Save the Season Part II
In part I, we introduced the idea of ‘saving a season’, and the idea that the decision-making process for helping a swimmer turn around a disappointing season should be a deliberate one. Specifically, we identified three main courses of action that coaches can take-
1. We can do nothing. We wait it out.
2. We can be patient, and adjust the process slightly.
3. We can re-boot, implement big changes, and hope for the best.
With these 3 options in mind, we took a look at why coaches may want to take a noninterventional approach. Simply doing nothing can be the most effective option in some circumstances. In the event that intervention is deemed necessary, we discussed some of the common root causes for problematic seasons.
With an understanding of some of the potential causes of poor training, we’re going to look at the warning signs that intervention is necessary. Then we’re going to discuss what to do, when to do it, and why to take a certain approach.
When Patience Won’t Pay
If we’ve decided that waiting isn’t an option, we’re going to need to intervene. With the choice to intervene, there are two directions we can take. We can course correct, or we can blow it up. Depending on the situation, we have to know what’s going to be the best course of action. Before we decide what to do, it makes sense to examine which situations merit action in the first place.
Intuition. If all of your instincts are screaming at you that something is wrong, it probably is. The older you are and the more you have coached, the more likely this is the case. Trust what your intuition is telling you. There’s likely some sort of pattern recognition going on, and it would be wise to pay attention.
In contrast, if it’s year one of coaching, you probably haven’t seen enough scenarios play out to really know what’s going on. In that case, relay the situation to someone you trust, and ask for their advice. Weight that advice against what you’re seeing.
There’s no life stress. If there is little to no life stress, and problems are still arising, it’s likely a training issue. If a swimmer is a happy, healthy, and stress free, performance challenges are likely the result of training problems. It’s time to intervene. Once life is eliminated as a potential problem, we can move towards working on what we can control- training.
Time is running out. In some cases, patience does pay. However, if time has been taken to let the process play out, and not much has changed, intervention becomes necessary. This is particularly true as you approach a championship competition and the swimmer is clearly not ready to perform. At some point, we need to do something because doing nothing is not working. While intervention may make the situation worse, if the current situation isn’t satisfactory, we need to do something. Performance deadlines can force us to act.
The pattern is different. As described above, patterns can tend to repeat themselves. When we see a loss of performance, yet know that the swimmers tend to come out of it just fine, it can be okay to wait. The difference is when there is a performance loss, yet the pattern seems different. For instance, say a swimmer tends to perform poorly in meets while continuing to training at a very high level. Now they are performing poorly in training as well. This implies that the situation is different. It’s probably time to act.
It’s important to be on the lookout for reasons why the situation is different. The presence of these subtle differences is what will signal whether we have real problems in the future, or simply a repeat of previous history. It may be simple changes such as poorer performance in one training component, or less consistency of performance. Knowing when to act is only going to come from keen observation.
The otherwise calm swimmer is panicking. If the swimmer in question is freaking out, it’s time to make a change, if only to keep them at ease. If they believe there is a problem, there is a problem whether it’s ‘real’ or not. Helping them believe that the problem has been addressed is going to benefit them from a psychological perspective. That’s a huge part of getting the process turned around.
Beyond reducing psychological stress, it’s wise to listen to the panicking swimmer for a second reason. Much like coaches have an intuition about how the process is going, so do swimmers. If they perceive that the process is not going as expected, it’s probably the case. It’s wise to listen to their instincts. If they feel like they need more or less work in a certain area, they very well may be right.
We’ve decided that it’s time to intervene. With an intervention, we have two general strategies we can employ. We can tinker and adjust, or we can blow it all up. We’ll take a look at both of these approaches, and the context in which it makes sense to employ one versus the other.
Adjust- The Conservative Approach
This intervention is characterized by a cautious, conservative approach. This more about tinkering and making minor changes, rather than altering the underlying approach or structure of the training process.
What to do. Focus on the small changes that have the greatest likelihood to make an impact. If there is too much work, what is ONE area where we can reduce the load to facilitate the change we want? If there is too little work, what is ONE area where we can increase the load to facilitate the change we want? If there is the wrong type of work, what is ONE area where we can change the type of work to facilitate the change we want?
