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Winning Ugly

Janet Evans swam ugly. Many coaches were critical of her unorthodox recoveries, her high breathing action, and her bouncy rhythm.

Janet Evans also dominated long-distance swimming throughout the 80s and early 90s. During that period, she established world records over 400m and 800m that lasted almost 20 years.

Maybe she knew something everyone else didn’t know. She knew that what you do doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is the effect of your actions.

Janet knew that winning ugly is still winning.

As coaches, we are often wrapped up in the aesthetics of technique. It’s what we look for and it’s what we teach. The underlying assumption is that shaping movement to look ‘better’, as defined by our models, our preferences, and our textbooks, will make movement more effective at achieving fast performances. While this is understandable as we process skill visually, the primary value is that doing so allows for us to get concrete about technique. We can organize our thoughts, create models, and have standards to work toward.

However, what we are really interested in is function. Can swimmers organize their movements in a way that allows for faster swimming? It doesn’t matter what technique looks like; it matters how technique allows swimmers to achieve their goals, namely winning races. Unfortunately, the technical skills that ultimately influence performance are not superficial. They are not obvious. They are often subtle and individualized to each swimmer. As described before, they may not even be visible.

Very subtle changes in technique are linked to very subtle changes in performance. In terms of causality, we often view the process as technique changes causing performance changes. However, the opposite is true as well. Improvements in performance will require improvement in technique.

This is even more relevant when considering that we can’t always see or coach these changes in technique. However, we can see and manage changes in performance. Faster is faster, more efficient is more efficient, and easier is easier. If we improve performance, the necessary changes in technique will come along for the ride.

This is the idea I’d like to explore.

In this article, we’ll walk through the various levels of coaching skill and effectiveness as it pertains to skill acquisition. While it’s easy to get the impression that each progression of skill in effecting technical change is superior to the prior stage, it’s more about the evolution of a coaching skillset. Each level builds upon the other and allows for coaches to more and more reliably effect performance improvements through technical intervention.

This process ultimate culminates in managing the training process in a manner that creates technical changes that directly enhance performance as an outcome of the work performed. I’ll address how performance-driven technical interventions are manifested in practice and how while the skillsets developed in previous stages can serve as tools to better facilitate change, they remain and means to an end.

1. No Skill Acquisition Process

Simply, this is not coaching. Coaches provide no or minimal skill acquisition opportunities. While there may be references to drill work and technical improvements during the first weeks of the season, these references quickly disappear as training ramps up. When it comes down to it, the focus is on training and the development of physiological systems.

While this can certainly be a productive approach as it has developed champions, I would argue that this approach falls short of developing the potential of even these champions, let alone the others who fail to achieve the same level of success. Performance opportunities are left on the table.

2. Instruction-Based Skill Acquisition Process

Coaches operating at this level have the intention to improve technical skills, and often are able to do so. They have a plan of what they want to accomplish and they are effective with executing that plan. They value certain aspects of technique and have the skillset to create change over time.

As compared to a lack of a skill acquisition plan, this approach can be very effective. However, the short-comings of this approach arise when the visual aspects of technique become an end to themselves.

Coaches can begin to coach technical aspects that ‘look’ wrong, but either have no impact on performance or actually contribute to performance. Considering the time and energy required to facilitate change, this is a waste of time at best. Unfortunately, the skills that are easy to coach are often the least relevant. This can create a trap where time and energy are spent in areas that don’t result in faster swimming.

This type of skill acquisition is about conforming with technical models, based primarily on the technique of former and current champions. While this can be an effective strategy for understanding skills, a principle-based approach often has more merit. These models may be more or less appropriate for specific individuals and the same model applied to two different swimmers may help one swimmer swim faster and one swimmer swim slower.

Further, by focusing on movement as opposed to movement effects, the cart is put before the horse. There is no accountability to performance. The ultimate arbiter of ‘good skill’ is if swimmers swim faster. By focusing on what skills look like, there is no judgement against the standard of performance. If performance is what is being focused on, the required skills will develop. More on that later.

