True story. In 1995 a man called McArthur Wheeler, robbed two banks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.. He wore no sort of discernible disguise and happily smiled at the security cameras on the way out. The police viewed the CCTV, identified him and quickly arrested him. He was astonished. He couldn’t work out how he had been caught. He assumed he had stumbled on a failsafe method of disguising himself because he had smeared his face with lemon juice.

Huh ?

Well, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink he had assumed that it would do the same trick for him and render him invisible as well !

It’s easy to dismiss this story as the act of an idiot. However, it piqued the interest of two phycologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger who decided to investigate further. Their findings, published in 1999  (  gave birth to what is known as the Dunning Kruger effect. You see, their conclusions were that the man wasn’t a fool at all. Just extremely misguided and misinformed, leading him to have a massive overconfidence in his own ability to succeed.

Further studies on people rating their own levels of competence have backed up their conclusions. For example, in a group of US software developers 42% ranked themselves in the top 5% of performers.  Another study showed 88% of US drivers rated themselves as “above average” in their skills.

Interestingly, the lack of self-awareness about one’s true level of competence in whatever area was being studied was not limited to those with little knowledge of the subject. People with a genuinely higher level of expertise tended to make incorrect evaluations regarding their own ability in the other direction. i.e. they tended to rate their performance lower than was actually the case.

Their perception of their performance only began to improve once a pretty high level of competence was achieved. The explanation for this apparent dichotomy was that this group simply assumed that everyone possessed their own level of expertise and knowledge and thus they set a higher bar for their perception of average performance.

The Dunning Kruger effect on people’s self-assessment of their own ability can be plotted a chart like this:.

Initially, while competence is barely started, there is a huge spike in confidence. But as knowledge increases and the true difficulty of the skill set becomes apparent, confidence plummets for a while before recovering again once as skills are mastered.

That initial exaggerated level of competence could, I guess, be extended back to the period before someone even attempts a particular task. How often have you ever looked at something without ever appreciating the level of skill involved? Just because a person is making it look easy doesn’t mean that it is. The “how hard can that be?” mindset can be applied to almost every walk of life be it writing a book, cooking a meal, servicing a car or decorating a room… or learning to swim.

Swim coaches often encounter clients who do not have an accurate self-assessment of their own ability. Most have met clients who believe that they can pick up the skills required to make them into an excellent swimmer within a few lessons just by making a few tweaks here and there.

Photo by King Lip on Unsplash

Sadly, in reality it often quickly becomes apparent that their confidence is somewhat misplaced and in fact their technique is in need of a complete overhaul and that many bad habits need to be unlearned and re-constructed. 

But in order to do that the swimmer needs to be aware of how far along the path of competence they currently are and how much they still have to learn. The coach needs a certain degree of tact and sensitivity. It is important not to crush the spark of motivation completely or to present the path to competence as being immeasurably long and unachievable. Goals must be carefully set which are both attainable and measurable. The downward slope from that initial spike of overconfidence needs to be carefully managed to ensure the swimmer does not lose their confidence even while their competence increases steadily.  Equally, swimmers need to approach the process with a mind open to new ways of thinking and moving, perhaps discarding old inferior practices which have become ingrained and second nature when in the water. It is important to view the body as one integrated system with every body part linked to and responding to previous actions.  Thus the key to resolving a problem in one area of the stroke may lie in correcting the actions of a completely different part of the body.

Following the curve of the Dunning-Kruger effect we see that a mismatch between confidence and skill may apply not only to inexperienced swimmers but to experienced ones as well. Equally challenging for the coach are the swimmers who are further along the path of competence but whose level of self-confidence might be less than those who are further back. In these cases, the job of the coach is not only to build on the current ability but also to boost their sense of self-efficacy, or the ‘I can do this!’ attitude and enthusiasm. The acquisition of new skills is recognised as being as much in the mind as it is in the body. But it is perhaps less obvious that a significant part of this is simply to recognise one’s own level of competence.  Sometimes swimmers simply need to be kinder to themselves and have faith in their own ability

Confidence is a major factor in providing a foundation for understanding and mastering new skills. Whilst some may need to be gently shown that they have some way still to go, others may need to be built up to understand that they are very close to perfecting a particular area already. 

The challenge for the coach is to recognise which type of swimmer is before them as the Dunning-Kruger effect may well mean that some swimmers will have difficulty in evaluating this for themselves.

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