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Strengths and Weaknesses

‘You win because of your strengths and lose because of your weaknesses.’

-Bill Sweetenham

While quote about may be paraphrased, the message is clear. Performance is a result of the interaction between an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. If you are not sufficiently superior in some respect, you will not win. If your liabilities are significant, they will be exploited. Strengths must be significant enough to make success possible, while weaknesses cannot be significant enough to make success impossible.

While an individual’s strengths and weaknesses are biologically mediated, a point we’ll address below, these strengths and weaknesses are also directly influenced by the decisions we make as coaches.

Where to place our attention in training will always be a fundamental question for coaches. I’d like to frame that question in the context of strengths and weaknesses to provide an alternative perspective while searching for an answer.

By exploring how strengths and weaknesses can arise, as well as the considerations for when to enhance strengths or rectify weaknesses, coaches can develop novel training strategies to aid their swimmers. This process can help coaches better design training to help specific individuals move closer to their goals.

Strengths

When considering whether to focus on a given strength, coaches must decide whether further improvements will enhance performance. Consider the swimmer who excels at pull-ups and consistently perform 30+ consecutive pullups. Training to perform 40+ pullups will likely fail to improve performance in racing situations. In contrast, a sprinter with a very high maximal sprinting speed should continue to enhance this ability as further improvements will directly improve performances in sprint events.

Coaches must also consider how much further improvement is possible. As swimmers approach their genetic limitations, it becomes harder and harder to improve. Elite swimmers with significant strengths will likely be approaching these limits. The decision to focus on particular strengths, even if they transfer well to performance, should be considered against the opportunity for further improvement. As a rule of thumb, the more effort that has been put into improving a given skill/ability in the past, the less room for improvement there is.

Strengths exist for a reason. These strengths are often biologically-mediated. Some individuals are blessed with certain traits. You can’t teach height. In addition, some individuals respond very well to even small amounts of certain types of training. As an example, some individuals always demonstrate great baseline aerobic fitness, some individuals adapt very quickly to aerobic training, and the lucky ones are characterized by both traits.

Most swimmers are exposed to a wide variety of training stimuli over the course of their career. For mature, swimmers, their current skill set will reflect which stimuli they most positively adapt to. This is a clue as to what training they will positively respond to in the future. It makes sense to continue to expose swimmers to training that will yield positive responses, if further improvement is desired, even if a swimmer is already good at it.

For novice swimmers, pay attention to what they are naturally good at. Pay attention to the types of training they enjoy. Pay attention to the types of training where they exhibit improvement. This will provide insight about their natural predispositions, as well as the types of training that will yield the most improvement over time.

Benefits of focusing on strengths

  • A swimmer’s strengths provide very clear insight into the types of training they have responded positively to in the past, as well as the training they will respond well to in the future. Continued positive responses in training are necessary for future improvement.

  • Swimmers enjoy working on their strengths. Swimmers are motivated to work on what they enjoy. Motivated swimmers work harder.

  • Swimmers gain confidence from having success in training. The impact of confidence should never be underestimated.

  • There is an emotional attachment to what has worked in the past.

Dangers of focusing on strengths

  • Further improvements in strengths may not continue to transfer to competitive performance, especially those strengths that are less specific in nature.

  • There may be limited potential for improvement in strengths as swimmers approach the limit of their genetic capabilities. Focusing elsewhere may be more effective.

  • What got you here won’t always get you there. Further improvement may require a different approach. This is particularly true as swimmers advance and training years accumulate.

Focusing on strengths is valuable because it works, and an individual’s athletic history will demonstrate this to be the case.

Weaknesses

The first consideration is whether the ‘weakness’ even matters. As an example, a 50m specialist’s inability to complete 7km practices is likely not relevant. However, if they consistently fall apart the last 20m of their race, some sort of fitness program is likely appropriate. At the other end of the spectrum, if a 10km specialist can’t perform a bench press with a load greater than their body weight, it probably doesn’t matter. However, if they can’t perform a single legitimate pushup, that should probably be addressed.

Carefully considering what is required for performance will help coaches decide which weaknesses are relevant and which are not. Those which are relevant should be addressed and the rest should be ignored.

As with strengths, weaknesses exist for a reason. The first step is to figure out why a given weakness exists. Typically, weaknesses exist because of biological limitations or a lack of attention to that component in training.

Biological weaknesses may arise from any of the following-

  • Inherent metabolic tendencies

  • Limb lengths

  • Innate mobility of specific joints

  • Responsiveness to aerobic training

  • Responsiveness to strength training

  • Force production capabilities

  • Etc…

Weaknesses that exist due to biological factors will be difficult to change. As an example, consider a breaststroker with a relatively weak breaststroke kick. The ability to kick breaststroke effectively is greatly influenced of the mobility of the hips, knees, and ankles. This mobility is influenced by the shape and structure of bones. While you can stretch muscles and to lesser extent ligaments, you can’t stretch mature bones. Concerted attempts to influence this mobility will be ineffective and potentially injurious.

In the same vein, an individual who has been training for several years will likely begin to exhibit a profile based on their innate physiology. Some individuals respond to aerobic training. Some individuals respond much less so. Some individuals gain strength and power very easily. Others do not. It must be appreciated that the profile individuals demonstrate is as much a reflection of who they are as opposed to what they have done.

However, weaknesses can also result due to a lack of training focus. Using the same example, if the breaststroker has a poor breaststroke kick because they never work on it, focusing on breaststroke kicking through greater volume/intensity will likely result in improved breaststroke kicking.

