Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why Optimism is the Key to Coaching Technique

What does it mean to be a good technical coach? What are the most important characteristics to have? To start with, a knowledge set of stroke fundamentals is important. The ability to communicate that knowledge is more important still. On a lot of coaches list, you'd be hard pressed to find a shifty psychological characteristic like "optimism". But I'm here to argue that optimism should is actually the most important thing you can have when teaching technique.

It is the summer of 2007. I am in my first summer coaching "swim camp" at Harvard University. As far as swimming jobs go, this is a grind. All day, 10+ screaming kids, one stroke per day (plus a day for starts and turns), five days a week. What's worse is that I feel a little hopeless as I run through. Every day I watch kids with obvious technical flaws. I give them the correction to make, but far more often than not, they continue right on with the flaw. I persist and I get some kickback:

"It doesn't feel like I'm doing it that way"


I try to explain that I'm not giving corrections just to hear my own voice. It doesn't help.

It is summer of 2013. I am coaching alone on the pool deck, one of the first morning practices of the year. I watch a swimmer as she plows down the long course pool. It is her best stroke, but it is sloppy. Her head thrashes back and forth wildly. Her arms and legs both flail but feel totally disconnected. I pull her out of the pool. We talk for a little bit. She returns into the pool. The next length of backstroke is smooth and measured. You could balance a champagne flute on her forehead. I show her a video of what she now looks like and we both break out into broad grins.

In a relatively short time, I've gone from a feeling of powerlessness in coaching technique to moments like the one above. I now occasionally can see technical problems that have vexed swimmers and their coaches for year and make them better (permanently and immediately) in under half an hour.

What's changed for me is that I realized and began to understand just how important a role psychology plays in teachings stroke techniques. Very little has changed in my own knowledge of stroke techniques. Sure, minor tweaks come here and there but the fundamentals are almost entirely unchanged.

Here are a few simple rules I've found for delivering technical instruction

1. Be able to visualize the future of that swimmer based on a strength they already have. In the case above, the swimmer had fantastic body position- despite all the directions her head, arms and legs were traveling she rode high on the water

2. Communicate #1 to swimmer. Remember, if swimmers cannot feel their flaws in the water, it goes to stand that they also cannot perceive their owns strengths. It is important that you reinforce these strengths and begin your communication by getting them to join in with you in feeling optimistic about where the correction will take them given that they already have this strength.

3. Tell them what you want them to do. This seems like rather basic advice, but I know that I constantly have to fight my own impulse to tell the swimmer what they should NOT do. Whenever possible, avoid any discussion of what you would like them not to do. This only serves to draw attention towards the very thing you want them to stop, which drains attention from the thing you actually want them to do.

4. Give them immediate feedback. The swimmer will attempt what you have instructed them. If they do it (totally) right, I usually start yelling (the only time I raise my voice in a given practice) and maybe throw in a fist pump or two. If they make any progress towards what you are looking for, tell them to keep pushing. Lastly, if nothing changes, stop and tell them what you want them to do again.

5. Repeat #4 as many times as possible.

6. When they master a new technique, spend time spontaneously recognizing it when you see it in the normal course of practice.

Maybe it's not obvious how optimism plays into all of this, so I'll spell it out. In order to coach technique in this way you must be optimistic that:

- The swimmer wants to listen to you
- You know what you are talking about
- Their technique can improve
- It's worth the time you will invest in it

For my money, most coaches give into totally natural pessimism far too soon. They try to instruct and the swimmer doesn't improve, or they don't notice, and they tell themselves that the swimmer doesn't want to listen or its not worth their time or the swimmer just can't get better. You must stay optimistic in order for your swimmers to do the same and move forward!

1 comment:

  1. Good post but would be better with typos corrected.