If we’re right about the change we make, we should see progress pretty quickly, and we can continue along that path. Alternatively, we can choose to make a second small intervention. If we’re WRONG, then we can quickly move back to baseline and adjust in a different direction.
An effective change should result in beneficial changes quickly. Generally speaking, if there is a not a significant change that happens pretty quickly, it’s a good indication that you’ve haven’t chosen the correct option.
When to do it. A conservative approach makes the most sense when there is time for the changes to take place. Either the championship meet is further away, or you’re more concerned with a longer time horizon. When there is time, a conservative approach makes sense because you can afford to slowly implement change. There is no looming deadline. The advantage of the conservative approach is that you’re less likely to implement a decision that makes the situation significantly worse.
A drastic change is more likely to make a drastic impact. Of course, the drastic impact could be negative just as easily as it could be positive. If you have the time, take a patient approach to ensure that you’re on the right path before fully committing to that path.
It can also be prudent to be conservative when time might be short, but you’re in a 'good enough' situation. For instance, while the situation might not be ideal, it’s still a position to be protected. An example would be when looking to qualify for a specific meet and the swimmer is not in as strong as a position as you feel possible, yet the possibility of qualifying is still very real.
In this case, there IS something to lose, and the decision-making process needs to be mindful of ensuring that little is risked. A conservative approach allows for the possibility of improving the situation, while minimizing the possibility of making the situation worse.
Why do it. Smaller changes are less likely to have a major impact. In this situation, this is what we want as any change is just as likely to have a negative impact as a positive one. By making small changes, we can continue to modify the process by using the feedback we get to steer towards what we want to accomplish. While a conservative approach may take more time, it’s more likely to avoid catastrophic consequences.
Overhaul- The Aggressive Approach
The overhaul is the panic button. Time is running out, the situation is not good, and it’s time to roll the dice. When it works, it can work spectacularly. When it fails, it can fail spectacularly. This is the option you take when the situation is bad, time is running out, and there is little to lose. It’s high risk, high reward.
What to do. Assess the situation critically, and when you feel good about your assessment, blow it up. Implement a drastic change in the direction that you feel is appropriate. If you believe that there has been an overemphasis on volume, greatly reduce the volume. If you believe there has been a significant lack of training volume, ramp up the training volume and get to it. The same concept could be applied to any training component, moving in any direction.
The idea here is to decide what needs to happen, and the commit strongly in that direction. Training should look and feel DRAMATICALLY different to everyone involved after the change is implemented. There should be little doubt as to what has happened. This is the signal for change. It needs to be VERY clear.
When to do it. If the important competitions are quickly approaching, and the process is not going as planned, taking larger risks becomes more appealing because a drastic change may be required to create the necessary drastic improvement. When time is limited, bigger risks need to be taken.
Building upon the qualification example used above, an overhaul would also be appropriate if the situation has devolved to the point where qualification seems unlikely. Now, there is very little to lose and it makes much more sense to take significant risks.
At this point, you’ve been patient, and you’ve also tried the patient approach. If those measures have failed, it’s time to take the next step.
Why to do it. This is the option you use when you feel like only a massive change is going to get the process back on track. As it is the riskiest option, it’s an option of last result. This is the choice to make when no other option exists.
Massive change can result in massive change. That’s why the strategy can be effective. Swimmers tend to respond dramatically to major changes. This is why this approach can work. The issue is that you don’t necessarily know WHICH direction that massive change will be. The reason to use this approach is also the reason to be cautious about this approach.
While the discussion above has framed the problem of a loss of performance primarily from the lens of training issues, it’s certainly not the only potential cause. However, as we’ll see, many of these factors are actually just manifestations of poor training practices. These poor training practices could be the specific types and loads of work performed, how the technical execution of the work performed, or the cultural environment in which the work is performed. It can all come back to training.
Being aware of these issues can help to address them while simultaneously addressing training. They are interrelated, and while addressing training is critical, a failure to address the surrounding elements can hamper any attempts to turn the season around.
A loss of performance could also be derived from psychological causes. As described HERE, psychological performance problems are often derived from confidence issues. As confidence often comes from training, the training problems described above can result in psychological challenges. The two are intimately related. When training goes poorly, confidence is impaired, which reinforces poor training, and the cycle continues. In many cases, fix the training and the psychology issues will fall in line.
