On several occasions, I have argued that the appropriate implementation and creation of training tasks is a superior approach to facilitate learning, without clearly describing what those tasks consist of. In the next few paragraphs, I would like to clarify some of the characteristics of an effective task.
Some quick background to start. The purpose of skill acquisition, or any training task for that matter, is to improve performance. Improvements in a training task (‘drill’) have to transfer to performance in competition. Not improved drilling, not improved slow swimming, not improved pace work. Improved racing. That is the standard against which training tasks must be evaluated over time.
Some pre-requisites for effective transfer, as outlined by Dutch bio-mechanist Frans Bosch.
The types of muscle action must be similar to those used during competition (intra and inter-muscular).
The structure of the movement must resemble that present during competition (motion of the limbs).
The sensory information must resemble that present during competition.
The dominant energy system(s) used during competition must be called upon.
The movement result must resemble that present during competition.
By these criteria, practicing in racing conditions will provide the best transfer to performance. Technical improvements in racing conditions transfer best to improvements in racing conditions, obviously. This is the central thesis behind race-pace training paradigms. However, tasks that provide the best transfer may not provide the best learning opportunities, due to fatigue, excessive intensity, inadequate volume, etc… We have to find the balance.
At one extreme, transfer may be 100%, but learning is so ineffective and variability so limited, that nothing changes. At the other extreme, a lot of improvement might occur for the performance of a given drill, but the drill is so irrelevant that nothing changes with performance either. The further we deviate from race conditions the less likely transfer will be effective. This must be kept in mind when designing training tasks. We must balance the need to providing learning opportunities while providing learning opportunities that are relevant.
‘Because the important things are hard to coach, it is tempting to take refuge in the small, irrelevant things because they are easy.’ Ed Smith
When choosing training tasks that deviate from competition contexts, as almost all will, we have two choices. We can choose to decompose skills into component parts or modify tasks to stress a specific component of the stroke.
As a practical example, consider the swimmer who desires to improve their pulling pattern in freestyle. Decomposing the task would consist of swimming multiple lengths of one arm freestyle, working on the arm action. The problem is that the pulling pattern is taken out of context of the rest of the stroke. All of the rhythmic components are different, there are no oppositional forces from the other limb, velocity is much slower, the legs aren’t integrated in the stroke the same way, etc…
In contrast, modifying the task could include swimming with tennis balls, swimming against resistance, doing both, or alternating between the two. In this, case all of the essential elements of freestyle are retained while swimmers are forced to explore new and likely better ways to create propulsion as required by the modified tasks. It will be much easier for the swimmer to transfer these improvements into full stroke swimming, because they are already swimming full stroke.
The question to ask is, ‘How can I provide the swimmer the opportunity to learn a more effective skill, while retaining as many/all of the other skills used in competition?’
Have a breaststroker who comes up to higher to breath? Have them swim with a snorkel so they can feel what it’s like to be lower through the breath. The task requires it and the transfer will be smoother because they are already swimming full stroke.
Have a dolphin kicker who moves the hands all over the place? Have them dolphin kick with a small weight in the hands so they can feel what it’s like to be stable. The task requires it and the transfer will be smoother because they are already using a full dolphin kick.
Have a butterflyer who drops the hips out of line? Have them swim with a light weight belt so the consequences of their torso/hip movement are more evident. The task requires it and the transfer will be smoother because they are already swimming full stroke.
There may be times when it is valuable to more fully decompose a stroke. However, understand the choice that is being made, as well as what needs to happen to transition to full stroke swimming. If the majority of your training interventions currently involve significantly decomposing strokes, how can you move closer towards retaining all of the basic components of each stroke?
Retaining the rhythmic integrity of the stroke is critical for effective skill acquisition. I believe sticking with whole stroke and shift the emphasis through external means or through the use of focal points is superior choice. Transfer will be more effective and more consistent.
Again, how can I provide the swimmer the opportunity to learn a more effective skill, while retaining as many/all of the other skills used in competition?