Must There Be A Drop In Performance When Improving A Skill?
There are some important differences to consider when teaching a novice or beginner swimmer on this end of the experience spectrum and when teaching an expert or advanced swimmer on the other end.
A novice is considered a novice because he has no motor patterns in place for this activity he is trying to learn, or very weak ones. He does not have neural preference or muscular strength built around any patterns. It is generally easy to introduce a new movement to a novice and have him pick up on in quickly because there is little neural resistance to doing something different than before. And since he could not swim at all or not very well, a newly acquired pattern is going to immediately make him perform better than before, even if he has to pay careful attention to what he is doing.
But that may be in stark contrast to what happens when working with an advanced or expert swimmer who is seeking an adjustment or correction in their movement patterns. This swimmer has very strong neural preference and muscular strength built up around the established movement pattern and she is going to have to work against that to make a change. That existing pattern is autonomously controlled in her brain so that it functions without requiring her attention, and because of that autonomy it will put up great resistance to being altered. When this swimmer decides she wants to make an alteration to the pattern she has to pull that movement out of the autonomous control part of the brain and put back into the conscious control part so she can override the old pattern with a new one which necessarily slows everything down a lot. It can even mess up her whole performance because other autonomously controlled aspects of her performance were tied into it and when one part is pulled back into ‘slow’ conscious control the others lose a big part of their coordination and efficiency with it.
This immediate slow down or disruption to performance can understandably be alarming to the advanced athlete… who expects corrections to come easily and quickly, at virtually no cost. But this may be a consequence of a short-term viewpoint and some lack of understanding of how the brain works. In the long-term view, we understand that neural circuits have to go through a process when being altered – the more complex the change and the more complex the conditions will be for its ultimate application, the more patient the athlete will need to be with the retraining process.
But the process works. The skill is brought back into conscious control and performance is unavoidably slowed down. It is dialed in under easy conditions, tested and refined with feedback. Then the training challenges imposed upon on that skill are gradually increased. Then she is challenged to handle dual tasks (pay attention to more than just the execution of that skill) and eventually totally distracted from it so that the brain is required to pull that skill back into the autonomous control part of the brain, where it ultimately needs to be.
I see in the research of motor learning the attempt to trick the brains of expert performers to make corrections without having to pull that correction back into conscious control, to save time and prevent slowdown. But these studies seem to be looking at small correction and with measurements of performance done over hours and days, not done on major alterations done over week and months. And I have questions about the quality of the conscious cues they have tested against one another. A quick unconscious correction process would be preferable of course, but it may not often be practical for the kind of deep corrections that some athletes need to make.
So this urges us to keep in mind at least two dimension of the process when setting expectations for working with an athlete:
Where does this person fall on the novice to expert performer spectrum? How strong are existing patterns that need to be altered, and what kind of neural resistance will there be for making a change?
And, how big of a change will she be trying to make? There may be a significant difference between making small tweaks and major alterations and the kind of neural tricks one can employ to save time on the retraining process.
In other words, it’s going to cost time for any athlete, novice or advanced, small change or big. For some people and some kinds of change there will be little or no immediate drop in performance, while for others we should expect some initial, unavoidable drop in performance as part of the necessary process to build back up to an even higher level of performance than they had before with better skill on board.
What does it mean to learn the skill?
What does it mean to master the skill?
We might say that a swimmer has learned the skill when they can execute it every time, consistently, on demand. Then we might say that a swimmer has mastered the skill when they can execute it every time, consistently, without having to pay any attention to making it happen.
In the realm of motor learning (a.k.a. learning complex movement skills and improving athletic performance) the ultimate need or goal of the athlete determines when learning or mastery has actually been achieved.
In a ‘stable environment, under very easy conditions, in a relatively short amount of time we can teach someone to swim with a particular stroke style and they can be successful for the simple test swims set for them. But if that swimmer needs to use this stroke in competition, or in serious open water, they have not yet done the work to master that skill for the unstable environment.
A stable environment is where all the challenges the athlete will face are invariable and predictable, where the skills don’t need to be very flexibility. Swimming alone in a pool lane, with no competitive pressure, with the aquatic environment completely controlled is a very stable environment.
