Filming Swimmers: An Opportunity with Challenges

There is little doubt that video analysis is one of the most powerful tools in the swim coach’s armoury. The ability to record a swimmers’ stroke, review it carefully in slow-motion and frame-by-frame, and to play this back to them so that they can see for themselves exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are is invaluable, particularly for those who are not very aware of what their own body is doing (which is called ‘proprioception’).

However, before a coach can whip out their device to start filming in a seemingly public place there are a number of factors to consider. With heightened awareness of child protection and data privacy rules one has to be mindful of the situations where filming is restricted or simply not allowed. The rules are, of course, understandable and vital for protecting the rights of the swimmer but there is no doubt that they present difficulties for those people who have legitimate and innocent reasons for filming.

Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash

For simplicity’s sake, I will deal only with the situation in the United Kingdom. For those coaching in other countries it is vital to acquaint yourselves with the appropriate information regarding the law in your own region.

In the UK, the position regarding children is very clear. Swim England have a published policy to minimise the risk posed to under-age swimmers by filming which could potentially lead to images being published on-line. Wavepower 2020-23 | Child safeguarding for Swim England clubs (swimming.org) This, in turn could potentially lead to the identification of that child and their personal details, with repercussions for child grooming or safety concerns if, for example, a parent has been denied access for legal reasons. Although primarily written to cover swimming galas and competitions, the guidance nevertheless covers training and coaching in general. On page 89 it states “parents/guardians must be provided with full information, such as when the filming is proposed, its purpose, who is filming, how the film will be used or published and an agreement on what will happen once the film has served its purpose. This allows parents/ guardians to provide informed consent or otherwise. Written consent to the filming should be requested from the parents/guardians. Invite parents/guardians to be present at the filming; if this is impractical allow them to view the film before publication”.

This is, of course, common sense and hopefully comes as second nature to most coaches by now. Nevertheless, it is essential that all proper procedures are followed to ensure that the coach does not place themselves in a position where they might be accused of misconduct.

The exact position concerning the filming of adults is a little less well defined although it could be assumed that many of the same principles should apply as for the filming of children. Since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rolled out on May 25th 2018, filming in EU countries entails awareness of the law to not breach the privacy of the public. Within reason, it is perfectly acceptable to film in public areas (which covers most Open Water scenarios such as beaches and rivers) where the public could have an expectation that they might be viewed by others. However, significantly, public swimming pools are not considered as “public areas”. As such, permission needs to be sought from the facility owner for the right to film.

Even if granted, notices should be displayed so that other users of the pool are made aware that filming is taking place and they can opt to swim in an area where they won’t be seen. Failure to follow these simple rules may have serious repercussions. In my local Health Club, for example, a coach was filming a pupil during a lesson. However, a female swimmer in an adjoining lane took exception to this and made a formal complaint. Despite the fact that it was proved to her that she only appeared on the film very briefly as she passed by in the opposite direction and was certainly not the subject of the film, nevertheless the coach’s actions threatened to spiral into an extremely serious incident. Fortunately common sense prevailed and the matter was resolved. However, despite this the potential damage to the reputation of the coach caused by rumour and gossip about inappropriate filming could have been significant.

The reaction of the lady in this story could be seen as disproportionate. However, coaches would be well advised to remember that the standards they apply to themselves are not necessarily shared by others. By the very nature of swimming, participants are invariably in a state of undress to a certain degree and, for some, this makes them feel somewhat vulnerable. Add to this certain cultural and sometimes religious considerations regarding being seen in swimming attire and it becomes clear that coaches need to show some caution and sensitivity before beginning filming.

Often, however, the question becomes somewhat academic as pool owners will impose a blanket “no filming” policy at their venues regardless of the reasons behind the request to film. Whilst they may accept the legitimacy of the request by a coach and understand the benefits to be gained, it is easier from their point of view not to relent in their policy for anybody for fear of setting a precedent for others.

Photo – Julie Ward

So, unless the pool has been closed to the public, (for example, if the coach is running a training camp and has hired the entire pool for the duration) this presents a dilemma and a significant restriction for the coach on their ability to be able to provide feedback to their swimmer.

If filming is completely restricted, creative solutions to overcome the absence of video analysis will be required. To fill the gap a coach may need to rely more on verbal feedback, using dry-land rehearsals, in-water demonstrations and hands-on assistance in correcting the stroke. 

If allowed, before making plans to film, it would be a good idea to connect with the pool director or owner to understand their policy completely, then work out ahead of time a plan for satisfying the privacy rules and minimizing the chance of a misunderstanding with other patrons. A coach might choose more suitable times, use certain camera positions to reduce the likelihood of capturing others in the background, and even going so far as to chat first with the swimmers in adjacent lanes to let them know and demonstrate your consideration for their privacy before any filming starts. 

