Thinking and Feeling
‘Think in practice so you don’t have to think in competition.’
This is a sentiment that’s used fairly often to encourage swimmers to focus on what they are doing during training with the end goal of improving performance.
I suppose it makes sense at a basic level. Training is where improvements are made, and they’re not going to happen without focused intention. Similarly, an inappropriate focus on thinking about what to do, how to do it, when to do it, etc, is going to cause problems in races. At an extreme level, this is known as choking.
I’d like to argue that swimmers shouldn’t be thinking at all, in competition or in training.
Instead they should be learning to pay attention to what they are FEELING, rather than thinking.
Sensation is the language of movement. Thinking is the language of analysis, and we’ve all heard the expression ‘paralysis by analysis’ for a reason.
While this may seem like semantics, it fundamentally changes how coaches choose to view the role of practice, how they choose to interact with their swimmers, and how they expect their swimmers to direct their attention in training.
What Swimmers Need to Do
Swimmers need to execute the same basic skill in practice and in competition.
They need to pay attention.
More importantly, they need to be able to pay attention to what they are FEELING.
In training, there is a focused attention of what swimmers are feeling and what is happening. They are paying attention to varying changes in pressure, they are paying attention to their feeling of rhythm, they are paying attention to their feeling of effort, their feeling of fatigue.
They are constantly evaluating those sensations against the measures of performance that are present in training, whether they are performance times, or other targets such as strokes rates or stroke counts.
Training is about learning to feel MORE, feel more precisely, feel more accurately, and calibrate those feelings with performance. Simply, they need to learn what fast feels like.
Once they do, they simply have to re-create those feelings in competition.
In contrast, racing is about just letting it happen. There is a certain detached indifference that comes with successful racing. Rather than searching for sensation, swimmers simply need to be dimly aware of it. This dim awareness allows swimmers to detect if what they are feeling is ‘off’ compared to what they expect, and then subtly and patiently bring those feelings back in line.
It’s barely conscious process. It doesn’t FEEL quite right, and swimmers just relax into the feelings they’re looking for. Races CAN be saved when swimmers can accomplish this task. It’s a skill that must be practiced.
A quote from a swimmer after a championship race where they went significant best times. ‘My rhythm felt a little rushed the 1st 25, so I let everything settle for a bit, and it all clicked into place.’
This can’t happen through thoughts where swimmers try ‘move their arms faster’ or ‘kick harder’ or ‘bend their elbows’. It’s something they have to feel.
The distinction between training and racing is similar in spirit as the quote we started with, as it provides distinction between the levels of engagement in training and competition. However, it is different in that what swimmers are doing is different. By feeling, they are operating by using the information that is most compatible with optimal movement.
What Coaches Need to Do
While there is a lot of value in swimmers shifting from thinking to processes, they’re probably not going to learn to do so on their own. Fortunately for us, they need a coach!
Coaches have a fundamental role in helping to determine how swimmers process information, which information they choose to process, and how they orient their focus in the water. From the words we choose to use, to the training sessions we choose to design, we can move swimmers closer to or further from a place where they are in tune with what is happening in the water.
The words we use can have a major impact on how swimmers focus and direct their attention. They can also have a tremendous impact on how they move.
At a basic level, consider the following two sets of questions-
What did you think about that one?
How do you think that went?
How do you feel about that one?
How do you feel that went?
While it may seem like semantics, it is not. It matters.
In the first case, swimmers will analyze their experience to come up with a response. While it may not take much time, there will be some hesitation as they process what happened. They’re going to THINK about it and come up with an explanation that ‘makes sense’. They’re going to rely on their brain to tell them what happened.
In contrast, if you ask them what they FELT they’re going to give you a much faster response, and especially at first, a response that is pretty vague. They’re going to respond based on their intuition, their perception, and the sensations they felt. In the first set of questions, you get a clean, processed response. In the latter, you get the raw data.
Initially, this information doesn’t always make sense to them, and you’re going to get pretty uncertain responses. This is a clear indicator that swimmers need to be more perceptually aware, although perhaps not consciously aware, of what is happening around them.
