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The Circus Part I

If distance swimmers approach training in the same manner as sprint swimmers, results are probably not going to be optimal. The opposite would be true as well. Different events have different performance demands, and this requires different training exposures. This is true whether viewed from a physical perspective, a technical perspective, a tactical perspective, or a psychological perspective.

While event demands do dictate what is required to a large degree, what might be optimal for any one individual is going to vary as well.

In training, consistently providing one workout for the entire team is not going to provide each swimmer with the optimal environment to improve their performance. This is pretty obvious. At the other extreme, providing each swimmer with their own individualized training session is not logistically feasible.

As a result, we have two competing pressures. On one end, there is a need to provide the right training opportunity for each swimmer. On the other end, we have to provide the logistical support for these opportunities to be realized. Just because a practice is written doesn’t mean it will be performed and coached in a manner that facilitates performance.

How do coaches manage this dynamic, particularly when they don’t have additional coaches to specifically run each workout? As always, solutions exist if we’re prepared to find them and execute them.

Prior to examining the potential solutions to effectively running multiple practices at the same time, it’s important to take a look at what’s potentially happening when we do so. By understanding the benefits of having multiple practices, as well as the potential drawbacks of doing so, we can better develop strategies that maximize the opportunities present while minimizing the potential limitations.

It is with this understanding that we can change our planning, or modify our behavior so that we can achieve the best outcomes possible.

The Trade-Offs

Choosing to run the circus is not a universal good, even if you’ve got the skill to pull it off successfully. While there are definitely advantages, there are also limitations. It’s important to recognize both so that you can choose to run the circus at appropriate times, and stay away from it when it doesn’t serve your interests.

Benefit- more individualization

This benefit is obvious. With more options in practice, there is a greater likelihood that any one individual is going to be receiving a more optimal training stimulus. At the lower levels of performance, this is less of an issue as most swimmers will have the same basic needs.

However, as performance levels advance, this becomes more of an issue. Swimmers will have a more varied capacity to perform training tasks and handle training stress, and they will have a more distinct profile of strengths and weaknesses.

This reality is recognized with the formation of ‘distance groups’ and ‘sprint groups’ in the training of senior swimmers. In many cases, further individualization is required within those groups for optimal development of all swimmers. Running more practices, or more variations of the same practice, allows for this need to be met.

Benefit- learned accountability

In competition, swimmers swim races, and they receive no help from anyone else, coaches or otherwise. It all comes down to them. The more we can help swimmers develop personal accountability and ownership in the process, the more we can prepare them for this reality.

In the midst of the circus, there is no option but for swimmers to develop personal accountability. This is particularly true when coaches expect and require this accountability, helping swimmers develop these skills by placing them in situations where it is necessary.

Swimmers become responsible for keeping track of their performance metrics (times), they need to be organized with executing the sets in the appropriate manner, and they need be able to coach themselves through any challenges or struggles they may face. Swimmers can absolutely learn these skills if empowered and encouraged to do so. As a coach will be less present for any one moment of a practice during the circus, swimmers are given the space to learn these skills without coaching intervention.

Benefit- independence, autonomy, ownership

Building on the above, humans thrive on accomplishing challenging goals and overcoming challenging obstacles. Moreover, this sense of accomplishment if magnified when we perceive that we were the primary catalyst for any success. It’s a very different feeling to being told the right answer as opposed to discovering the right answer for ourselves.

One of the unintended consequences of coaching is that we often, and almost exclusively, provide answers for our swimmers. While this is a product of our role, it can be overdone. Unfortunately, it robs swimmers of the sense of satisfaction of discovering solutions for themselves. While this process might take longer than simply providing an answer, it is a lot more rewarding for swimmers, and when it happens consistently, greatly enhances motivation.

It’s a long-term investment.

During the Circus, there will be less coaching intervention, and swimmers will find themselves in situations where they need to solve problems and find solutions. They won’t have a coach to tell them what to do. This is a tremendous opportunity to build self-confidence and self-efficacy. When swimmers realize the power they have to create change, they’re not the same swimmer any more. This will show up in their racing.

