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The Problem with Perfect

Practice makes perfect.

A well-worn performance cliché. It sounds great until you consider that it doesn’t address the quality of the practice that is being performed. If practice is of poor quality, then it’s certainly not going to lead to the desired improvements in performance. The unsaid implication is that ANY type of practice is going to lead to perfect. Clearly, this is not the case. To account for this, we get the updated cliché-

Perfect practice makes perfect.

On the surface, this seems like an upgraded version of the previous statement, wisely integrating the idea that the quality of practice is as important as the presence of practice in the first place. It seems like we’ve got it figured out with this statement.

However, this claim is equally as problematic as the first one, because there’s a problem with perfect. Actually, there are several problems with perfect. Using ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ as a driving force for the development of training sessions is going to cause as many problems as it purports to solve.

While I doubt that many coaches are consciously designing training sessions with this idea in mind, critically examining the issues with ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ can help to illustrate some fundamental concepts about practice design that can be used to make practices more effective in helping swimmers swim fast when it counts.

If you can’t do it perfectly yet, you can’t practice it perfectly

Perfect practice is a wonderful concept if you can already perform the required task perfectly. But what do you do if swimmers can’t perform the task?

If we’re always looking for perfection, we may dismiss strategies that may lead to progress, especially if these same strategies don’t allow for perfection to be displayed, particularly in the short-term.

Swimmers need to learn. They need to get better. They need to move from where they are, a certain state of ‘non-perfection’, to a state that more closely resembles perfection, however we define it. If our strategy is to practice perfectly, and we can’t practice perfectly because the skills and abilities aren’t there, what are we to do?

Performing isn’t learning

I’ve discussed this issue previously, and it relates directly to the idea of perfect practice. If a swimmer is practicing a skill ‘perfectly’, that means they are performing. They are demonstrating competence and they are doing so repeatedly. Perfectly practicing previously learned skills doesn’t necessarily lead to learning.

We don’t learn by repeating the same skills exactly the same way over and over again. We learn by making mistakes in various contexts, comparing those mistakes to our expected outcomes (consciously or unconsciously), and then adjusting our strategies to move closer to our goals (again consciously or unconsciously). It is an iterative process that is not simply rehearsal, but a struggle to get closer and improve outcomes.

Perfection is variable

If we’re looking for perfection, we need to know what the goal is. The problem is that the goal is going to be different for different individuals, often in ways we can’t see or predict. While it’s valuable to have technical principles that give us a sense of what is appropriate, they give us the ‘rules’ without giving the answers that a model might provide.

It will be difficult to practice or rehearse perfection if we can’t know exactly what it looks like, beyond constantly experimenting and tracking performance outcomes over time. Expecting swimmers to conform to rigid expectations is more likely to result in robotic swimmers that don’t have the adaptability to adjust to the dynamics of the racing environment.

Perfection breeds frustration

When faced with incredibly difficult, or even impossible standards, the typical response is one of frustration, apathy, and disengagement. These are exactly the opposite mindsets that we want from swimmers in training. By setting a standard and expectation that simply is beyond the reach.

Many coaches pride themselves on ‘high standards’. Having high standards is critical as a coach. Having realistic expectations is equally as important. If we go into our coaching with the mindset that we will only accept perfection, we are going to have a lot of frustrated and unmotivated swimmers. Asking swimmers to accomplish what’s difficult, yet challenging is what will ultimately create a better environment.

Is this all semantics?

This may seem like an intellectual exercise in playing with words that has no practical significance.

It’s not.

It matters.

It matters because our frame of reference defines what our expectations are for effective practice, and what good practices should look like. These expectations will alter how we design and implement training sessions, and the nature of our training sessions is what will ultimately dictate to degree to which swimmers will improve, or not.

Not only is perfection not a necessary goal, it’s actually a counter-productive.

We want mistakes in training. We want struggle in training. We want challenge in training. It is through errors that swimmers are able to learn. Repeating the same movements presents no challenge, and thus, it presents no stimulus for improvement or change.

Should perfect practice be the standard against which practice is judged, and if practices are designed in a manner that creates environments which make ‘perfection’ more likely, we will ultimately be selling swimmers short.

We want the opposite. We want messy.

Make mistakes in training

Learning can be accelerated when there is a degree of failure and mistakes are being made. As described above, there is a difference between learning and performing. Consistently repeating the same skill without error is indicating that a swimmer is simply replicating a skill.

The solution is then to increase the challenge until errors begin to emerge. That challenge can take the form of increased volume, more speed, less rest, more resistance, or any other challenge you can create. The presence of mistakes is an indication of learning, especially when those mistakes are happening in the presence of focus and engagement on the part of the swimmers.

Rather than striving for practice designs and training tasks that allow for excellent execution, we should aim for tasks that CREATE imperfections, that force swimmers to adapt, and are challenging enough that they prevent swimmers from perfect execution. It is during this struggle that swimmers are going to learn the most, not by being perfect.

Create environments where swimmers are bumped away from perfect so that they have to learn to change. Know that it WON’T be perfect. At first, it will probably be ugly. However, it creates the environment where swimmers are provided the opportunity to focus on BETTER rather than perfect.

The key to excellent training design is creating training sessions with an OPTIMAL number of mistakes. While we’ll never have a specific number, we want enough success to motivate and maintain confidence, paired with enough mistakes to encourage learning.

This is a key coaching skill.

Better is better than perfect

Rather than striving for perfect, we should aim for better. Coaches will be most effective when constantly pushing for better.

  • Better execution and performance than the prior repetition.

  • Better execution and performance than the prior set.

  • Better execution and performance than the prior practice.

  • Better execution and performance than the prior week.

  • Better execution and performance in more challenging contexts.

If swimmers are consistently moving forward in their execution of skills and training, they will be improving. They will be getting faster.

It’s critical to have very high standards as a coach. It’s critical to know what’s possible. These are the standards we always want to be moving towards. Rather than orienting ourselves around these standards in a binary fashion, in that they’re met or they're not met, I suggest orienting around whether swimmers are progressing towards those standards.

This will be less frustrating for coaches and swimmers alike. There are MANY ways to be successful when pursuing improvement. There is only ONE way to be successful when the standard is perfection. This allows for ALL swimmers to engage in the process in a productive and motivating fashion.

Everyone loves progress and everyone is motivated by progress. If we center our interactions around searching for progress, swimmers are much more likely to achieve the desired standards, and do so in manner that makes them want to come back for more.

How we frame what happens in practice, preferably using a frame focused on improvement, will determine how swimmers interpret what happens. This interpretation will then affect how they choose to behave in the future.

Living It Daily

Perfect practice makes perfect.

It sounds great. However, in terms of effectiveness, it pales in comparison to ‘good enough’ and a simple focus on improvement. Mistakes are a critical part of the learning process, and many tasks should be designed with ensuring that errors and failure are part of the process.

With appropriate training design in place, it becomes a matter of how we communicate about what is happening. Instead of coaching towards a black and white frame of achieving particular expectations, meet swimmers where they are, and help them incrementally move towards those standards you feel are critical for performance.

Put simply-

  • Design training sessions with an optimal number of mistakes. If there is too much failure (however we choose to define failure), make takes easier. If there is too much success (however we choose to define success), make tasks more difficult.

  • Communicate that better is always the standard, rather than a particular arbitrary standard. Swimmers should strive to be constantly pushing beyond their own previous capabilities. If they can do this consistently, they will get to where they need to go.

By not striving perfection, we’re more likely to get there.


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