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OPTIMIZING Performance Part I

As a coach, I am always looking for different ways to view the training process, new ways to understand how performance emerges, and new ways that coaching practice can influence both training and performance. The source of these ideas is secondary to the utility they provide. I have and continue to find value in learning from the practices of other swimming coaches, coaches from other sports, expert performer from unrelated fields, as well as research from a variety of fields.

In the latter case, coaches often view scientific research as either dogmatic truth, or irrelevant and behind the times. While I can see how others hold these beliefs, I tend to view science from a different perspective. In a context as complex as performance, with so many factors interacting to influence performances, it can be very challenging to pin down exactly what is happening, and which factors are having what influence.

Because of this inherent complexity, I tend to view scientific research as simply another sources of ideas, that may or may not be useful in enhancing my coaching practice. When it comes down to it, we all have to decide what to do on a daily basis. Research, as with many other sources of information, can be useful in this regard it if positively impacts our coaching.

I generally view research, the ideas of other coaches, and any other source of information not as a source of absolute truth, simply a resource that I can use to help me solve specific problems in the future.

How does this idea relate to how my current understanding of how the world works?

How might this idea be useful to me in the future?

In what situations can I see myself applying this idea?

In what situations might this idea not be appropriate?

When viewed from this perspective, it leads to a much less dogmatic processing of information. Fewer training practices are dismissed out of hand, while at the same time there is less risk of blindly adopting coaching practices because it is validated by an ‘expert’ or ‘science’.

With this in mind, I’d like to share one particular line of research that has agreed with what I have seen in practice, and has helped to solidify some concepts into concrete coaching practice.

I am not particularly interested in exploring the ‘scientific validity’ of these ideas, or the research underpinning these concepts. Rather, I’d like to explore how these ideas resonate with our coaching experiences, as well as how these ideas can inspire new, and hopefully better, coaching practices.

Importantly, it possible that how I apply these ideas is not true to the theories proposed, which is precisely the point. The value in these ideas is not in their ‘accuracy’, but in the change in coaching practice that they inspire.

Dr. Gabriele Wulf, and her colleagues at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, have put forth a framework for learning known as the OPTIMAL Theory of Learning (Optimizing Performance through IntrinsicMotivation and Attention for Learning). It outlines three key strategies for enhancing learning outcomes, that when used simultaneously, have a synergistic impact on how individuals learn athletic skills. The first component is creating opportunities for athlete autonomy, the second component is the enhancement of expectancies, and the last component is providing feedback and instruction through an external focus of attention.

In the following series of articles, I’ll explore each of these components, and how coaches can effectively employ these strategies to enhance performance.

(For those interested, please see the last article in this series for references that provide the original articles outlining these ideas).


When athletes are given choices, they perform better across a spectrum of tasks. As importantly, they appear to learn better, in that these changes in performances are retained when re-tested at a later date. While it’s not necessarily clear why this occurs, it’s consistent across several contexts.

What is clear is that it doesn’t appear to be the nature of the choice that makes the difference. It’s not that athletes are making ‘better’ decisions that lead to improved performance. They are simply exercising autonomy and making decisions. It appears that the decisions being made do not have to be performance relevant. They can be subtle and seemingly irrelevant to performance, relating to any number of factors.

As an example, running economy has been demonstrated to improve when runners were allowed to choose which images were shown on a screen while running on a treadmill. These same improvements were not present in those who viewed the same exact images, but hadn’t chosen them. Simple choice, any type of choice, can make a difference that adds up over time.

Applying it in Practice

How can coaches use this information to enhance performance and learning outcomes? Provide choices! Here are coaches are only limited in their creativity. Swimmers can be provided choices, such as-

  • What lane they swim in.

  • Which practices they attend during a week (if more than the required number are offered).

  • What strokes they do during specific sets.

  • What type of music is played.

  • What color cap they wear.

  • What color goggles they wear.

  • What type of suit they wear.

  • What type of equipment they wear.

  • What side of the pool they start on.

  • When they receive feedback of any type.

  • Etc…

As you can see, this is NOT about turning your practice plan over to the swimmers, although you certainly could! It is about providing choices throughout the training session that allows swimmers to exercise autonomy, particularly over the course of practice where swimmers typically have relatively little autonomy.

While some choices arise organically, i.e. which lane to swim in, the effects of autonomy may be enhanced by presenting choices as such. Make it clear they are choosing. Drawing conscious attention to the ability to choose may enhance the effects of autonomy. Whenever any type of choice is present, instead of letting decisions be made without much attention, deliberately spell out the options and the presence of a choice. ‘What would you like to do here?’ This can enhance the effects of autonomy without requiring any actual change in coaching practice. The same choices are present, yet there is more awareness of the choice.

The need for autonomy is also somewhat individual. Certain individuals will thrive the more choice they are given, whereas others require very little choice, or are simply not comfortable with choice. In the former case, allowing for greater autonomy in different ways can help to create engagement. Some of these choices may also need to involve more consequential training decisions. In the latter case, coaches can keep the number of choices low and focus these choices that are extraneous to the actual training process, staying within the swimmer’s comfort zone.

When reflecting on their coaching experience, most coaches can appreciate how the element of choice can have a positive impact on performance and mood. When given the choice of two particularly arduous sets, most swimmers will complete the set they choose with much more effort and happiness than if the set was presented to them without choice. They commit to and own the choice they make.

Providing swimmers might be a big stretch for some coaches. However, it is clear the choice can make a major impact on performance and learning. While it may seem inconsequential, choices matter and providing swimmers with choices of any type can make a big impact on performance over time. Start with small choices and go from their.

In subsequent articles, the remaining components of the OPTIMAL theory of learning will be explored.


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