An unstable environment is where the challenge the athlete will face are quite variable and unpredictable, where the skills need to be applied with great flexibility. Swimming next to a serious opponent in competition adds some external pressure to the environment. Swimming in rough wild water adds a lot more instability to the environment. There is external pressure to perform presented by the opponent and by the context of being in a timed race. Wild open water and the weather present infinite variations and unpredictability to each swim, to each stroke even.
Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash
The conditions in which a person is practicing matters a great deal to how strong and flexible their skillfulness becomes. To get an initial grasp a difficult skill the athlete might need to first practice in a stable environment, under very easy conditions, to reduce the complexity down to a level they can manage at the start. But if these are not the conditions in which the swimmer will ultimately need to use those skills in, we have to lead them on a path that gradually moves them from practice in stable environmental conditions into practice in unstable environmental conditions of their objective.
When we are assessing the swimmer’s level of skill in test conditions that are unlike those that will be present in their ultimate objective then we call this ‘in-practice’ testing. When we are assessing their level of skill in test conditions of their ultimate objective then we call this ‘in-performance’ testing.
On some easy level we might see that they have ‘learned’ or even ‘mastered’ the skills, but true learning, true mastery has occurred only when the swimmer is able to execute those skills under the full stress of the unstable environmental conditions they intend to perform in.
Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Human Kinetics.
A Systems View Of The Stroke
In a ‘systems thinking’ viewpoint on the swimming stroke (including all of the stroke styles) we understand that each body part has an influence over other body parts and is influenced by other body parts connected to it by one or more degrees. Each section of the stroke cycle affects what happens in the next section, and is affected by what has happened in the section before.
When there is an error in position or movement of one body part, it introduces error into the other parts connected to it. Those parts must do something to compensate and recover from the error. When there is error in one section of the stroke cycle, the next section begins at a disadvantaged position and greater intervention is required to compensate or correct and get the stroke cycle back onto its ideal pattern. The error creates negative feed-back into the system – we might say it ‘holds back’ the effectiveness and efficiency of the system. This compensation and correction uses up a great deal of energy, even if the athlete ends up correcting quickly and making it look OK from the outside.
When a body part is kept in its ideal position, maintaining its ideal movement, it sets up the other parts to more easily find their ideal position and movement. When one section of the stroke cycle moves through its ideal pattern the next section is at an advantage to find its ideal pattern as well. When that next section also moves through its ideal pattern the next section benefits too, and so on. This crates a positive feed-forward flow. The more consistent this feed-forward process is, the more effective and efficient the swimmer is. Not only that, the more amazing the stroke feels to that swimmer.
Everything is interconnected in the repeating movement pattern of the whole body. No swimmer starts with all the parts finely interconnected, just as no musician starts with a perfect performance in a piece of new music or group of musicians starts playing together with perfect coordination. You first start by making basic connections – pairs of connections – in the body, and eventually you connect those pairs to each other until the entire system of sections of the stroke cycle are connected into a rhythmic loop of action.
This principle of connections applies to all four strokes, but with more or less emphasis on certain connections depending on the style. Let’s apply it to the freestyle stroke since it is most popular…
We need to make a connection between the front (upper) and rear (lower) part of the body and the primary connection point is at the pelvis/hips. What happens in the front of the body will affect the rear and what happens at the rear will affect the front. If these two are connected well, they will feed-forward into each other. If not connected well, they will cause feed-back.
We need to connect the entire streamline side of the body, front wrist to ankle because the body will be supported on its side and water will be displaced primarily by that side. Water will respond better to a body that is straight and connected along the whole line, and respond worse to a body that is not. What happens on this side of the body will affect what is happening on the other.
We need to connect the recovery swing to forward momentum so that force will flow in the direction of travel and not work against the streamline side of the body. What happens on the recovery side affects what is happening on the streamline side.
We need to connect the two sides of the body at the moment of transition, so that the force generated on the catch side flows without obstruction into the streamline side to maximize forward motion.
