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Systematic Skill

5 Simple drills to fix your freestyle!

This is the type of headline you might see advertised in various articles and magazines, and for good reason. It is exactly what coaches are looking for. They want simple, straightforward, and easy.

Do this drill, get this change. Simple, easy, and effective.

Very few coaches would question a headline like this. Most would be intrigued.

5 Quick sets to transform your fitness!

The same coaches would LAUGH at this headline. Every coach knows that there are no shortcuts to fitness development. It takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of time, and it takes a plan.

My question is, what’s the difference? Why are expectations about the commitment needed to transform skills different from those required to transform fitness?

They shouldn’t be.

Developing the technical skills that win races takes the same effort, intent, and engagement as it does to develop championship fitness. Coaches are expecting cursory attempts at skill development to yield the same in-depth results that occur as a result of meticulous planning and execution of physical development.

It’s not going to happen.

Below are some ideas that can help to make it happen.

Make it a priority

Simple. If developing skills is not a priority, it is not going to happen with any sort of consistency or significance. The only way technical development will happen at a consistently high level is if coaches make it a priority. If coaches don’t think it is important enough, that’s fine, too.

However, if one chooses not to make skill development a priority, and back it up with ACTION, they also choose to lose the ability to lament their swimmers lack of skills. If those skills aren’t changing in any sort of meaningful way, that lack of change is the result of a choice.

Once the decision is made to make skill development a priority, the strategies and the results will follow eventually.

Integrate skills and fitness

Skill development can’t exist independent of physical development. They have to be a cohesive unit.

Instead of perceiving skill development and physical development as separate processes, consider them as integrated process. Moreover, they are the SAME process. Every stroke a swimmer takes is impacting skill adaptation and physical adaptation. Failure to account for both impacts can potentially derail both efforts.

Consider practice as ‘the process of training skills’. You are training to do a certain skill in a certain context.

  • You are training to perform a skill really well at really high speeds. That sounds like speed training or sprint work.

  • You are training to perform a skill really for long durations. That sounds like aerobic training or endurance work.

  • You are training to perform a skill really well under the pressure of racing. This sounds like race pace work or anaerobic training.

If you condition the skill, the physiology will develop at the same time. If you develop the physiology, the skill will NOT necessarily come along for the ride. To be fair, a physiologically-driven process can lead to skills, particularly in very talented athletes. However, most don’t coach extremely talented athletes exclusively, or at all.

Decide what’s important

Over time, there have been a lot of different technical ideas that coaches have proposed as being important aspects of determining swimming speed. There are a lot of options, and most of them do have varying degrees of merit. However, swimmers will not realistically be able to make all of these changes, and some of these ideas are opposite in nature. As a result, we have to make choices about what we want to prioritize and where we want to make changes.

If everything is important, nothing is.

It’s imperative that we decide what technical concepts we want our swimmers to master, and the number of concepts we want to master needs to be small. By prioritizing some aspects of skill, we must necessarily ignore others. This can be tough for coaches to do. If we want to make a dramatic change in one area, we have to neglect others.

By accepting that everything can be accomplished, we need to be really selective in what where we do choose to place our focus. The following questions can help to guide that process-

  • What will make the biggest impact?

  • What changes are easy to make?

  • What will be EASY to implement?

  • What are the swimmers ready for?

Deciding what’s most important is critical for creating the platform of making changes that improve performance.

Have a plan

Regardless of how one chooses to address technical development in training every day, there needs to be a plan. It doesn’t have to be rigid, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It does have to exist. Having tentative answers to the following questions is a good starting point-

  • What skills are important?

  • How are those skills going to be addressed?

  • When during each practice are those skills going to be addressed?

  • When during each week are those skills going to be addressed?

  • How will this change over the course of a season?

  • How will this change over the course of a career?

While there aren’t right or wrong answers to any of these questions, there do need to be concrete answers. There can be flexibility in these answers, and these answers can change over time. However, changing these answers needs to be a deliberate process rather than one of apathy and complacency.

If you decide to address dolphin kicking 3 times per week, it’s fine to change that to 2 times per week for very specific reasons that you feel will help swimmers improve faster. That’s a change to the plan. If you decide to switch to 2 times per week because it’s just easier to do that, that’s bailing on the plan. The first is part of the process, the 2nd is sloppy coaching.

Plan around skill

Better than simply integrating skill development with fitness development, actually plan all training around the development of skill. Doing so ensures that the required skills are developed, and that they are developed within the context of physiological development.

If physiological development takes precedence, skill development will not necessarily occur. If skills lead the process, physiology necessarily gets developed during the process of challenging skills. We’ll see how below.

With any plan, there needs to be a progression.

Have a progression

Progress doesn’t happen by chance. It happens in a series of steps. There is a big difference between executing a skill slowly during practice and executing a skill during the last 25m of a championship race. You can jump from one to the other. There needs to be steps along the way, and swimmers need to be guided through each step in an appropriate fashion.

The gap can be bridged with time and intention. This has been discussed in further detail HERE LINK.

Do it right. The first step. Find a way to get swimmers in the right positions where they can feel the appropriate skills and can consistently execute those skills at low speed and levels of fatigue. This is the starting point, and swimmers must be able to do it right to start.

Do it fast. Once swimmers can execute their consistently, they need to begin to be able to execute their skills fast. This is the next step. Progressively increasing speeds, provided that skills remain relatively intact will move swimmers towards racing situations. The distances don’t matter. All that matters is increasing the speed and maintaining execution. Over time, once speed has been achieved, the distances can begin to extend.

Do it longer. This step moves somewhat concurrently with doing it fast. As speeds increase, we can also work on subjecting skills to increasing levels of fatigue. This can be in aerobic contexts or any other situation where there is a focus on extending how long skills can be sustained. It’s not just about going longer, as there also needs to be a significant effort component as well.