Benefit- Small group teamwork

When you have a small group of individuals tasked with a ‘special purpose’, they often develop a tight bond driven by a shared sense of purpose. When a group of swimmers are given the responsibility of managing their practice and provided clear instructions as to what constitutes a successful outcome, they will rise to the occasions.

They’ll work together to hold themselves accountable, and they will learn to do so well. They’ll manage the practice so it gets done as planned, and they’ll support each other through the process. If one of the members is struggling, the support will be there.

This can become a source of pride for these individuals, and supports the formation of a group identity. It’s a tremendous opportunity to learn to work together as a team, and the impact can extend to the large group.

Drawback- Loss of external accountability and motivation

One of the functions of a coach is to help athletes perform activities that they would otherwise choose not to perform, or to perform those activities with greater effort than they would otherwise be able to. Some swimmers benefit less from this role as they are able to motivate themselves to consistently train at a very high level.

In other cases, some swimmers really respond to this function. For whatever reason, they lack the ability to really push themselves without external accountability and motivation. However, in the presence of a coach, they are able to train at a very high level.

When running multiple practices at the same time, a coach’s attention will necessary be split across multiple groups. They will be unable to consistently provide the same level of motivation and accountability to all swimmers at the same time. For some individuals, this will not influence much as they are able to perform of their own accord. However, some individuals will experience a loss of performance without the direct presence of a coach.

This impact can be marginalized by strategically focusing attention on different swimmers at different times, as well as deigning training sessions so that the swimmers are performing their most intense portions at different times. However, the level of external accountability will not be the same as when all swimmers are performing the same training session.

Drawback- Decreased group energy

A wonderful part of being a member of a team is the presence of a shared goal, and the excitement and energy that comes from the mutual pursuit of that goal. In training, when a large group is performing the same sessions and striving to overcome the same challenge, a tremendous amount of energy can be generated. This energy and enthusiasm can fuel individual performance, taking it to another level.

When multiple training sessions are being performed concurrently, each group will be smaller and thus capable of generating less energy. In some cases, this can lead to lesser performances, particularly in individuals that thrive on the group dynamic and external sources of motivation.

Beyond the energy dynamic, consistently separating the team can potentially reduce the cohesive nature of the group. As group bonds are formed during mutual challenge, smaller groups may limit this outcome, although it may strengthen bonds within the smaller groups. Ensuring that the composition of the smaller group is consistently changed could minimize this impact.

Drawback- Impaired execution

This drawback is mostly an extension and consequence of the prior two issues. With less accountability and less energy, practices can often be executed with less intention and lower levels of performance. This is obviously a problem. Over time, the impact of slightly less effective practices accumulates into performance differences that are real and significant.

Beyond the accountability to effort and focus, effective coaching requires coaching. It’s about making observations that swimmers are unable to make about themselves, or don’t have the wisdom and experience to make. These observations can’t be observed or communicated if a coach is not directly interacting with swimmers. The circus can potentially reduce the number of contacts per training session each individual will experience. This is particularly true of critical moment in training if the practice is not managed accordingly.

A further issue can arise with a lack of clarity of exactly how sets should be executed. Details matter and sometimes what is obvious to us as coaches is not obvious to the swimmers. While writing it out can help with clarity, sometimes it’s not necessarily a reading comprehension issue, but an understanding of what’s important and what training needs to look like.

Making a Choice

While there are certainly attractive benefits to running multiple practices at the same time, there are certainly challenges as well. While the number of benefits may seem to outweigh the drawbacks, the drawbacks listed are significant in magnitude. It can become a trade-off where we are forced to decide between providing more appropriate training executed less effectively, or less appropriate training executed more effectively.

Of course, this is a choice that we don’t have to settle for.

The solution? Design practices in a way that exploits all of the benefits, while minimizing the impact of the drawbacks. We’ll explore how in part II.


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