Pre-Emptive Technical Change
Most attempts at facilitating technical change are inherently reactive in nature. Coaches see a problem, make a comment to the swimmer, pat themselves on the back, and move on. Of course, little to no technical change is going to be realized with this approach.
The fundamental problem arises from how technical change is viewed by the majority of coaches. While many will claim that it’s important, their actions imply otherwise. Cursory suggestions are made in a haphazard way, with no long-term plan in mind. Skills are an afterthought.
Coaches often create intricate plans aimed at developing physical qualities. They have training detailed plans, and as a result, physical changes often occur. Swimmers become fitter. No surprise. No coach would expect training improvements if training was performed in a random, indiscriminate manner, if at all. That would be crazy.
Yet, we often expect technical change to occur when using that same random, indiscriminate approach. It seems to me that if technical skills are important (they are), and we expect technical change to occur (we should), then a more systematic, planned process should be implemented. If we want to improve skills, we need to create the environment for that to happen.
Here are steps to take to go about creating a plan to enhance skills over time.
What do you want your swimmers to display? What are successful swimmers doing? What skills do you want your swimmers to display? Once you know the destination, it becomes a lot easier to develop the path.
Watch the best. What are the world’s best swimmers doing consistently?
Identify the traits that the majority of coaches look for. In books and at clinics, what are coaches consistently advocating?
Look back at your most successful swimmers. What did they tend to have in common?
Triangulate the three. What do you believe and what’s going to work for you?
Write down everything. Make a list of every skill you’d like your swimmers to develop, regardless if you know how to help swimmers learn it. It’s the starting point.
What skills are fundamental? Having established a list of skills you’d like to develop, it’s time to prioritize. What skills are foundational? When programming change, it makes sense to focus on the changes that will set the stage for other changes. For instance, if swimmers are unable to float and balance in the water effectively, they’re going to struggle with just about every skill they try to learn. Balance in the water in fundamental.
As most high level swimmers can balance effectively, what are the other fundamental skills? Look at your list of skills. Which skills set the foundation for other skills? Which skills, when developed, tend to clean up other skills? These are the skills you want to focus on first?
In what order are skills best learned? Skills should build upon each other. Having determined which skills you value, what order should they be learned in? What order allows for skills to build upon each other?
What activities require the development of those skills? Knowing the skills you want your swimmers to display, it’s time to determine how best to help them learn those skills. The best activities are those that require skilled action to be completed successfully.
For instance, when performing resisted pulling, coupled with a stroke count limitation, swimmers are going to figure out real quick which arm actions are effective, and which are not. This is an example of an activity where the feedback is clear, and the consequences for poor skills are obvious.
For each of the skills you’ve listed, work to design training exercises that provide clear feedback as to whether the desired skills have been performed successfully. The clearer the feedback, the better the learning.
How can you create awareness surrounding the skills you are looking to develop? Swimming is a sensory sport. Swimmers learn by feeling and by doing. Better swimmers have better sensory awareness and they know what good skills feel like. If a swimmer isn’t displaying the skills you’d like, it’s likely that they aren’t aware of what those skills should FEEL like.
The challenge then becomes to identify different activities that can place swimmers in the desired positions and situations so that they can FEEL what executing a skill is like. Once they’re able to feel it, they’re a lot more likely to do it.
As an example, high speed towing or swimming with fins can be useful for helping swimmers perceive the consequences of poor body position at high speed. The increased resistance of the water at high speed is going to provide a lot of feedback about poor position. It’s something swimmers can FEEL, and once they can feel, then they can do something about it.
How can you integrate improvement of skills into physical training? Technical change that exists outside the training context probably isn’t going to show up in a race. Executing a skill during a drill for 1x25 is completely different than executing that skill for a 200m race in a championship situation. Skills need to be trained and they need to be trained from the beginning. How can sets be created that challenge swimmers physically and technically? When these two processes become integrated, real change is going to start to emerge.
The first step to real technical change is a change in the approach to skill learning. It can’t be an afterthought, and it can’t be a reactionary process.
As coaches, we develop intricate plans to improve physical abilities over time. We know our priorities, we know how they change over time, and we know what type of activities work to create the desired improvements.
If we expect technical change, the same type of process should be implemented as well. We need to identify the important skills that need to be developed, we need to know which skills should be prioritized, and we need to know how to best provide learning opportunities for swimmers.
Critically, this technical change process should not be implemented in addition to, but in concert with the physical development process. They should be harmonious.
Some ideas about important skills can be found HERE.
If skills are important, are approach to developing them has to reflect that. With a plan and a purpose, performance follows.