Friday, October 19, 2012

Discipline to Swim


The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.
Train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.
noun.  order - punishment
verb.  punish - school - castigate - train - correct - chastise

I want to make sure that everyone understands what I mean by discipline in this post because the definition above is very literal. In swimming, the term "punishment" makes me cringe. As coaches, we're trying to foster the love of swimming in our athletes. However, corrections must be made to technique, habits or group behaviour. In this post I want to delve a little bit into the reality of group coaching, the necessity of teaching discipline, and the  onus of self discipline.

Group Coaching:

Swimming is a lot like electricity because naturally, everyone (everything) involved wants to follow the path of least resistance. 

Due to the nature of aquatics, the National Lifeguarding Society's hold over safety and townships and cities efforts towards "Risk Assessment", pool time is extremely expensive in most communities. Therefore training groups are required to share the cost (otherwise parents would be paying at least $100/session). Every group, starting with the most novice swimmer has guidelines and expectations to meet which are taught and enforced by the coach. The importance of a graduation system is paramount here, because these athletes must demonstrate understanding or mastery (depending on the level) of key skills before moving on. Coaches must coach to a group rather than individuals. Drills, explanations and feedback are used to help these athletes understand these skills in the following ways:
Drills: used to force an athlete to do a stroke, kick or movement a certain way in order to feel a certain aspect of that stroke kick or movement. 
Explanation: key words or phrases used to describe what you're doing how and what to expect during execution. In my Senior Group, I often link what we're doing back to the context of racing or swimming at top speed to help the athletes understand why this is important.
Feedback: anything used to let the athletes know how they are doing. Many drills and explanations contain all the feedback the swimmer needs in order to understand if they are doing things propperly. I.E. during a breathing drill, your parameters are so narrow that if you're sucking in water, you're head is not in the right position. During a kicking drill, if your feet are not clearing the water, you are not doing that drill properly, etc.

All 3 of the above aspects will vary from novice to older athletes due to physical and mental maturity. For example, the bio-chemistry explanation I use with high schoolers about what happens to your body during high demand sets would be inappropriate for 8 year olds, as would any set requiring kinaesthetic awareness or maximum strength. Younger athletes simply do not possess the mental or physical abilities to do these things and so practice of key skills is the most important thing - often without explanation at first, just "tricking" them into doing the motions while thinking of something else.

Feedback is a very important aspect of any type of coaching because it enhances the athlete's understanding, awareness of what they are doing, but the key difference in the development of an athlete is the self discipline to implement that type of feedback. In novice groups, this is pretty easy because the athletes usually crave the coach's attention and will do next to anything to show off what they have learned for that coach. I have always found that in older or more experienced groups, this is less and less the case. 

Despite different types of coach intervention, due to repetitive nature and physical demand of swimming, some athletes simply are not ready for some skills. Some others, however, choose not to swim properly. Here are a few reasons why:
  • The athlete learned to do something improperly years ago, but grew quickly and was therefore bigger and faster than other athletes in the age group. They refuse to change what their doing because they're faster doing it their way and it's also easier.
  • They loose focus quickly and their focus is on something other than their technique.
  • They are too physically exhausted to do it properly.
  • Bodies allow their limbs to follow the path of least resistance. Since there is often a lot of resistance in moving your body in a straight line, it is tempting to allow deviations in stroke path in order to spare some energy. Ironically, the swimmer ends up using more energy this way because they are far less efficient. 
  • They are bored or don't care.
Regardless of the reasons for not getting a skill done (ability or desire), the coach must find a balance between "stroke correction" (which could be group or individually geared and be in line with the group expectation) and the appropriate aerobic/swimming base that will continue physical development towards the ability to meet the physical demand of the sport. My Senior group does a lot of self-feedback drill development work (especially early in the season) to prepare for the cycling of work that follows. After that cycle, the athletes will refocus on skills and stroke development in order to maintain an appropriate balance.

Teaching Discipline & The Importance of Self Discipline:

Combining what we now know about group coaching and applying it so far we know this: group size requires that certain stroke standards be enforced to a group but not everyone can (or will) do them. Therefore, not everyone in any given group is necessarily swimming properly. There are are few key reasons why swimming properly is important:

  • Avoid repetitive injury
  • Maximize Speed
  • Minimize resistance
  • Greater success
While it is the responsibility of the coach to figure out a solution to stroke problems (which vary from club to club and group to group) a strategy for correction is not often something they can figure out in an instant. This type of correction is not likely included in their season plan and requires figuring out the reason for the problem before actually solving it, which can require time and a trial and error approach. It is worth noting that every athletes is very unique so their are literally thousands of reasons and thousands of solutions depending on the combination of reasons. Parents - while bringing this to a coach's attention is often helpful, please note that the coach is very likely already hyper aware of the situation. Don't expect an immediate answer or solution due to the reasons above; trust that the coach is working their best to figure out the best solution. Remember - not every swimmer is the same.

To be general, the solution to all difficulties is practice. Forcing practice is important and remembering that at the beginning, nothing is easy. Giving up because something is too hard is the easiest thing to do - the path of least resistance. Successful coaches are able to build excitement around doing things very well and the advantages that come with dedication, persistence and discipline to do things properly. It should still be understood that the onus is on the swimmer to put that work into what their doing in the water. In a group setting, the "path of least resistance" works as a 2 way street - coaches are more likely to gear practices and group expectations to the ones who routinely do what is asked. "We only swim so much and it matters so much when someone doesn't get what they want and what we want for them... so lets make EVERY stoke count and lets do EVERYTHING right. It just makes sense." ~ Ben Titley, Head Coach of Canadian Swim Centre Ontario.


Mature swimmers need to understand the importance of doing things well and that they have ample opportunities to practice doing things the way they want need them to be done in a race - rehearsal. Racing is very physically, mentally and emotionally demanding and unless you're training to meet those demands... success is relative.

Swimmers - do you often get the same feedback or find yourself working on the same concepts or drills? Start implementing the principles of those sets into your swimming sets and see the difference. I feel like many swimmers and coaches (and parents) get wrapped up in the number of hours or KMs swam in a week, but I'm not optimistic that the same swimmers coaches (and parents) put the same emphasis on whats being done in those KMs and hours. The onus of THAT work is on the swimmers; they need the self discipline to practice doing things right, not just "workout". If you're going to be better at 1 thing this season, make it "quality control"; control the quality in each stroke you do!

I know that I am a very demanding coach, but not for the KM and Hours reason above; I demand that things be done very well. The reason I Tweeted this earlier in the week was the genuine surprise on swimmers faces when I wouldn't allow them to get away with sub par work and made them start again. A gentle reminder that being great is not as easy as showing up and saying you want to be great.