As coaches, one of our directives is to enhance the skillsets of the swimmers we work with. One of the critical aspects of skill acquisition is access to feedback.
At best, we can provide feedback and interaction with a given swimmer after each repetition. For even the most ambitious coach, this is likely impossible to achieve when considering the brevity of most recovery intervals and the number of swimmers attending a given practice.
Let’s assume that 10 meaningful interactions are possible with each swimmer, each practice. While this is a substantial number and requires a monumental coaching effort achieve, it averages out to only 1 interaction every 6 minutes over the course of a 60-minute practice.
That leaves 5 minutes and 50 seconds that swimmers go without technical feedback. While swimmers do receive performance feedback every time they look at the clock, this is a substantial amount of time where swimmers are not receiving feedback about movement execution.
This is certainly problematic.
I am assuming that the information we as coaches are providing swimmers is the information that is most valuable to swimmers.
It is not. There are more significant sources of feedback.
As described in previous articles on feedback, the best source of feedback resides within the swimmer’s sensory systems and this feedback is available every second of every practice, if swimmers can access it reliably and consistently.
So, we have a situation where the quantity of feedback is insufficient. Further, the quality of feedback is insufficient.
If we are going to significantly create technical change, both need to improve.
A potential solution.
Instead of considering our role as coaches to be providers of feedback, it can be more useful to coach swimmers how to coach themselves, by helping them access the feedback their own body is already providing.
If we can achieve this outcome, we can increase the quality AND the quantity of feedback that swimmers receive.
So how do we get there?
Stage I- Awareness
Initially, we need to create a physical awareness of what is happening when they swim.
Some simple questions can help to start the process-
How was that swim? Why?
What are you working on? Why?
Was that repetition a good one? Why?
How did that feel? Why?
How was your rhythm on that swim?
What was going on with your (insert body region)?
You’ll know that swimmers are becoming more aware as the answers they provide become more concrete and are delivered with more confidence.
Stage II- Directing Awareness
Once swimmers have learned to be generally aware of what they are doing and feeling, we can start to direct that awareness towards accomplishing specific goals.
Below are two questions I like to ask swimmers during breaks within or between sets-
What was good?
What can I do better?
The purpose is two evaluate the efforts, get some positive reinforcement, and then evaluate how to approach the next swim. By recognizing what went well, swimmers can maintain confidence in what they’re doing, while also appreciating where further opportunities for improvement reside.
Initially, this process needs to be led by the coach, and the questions need to be asked explicitly. As swimmers become better and better at evaluating performance and re-focusing for future efforts, the speed and confidence with which these answers are delivered will increase dramatically. There will be no hesitation.
Stage III- Rock and Roll
The final stage is where swimmers are asking these questions of themselves. How do you know when you’re there? You’ve arrived when swimmers are openly annoyed that you’re interrupting them with redundant questions.
These swimmers are able to set clear goals for themselves during training sessions and work through the process to achieve them.
The value of this process is several-fold. Most importantly, swimmers will gain access to a superior source of feedback that can be accessed continuously. When attention is expertly directed by a coach, this can prove to greatly accelerate skill acquisition.
This process is further enhanced by the opportunity for swimmers to provide feedback to the coach. When swimmers are better able to articulate what they are feeling, it can help us as coaches guide them toward more effective movement solutions.
The biggest pay off is during hard training sessions where swimmers must perform under the stress of fatigue and speed. Aware and engaged swimmers can make changes from rep to rep without coaching intervention. This is ultimately a skill they will need to possess in racing contexts, particularly those that do not go as planned.
Whether during a warm up prior to championship competition, or during championship competition itself, swimmers who have the ability to manage their skills independently are best prepared to cope with the unpredictable nature of competition.
Empowering swimmers to control their own skill acquisition will help to establish a sense of control, autonomy, mastery, and self-efficacy. This will motivate them to come back for more. Swimmers who want to improve, and believe they have the skill sets to do so, are the swimmers who ultimately find a way to make it happen.
This process can take weeks to months, depending on several factors.
How consistent are you with reinforcing that engagement is important?
How diligent is a given swimmer with engaging in the process?
How self-aware is the swimmer?
How motivated is the swimmer to improve?
As coaches, we are sending messages about what we value as important through our behaviors. The more consistent and diligent we are in requiring engagement in the process, the faster awareness will develop.
The role of the coach is still to facilitate skill acquisition. The difference is in HOW this process is facilitated. You are now focused on providing swimmers with the tools and the framework to find their own solutions using their own feedback. It takes time for swimmers to learn how to do this, and it our responsibility as coaches to teach them how.
The outcome is more effective skill acquisition and engaged, focused swimmers who have a heightened sense of autonomy and self-efficacy.