Further, the more swimmers are focused on where their limbs are placed and what their body is doing, the more they will be thinking. The more swimmers actively think during performance, the more likely they are to choke. If this habit is reinforced in training, it can show up in competition.

The purpose here is not to dismiss this level of coaching as inadequate. It is a starting point for coaches to begin the process of learning how to improve skill. Having idealized models can help create a framework upon which improved skilled can be built. Further coaches must start somewhere and this is the easiest point of entry. Coaches who have mastered high levels of coaching will have also mastered the skillsets required at this level of coaching.

For those looking for more information about this level of coaching, I would refer you to almost any coaching text that describes the swimming strokes. While these texts may be more or less accurate, occasionally confusing cause and effect, they are good starting point.

These descriptions are useful for gaining an appreciation of the human body moves. No coach who can facilitate skill acquisition at higher levels does not have a deep understanding of the visual aspects of effective skill.

3. Sensory-Based Skill Acquisition Process

While coaching may appear to be a visual craft, swimming fast is definitely a kinesthetic craft. Coaches tend to be guided by what they see, whereas swimmers are guided by what they feel. This disconnect encapsulate the inherent problems associated with visually-based, instructional coaching.

As swimmers will never be able to see themselves in real-time during competition, they must compete while being guided by sensory information. If we as coaches want to communicate effectively with swimmers, they must learn to speak their language. In addition, swimmers must learn to understand the information their body is providing them, a process which can be facilitated by the coach. Skill acquisition will be significantly enhanced by doing so.

Here are some ideas about how to do that.

Describing skill-based tasks in terms of sensory information. We describe movements in terms of joint angles, positions, and postures. As noted above, this is not the language swimmers speak. Communicate about what these positions will FEEL like. Give swimmers a kinesthetic target to search for. When the target is accurate, they will find it and they will find it quickly. On the coach’s part, this often requires a deep understanding of movement, as well as a deep understanding of how a swimmer’s current movement will affect what they will feel.

Describe what swimmers have to do, as opposed to describing a model. A swimmer who excessively crosses the arms under their body while pulling will need to FEEL as if they are pulling way outside their body. A swimmer who swims with a high head position that compromises body position will need to FEEL as if they are burying their head. Rather than describing the targeted positions, describe what the swimmers need to do and feel to achieve them.

Creating sensory search problems. Put swimmers in situations where they must search for the desired sensation. Challenge their ability to do so. Giving a swimmer one tennis ball and one hand paddle and require that they create and FEEL the same amount of pressure on both arms. This will help swimmers learn to more effectively create propulsion.

Use variability and sensory contrast to expose swimmers to novel sensations. When working on a particular task, introduce slight changes in how the skill is executed, what equipment is used to modify the task, and switch between these tasks to create contrast. By allowing swimmers to search through the subtleties of different sensations, they can determine which information is worth paying attention to.

Challenge swimmers’ ability to sustain the desired kinesthetic sensations. This can happen through the use of fatigue, resistance, and high velocity. All three of these interventions will impact what is felt and what is felt will change over the course of the repetition. Beyond the change in sensation, the struggle to maintain their skills will also enhance swimmer’s ability to maintain focus on what they feel under pressure (i.e. in a race). Building on the previous point, the type of fatigue, the level of resistance, the amount of velocity should be varied to heighten these effects.

Use analogy. Describing movement in relation to other objects, movements, or concepts can help provide swimmers with sensory target to realize. The effective use of analogy is predicated on the swimmer’s understanding of the relationship. It can provide a good baseline to start, as well as frame of reference from which to move differently.

For more information, considered reading the following articles. They explore these ideas in various contexts.

4. Performance-Based Skill Acquisition Process (Winning Ugly)

At this level, we’ve moved beyond technique as end and simply a means. As Janet Evans demonstrated, winning ugly is still winning.