Do it fast and tired. Once swimmers can execute skills fast, and hold those skills for extended durations while fatigued, it’s time to do it fast AND tired. We’re talking about racing efforts in practice. This is the realm of pace work, backend speed, quality sets, broken swims, lactate sets, etc. Whatever it’s called, if it’s fast and sustained, this is the next step for sustained skills.

What’s important is that swimmers are swimming at race relevant speeds, and they’re sustaining those speeds over race relevant distances. What that looks like specifically is up to the coach, provided there is a consistent increase in the challenge over time. Coaches can use a combination of challenging volume, intensity, repetition distance, and recovery intervals to stress the skills.

By hardening skills under racing fatigue, you’re ensuring that those skills are able to withstand the pressures of racing, while simultaneously developing the physical capacities to do so. I’ve discussed some of these options HERE and HERE.

It’s important that skilled execution is driving the progression process. If swimmers can’t consistently execute their skills to a reasonable standard, it’s likely that the challenge is too great, and it’s time to take a step back.

Do it fast, tired, and in a meet. Once swimmers can consistently execute their skills in racing conditions during training, it’s reasonable to expect those skills to being to show up in meets. While this isn’t necessarily part of the ‘training’ progression, it is part of the progression in terms of actualized skill changes.

There needs to be patience associated with allowing change to occur. Further, these changes need to be addressed EARLY if we expect them to show up in meets. It takes TIME, and we have to account for that time. Further, it often takes multiple races and experiences for changes to show up. There must be enough competitions to allow for this to happen.

Do it fast, tired, and in a championship meet. This is an extension of performing in a meet, with the added psychological pressure of a championship meet. As with all the previous steps, the better job we do with the prior step, the smoother the process will be with the current step. The more robust the skills are, the more likely they will show up when it matters most. There are also strategies we can employ to help swimmers do what they need to do in championship settings.

If you roughly follow this progression, you’ll notice that the general strategy mirrors a typical physiological development cycle-

  • You start slow.

  • You add speed while concurrently adding distance.

  • You start combining the too.

  • You continue to move forward on both fronts.

  • You intensify everything heading into meets.

  • You peak for championships meets.

Look familiar?

The key difference is that skilled movement drives the process rather than physiological development. However, when done well, you necessarily get BOTH. If you let physiology drive the process, you’re not necessarily going to get skill development as well. It’s more likely that you won’t.

Have tools

Individuals learn differently. You need a lot of tools if you expect to create change in all swimmers. Have one drill, one cue, or one trick is not going to cut it. For every skill, you need multiple options. Whether it’s different ways to describe the skill, different ways to visualize the skill, different equipment to help them feel the skill, or different tasks to put them in the right positions, there need to be choices.

It can be difficult to predict what will create the desired change. Experimentation will be necessary, and if you don’t have different tools to experiment with, it’s going to be much more difficult to get what you want. It’s about effectiveness. You need options that work.

While effectiveness is important, and ultimately the most important aspect of your options, efficiency is a critical component as well. Time matters. There is A LOT of work that needs to be done. There is NOT a lot of time. If you’re going to be systematic about developing skill, efficiency is critical.

As much as possible, we need to use strategies that work best and work quickly. We can’t afford to waste time. When we have multiple options, we can quickly change our approach if it’s not working quickly. The best options will work very well, and they will work very quickly.

This is an individual process, and it can be difficult to know what will work with each individual. If we’re not getting the impact we want, and we’re not getting it quickly, move on to option B, C, or D.

Beyond efficiency and effectiveness, having multiple tools allows for swimmers to understand a given skill in a broader, more robust context. They can better appreciate the nuance and they can better appreciate the subtleties. By learning the same skills in multiple ways, that skill is a lot more likely to stick.

  • How does one develop these tools?

  • Have a sound understanding of what needs to happen. When the basic principles are understood, it’s a lot easier to design situations where learning is more likely to occur.

  • Find out what other coaches are doing. What are the tasks they use? How do they describe the skills of interest? How can you adjust the same concepts for different or related skills? You can use their strategies and adjust them according to what you’re looking for.

  • Build analogies and cues. Consider what is happening. What might that feel like? Describe the skill in that way. Does it create the change you’re looking for?

  • Implement and observe. What happens? How do the kids respond? Does it work? Does it work partially? Does it work consistently? Does it work quickly?

  • Tweak. Small adjustments can make a big difference. Even if a tool is working and you think it can be improved, try it.

  • Ask for feedback. Your swimmers that understand what needs to happen are often a great resource for what skills should feel like, and what tasks can help re-create the right sensations.

  • Patience. With the intent to expand your options, those options will emerge over time.

There is no system if the right tools are not available to create change. The appropriate tools will make the process much more efficient and effective. Creating those tools takes time. However, the time and the effort upfront will more than make up for the time and effort saved in the future.

Getting It Done

If you want skills to change in a way that positively impacts performance, there needs to be a system for ensuring that it happens consistently with ALL of your swimmers. An effective system works all the time, not only due to the strength of the system itself, but because of the contingencies and the flexibility built into it.

A few drills and a few technical reminders are not going to cut it. There needs to be more. It requires a comprehensive approach.

  • Technical development needs to be a priority.

  • Technical and physical development need to be integrated.

  • There needs to be a comprehensive plan and that plan needs to be built around developing skills.

  • There needs to be progressions as a part of that plan.

  • The plan comes to life as a result of the effectiveness and efficiencies of the tools that are used.

It’s no wonder that coaches believe skills can’t change when they simply considered skills as an afterthought. As compared to that rudimentary approach, a systematic plan will take a change in perspective and a lot of work.

The difference is in the results.


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