WAYS TO IMPROVE ELITE SWIM COACHING
Coaching standards provided elite swimmers are declining in almost all nations. It is as if an epidemic of coaching regression or instability has occurred. There are many reasons for this occurrence. It is worthwhile to consider some of them. This issue of Carlile Coaches' Forum proposes some sources of counter-productive coaching practices for elite experienced swimmers as opposed to developing or young swimmers. In doing that, it is recognized that in sport there are a number of paradoxes of which coaches need to be aware. Some practices which are beneficial to the developmental swimmer are counter-productive or wrong for elite experienced swimmers.
Below are proposals to remove useless or counter-productive activities. Incorrect practices are increasing in both the USA and Australia as swimming coaches ignore ACCOUNTABILITY in advice, hypotheses, and self-professed "discoveries" and "scientific principles" which are becoming the trademarks of many professing individuals. This approach has been further stimulated by the rejection of "sport science" by an influential segment of the US swimming community.
Overpractice of irrelevant activities, that is, those which should not be transferred to competitive settings, reduces the amount of beneficial transfer of appropriate activities. This leads to the concept of effective training which can simply be expressed as the following equation:
The principles implied below are universally accepted and supported by objective research in the exercise science literature.
Drills have a minor role in the early stages of teaching swimming and stroke correction. They have no part in programs aimed at performance enhancement in elite swimmers. Drills do not improve competitive strokes.
If the belief is high that similarity/benefits exist in drills for speed swimming, but in reality the tasks are dissimilar, the competitive task will be depreciated because of negative transfer, that is, too many wrong/inappropriate elements will be introduced into competitive performances.
There is no beneficial transfer of training effects from drills to competitive performances in elite swimmers. They are harmful for they promote the practice of competing biomechanical actions, neuromuscular coordinations, and movement representations. They stifle continued refinement of "correct" patterns that need to be evoked in competitive settings.
The belief that one can "re-educate" drill practice effects into established skills is unfounded. In its later stages, human learning is dominated by discrimination, not generalization and so transfer does not occur.
Drill practices are wasted practices.
Training equipment distorts effective swimming patterns. Each item alters stroke, body alignment, and teaches counter-productive movement patterns. Some activities overload the wrong actions making them significant competitors to economical swimming (e.g., swimming with the arm patterns and suppressed shoulder rotation that is the trademark of swim benches) and underload others (e.g., pull buoys make swimming easier, not harder).
Training equipment alters the mechanical properties of swimming movements and confounds the kinesthesis that is paramount for developing the "feel" of efficient and productive movements.
The claims of benefits from equipment use are largely unsupported or uncorroborated. Existing supportive evidence often is highly selected, distorted, or unreliable.
Although equipment activities provide "variation," they do not contribute to racing performance enhancement.
Swimming is a fully supported, complex skill that needs to be refined continuously for performances to improve. Equipment activities do not contribute to that end. They pollute the developed skill repertoire as well as create an artificial performance environment.
Equipment practices are wasted practices.
The current and popular trend to work on stroke initiation, ostensibly to develop a longer stroke, often produces work that is anaerobic, ineffective, and kinetically inefficient.
Working on moderate acceleration in the propulsive phase of a stroke is important because it is the most economical way of reversing the negative acceleration which occurs between cycles in all swimming strokes.
Swimmers go fastest at the end of strokes, not beginnings. That is where emphasis should be placed.
Emphasizing stroke initiation over stroke acceleration and completion is a detrimental practice.
A traditional belief of swimming coaches has been: even though swimmers are always tired, training hard, and their performances not changing or even getting worse, good things are still happening to them. THAT IS WRONG. Constant fatigue states do not make a better swimmer. Better swimmers come from continual improvement derived from training effects. If swimmers are not improving, then they are not experiencing beneficial training.
Nothing good happens to a swimmer experiencing catabolic overload exercise training. Exercise fatigue only serves to remove an individual from an established homeostatic state. Performance improvements only occur during anabolic recovery/rest.
Continued overloading without recovery that facilitates overcompensation does not lead to beneficial adaptations. A case can be made for recovery being more important than overload when seeking performance improvements through training. The more frequently recovery is allowed to occur after overload, the more performance will change.
An overloaded, fatiguing practice without adequate subsequent recovery is a wasted practice.