The primary goals of any set should be to perform achieve specific performances, in terms of time, dolphin kick count, stroke count, and/or stroke rate. If the performances are achieved, the technique required to accomplish those objectives will follow.

How each set is designed will determine what technical skills are learned. This is key. The skill in coaching is designing sets that require swimmers to learn the critical aspects of swimming fast in order to accomplish the specific tasks set. The better the set is designed, the fewer the number of solutions will be available to effectively accomplish the goals of the set. With a well-designed set, it can only be accomplished with skills that represent an improvement on the swimmer’s current skill set.

Great coaching comes from designing sets that only allow for skills that are required for fast swimming in competition. Importantly, while it takes tremendous engagement to accomplish the prescribed tasks, these skills are not necessarily learned with conscious effort. Swimmers are focused on doing what it takes to accomplish these objectives, not on improving their technique.

Effective technique is means to an end, not an end. There is no ‘swimming pretty’ for its own sake. Just a relentless march towards better and better performances. The appropriate skills must come along for the ride, IF sets are designed well.

Getting Concrete

Let’s make this practical by considering the following set, designed for a sprinter early in a training period.

3 rounds through

4*75@1.15 Band and buoy; no paddles; 1 less stroke per 25; des time 1-4 without increasing stroke count

4*50@1 Band and buoy; 25 as few strokes as possible without catch-up/ 25 blast pull #1 no paddles #2 left paddle #3 right paddle #4 no paddles

4*25@1 Blast band, buoy, and parachute at pre-determined stroke count; RD1 no paddles/ RD2 small paddles, one less stroke, faster/ RD3 large paddles, one less stroke, fastest

Extra 30 seconds rest

50@2 RD1 200 pace +1/ RD2 200 pace/ RD3 200 pace -1/ holding a pre-determined, reduced stroke count and dolphin kick count

The focus here is on hitting achieving time performances and hitting the required stroke counts. Because the legs are essentially out of commission, swimmers must hit various stroke count requirements by making sure they are optimizing pulling mechanics. The coach is not necessarily telling them how to do it, just requiring that it happens. It’s up to the swimmer to figure it out.

As stroke count requirements are also placed under pressure with velocity requirements, it is not enough for a swimmer to be efficient; they must also be effective. This helps to ensure that the learned skill, in this case force application to the water, is relevant to the skills required in racing.

Learning is further maximizing by constantly changing speeds, stroke requirements, and equipment. This contrast in sensation can help make swimmers aware of the different options for successful execution. The differences in what works in each situation can help swimmers understand what works in all situations. Further, there will be commonalities in execution across conditions, and these are the fundamental skills that must be employed.

A key concept is that as performance requirement rise, swimmers must find more and more effective technical solutions to meet the increasing performance demands. With each increase in performance standard, there must be a related increase in learning. Skills and performance are directly linked, rather than indirectly linked as with other approaches. Importantly, as swimmers swim faster and faster in practice, you can be assured they will be swimming faster and faster in meets. This is the value of the approach. The transfer is direct and the impact is measurable. There are simply fewer surprises in competition.

Consistent exposure to sets like this will help swimmers learn to effectively and efficiently apply force. Further, similar sets will simultaneously develop the physical conditioning to create and sustain the outputs required to actualize these performances.

Over the course of a season, the focus of the set could shift more and more to full stroke swimming with similar requirements, as well as more and more race relevant velocities and structures. This can help to ensure that what is learned in somewhat non-specific contexts is gradually transferred into the most specific work possible.

What’s the Process?

Having seen explored the concept and seen a concrete example, how might a coach incorporate these strategies into practice? It’s straight forward-

1. Identify the performance concepts you are trying to develop. To swim faster, swimmers need to create more propulsion, reduce their resistance, or improve their rhythm and timing. Within each of the categories, there are subcategories of skill that can be further targeted. Propulsion is created with multiple limbs, resistance is minimized by various positions, and rhythm can come from different areas of the body. Identifying opportunities for improvement, and then specifically targeted those areas is key.

