learning sets should reflect the objective. The goal is to provide learning opportunities for swimmers. Learning is not the same as performing and great performances are not necessarily indicative of learning. For learning to occur, there must be novel challenges and these novel challenges often bring failure along for the ride.

Novel experiences. Learning environments are characterized by novel situations and novel experiences. Swimmers should be exposed new situations where they need to problem solve performance tasks. Whether it is managing new skills, new physical challenges, or new task constraints, there must be a novel task where swimmers are required to create a novel solution. For learning to occur, a new stimulus must be presented.

Unmastered tasks. Learning environments involve tasks that have not been mastered. Swimmers should still be in the process of mastering a task. If swimmers are rehearsing a previously mastered task, they are performing as opposed to learning. For swimmers to continue to learn, they need to practice those tasks which have room for improvement.

Constant variation. Variation and novelty required for learning to occur. If the same tasks are presented, similar learning is going to occur. Frequently changing tasks or adding variations to established tasks requires swimmers to find novel solutions. As opposed to repeating the same task, learning can be enhanced by switching tasks. While this may lead to higher failure rates and lower performance levels (see below), this is actually indicative of a learning environment, even if this is not reflected in task performance levels.

Complex tasks. Learning tasks should be complex. They should have multiple requirements for successful execution and these requirements should be strict. If the tasks are overly simple, the solutions will be obvious. If the solutions are obvious, swimmers are going to need to learn anything to improve. Swimmers should be challenged to accomplish multiple tasks at the same time. These learning tasks need to be complex enough to challenge swimmers in some novel way, yet no more. Complexity only needs to be sufficient, and more is not necessarily better.

Expectations of effort and engagement. While there may not necessarily be expectations of very high performance levels (we won’t expect best times), there should be high expectations of effort and engagement. Learning environments are hard, not because swimmers need to swim particularly fast (although they may), but because a high level of effort and engagement will be required for successful completion of the designated tasks. If swimmers don’t engage, they will not be successful. If engagement isn’t required, the tasks need to change.

High levels of challenge. Beyond novelty, learning tasks must challenge swimmer’s current ability levels. It is not necessarily challenging their performance levels, but their ability to perform certain skills in certain situations. The challenge does not necessarily come in the form of faster swimming. Instead, it arises from situations that challenges swimmer’s physiology, psychology, or technical skill. If there is no challenge, there is no need for learning to occur.

More frequent failure. Failure is often a component of the learning process. If we’re expecting learning to happen, we need to expect concurrent increases in failure. Tasks need to be scaled so that failure does occur to some extent. Failure implies challenge, and without challenge, learning will not occur. Further, failure is an important aspect of feedback as it helps swimmers calibrate their efforts and strategies against task goals.

Not only is failure to be expected, it can be encouraged to some extent. You want failure. If swimmers don’t fail, it means they already have the answers. If they already have the answers, it means they won’t learn anything. If they don’t learn anything, they won’t improve. Failure is positive as it reflects opportunity for improvement.

Struggle. Learning is process characterized by challenge. If there is no struggle, there is no challenge, and there is no learning. Coaches should expect struggle and will need to re-frame those struggles as a positive component of the process. If swimmers are not struggling, task goals may need to altered or escalated to match the swimmers’ skillsets.

Optimal failure rates. As above, swimmers should struggle. However, there is an optimal rate of failure. It’s not so much a magic number, rather more of a concept. While swimmers should experience some failure, they also need to experience at least an equal amount of success. Failure and success provide important feedback to swimmers. As importantly, success facilitates self-efficacy and encourages effort. Swimmers must get enough positive feedback to keep trying.

Clear task goals and direct feedback. Swimmers need to know what’s expected and know if those expectations are achieved. Goals and feedback are used to calibrate movement solutions. With a clear goal, swimmers know what is to be accomplished. If they know what is to be accomplished, they can create strategies to achieve it. With clear feedback, they can learn whether their strategy was effective, and what changes may need to be implemented. This is how they learn.


Performance sets are exactly what they imply. It is about fast swimming where swimmers are performing to their capabilities. These sets should be designed with this outcome in mind. They should be structure to achieve the desired performances. These performances don’t need to be maximal, simply optimal for the goal of the set based upon the time of year.

Simple tasks. The tasks performed are simple relative to ability levels, and they are designed to allow for high levels of performance. They are designed for success. As such, tasks should be ones that swimmers are familiar with and have demonstrated competency in. They are straightforward, easy to understand, and simple (not easy!) to execute.

Mastered tasks. Generally, performing consists of executing tasks and skills that have already been mastered. It is about repeating previously demonstrated performances as opposed to developing new ones.

Limited failure. As tasks are simple and previously mastered, there should be a high level of success. There should be limited number of errors and the performance levels should be very high.

High levels of success. As a corollary to the above, swimmers should be successful more often than not. Sets should be designed to facilitate performance. While they can and should be very challenging, they should be designed with the intent to facilitate performance. While this might not always happen, it should be the goal.

Expectations of performance. When performing, expectations are higher. The focus is not on the learning process and there is less tolerance for lower levels of performance. Both the swimmer and the coach are more focused on consistently achieving specified standards.

High performance standards. With a focus on performance comes higher standards of performance. The goal is often to express the swimmer’s current capabilities.

Apple and Oranges

It’s important to recognize that one is not easier than the other. From a physical standpoint, they will be similarly challenging, with performance sets often being more physically challenging.

This is the potential danger in that swimmers can be working very hard and performing at a very high level, yet they are simply performing well as opposed to learning new skills and developing new physical capacities. In some ways, performing actually looks like better training because the performances are better!

However, achieving a balance between the two training types is what is critical. Swimmers must expand their limits, as well as learn to consistently realize the performance potential. One type of set is not ‘better’ than the other either. If you do one without the other, performances will ultimately be limited. Both are critical for improved performance. It is which is more appropriate at what time, rather than a certain set being superior.

In part II, we'll take a look at how these different types of set might manifest themselves in different contexts.


bottom of page