Psychological problems such as loss of motivation or engagement can also arise due to the cultural environment. When coaches tend to behave in controlling ways that limit swimmer autonomy, swimmers tend to become dissatisfied and frustrated with their swimming. This can occur regardless of the intentions of the coach. Controlling behavior can often occur when the aim truly is to help the swimmer. The outcome is the same.
Beyond controlling behaviors and a loss of autonomy, an excessive and unrelenting focus on performance can lead to psychological stress and dissatisfaction in swimmers. This is not to say that high standards should not be used. It becomes problematic when the standards are used in an all or nothing manner to the exclusion of a focus on the process of achieving those standards.
A shift in focus away from strictly performance towards a focus on centered more on mastering the process can relieve some of this pressure. In both cases, there can be very high expectations. In case, the focus is exclusively on performance, whereas in the other, the focus is on the process of achieving performance. While both approaches can lead to successful outcomes, the latter tends to be less stressful for swimmers.
If technique has actually gotten worse, and this is potentially facilitating poor performance, there are two potential causes of a loss of technique-
1. Fatigue or loss of physical capacities resulting in the inability to execute technique. This is bad training. See above for solutions.
2. A failed attempt at creating technical change, or a successful technical change that lead to a less successful form of swimming. While this can happen, managing technical change is a series of articles in and of itself. More available HERE.
Technical problems can be significant. However, they tend to arise when swimmers suffer from bad training. Fix the training, or you won’t be able to fix the skills.
If the technical problems are the result of a poor change, the solution is a pre-emptive one. Have a long-term PLAN based on sound mechanical principles and sound motor learning principles. If you’re actively creating change, change is less likely to happen in unintended ways.
When the stress of life becomes more than an individual can handle or manage, it’s going to start to impact training and performance. While it’s not always something coaches or even swimmers can control, it reduces ability to adapt to training, as discussed HERE. While in some cases swimmers can learn to better manage their life to reduce the creation or impact of stress (and this should be attempted using outside resources), it ultimately becomes a training problem.
With a reduced ability to tolerate previously acceptable training loads, those training loads must be adjusted if progress is going to continue over time. While life stress may be the ‘cause’ of the deteriorating season, the solution is a training one. We must adjust training in one of the manners described above to help turn the season around.
Steps to Implement
When problems arise, there is not necessarily a simple process to turn the season around. There are a lot of contextual factors that are ultimately going to determine what to do, and when to do it.
Better coaching is going to arise from better analysis and better decision making. To try to simplify the process, below are ideas to consider and some of the steps to take when confronted by unexpected performance losses.
When performance problems in training arise, we have the choice to allow the process to continue to unfold, or to intervene.
Choosing not to intervene can make sense when you’re witnessing a previously experienced pattern, you’re VERY confident in the established plan, you’re working with a new athlete, you’re confident the issues are highly influenced by SHORT-TERM external events, or you have time.
If deciding to intervene, you must assess whether workloads are too high, too low, composed of the wrong types of work, or a combination of the three. Knowing the origin of the problem is critical to intervening appropriately.
A SIMPLE heuristic for a conservative intervention- reduce the intensity, but not the volume of the aerobic work. Reduce the volume, but not the intensity of the speed work.
If choosing to intervene, a conservative approach should be the first option. This is especially true when the performance loss is relatively small and there is time to rectify the situation. The intervention should be subtle, changing the 1-2 potential issues you feel will have the most significant impact. This approach is much less likely to make the problem worse.
When the conservative approach doesn’t work, it’s time to blow it up. Make a significant change in training in the direction you feel is most likely to make an impact. Greatly reduce or increase the training stress. Change the nature of the training. This is an extreme approach. And the results can be extreme, for better or worse. This approach should be used when time has run out and the current situation is unacceptable. There is nothing left to lose.
Understand that psychology, technique, and life all interact to affect how the training process is going. As appropriate, addressing these issues in conjunction with the underlying training problem is going to be more fruitful than addressing training alone.
Sometimes it isn’t working out. The season is headed in the wrong direction, and we need to decide what to do. As with most situations in life, we have choices and we have options. To take the optimal course of action, we need to do our best to determine what the problem could be, and then act accordingly. What we decide to do, if anything, should be dictated by our assessment of the situation.
Seek to understand the situation, understand your options, then decide and execute with conviction. The season can be saved.