Ask Yourself This

“We have always done it that way”, is a phrase I have heard uttered far too often by coaches in response to a challenge of their training methods. In a previous article I highlighted the importance of hanging a question mark over your strongest held beliefs; in this post, I challenge you to put it into practice.

I have posed a number of questions to you below and I would like you to answer them, however, I have one condition for this exercise – I would like you to assume that, whatever answer you provide, it is wrong. I want you to try and act as your own devil’s advocate. Find the flaws, the weaknesses, the limitations of your answer; assume that they exist – more often than not, if you look hard enough, you’ll find them. By becoming aware of the pitfalls in your programme you can refine, remove and replace the practices which do not stand up to this self-scrutiny.

Make yourself prove your answer. Don’t accept cop-outs such as “That’s what everyone else does,” or, “That’s what we have always done”. Instead, I would implore you to employ reason based on logic, science, scientific rationale and, evidence.

For each of the questions I have posed, I have included a potential ‘cop-out’ answer and, a possible alternative answer – a ‘devil’s probe’. Here goes.

Why are some of my* swimmers progressing and improving significantly better in comparison to other swimmers within the same lane?

Cop-out: Some swimmers work harder than others.

Devil’s probe: I have not created a programme which is sufficiently individualised for each athlete within the lane. I have not recognised the vast physiological and psychological differences which can exist between each athlete.

Why do I have swimmers who regularly become injured, particularly in the shoulder region?

Cop-out: It’s an excuse swimmer’s utilise when the going gets tough.

Devil’s probe: My programmes consist of vast swimming distances which are applying an unnecessarily large amount of pressure on the swimmer’s shoulders’. My dryland programme is having a detrimental effect on the swimmer’s performance in the water.

Why are my swimmers not meeting my performance expectations?

Cop-out: The athletes are not trying hard enough. They don’t listen.

Devil’s probe: I am overtraining my athletes. I am not communicating my technical instructions effectively. I am not creating an environment in which the swimmer’s wish to engage.

Why is it that during races my swimmers fail to replicate the technique we have worked on in training?

Cop-out: The athletes are not performing the technical movements enough.

Devil’s probe: I have been ignorant of the link between technique and velocity – I have prescribed paces slower than race-pace for my swimmer’s to practice their race technique.

Some of the club swimmers attend a session and always seem distracted – why are they not concentrating?

Cop-out: They don’t care enough about their swimming.

Devil’s probe: I am writing up a session on the whiteboard and I am not engaging with the swimmers – I mainly leave them to it. I expect them to get on with the session with minimal interaction.

Why do my age-groups swimmers appear to peak at age 16-17 followed by a decline in performance?

Cop-out: Young adult life catches up with them, they prioritise their social life over their swimming life.

Devil’s probe: The performance of those swimmers have relied on the improvements which come from growth during puberty; it shows the training programme has not been as effective as I thought it was.

Why do I struggle to retain swimmers between the ages of 16-18?

Cop-out: This is due to the external pressures experienced by teenage swimmers, e.g. academic pressures.

Devil’s probe: I have reduced my athletes to swimmers rather than appreciating their life outside of the pool. My programme does not accommodate for these other areas of life. I have placed a disproportional emphasis on quantity of swimming over quality.

Are all my training practices in line with current evidence and research?

Cop-out: I don’t care, all my practices have been learned from very successful coaches and from methods which everyone else uses.

Devil’s probe: No, I haven’t been equipped with the skills to carry out research of sport science so I avoid it. I am ignorant of the scientific process. Some of my practices conflict with scientific evidence and scientific rationale.

Should I allow my ideas to be challenged by colleagues and other coaches?

Cop-out: No, I’m a level 3 licensed coach!

Devil’s probe: Yes! It’s one of the best ways to find the weaknesses in my training programme. My beliefs and opinions are not infallible – I could be wrong.

This is not a post on how to improve your programme, instead, I hope it has revealed to you that your programme can be improved. If nothing else, employing the devil’s advocate and utilising self-evaluation can reassure you that you are on the right track IF your ideas, training and methods can stand up to thorough scrutiny.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

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Hang up those Question Marks

If Charles Darwin had chosen not to bother questioning the origins of life on Earth, the assumption might have remained that a supernatural being, ‘God’, shaped each living organism on our planet. Of course, this belief has been since ‘blown out of the water’ due to the debate which ensued from Darwin’s Theory (or rather, fact) of Evolution through Natural Selection.

Questioning one’s beliefs and, debating the opinions of others, has transformed civilisation over the past 500-years; it remains our societies most important tool in progressing peace, social justice, and, science – although, this is not an exhaustive list.

Debate can reveal to an ‘opponent’ the gaps which permeate their knowledge and, may, lead them to fill-in said gaps of ignorance with the appropriate information. Criticism of an idea can lead the originator to question the accuracy of their belief and, can assist in improving it – this may entail abandoning it all together. At the very least, engaging in an open discussion about a concept can improve the advocate’s articulation of it to others.

An important distinction to clarify is the difference between the critique of an idea and, an ad hominem attack on a person. The former involves scrutiny of a thought created in one’s mind – it has no feelings, it does not care how much you criticise or ridicule it. The latter involves fallaciously rebutting an opposing point by attacking the person, rather than debating the argument itself; even if the criticism of the individual is accurate, it has no relevance on whether the claim made is valid.

Ad hominem non-sequitur:
“You’re an ugly person. Therefore, you’re wrong” – the perceived beauty or, suggested lack of, has no bearing on whether the opponent’s argument is sound or not.

Scrutinise what the person is saying, not who is saying it.

That said, there are many unfortunate individuals and, organisations, in society who cannot bear to hear an opposing opinion – particularly, one which confronts a long-held view. They wish to remain in the safety of those who agree with them and, run away from, or verbally attack, anyone who dares trespass into their blissfully ignorant world.

What is the worst that could happen? You’re proven wrong, through the use of rational argument – based on evidence. As I see it, you are left with two options: 1. You can continue to deny, in the face of logic and the evidence, that the critic’s view is not accurate and continue to shamefully remain within your ‘safe zone’ or, 2. Explore the person’s claims through your own research, and, if the evidence appears to be valid, accept it, utilise it and, voilà, you have improved your view/opinion/model/strategy/, etc.

No one’s opinion is infallible; rejecting to hear an argument against your view suggests you believe it to be so.

This skill can also be applied to your own ideas. Indeed, it is often essential to dispute one’s own beliefs before challenging those of others. How do you know you’re right? How do I know what I know, except that I’ve always been taught it is so, and, I’ve never been told otherwise?

As the philosopher, Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” When is the last time you hung up those question marks on your long-held beliefs?

Depressingly, in the world of swimming, the art of critical thinking and scientific scrutiny has not permeated many levels nor is it a skill employed by all swimming coaches – I would boldly claim that the majority do not. That said, this is not entirely the fault of coaches. Unfortunately, the pool of scientific studies into competitive swimming is relatively limited and, can be rather difficult to find – not to mention that most coaches aren’t taught how to review or analyse, research papers. This a major shortfall on the part of swimming organisations and sporting bodies – a topic I wish to write about in the near future. Instead, coaches often resort to belief-based practices: copying other club programmes and reading swimming ‘manuals’ which are themselves based on dogma. Only now, as the evidence sources (and reliability) increases, we see the debunking of many traditional training practices – training which YOU likely use in your club programmes.

There has been no better time to debate the training prescriptions of other coaches, research the science available (and learn how to do it properly!) and, start questioning your own beliefs. No matter how long you have coached for, no matter what your track record is, no matter how strongly you believe you are right, hang up those question marks!

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu