Don’t worry, swim happy

I was blessed with three great kids. They are adults now and I am so proud of who they have become. At this point I can now look back and review my performance as a parent. Overall, I feel I did a reasonable job, yet I remember times when I got it wrong. One such incident came to mind the other day…

We were on holiday on the beach and my son Jack and I were kicking a football between us. He was probably about six at the time. He merrily toe-punted the ball as hard as he could as is the wont of small boys. He had no control over where the ball went and, as a result, there was a lot of running about involved from me which was rather tiring. Jack though was loving it and roared with laughter throughout.

I decided it was time for Jack to learn how to control the ball a bit better. Accordingly I showed him how to place his non-kicking foot alongside the ball and to strike it with his in-step rather than his toe, leaning forward to get his head over the ball at the point of contact.

Photo by Martin Magnemyr on Unsplash

I noticed two things immediately. One was that this instantly improved the control he had over the direction of his kicks. And two, he stopped laughing. For Jack, the sheer exhilaration of being out in the fresh air mucking about with a ball and his Dad on a cold and deserted beach had gone, to be replaced by a lesson in coordination and timing which, if he got it wrong, he felt might displease me.

Inevitably, we stopped playing soon after, and I felt really rotten.

Now I find a parallel in working with swimmers. 

Recently, I overheard a swimmer asking for tips on how to swim faster. He said he swam at a fairly low tempo, often achieving that Nirvana of free-flowing, effortless swimming he sought, but still wanted to find a way to increase his pace. 

Undoubtedly there were things that he could do to change his stroke. But part of me wanted to ask a simple question.

Why? 

If you’re already swimming beautifully, why would you want to change it?

I can imagine many different and valid answers to that. I get that. Our kind of swimming can be viewed as a journey towards self-improvement and, as such, is a journey without an ultimate destination. Who can honestly say they are the perfect swimmer?. I know some awesome swimmers but I don’t think that any of them would claim to be perfect. And therefore they try to improve which means they must try to change something

I understand all that. But do we sometimes lose sight of another reason for swimming? We swim to enjoy ourselves; to improve our state of mind as well as the performance of our body.

Factors such as time and strokes per length are so ingrained into our coaching and training that it is easy to think that they are the be-all and end-all when it comes to measuring performance. After all ,when did you last get out of the water and think “Wow, that swim made me 87% happy – and I was only 83% happy last week”? It can’t be done. There is no way of categorising our level of happiness at any given time and thus we usually fall back on relying on the time or the number of strokes taken to complete a swim in order to judge its success.

Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

Of course there are many other measures that we can, and do use. Ask an open water swimmer at this time of year how their morning swim went and they will tell you that they spent 15 minutes in water of 5 degrees C. They might be focussed on their performance whilst actually in the water but, once out of it, these won’t be the factors they use to judge their success.

A first-time Channel swimmer will not be primarily focussed on how long it will take to get to France, merely completing the distance is reward enough. (These priorities might be reversed on subsequent attempts!). On a smaller scale, when we are on holiday we might set ourselves the target of swimming out to a particular buoy or landmark and back. Rarely do we add the extra parameter of achieving it within a certain time.

Photo by Dun Huang on Unsplash

We can measure our swimming in other ways too but seem to do so less often, somehow perceiving them to be of less value than time taken and stroke rate because they are more difficult to measure objectively.

Thus we might spend a little time working on our ability to maintain our concentration on conforming to a specific task or cue. Or alternatively noticing the exertion level we are using and the degree of fluidity in our stroke. But these never seem to be our primary measures. 

Why does all this matter ? Well, in my view, of all of the ways to measure our success, that elusive one I mentioned right at the beginning is the most important of all. How happy does our swimming make us feel ?

The job of a coach should be not only to change the performance of their swimmers, but just as importantly to influence their mindset; to help them recognise that what we have come to accept as the traditional ways of judging success – speed and efficiency – aren’t the only ones available. And that might mean that they have to make a fairly seismic change in their own thinking and their own perceptions of achievement too,

Of course, for many swimmers an improvement in something like their speed will automatically result in an improvement in their happiness too. Even if you’re never going to win a race, who doesn’t like smashing a PB ? But maybe for some, like Jack all those years ago kicking his football on the beach, they are perfectly happy with a level of competency which is some way less than perfect, but just perfect enough for their happiness in the moment.

I’m not expecting all of you to share this view – and I’m certainly not saying that swimmers should never try to improve their stroke. However, I do believe that sometimes coaches can be blinded by the perceived need to produce faster swimmers or more efficient swimmers and forget that ultimately, by whatever means, what we really should be producing are happier swimmers.

Must There Be A Drop In Performance When Improving A Skill?

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.

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