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.
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.