As coaches, when we ask questions and we ask for feedback, HOW we solicit that information is determining how swimmers handle that information. As we want them tuned in to the raw data that their body is telling them, we need to make sure we are communicating in a way that facilitates this process.
Some other useful lines of questioning when aiming to increase awareness in swimmers-
What did you feel on that swim?
What did you feel on your legs there?
Did the first 50 feel different than the second 50?
Could you feel a difference in pressure on those swims?
Did you feel like you got more or less out of your legs there?
What do you feel like you could have done better?
What do you feel like went really well?
The possibilities are endless. Simply include the word ‘feel’ in your questions as often as possible. This will help swimmers tune into their kinesthetic awareness and their intuitions more readily. Over time, they will develop the ability to process this information rapidly and accurately.
This is a state where swimmers can race most effectively.
Beyond the feedback we provide, any instructions we give can also lead to more or less thinking. As described HERE, how we provide instructions can influence learning outcomes. It also influences whether swimmers will take a cognitive or kinesthetic orientation towards their engagement in training.
Below is a brief summary of three strategies that are incredibly effective at facilitating the desired shift. For more, read the article linked above. Each strategy can help to facilitate a shift towards a greater awareness of feeling.
Analogy. Comparing the desired movement or sensation to an unrelated one can help to provide guidance to swimmers searching for a solution, without providing a rigid solution. It can be really useful when trying to convey what a movement should feel like, particularly with swimmers who are not used to feeling much of anything, or swimmers that are struggling with a particular sensation.
For instance, a swimmer that is recovering the arms in freestyle extremely low to the water could be instructed to ‘recover the arms like a rainbow’. This creates guidance for the swimmer using an example they are familiar with, and they can sense how it should feel. The alternative, ‘recover your arms higher’, is much more difficult to lock onto.
Kinesthetic Information. Instead of providing information to swimmers about what different skills should look like, communicate about what they should feel like. Not only will this be more effective in terms of actually facilitating a change as swims can’t really see what they’re doing, it will force them to process information through their sense of movement. They will be required to tune into what they are feeling, and modify their movements based upon these feelings. As any visual information will ultimately be translated into what a movement feels like anyway, it’s a more direct path to change.
Providing kinesthetic information tends to work well with analogy, and comparing swimming movements to known sensations is quite useful. When instructing someone to improve their catch in freestyle, you could tell a swimmer to bend their elbow between 90 and 135 degrees. Or you could tell them to focus on feeling like they are wrapping around the water. The latter is going to be information they can process and adjust, whereas it will be challenging to do so in the former.
External Focus. Have swimmers focus on the outcomes of their movements (an external focus), rather than the movements themselves (an internal focus). When performing a start, the focus would be on ‘pushing into the block as hard as possible’, rather than ‘push with your leg as hard as possible’. By focusing on what needs to happen versus how to make that tends to lead to movement that is more effective. Further, it tends to reduce the cognitive activity which can lead to choking, and using an external focus has been shown to enhance performance under pressure.
While words do matter, it matters just as much what we are communicating about. They only matter as much as the appropriateness of the context in which they are used. To make communication more effective, we need to design tasks that most effectively provide appropriate sensory experiences.
The ability to feel what is happening is a skill, and it can be learned. Beyond the general ability to be aware of sensory information, it’s critical to design training tasks that require swimmers to explore effective positions. By performing tasks that require swimmers to move effectively, swimmers will learn what they feel like.
For instance, rather than communicating about the importance of a ‘high elbow pulling position’, give them a buoy, strap on a parachute, make them swim with closed fists, and give them a stroke count. Real quick, they’re going to learn what is effective and what is not. They’ll be able to FEEL it.
Instructions could never describe what they will be feeling. In contrast, communicating about what is happening, primarily through the use of questions as above, can help swimmers process what they are feeling. However, this process becomes most effective when the tasks are designed appropriately.
In addition, tasks that are constrained and directed towards specific goals will require swimmers to move in new ways. The key is in designing tasks that move swimmers towards moving in more effective ways.
For instance, by applying stroke count restrictions to 400m pace work, swimmers will be required to find new ways to move more efficiently at race speeds. Similarly, swimmers could be required to modify the number of dolphin kicks (less or more) during 200m pace work to place more stress on swimming or dolphin kicking effectiveness, respectively. These are simple examples, where constraints and goals shape how swimmers move.
