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More Jedi Mind Tricks

In a previous article, I described several ways in which small changes in communication can have a major impact on behavior, often in counter-intuitive ways. By changing what we say, we can change what people do.

I’d like to further explore this idea in a slightly different context. There is a field of psychological therapy known as Motivational Interviewing, originally developed for work in the area of drug addiction. Breaking drug addiction is really challenging as not only are you dealing with changing ingrained behaviors, there are alterations in biological systems that make change really hard. Typical strategies aren’t very effective as demonstrated by the very high recidivism rates.

As a result, alternative strategies were developed, and if there are strategies that work well for creating change, it’s worth being aware of them for situations where change is required for continued improvement in the pool. For those interested, the basic textbook outlining those strategies is available HERE. In coaching, I would suggest that we are working with individuals that struggle with challenge. Breaking any sort of ingrained habit is going to be met with a lot of resistance.

It’s hard.

Similarly, the behaviors we ask of swimmers are really hard. When pushing the limits of performance, we’re often asking for major change in and out of the pool. If you’ve coached for more than 1 week, you’ve experienced situations where swimmers resisted changes that would help them accomplish their goals. Having tools to help them overcome the tendency to resist changes is going to be really useful.

As mentioned above, the original work is framed in the context of drug addiction. While it’s not too difficult to understand the principles described and apply them to coaching, it can be challenging to do put it into practice, especially without specific examples of what it might look like in practice. Within the last year, a book entitled Coaching Athletes to Be Their Best was released. It’s authored by several of the creators of Motivational Interviewing, and it goes into detail about how apply the framework to coaching.

In this article, I’d like to explore several of the strategies that can be used to help swimmers create change, and do so in a manner that makes everyone’s life easier. If swimmers want to go faster, change is going to be required, so it only makes sense to have tools to help make that happen.

What is the premise behind Motivational Interviewing?

Change comes from within. People aren’t going to change unless they want to and unless they internally believe that it is the best course of action. This is a logical AND emotional process. Simply providing facts is not going to create change. EVERY smoker knows the health risks of smoking. ZERO smokers are going to change their behaviors because you ‘enlightened’ them about the dangers of smoking.

In contrast, when individuals are able to discover why they might wish to change, for reasons that are compelling to them, change is possible. Providing information to them is not going to help them discover those reasons. Engaging in a dialogue that explores these reasons CAN produce change.

In this capacity, motivational interviewing is not about providing motivation, but facilitating a process that helps individuals find the motivation to change. The more difficult the obstacle, and the more significant the change, the more that this change must come from within.

Why is Motivational Interviewing another Jedi Mind Trick?

Because it the strategies typically involve doing the EXACT OPPOSITE of what all of your instincts and intuition tell you to do. By doing the opposite of what you believe will work, you’re more likely to get the result you and your swimmer want. AND it tends to be a much more peaceful process.

So, what strategy do we typically employ when we want someone to change in a certain way? We tell them what to do. And when that doesn’t work, what strategy do we then use? We tell them what to do, LOUDER.

Fortunately, this tends to work pretty well with highly motivated and highly compliant swimmers, at least for a while. Unfortunately, not all swimmers are highly motivated and highly compliant, and none of them exhibit these traits all of the time.

To be more effective, we’re going to need to use different strategies, strategies that are often counter-intuitive and exactly the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do.

How confident are you?

Rather than simply telling someone what to do, it’s worth asking them if they actually believe they can do it. It’s even more effective to actually get a concrete sense of how confident they are in their ability to accomplish a task. You can literally ask, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you can X?’

It doesn’t matter if you KNOW they can accomplish something. If they don’t believe so, that’s the more likely outcome you can get. You can help to convince them of what is possible.

What’s the big deal? If swimmers are consistently asked to perform activities or strive for goals they’re not bought into accomplishing, you’re not going to get the full commitment that’s required for success. If they say anything other than 8-10, they’re not that confident. In that case, it may be best to shift the challenge and scale it to something they believe they can accomplish, or have the swimmer focus on something else entirely.