Training items aimed at altering performance factors should be divided between the following:
The balance between these two emphases is determined by each swimmer's attributes and capacities, targeted events, and phase of annual-plan training. Training sessions should also include other activities which affect performance, for example, stroke instruction, mental skills training, and simulation training.
Practice that develops factors which cannot or should not be transferred into a competitive action or fails to support a state of adaptation which facilitates greater tolerance for specific training is wasted practice.
No two individuals are the same, nor do any match an "ideal" model. Copying another champion's training program and style is erroneous programming. Effective coaching demands accommodation of individuality rather than attempting to turn swimmers into particular models.
When individuals are grouped and trained on the same program, participants will be inadequately trained.
Practices which are set for a group will incorrectly train the majority of participants. They are destructive practices.
Weight training and exercising should occur no more than once a week. Preferably, it should only employ exercises which use the whole body at a time (e.g., medicine ball work, gymnastics).
Weights don't float!
High frequency and high resistance weight exercises are a common cause of swimming injury.
Muscles trained in isolation do not transfer benefits to a whole-body activity such as swimming. Specific exercise improvements cannot be "re-educated" into swimming strokes.
Land work is only valuable in the early stages of physical capacity training and should be completed prior to the commencement of specific and technique training.
Exercising with weights or other land activities promotes fitness and improvements that cannot be used in swimming. If they are followed at the expense of pool time or inhibit recovery from beneficial pool experiences, they are detrimental practices.
Mental toughness is a mythical and vague term which is frequently used to explain athletes' failures and to give the impression that a coach knows something of importance. If a coach thinks that "trial-by-fire" tough training, handling, and coaching will produce champions, occasionally there will be successes about which to boast and justify a program. However, rarely is such a program attributed to all the failures and broken athletes that also result from this approach even though they could have been champions if handled correctly/positively.
"Mental toughness" is a concept embraced by many coaches. It cannot be measured or objectively verified. Its defining qualities are developed after a failure to fit the whims of a coach on a particular occasion. Swimmers try to guess what is demanded by coaches seeking "mental toughness" but more often than not err in their perceptions and incur negative appraisals from the coach.
Explaining undesirable performance outcomes in terms of "mental toughness" is a cop-out for poor coaching because it denies the discovery of the true erroneous coaching procedures that led to the performance failure.
Seeking "mental toughness" usually produces wasted practices.
When swimming performances fail to improve, it is an index of coaching failure. It means that a coach's program was detrimental rather than helpful or, at best, it maintained the status quo. It could be symptomatic of a program containing too much wrong or not enough correct content.
Sane coaching built on verified principles of exercise science should produce improvements in all participants. With what is known today about human performance, competent coaches should be expected to provide programs that lead to swimmers' performance improvements almost continually.
Practice that does not lead to performance improvements is mal-practice.
A swimmer's positive mental state governs: a) work effectiveness, b) responsiveness to training stimuli and recovery, c) rate of learning, d) exercise adherence, and e) competitive performance standards.
Negative experiences retard, confound, and are usually counter-productive to beneficial changes. Positive experiences encourage positive adaptations.
A swimmer's mental state pervades swimming both inside and outside of the swimming environment and thus, has a greater potential to produce consistent influences on the swimming experience than any other factor.
A swimmer's negative experience requires considerable positive experiences to offset its destructive effects.
A coach who is predominantly negative is a harmful and ineffective coach.
Negative practice experiences are destructive practice experiences.
Many of the coaching discussions that occur today are based on incomplete or inadequate knowledge of basic and the exercise sciences.
Most activities which are appropriate for swimming coaching have been investigated, to varying degrees of depth, by the exercise sciences. If a speaker is not aware of available evidence or is unwilling to listen to alternative and independently supported ideas, then he/she should not be listened to.
Practices founded on unsupported notions are wasted practices.
Appropriate practice should be maximized. The removal of irrelevant or counter-productive activities will facilitate performance enhancement.
The above tenets are contrary to many of the beliefs expressed by many of today's swimming coaches in public forums. Each is steeped in evidence and science, much of which has been available for decades, which is more than can be said about many popular notions.
A very broad "rule-of-thumb" that should underlie decisions about program content is:
To ignore and discredit these postulations is to place swimmers at risk. Since they can be supported extensively by evidence to establish their "truth," a coach who opts to continue erroneous practices could be charged with MALPRACTICE.
Return to Table of Contents for the Carlile Coaches' Forum.