Once placed in positions that are designed to promote change, we can effectively communicate about what swimmers and are feeling, and how it relates to swimming fast.
The Role of a Coach
In consideration of the appropriate use of language and task design, we need to fundamentally reconsider the role of the coach. What has traditionally been considered coaching will actively work against what we’re trying to accomplish by helping swimmers learn to ‘feel’.
Beyond the importance of improving physiological capacities, which although not the focus here IS critically important, coaches are tasked with helping swimmers learn more effective ways of moving through the water. Traditionally, this task has been executed through the use of rigid stroke drills and formulaic instruction of how to execute specific movements.
However, if we’re to really help swimmers feel what they are doing and learn the language of physical sensation, we need to shift away from this role of instruction. With instruction, the focus is on the forms of movement, what action looks like. In contrast we need to help swimmers focus on what movements feel like. This will happen through different ways of communicating, and this communication should center around what is happening during specifically designed kinesthetic experiences.
Rather than moving swimmers towards what we feel effective swimming should look like, we’re tasked with helping swimmers learn to feel what effective feels like.
How often have you heard coaches describe swimmers struggling in competition as someone who ‘thinks too much’. It’s not uncommon. There are some swimmers where you can almost literally see the gears turning before their races. Too much conscious effort is going to actively work against what they’re trying to accomplish. The irony is that the more they want to be successful, the more they get in their own way.
This is where a shift from thinking to feeling can pay off.
If we’re constantly focusing on what swimmers are thinking about in practice, either through our instructions or our feedback, we’re teaching them that thinking is valuable while simultaneously reinforcing that thinking is a good strategy. We’re literally teaching them to think more, which is exactly the opposite of how we want them to race.
By focusing on feeling, swimmers will learn what the critical sensations and feelings are for fast swimming. They will learn the ‘kinesthetic steering wheels’. They will learn how to drive the car.
When they get into racing situations, they can do as Yoda implored, and actually trust their feelings. They can do so because they’re in tune with them. This ability to feel their way through a race with detached indifference is also helpful when mistakes happen. They can quickly re-calibrate their actions with their feelings, and find their stroke again. They’ll have the ability to FEEL what’s and adjust.
We want swimmers that are free to race. Helping them tune into their feelings is how this process is facilitated.
What we really want is ENGAGEMENT
Implicit in the quote that starts the article is that coaches expect swimmers to ‘think’ in practice. My intention has been to argue that ‘thinking’, at least in an analytical way, is going to be problematic in terms of learning and performing.
Yet the quote does certainly have merit, and I feel it can be more accurate and more powerful with a slight change. Rather than thinking, coaches want engagement in practice. They want swimmers that are actively working to accomplish whatever tasks are put before them, and engagement is required to do so.
Engagement does not have to be an analytical process. As we’ve discussed, there is much to be gained by paying attention to what they are feeling- the feedback they are receiving from their body and from the water. They can be engaged by focusing on achieving specific outcomes, and working to improve those outcomes, calibrating what they feel with what they are able to do.
Unengaged swimmers will NOT improve. Consistently engaged swimmers WILL improve.
The idea that we want swimmers to think is appropriate in spirit, and with a slight change in approach, we can make it simply appropriate.
Coaches expect their swimmers to think, with the expectation that more thinking in practice is going to lead to less thinking in competition, resulting in faster swimming. While I certainly agree that the ability to think less in competition is a positive step, more thinking in practice probably isn’t going to help. If anything, it’s going to teach them to rely on thinking to be effective, exactly the opposite of what we want.
The solution is simple. Help swimmers learn how to feel what they are doing and learn to manipulate their movements based upon what they are feeling. This requires the same engagement coaches are looking for in training, while helping swimmers understand the language that will most productively lead to great swimming.
Coaches can facilitate by the words they choose when providing feedback and instruction, as well as how they design training tasks. It requires a revision of the role they play, moving from instructor to facilitator.
Swimmers that are able to make change, swim effectively and efficiently, and race without restriction.