2. Design a training task that is performance-driven, measurable, and requires manipulation of the targeted skills to complete successfully. A key aspect of this type of training design is that the only effective solutions are possible. The other options must be removed. As in the example above, if you want to target the upper body, swimmers can’t be able to cheat the stroke count or speed by adjusting their legs.

While both of these steps are simple, they require a fundamental understanding of what is most important, as well as what parameters can be manipulated to put pressure on the fundamental aspects of skill. Coaches must know what’s important and be able to put swimmers into position where they must solve relevant movement problems.

Performing these steps effectively takes time, and is why there is value in the previous levels of facilitating skill acquisition. It is during these formative periods that these skills are developed.

What’s the Coach’s Role?

Designing and assigning effective tasks is the most important contribution a coach can make. If this is not done effectively, all the coaching communication possible is not going to make up for what a good task can accomplish.

Beyond designing tasks, coaches can facilitate the process of successfully executing these tasks by asking guided questions. These requests for feedback provide subtle suggestions that help interpret the effectiveness of the strategies they’ve used, as well as guide them towards new strategies. By asking questions, coaches facilitate engagement in the process of learning how to be better. Through answering questions, swimmers are forced to engage as they can’t make up answers. It’s actually easier to demonstrate engagement as opposed to try to make something up.

Asking questions and requiring specific performance metrics also helps swimmers develop a value set. Swimmers will value what is valued by coaches and the questions coaches ask will demonstrate their values. Swimmers will then fall in line. Coaches must then be thoughtful about what they ask questions about as it has both long-term and short-term consequences.

To effectively accomplish the tasks of the set, swimmers must improve their technique.

How is the process managed? A simple evaluation performed by swimmers after each repetition. Was it faster? Was it more efficient was it easier? By answering these questions, swimmers are guided towards better movement through the water by their performance. More detailed information about this process is available here.

In short, it is about finding solutions to the problems of performance.

  • If the time is fast, but the stroke count is off, how can the swimmer adjust the execution to be more efficient?

  • If stroke count is correct, but the time is slow, how can the swimmer adjust the execution to be more effective?

  • If time and the count are accurate, how can the swimmer adjust the execution for the effort to be easier?

The more swimmers are in tune with what they feel, the more effective they will be at solving problems. This is a skill developed through coaching and this is why it is important for coaches to develop the ability to coach through sensory information first. That skillset supports the efforts made here.

To be clear, there is still a place for Level 2 and Level 3 skill acquisition processes. However, they are a ‘backup’ plan to facilitate progress in Level 4 performances. Coaches can use these concepts to facilitate quick changes that allow for progress in performances. However, coaches must be very skilled in using these processes to facilitate immediate changes through the appropriate word choices. This is possible.

For further ideas, please consult the following articles-


Enhancing the process of skill acquisition is a fundamental objective for coaches. However, there are various approaches toward effecting this process. Some coaches approach skill acquisition haphazardly or not at all, others from a visual and descriptive perspective, others from a sensory perspective, and finally from a task design standpoint.

I feel that these approaches are hierarchical in nature, in that each successive stage builds upon the previous stage. Initially, coaches focus on what great skill looks like, then what it feels like, and finally what great skills allow for, namely fast swimming. While the coaching skillsets developed in each stage are useful throughout the remainder of a coaching career, the sooner coaches can appreciate technique as a means to an end, and not an end, the sooner they can progress towards facilitating the development of skills that win races.

By structuring training sets that require race-winning skills to be accomplished successfully, coaches will be putting swimmers in the best position to learn the skills that determine fast swimming. The more effectively these sets are structured and designed, the better the resulting performances will be.

While it may appear that it’s a simplistic approach to technical development, it actually requires a fundamental understanding of movement and learning. To optimally design training sets, coaches must deeply understand what is required for fast swimming, what it looks like, and what it feels like.

With this understanding, coaches can create opportunities for swimmers to learn what it takes to win, ugly or not.


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