Look for confidence, and have them quantify it.

Why didn’t you rate yourself LOWER?

Say you ask a swimmer how confident they are about their ability take 6 dolphin kicks off every wall for an upcoming set, and they answer 6. They’re not that confident. If you want help move them towards that goal, ask them why they didn’t rate themselves at a 4. What happens?

They have to list, out loud or in their head, all of the reasons they SHOULD be able to accomplish they’re goal. They’re convincing themselves by providing the evidence why it’s a reasonable goal. This is MUCH more effective than if YOU were to tell them they can be successful. The whole point is that change comes from within, so any strategy that gets swimmers talking

Our instinct is to ask, ‘why didn’t you rate yourself at an 8?’ In response to this question, they’re going to list all of the reasons success isn’t possible. This is the OPPOSITE of what you want!

Initially, it’s a counterintuitive approach. However, when viewed from the Motivational Interviewing framework, it makes a lot of sense.

Roll with the resistance, or amplify it

When swimmers say ‘I can’t do that’ or the equivalent, our typical response is counter that claim with something along the lines of ‘Yes, you can’. We push back against their resistance. Unfortunately, this tends to have an effect that is the opposite of what we intend. If anything, the swimmer will dig in and become even more resistant.

Instead, it’s often more effective to simply acknowledge the resistance to change, rather than try to remove it. It can be even more effective to actually amplify and exaggerate their resistance. You can make a caricature out of it.

The key is to not be sarcastic when doing it. In many cases, swimmers will back themselves down from their statement, which is exactly what you want. You want them to verbalize their own reasons for change, rather express your opinion to them.

A sample, oversimplified conversation-

Swimmer- I don’t want to do the kick set. It’s the worst!

Coach- I get what you’re saying. It’s really painful and it’s definitely not worth the effort.

Swimmer- Well, I mean, you have to do what you have to do. I’d rather have my legs at the end of a race.

Now, while the conversation probably won’t turn around that quickly, it will be A LOT more productive than simply lecturing a swimmer about the importance of kicking. They key idea is that they ALREADY want to do what’s required, they just have to frame it for themselves in a way they can digest.

Coaches can serve to facilitate that process. A lecture is going to force a swimmer to double down on their statement, even if they don’t ‘want’ to. Though it doesn’t really make sense, that’s what humans do!

Present problems, not solutions- avoid the ‘righting reflex’

Coaches love to give swimmers solution. ‘Do this. Do that.’ This is referred to as the ‘righting reflex’. When we see a problem, we fix it. We do so with little consideration as to whether the swimmer has any intention or desire to fix the ‘problem’, nor whether they believe they can create change, even if they want to.

Unfortunately, by providing solutions we are robbing swimmers of their autonomy. We take away the power of choice. As it is the swimmer that must choose to change, this can be an issue. We’re also at risk of providing solutions that the swimmer does not believe in for whatever reason. Expecting them to implement changes they are not sold on is working against their motivational drives, particularly when this process is repeated.

Further, the more solutions we point out to swimmers, the more they begin to realize that they have a lot of short-comings. How is that going to affect their self-confidence and self-efficacy? They’re going to begin to perceive themselves as a swimmer that isn’t good at much. That’s not exactly going to lead to mental states that are conducive to peak performances.

Beyond the impact on psychology, there is only so much a swimmer can work on at any one time. If we provide them with 10 different opportunities for improvement, they’re not going to be able to act on all of those opportunities. We’re simply pointing out issues with no consideration as to whether our comments are facilitating change.

In contrast, if we’re more hesitant to present solutions, and instead present problems to solve, we can avoid many of these shortcomings.

If you present a problem, it engages the swimmer in the process of identifying potential solutions. If swimmers are coming up with their own solutions, these solutions are more likely to be solutions they believe they can accomplish and solutions they believe will solve the problem. Any motivational issues are already solved, without having to actively address that issue.

You get better buy-in, often times better solutions, and it all happens in a way that reinforces self-efficacy rather than compromises it.

