Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
If you grew up in the UK back when childrens’ stories tended to concern pixies and elves rather than wizards and witches you’ll almost certainly recognise this phrase from the BBC’s “Listen With Mother” programme.
So, assuming you are not sitting cross-legged on some hard wooden floor let me ask you; are you? Are you sitting comfortably? I hope so, but how did you come to your conclusion? What factors did you take into account? Did you do a thorough analysis of your body or was your decision merely a knee-jerk reaction based on the absence of discomfort? Because that’s not the same thing.
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When taking swimming lessons, your swim coach may well get you to perform a drill and then ask you how it felt. And although that sounds like a simple question it’s one that many of us are simply not used to answering with any level of detail. The tendency is to give short, superficial answers such as it felt “fine” (or “good” or “nice”).
From a coaching perspective, there’s not a lot that can be done with that. Imagine someone going to the doctor and telling her they felt “a bit poorly”. That’s not terribly helpful is it? Now imagine them telling her that their knee feels like it’s on fire. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the doctor has something she can work on. But with pain it’s easy. The brain has fewer problems identifying and focussing on pain as it is anxious to get rid of it as quickly as possible. It’s in its own interests to be able to convey this feeling in as much detail as possible and as graphically as possible,
How, though, does that work when everything is feeling…. well, …“fine” (or “good” or “nice”)? How can those feelings be expressed verbally? Well, rest assured it can be done, but it might take more concentration than you are used to and a little practice too. The fact is that right now your brain is receiving loads of information from your body that it’s simply ignoring.
Let’s try a little experiment. Let’s take your shoulders. What are you feeling right now? Not much? No problems? I hope so. But let’s go a little deeper. How tense are they? Could you relax them more? Are they cold or warm? Do they feel stiff? Imagine them as being connected to the rest of your body. Do they feel part of the whole or independent? Now concentrate on the feel of the fabric of your shirt or blouse. Does it feel soft or scratchy? Is it heavy or floaty? Is the material smooth or taut? Take some time and concentrate on each of those areas in turn and really focus on what you feel. Is the feedback the same for both shoulders? If not, how do they differ? At the end of this, you may find you now have a plethora of sensations and images you could use to describe your shoulders. All the information is there, you just need to learn how to tune into it.
But, as I say, it can require a little practice and it becomes more difficult when there’s more going on. . Let’s take your breathing now. Just as you sit there take a few moments to focus on your breathing; the air coming into your body and being released out of it. Notice how it affects your chest and diaphragm. Observe how quickly or slowly you are doing it and how much air you need on each breath. Now get up and go for a little walk around the room. Just 20 or 30 steps or so and keep concentrating on your breathing. For most of you, I’m guessing that the task of analysing exactly what is happening becomes more difficult once the body is in motion as the brain now needs to focus on avoiding objects, the heightened sensations of other parts of the body and even keeping count of the steps taken. But despite all that, it is possible to maintain some level of focus on the breath and even notice the differences that being in motion as opposed to being stationary make to the overall rhythm of the process. Even with everything else going on I’m sure you were able to hone in on your breathing and provide at least some meaningful feedback on how it felt. And if you can do that walking around your room, you can do it in the swimming pool too.
Perhaps though. you don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps you found it very difficult to notice your breathing pattern once you were walking. Don’t worry. Remember, the information is all there, you just may not be used to identifying it all just yet. Try it again, see if you can notice more. The more you do it the more you’ll notice. Maybe a little check list will help. Did you breathe in through your mouth or through your nose? How did the breathing relate to your stride pattern? If you increase your pace, or take shallower breaths, what changes? And most crucially of all, for what we’re talking about here, how would you describe it?
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The skill of being able to isolate parts of your body and analyse exactly what they are doing and feeling can often take a while to develop but it’s one that can be practised at any time, not just when in the water. Get used to standing in the supermarket queue and feeling the weight of your body on the soles of your feet or the hunch of your shoulders as you drive your car and think how you might convey that feeling to someone else. This doesn’t have to be terribly poetic. If you want to describe the movement of your hips when swimming as being like those of a drunken sailor on deck in a high storm then that’s terrific but if simply to say “I feel as if I’m over-rotating” is more your style then that’s also providing far more useful feedback to your coach than, say, “it feels wrong”.
Everyone will feel their bodies differently but it’s important to remember that there is a deep well of information that is waiting to be exploited which can make the process much easier. The more you can tell your coach the better the learning experience will be. What your coach is often looking for is for you to describe a sensation which they can tell you to aim to replicate in your swimming away from the lesson (or perhaps one to avoid !). It will be far easier for you to go away and swim with your head as relaxed as a melon floating in the sea as opposed to being told to go away and swim until it feels “nice”.!
If you can develop the habit of firstly noticing how your body is feeling and reacting and then developing a way of expressing that to your coach they will find it much easier to help you improve your performance.
And then everyone can live happily ever after
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.
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 (https://www.avaresearch.com/files/UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt.pdf) 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.
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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.
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.
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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.