Among our community of coaches there are likely many stories of things gone wrong with filming as well as many good stories where solutions were found for filming or ways of working without it. We do well to take advantage of our colleagues’ experience to ask questions, hear stories, and learn how to avoid these problems.

Mastery In An Unstable Environment

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.

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Let’s Hear It For Ears

Let’s Hear It For Ears

My Dad, (who is a genius by the way), once told me the ideal way to talk to six-year olds. It’s simple, all you do is repeat back to them exactly what they have just said to you by making it into a question.  Thus a typical conversation when I was young might go like this:

Son: “Dad, I’ve lost my ball”

Dad: “Oh, you’ve lost your ball have you ?”

Son: “Yes, the red one”

Dad: “Oh, the red one, eh ?”

Son: “Yes, it’s my favourite”

Dad: “Your favourite one, is it ?”

Son: “Yes, I think I’ll go and look for it”

Dad: “That’s a good idea, you go and look for it”

Brilliant eh ? An entire conversation and I’ll guarantee that Dad didn’t listen to a word of it.

Sometimes I wonder whether if, as coaches, we are guilty of the same thing; having an entire conversation with our swimmers without ever listening to what is said.  Which would be a pity and an opportunity wasted.

Our ears are superb gatherers of information supplying a never-ending stream of facts to the brain.  It’s the brain which filters this information deciding what is important and what isn’t.  This information flow is relentless.  Even when we’re asleep the ears are still providing it and the brain is still filtering.  That’s why a noisy lorry passing by outside the house will fail to wake us but a quiet, unexpected footstep on the staircase will mean we are instantly awake.

But sometimes our brain needs guidance on what is important and what isn’t.  The reality is that every interaction we have with our swimmers is an opportunity to learn more about them, about their motivations, their ambitions, their opportunities and their restrictions.  Of course swimmers usually provide some level of background information before attending a session.  However, this can often be wildly over-optimistic and exaggerated or woefully under-representational of their true level of expertise.   Thus athletes with a stated intention of completing an Ironman in six months’ time are found to able to barely swim a stroke whilst others who state they can swim just a little are clearly quite able to complete a 10K swim already without any trouble.

Only by talking to, and more importantly, listening to our swimmers can we tailor our sessions accurately to their needs and abilities.  And the more accurately we are able to do that the more beneficial our instruction becomes and the more likely they are to return.  It’s a perfect virtuous circle – but one which often needs to be initiated by the coach.

So a seemingly casual conversation about the swimmer’s home life, the number of children they have, the job they do, how far they have to travel to a pool, the length, type and frequency of their current practices, etc., can all provide valuable clues regarding the conflicting demands they may have on their time and the amount of time they are able to dedicate to practice.

Photo by Christof Görs on Unsplash

Our eyes can tell us how a swimmer behaves in front of us in the water but only our ears can give us clues regarding how they may act between sessions.

Of course one should not make assumptions.  The busy entrepreneur running a fledgling business may not be able to find any time to practice her swimming.  On the other hand she might be precisely the sort of expert in time-management and self-discipline to dedicate herself to any goal she decides upon.  Only once a coach has discovered which type of person they are dealing with can they decide the structure of their sessions and the amount and pace of information they contain.

But the coach doesn’t only need to listen to their pupil.  They also need to develop the often far more difficult trick of listening to themselves and the teaching they provide.  Is it clear, precise and comprehensible?  Is enough explanation being given for the reasons behind the instruction?  Or is it too much?  And does all that apply to the swimmer in front of them?  Everyone is different and an approach or an image which is usually a sure-fire winner with most people may not be hitting home this time.  A coach needs the ability to listen to themselves and evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction, adapting it instantly if necessary.

Feedback from the swimmer can be invaluable here, so coaches mustn’t forget to constantly ask for meaningful responses from them which can demonstrate the level of their understanding of what is being taught.  A swimmer who is able to articulate and quantify an experience or feeling  is likely to be able to replicate is far more easily in their own practice even if they haven’t yet been able to master it in the session.  But only by listening carefully to what a swimmer is saying and never being afraid to push for more information if it is not freely forthcoming can a coach be confident of the effectiveness of their teaching.

So let’s make some noise for our ears.  They are amazing and unique things.  No two human ears are identical (even on the same head) just as no two swimmers are identical.  They are providers of a  constant stream of information.  We may, like my Dad when I was a kid, merely hear that information without processing it.  Or we can truly listen to it, channel it and mine it as the rich and valuable source for better coaching that it is.

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