In a physiological context, there is a large difference between the individual consistently fails to respond to aerobic training and the individual who simply never performs aerobic training. In the former case, it is a likely a biological limitation that will continue to prevent improvement. In the latter case, directed efforts may significantly enhance performance.

When attempting to determine if a weakness is biological or the result of training choices, consider how have prior interventions gone. If prior attempts to improve a weakness have been unsuccessful, future efforts will likely yield the same result. In contrast, if weaknesses exist due to a lack of training or ineffective training approaches, progress is definitely possible and addressing the issue should be considered.

A quick heuristic for determining the cause of a weakness. The longer a swimmer has been training, the more likely their current abilities are the result of innate physiological tendencies, and thus less likely to change significantly. Be cautious when trying to intervene in a substantial way.

Some people are built for speed and power. Some people are built for endurance.

Benefits of focusing on weaknesses

  • If a given weakness is impairing performance, it needs to be addressed somehow.

  • The worse someone is at a given activity, the more potential for improvement there typically is.

  • If a specific skill/ability has been neglected, a small amount of attention can typically yield significant improvements.

Dangers of focusing on weaknesses

  • There may be limited room for improvement in biologically-mediated weaknesses, resulting in frustration and lost time.

  • Focusing on weaknesses is inherently frustrating and unenjoyable.

  • Confidence can be undermined by consistently facing focusing on short-comings.

  • If the weakness is not limiting performance, improving the weakness will not improve performance.

Hopefully, it is clear that focusing on weaknesses can be productive in certain circumstances, but quite counter-productive in other contexts. Coaches must carefully consider how much improvement is possible, whether improving the weakness will enhance performance, as well as how much time and energy is required to elicit meaningful improvement.

Interaction- The Caveat

It’s tempting to proceed as if strengths and weaknesses exist in isolation. In many cases, they do not.

There is no such thing as absolute versatility.

This is particularly true of biologically-mediated traits. There are no individuals who are world class 50m swimmers and world class 1500m swimmers. The physiological processes necessary for success in these events work in opposition.

When focusing on a weakness, you may end up correcting that weakness while simultaneously impairing a strength, the end result being a loss of performance. Similarly, continuing to improve a strength may render a weakness insurmountable if the body is pushed too far in one direction and balance is lost.

To make it concrete, consider the sprinter who always goes out fast, but fades a bit during the 2nd 50m, resulting in a large differential between the two first and second 50m. A coach may choose to address the 2nd 50m by prescribing large volumes of aerobic work. The end result may be a smaller 50m differential, but significantly slower overall time because the swimmer’s first 50m was impaired as the result of poorly prescribed endurance training.

There is always a cost and any intervention must carefully consider how addressing weaknesses will also impact a swimmer’s strengths.

However, there are exceptions.

Skills- Improving skill-related weaknesses often comes without a cost as biological processes are not significantly affected. This is one reason I am such an advocate of determining effective skill acquisition process. There is very little cost to improvements in this area.

Novelty- When working in novel training areas, improvements can come very easily and quickly with minimal amounts of work. This allows for improvements without the negative interactions that come with larger training loads.

Maturity- Biological maturity hides a lot of training errors. If kids are growing, they are going to get faster with any reasonable training program that is performed consistently. Any physiological interactions are likely to be drowned out by the effect of growth.

If there is no negative interaction, it then becomes a matter of energy and time resources. Is the skill work the best use of time and energy? Where will you get the best return on a given investment in time and energy? Choosing what to focus on becomes an economic decision. For a given investment in time and energy, what will yield the greatest return in performance?

Moving Forward

Training programs should center around an individual swimmer’s strengths. This is there ‘superpower’. These are the types of training they consistently respond to in a positive manner. This is particularly true of mature swimmers. Their current physiological profile is likely a reflection of their genetic tendencies. You must be VERY cautious when working against the body’s natural tendencies.

Weaknesses can and should be addressed over time in a comprehensive manner. Consistently addressing weaknesses over time with conservative volumes is much less likely to negatively affect strengths. In addition, the conservative approach allows the coach to catch problems before they become significant and irreversible. As an example, consistently adding small doses of endurance work can enhance aerobic capacity without killing speed. Any loss of speed can quickly be detected and the program can be adjusted before it’s too late.

As a simple rule, if you do choose to address in weaknesses in a significant manner, do it further away from the competition, while maintaining strengths. Aa you get closer to competition focus on strengths while, maintaining the progress made while training weaknesses.

However, technical weaknesses can and should be attacked relentlessly. How to do so has been addressed elsewhere on this site.

Some conclusions-

  • Never stray far from strengths. These strengths are what make swimmers great.

  • Is a given weakness even relevant? Can it be changed?

  • Micro-dose training addressing weaknesses that are biological in nature.

  • Aggressively work to address technical weaknesses.

  • When using novel stimuli to address weaknesses, a more aggressive approach is possible in the short term.

  • Don’t beat a dead horse. Know when progress is possible, and when it’s not.

  • OBSERVE. If it’s working, it’s working. If it’s not, it’s not.

The Bottom Line

All of the above was preamble for the following series of questions which are extremely useful for determining what to include in training, and how much time and energy should be allocated. Use the following cheat sheet when considering whether to include any training task, whether a strength or a weakness.

  • Will enhancements in this area improve racing performance, either directly or indirectly?

  • How much improvement can realistically be expected?

  • What will the cost be in terms of time, energy, and the effect on other training elements?

  • IS IT WORTH IT?

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