I listed these in an order as if these are in a line, but they are not because the stroke is a loop of rhythmic action. When we view these as a loop then we see that you can intervene at any one of these connections to make a change – but you must keep a careful eye on how a change in that part will necessarily affect the other parts.
That is a broad systems view of the whole body system in the stroke cycle. We can also apply this view to the arm/shoulder motion itself. The ideal catch feeds-forward into the exit. The exit feeds forward into the recovery swing. The recovery swing feeds forward into the entry. The entry feeds forward into the extension. The extension feeds forward into the catch, and so on again and again in an ideal pattern.
You might start learning these parts separately, one-by-one, and that may be necessary for most people. But these parts cannot remain separated in your nervous system for long or you will be stifled in your progress. Any advanced guidance on adjustments in your stroke should have more and more systems language involved because, by that stage, you should be attentive to the interdependent relationships of the parts, of the sections of the stroke. A musician must eventually connect the sections of the music together and create a smoothly flowing whole.
If you are looking to fix an error in one section of your stroke cycle, you may want to first consider whether that error is a cause or a symptom of another error in a preceding section. Fixing this section should make things better for the next section (if those are truly connected in your movement pattern already). But if you consider fixing the section before, you might discover that this section either is easier to fix or possibly the problem goes away altogether.
When you make a correction in one body part, in one section of your stroke cycle, be aware that it may confuse the body parts connected to it because they have been used to compensating for an error and now they need to learn how to actually work when there is no error to compensate for. When you tighten one string on a guitar you may need to slightly re-tune the string next to it, because the changing of tension in one string may noticeably changes the tension on the next one or even all of them. Tuning the guitar, and tuning the stroke require systems thinking.
Positive Emotions Matter When Learning
Barbara Fredrickson has been one of the leading researchers on the power of positive emotions, and its impact on behavior, particularly on social and cognitive function. Building on the work of researchers before her, she developed a theory called Broaden And Build model of Positive Emotions which is described in her book Positivity.
Photo by Haley Phelps on Unsplash
When someone feels negative emotions like fear and anger, these have an affect on the brain which narrows down what the conscious mind focuses upon and limit the range of options for action this person is able to see. When someone feels positive emotions this opens up attention and broadens the range of options for action this person is able to see. In a nutshell, regarding the broaden part of the theory,”joy appears to open us up to many new thoughts and behaviors, whereas negative emotions dampen our ideas and actions.” (Lopez et al. (2019), p. 141)
Regarding the building part of the theory, the behaviors then urged by a person’s positive emotions have a tendency to increase positive social connection to other people, to promote quicker problem-solving and creativity, ease the process of making changes, and bounce back from stressful experiences. If acted upon, these behaviors build up the person’s strength for connecting, for problem solving, for changing, for recovering after difficult moments.
In the context of teaching someone to swim for the first time, or before that, to simply help someone become at ease submerged in water, a coach can greatly improve the learning-efficiency of her services by cultivating an environment of safety, connection, and positive emotion. This not only makes the swimmer feel good, it actually increases the resources her brain and body have available for breaking out and learning more.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2009) Positivity: Groundbreaking Research To Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. New York: Crown
Lopez S.J. , Pedrotti J.T., Snyder C.R. (2019) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practice Explorations of Human Strengths. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Encourage Self-Guided Practice
It is certain that some students won’t prefer to work on their own, and want to pay for your time to guide them all the way. That is ok. Some students may take those practice principles and walk away, content to work on their own from then on. That is ok too. And some will, as we hope, take over managing their own basic practice and keep coming back to us for deeper, more advanced work, building upon what they already know and can do.
As the coach designing and guiding your student through a practice, you are using a collection principles to guide you. Internalizing those principles will enable you to make the practice fit with the immediate developmental needs of this student. By leading them through this principle-based practice, you are giving them an example of how to practice on their own. You know the principles involved, and over time, you have the opportunity to impart an understanding of those practice principles to your student so that they become a better self-guiding practitioner. When your student eventually takes on more of the responsibility for planning and conducting their own practices, this then frees you up to guide them into more advanced skills and more advanced training.