Ask, listen, summarize

When you know where people are coming from, it can make a huge difference in our ability to effectively interact with them. In most cases, we simply assume what another person’s perspective is. At worst, some don’t even care. Someone’s perspective on a situation is going to determine the strategies that are required to effectively help them, to effectively coach them.

Let’s take a swimmer who has an obviously negative orientation towards kick sets. They’re visibly disengaged during these sets, their demeanor changes whenever a set is announced, and their performance is often terrible. It’s clearly a problem.

Occasionally, they make comments that ‘kick sets are stupid’. This leads you to assume that they think kicking is a waste of time. As such, you try to convince them kick sets are an important tool for enhancing performance. While this probably won’t work because you’re pushing against resistance (see above), it will work even less when the REAL reason the swimmer is behaving this way is because they’re embarrassed by their kicking ability.

What’s the only way you’ll discover this information? ASK THEM.

In just about any coaching situation, swimmers will be honest about their perspectives if you approach the situation with an attitude of genuine curiosity. More importantly, if you actually listen to the response with genuine interest, it will validate the swimmer’s perspective.

While swimmers can always tell when someone is truly listening to them, we can confirm that perception by summarizing what we’ve heard. Moreover, it provides an opportunity to clarify any misunderstanding you may have had while listening. Not only does this clarify the situation, this process further validates your genuine interest in the swimmer’s perspective.

When you have accurate information about how swimmers are viewing the world, and they know that you’ve taken the time to take an interest in that perspective, you will be much better prepared to facilitate change. It’s a lot easier to solve a problem that actually exists, particularly when you’re viewed as a willing partner.

Going back to our kicking example, if we understand WHY the swimmer has a negative attitude towards kicking sets, we can frame our conversations differently. We can use better use the other ideas described in this article to help facilitate change. Further, because the swimmer knows we took the time to understand their perspective, they’re going to be a lot more willing to engage in working to find solutions. They will feel understood, and that alone can often be enough for change to occur.

Affirm rather than praise

In many cases, we provide swimmers praise for their results, rather than the actions and attitudes that lead to those results. There is a big difference between the two statements-

Praise- ‘Way to win that race at the finish.’

Affirmation- ‘You maintained your composure under pressure, and really dug deep at the end.’

In the former, we’re drawing attention to an event that happened to work out in a positive manner. It is a result that happened, and fortunately that result was a positive one. Future events may or may not end up with similar results regardless of what the swimmer does. In the latter case, we’re drawing attention to how the swimmer approached the situation, and the actions they took. These actions are completely within their control.

Simply, we are drawing attention to the process of success rather than the outcome of success. More often than not, the outcome is not something that swimmers can control. However, they do have control over how they approach the process and the execution of a task, and the intent behind that execution. This is particularly true of training relative to competition.

Another way to consider the difference between praise and affirmation is to view praise as a reflection on what they did, and affirmation as a reflection of who they are. The latter is fleeting and fragile, and it’s not necessarily within a swimmer’s control. In contrast, affirmation emphasizes and reinforces who swimmers are and who they can become. This is more meaningful to the recipients, and the positive impacts resonate more deeply, and for longer.

Shifting from praise to affirmations can make a big difference in terms of how swimmers see themselves over time, which changes what they are capable of accordingly. When their self-image is consistently reinforced by coaches, they can move towards viewing themselves in a different manner, which can ultimately affect their ability to behave differently. This is especially true than as compared to when we simply tell swimmers that they are fast.


While it is implicit in the coaching relationship that advice is desired, advice will be offered, and advice will be implemented, this assumption can get coaches in trouble. In many cases, swimmers are not ready to receive advice. The best way to know if this is the case is to simply ask, ‘Is it cool if I point something out to you?’

Even if the swimmer was otherwise unreceptive, simply asking them whether they’re open to feedback will make them a lot more receptive. They will almost ALWAYS say yes, particularly as most swimmers are interested in getting better.

