Belief-based Vs Evidence-based Coaching

Hello to all my loyal and new readers,

Firstly, I would like to apologise for my recent absence, I have been busy experiencing a coaching epiphany of somewhat, of which I shall explain below; as well as being buried in my coursework. I would also like to mention that in this post, I will not be focusing on my series regarding the ‘Body in Swimming’, which I hope to return to soon. Instead I am going to try and convince some of you to rethink the way you coach – something I am finding to be a rather bold and daunting task.

Belief-based coaching

How much of what you coach or train swimmers by, do you know is based on scientific evidence? How did you come about concluding that what you are preaching is the right way of doing things?

Belief-based coaching includes the use of personal experiences, in that, it worked for some swimmers so it must, therefore, work for the rest (especially if those swimmers are your ‘top’ performing swimmers). This reasoning is concluded from trusting the knowledge you have acquired is reliable and, from using your interpretations of what you have read or heard from other coaches – in particular, ‘senior’ coaches. If a coach’s methods are shown to have not worked, then the blame will be placed on the athlete, i.e. the swimmer did something wrong to have produced the unexpected performance – rather than it being the coach’s training method to be at fault.

Unfortunately, belief-based coaching plagues many swimming organisations. The training is not based on accurate sports science or scientific evidence. It is, as Brent Rushall describes it, “subjective, biased, unstructured and mostly lacking in accountability.”

I am as guilty as most coaches for applying training methods based on my own interpretations e.g. Instruction from other coaches and following ‘what everyone else does’. This is not the way we should be coaching swimmers; instead, we should be applying methods of training based on evidence.

Evidence-based coaching

Evidence-based coaching relies on scientific studies and research as the basis for training. Rushall, a champion of evidence-based coaching, describes how coaching principles should be decided from: “several independent published scientific studies that report similar findings about human behaviour and therefore, deemed to be of substantive and reliable merit.”

Evidence-based coaching principles also allow for training effects to be reliably predicted, tested and verified – this is something which is uncommon in belief-based coaching. The latter camp often argues that it is tough to predict/measure certain effects/results and often hide behind this – blaming errors on uncontrollable factors rather than their practices.

A Vicious Cycle

The problem with many swimming organisations is that many refuse to receive evidence that may change their beliefs and structure. They then continue to feed incorrect knowledge to their various members (clubs/districts/regions) who then apply these belief-based methods.

These organisations often defend their beliefs by pointing out the successes of their athletes. However, as described before this is the problem with belief-based coaching – they wrongly support their methods using the observations of a few; again allowing for the spread of error throughout the organisation.

An important phrase to note is “the few.” Although belief-based methods may work for some swimmers, many athletes are left behind. They often conclude that the reason why some swimmers don’t perform well is simply that “they haven’t got it”; this is a ridiculous notion.


Many myths exist in swimming that are very long-standing and, are mainly due to individuals and organisations not scrutinising their knowledge. Up to 20% of what we learn today will be inaccurate in one years time; this percentage only increases with relation to years.

Ignorance should not be an excuse. It should be seen by all coaches and organisations as their responsibility to ensure that they evaluate their practices, seek to analyse their knowledge and use evidence as the basis of their sessions.

It is easy to appreciate why many individuals follow the beliefs of their organisations rather than attempt to dispute, analyse or evaluate it through the use of research. Extracting information from scientific research, studies and, papers, is a skill that many coaches do not currently possess. Those responsible for educating coaches should ensure that they 1) encourage the use of evidence-based coaching 2) provide coaches with the skills to apply it.

It’s Down to You

I hope a few of you that read this article will realise the dangers of belief-based coaching and will look to employ evidence-based.

It can be tough to take the jump from belief-based to evidence-based coaching; however, It is every coaches responsibility to ensure that they use evidence and science for choosing, developing, and justifying a training strategy in order to give swimmers the best possible chance of achieving their potential.

Yours in Swimming,


Please note SwimCoachStu posts are all of my  own opinion and are not necessarily endorsed by other clubs or organisations which I may be affiliated to

A brilliant resource for the evidence-based coaching approach can be found Swimming Science Journal

I would like to thank a fellow evidence-based champion for inspiring me to write this.


Rushall. B. S (October 2003) Coaching Development and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (or Belief-Based Versus Evidence-Based Coaching Development [Online] San Diego University


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