One. At. A. Time.
Training for competitive success is challenging. The higher the level of performance an individual aspires to, the more this is the case. Whether looking ahead to the challenges of the training season, training week, training day, training session, or the training set, the future can be daunting. There is a lot that needs to get done and much of it is unpleasant.
When faced with a challenge, our focus shifts to the future, and the possible struggle such challenges present. Of course, the irony is that there is very little that can be done in the present to influence any of these challenges in the future. This is particularly true of novice swimmers and those who have not been consistently held to high standards. The challenge of meeting those standards is intimidating.
Inconsistent training and inconsistent performances in meets are typically the result of the inability to focus on what matters. Swimmers get overwhelmed by the challenges they face, shifting their away from what can be done to meet those challenges.
Problems are in the future. Solutions reside in the present.
When considered in the racing context, swimmers often shift their focus to future outcomes as opposed to what needs to be done to accomplish those outcomes. Worrying about what might happen almost always ensures that goals won’t be achieved.
One of the fundamental psychological skills in sport, and life in general, is that of task-specific focus. Being present and focused on what must be accomplished is central to actually accomplishing that goal. It is also one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish in sport, particularly when fatigue, external expectations, and internal expectations begin to emerge.
Managing task-specific focus all comes down to one central question.
What do I have to do, right now?
Task-specific focus resides in the present. It is the simple process of executing each task, one at a time. It is the process of performing one repetition at a time. It is the process of executing one practice at a time, one day at a time, one week at a time.
It is constantly returning to the question, ‘what do I have to do, right now to move closer to my goals?’.
As coaches, the more we can shift focus to the present, the more we can facilitate the development of maximizing task-specific focus. Establishing task-specific focus is all about helping swimmers engage in the present and engage with what is in front of them. Engagement and focus can be facilitated using the following strategies.
Design Intentional Sets. By consistently employing training set that require focus to be accomplished successfully, and punish a lack of focus, coaches can help to develop task-specific focus. By having clear and challenging metrics of performance, swimmers are held to standards that require focus to be accomplished.
Task-specific focus is a skill that coaches either require, or not. By holding swimmers accountable to high standards of performance, they must engage and focus on what they are tasked with doing. Failure to do so must be dealt with, and the best way to understand success or a lack of success is to ask questions.
Ask Questions. Beyond performance, how can we measure engagement? Simply ask questions, and within the context of the practice environment, keep the questions simple.
What are you working on?
Was that repetition successful?
What did you do well?
What can you do better next time?
Vague, hazy answers imply hazy focus and a lack of engagement. Swimmers should be able to provide clear answers to these questions. When first using questions to solicit feedback, you may be surprised at how unengaged and unaware some swimmers are. They are simply swimming. They also may be shocked by your questions, as if you are speaking a foreign language.
You may also learn that some swimmers are indeed engaged, yet simply focused on the wrong ideas and concepts. This is an opportunity to suggest changes in focus that may be more productive. This is coaching. Further, the answers you do receive can be very insightful. Swimmers may provide ideas about how swimming works that you hadn’t considered before. Pay attention.
The more engagement and focus that coaches require by asking questions, the more swimmers will engage in what they are doing. When they know they need an answer, they’ll have one ready. Fortunately, the only place the can find those answers are through engagement and focus on what they are doing in the pool.
De-Brief. After successful and unsuccessful repetitions, require swimmers to elaborate on what happened. Doing so will help swimmers process what they felt and help them move toward future solutions. Further, it helps coaches gain insight into what swimmers are feeling, focusing on, and executing as they perform repetitions. This information can be useful for discovering opportunities for improvement, as well as learning novel strategies that can be successfully applied to other swimmers.
While offering your thoughts can be useful to help swimmers calibrate their perceptions with yours, the focus should be on how they felt specific repetitions were performed. By asking guiding questions, this process can help swimmers recognize how their thoughts and focus affect outcomes.
Were specific attentional strategies effective?
Could they notice when there was a change in execution? Could they feel it?
When did they lose their skills? When did they lose their rhythm? What can be done to work to solve the problem in the future?
Did they get distracted? Did they have to re-focus? Were they able to re-focus? Did they struggle to re-focus? How can their approach change next time?
De-briefing doesn’t have to be a formal process. It is a simple, ongoing process that can happen in a matter of seconds. Over time coaches can work to create awareness on the part of the swimmer, as well as create alignment between what coaches are seeing and swimmers are feeling.
An Individualized Approach
Some swimmers are much more introspective than others. Some swimmers think a lot more than others. As coaches, we must be keenly aware of who we are dealing with on an individual basis, and how we are going to help swimmers focus.
There is a big difference between thinking and being engaged. We absolutely want engaged swimmers all of the time. We don’t want swimmers thinking and analyzing. As described previously here and here, we want swimmers feeling.
Be cautious of taming the beast. Some swimmers are successful because they don’t think very much. They simply race and they race on instinct. This is a good situation to be in. With these individuals, the danger is in forcing them to engage too much and draw attention to unnecessary information. An old golfing trick is to ask a golfer what his pinky finger is doing while he putts. He starts paying attention to the wrong information and his putting skills disintegrate.
The same concept applies to these individuals. Asking them to provide excessive verbal explanations, or providing them with too much feedback is going to marginalize one of their strengths, the ability to just race. At the same time, if they never reflect on what they are doing, it will be difficult to create change.
Be cautious of playing into introspective swimmers’ tendencies. These swimmers want to analyze everything they do. These individuals will be frustrated by a lack of information, while too much information will simply compromise their performance. Coaches must find the fine line of providing swimmers with enough guidance to facilitate their focus without distracting them with too much information or reflection. They need to know what they need to know and nothing more, regardless of whether that information is coming from the coach or from themselves.
Collaboration vs. Dictation. Some swimmers want to be involved in the process of figuring out what to focus on and how to focus on it. Others simply want to be told what to do. While working at either extreme is potentially problematic, so is forcing either type of individual away from their inclinations. Know the swimmer in front of you and modify your approach based upon their preferences and what will work.
Find the sweet spot. As coaches, we want to establish as much dialogue is required to facilitate an appropriate amount of focus on the relevant goals and sensations. When in doubt, less is almost always more, even if the swimmer wants more. Trust your guidance and trust the swimmer will figure it out. If necessary, more information can be provided later.
Race Preparation- One Step at a Time
The process of successfully executing a race starts well before the race begins. Particularly in championship settings, where months of work come down to singular outcomes, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in those outcomes, over which we have very little control. Swimmers will be more successful if they can break down the process and focus on what they are doing in the present, and doing it well.
Coaches can facilitate this process by consistently staying in the present, helping swimmers stay in the present with the words they choose, and encourage them to own each step of the process.
Just do the warm up.
Just change into your suit.
Just get to the blocks.
Just get through the 1st 25.
Just take it one 25 at a time.
When swimmers focus on what’s right in front of them, they can better manage their thoughts and direct them to what they can control, as opposed to the outcomes they are seeking. Coaches can reinforce this thought process by keeping everything simple and focusing on the present.
One of the most important skills any swimmer can possess is the ability to take things one at a time. From managing training to competition, champion swimmers are best able to establish retain task-specific focus on what matters. While the effects of this skill are often believed to be the product of talent, it is absolutely a skill that can be coached.
By structuring practices effectively, consistently engaging with swimmers, and requiring a reciprocal level of engagement, coaches can help swimmers learn to develop task-specific focus. This skill will not only improve the consistency of training that is performed, it will help them elevate their training through better focus. Finally, swimmers will be able to translate these skills to the competitive arena where it matters most.
It’s worth the effort. One day at a time.