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What’s In A Word?

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. When considering skill acquisition, this remains true as well, often in ways we fail to fully appreciate.

Content clearly matters. If you communicate the wrong technical information, swimmers aren’t going to learn the right skills. The first step is knowing what to say when providing feedback and providing instructions.

However, how that information is communicated can have a significant impact on performance as well.

Consciously or not, coaches choose the type of language they use. These language choices can significantly impact skill acquisition, irrespective of the content communicated.

Coaches often use some of these strategies intuitively and do so effectively. However, with a conscious effort to carefully use language, coupled with an understanding as to why certain choices are appropriate, coaches can magnify the impact that their words have.

External vs. Internal Focus of Attention

An internal focus of attention is centered on movement actions whereas movement outcomes or outcomes. When cuing or providing feedback using an internal focus, you draw attention to what the swimmer is doing. For instance, ‘Put your head down’ and ‘Nice job pulling your arm backwards’. The focus on the swimmer’s body movement.

In contrast with an external focus attention is place on the outcome of the movement or what they movement effect is. Using the above examples, a coach could say ‘Look towards the bottom of the pool’ and ‘Nice job pulling back against the water’. The focus is on what the swimmer on the outcome of the swimmer’s movements.

Using an external focus of attention as consistently been shown to increase performance while reducing muscular activity. You get better performance with lower energy cost.

While these differences are not huge, along the lines of single percentage points, swimming is a competitive sport and every hundredth matters. It is important to note that these differences may not be tangible, but trust that the differences are there and trust that they accumulate over time.

A slight shift can have a cumulative effect, with the only cost being change.

Positive/Negative Orientation

When instructing a swimmer, you can tell them what to do, or you can tell them what not to do. In both cases, the specified action/goal is communicated. By instructing swimmers what to do, we are being explicit and direct about is important, as well as creating framework for action. By instructing an athlete what NOT to do, we are focusing their attention on exactly what we don’t want them to do.

By instructing an athlete what not to do, you are also implicitly criticizing their behavior. While I am certainly not advocating an environment void of criticism, it is important to understand that as coaches we are working to create change, which is an inherently critical process.

It is implied that a swimmer has faults once they request coaching. Each criticism makes this process explicit and this can slowly chip away at self-confidence. When trying to affect change, ask how you can build on what is being done right, as opposed to directing attention toward what needs to be avoided. If you don’t want them to do it, don’t mention it!


Using precise technical descriptions can excessively limit the movement options a swimmer has. Instead, the coach can use analogy to constrain a swimmer’s actions while still providing opportunity for each swimmer to find the appropriate solution for their physical characteristics.

Instead of asking for a very specific solution, analogy can move a swimmer into a movement space that allows for the exploration of functional skills. Expert coaches at all levels employ analogy effectively, such as ‘streamline like a rocket ship!’

As opposed to using analogy inconsistently, coaches should strive to use this language as much as possible. Whenever instruction is being used, ask whether an effective analogy can be created first. Additionally, consider how to make analogies contextually and personally relevant. The rocket ship is going to resonate with a 6-year-old boy. They’ll love it. The 20-year old will think it’s lame.

It’s pertinent for a coach to remember that analogy must have context for the swimmer. Not only should the swimmer understand what the analogy is expressing, it can also help for the analogy to be memorable. Beyond the personal context a given analogy may have, the applicability of analogy will also be age dependent. Younger individuals may have a harder understanding the comparison an analogy implies.

Kinesthetic/Biomechanical Description

When describing skills, focus on what movements should feel like versus what they look like. Swimmers process and learn movement through feelings, not what they can see as they can’t see themselves move*.

Now what if they can’t feel anything? Well, the only way they’re going to learn is by being required to focus on and engage in their kinesthetic information. When soliciting feedback from the swimmer, reinforce this perspective by asking, ‘how did that feel?’ as opposed to ‘what did you think?’. This is one way you can help swimmers develop ‘feel for the water’.

In many cases, what swimmers ARE doing and what they THINK they’re doing are often quite different. Swimmers don’t need to know what the ideal is. They need to do know what they have to DO to make it happen. They are guided by their kinesthetic awareness, so speak to them in that language.

If you focus your instruction on what is going to feel like to move in a new way, they’re likely be more to pick it up. The more you do it, the better they get at it. Soon enough, they can make big adjustments quickly.

*This is not to dismiss the use of video technology. Seeing themselves or someone else swimming is much different than the verbal description of what they should be doing. True visual feedback is valuable, this article is about words.


  • When possible speak in terms of movement effects/outcomes versus movement actions.

  • When possible, tell swimmers what you want to them to focus on.

  • When possible, use analogy to present a technical problem for them to solve.

  • When possible, describe movement in kinesthetic terms, including the use of analogy.

A change in how information is communicated is challenging. In many ways, it is like learning a new language. It takes time to observe, think, and finally speak with full intention about how to communicate during the skill acquisition.

The effort is worth it.


Motor Learning and Attention

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