Many coaches might balk at that suggestion, feeling that they are completely entitled to say whatever they want to swimmers, and it’s the swimmers’ job to listen and apply. They shouldn’t need to ask permission. That’s great and coaches can continue to behave however they choose. At the same time, if coaches are interested in increasing the frequency with which they ask permission, particularly when the feedback is novel. It can be a bit cumbersome and there

Once you have permission, provide the feedback and watch their reaction. Their reaction alone will tell you something as to how it’s received. That information is valuable. Beyond their physical reaction, ask how they felt about the feedback. You will learn A LOT by doing so. It’s an opportunity to clarify what was communicated, as there are an unsurprisingly large number of communications. Further, this process can help to gauge how bought in swimmers are to the new feedback, as well as how confident they are in their ability to implement the advice.

Important! Providing feedback is not the job of a coach. The job of a coach is to facilitate change. While feedback can be a tool to facilitate change, how that tool is used will ultimately determine how effective it is in facilitating change. The better we use the tool, the more swimmers will get out of it.

A Caveat

This s really hard to do well and context is always important. Sometimes, it is more effective to simply tell people what to do. This is particularly true with simple tasks where motivation is not much of an issue. In contrast, the more significant the change, the more alternative strategies should be considered.

If it’s not working, do something different. If you’re not seeing pretty immediate change, or progress towards change, the process is likely not working as well as possible.

There are some swimmers that do just want to be told what to do. They’re willing to do whatever it takes, and simply need to know what it takes. Constantly asking for their opinion can actually undermine their motivation, as it creates the impression that you’re not certain what to do. This needs to be managed. However, the strategies above can still be useful for these swimmers, provided that coaches project a sense of confidence and control in how they coach.

How do you know where to focus your approach? Watch for resistance, whether verbal or through their body language. The more resistance you are getting, the more you may need to act in a way that minimizes resistance. However, it’s important to know that just about every human being appreciates when others take a sincere interest in their thoughts, opinions, and perspectives. Doings so is a central concept in Motivational Interviewing.

If it’s working, continue. If not, CHANGE. Maybe even use some of the strategies here to facilitate that process for yourself.


In many cases, our intuitions encourage us to behave in ways that move swimmers’ behaviors in a way that is opposite of what we intend. This moves us further away from our goals, and further away from our swimmers’ goals.

  • We suggest they create changes that they have no confidence in.

  • When they resist our suggestions, we communicate in a way that magnifies that resistance.

  • We encourage them to discuss the reasons why something isn’t a good idea, or even possible.

  • We don’t ask for their opinions, we don’t listen when they’re offered, and we don’t confirm our understanding.

  • We praise their outcomes rather than how who they are determines those outcomes.

  • We offer feedback without considering whether swimmers are receptive to it, nor how it was received.

When working from the ‘expert’ perspective, all of these behaviors make sense. They also make sense when considering any performance shortcomings as the result of a lack of information, rather than motivation. Unfortunately, the latter is often the case. Most know more or less what to do, they simply struggle to do it.

These aren’t ‘bad’ coaching behaviors, they simply don’t work as well as we’d like, even when they FEEL like they should. While our intentions might be great, the outcomes aren’t. This leaves everyone frustrated. In contrast, if we ignore our intuitions and focus on strategies that work, even if they ‘feel’ wrong.

  • We determine whether swimmers have the required confidence to accomplish a task, and if not, we adjust.

  • We acknowledge resistance to change when it is presented.

  • We look for opportunities for swimmers to VERBALIZE why change might be a good idea.

  • We ask for their perspective, actually listen to their response, and confirm we’ve understood it.

  • We affirm the choices and actions they take that result in the desired outcomes.

  • We ask if they’re receptive to feedback, and confirm that it’s understood accurately.

The major challenge with these strategies is not in their effectiveness, it’s that they feel simply feel wrong. As coaches, we feel like we’re giving up our ‘power’ and our position as the ‘expert’. In some ways, we are. We’re acknowledging that the power comes from the swimmer who has to actually implement the change. They are the ones that must ultimately decide how to change. While, coaches can’t force that process, they can facilitate it.

That is the role we must fulfill, and that is where our power resides, not as an authority, but a mentor.


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