Creating a High Performing Centre (part 2)


“We are that which we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit”


Really when I talk about building a High Performing Program what I am talking about is developing a Talent Hotbed. Now, I don’t like the word talent. I tell my athletes that, when someone tells them they are talented, to reply that actually the work incredibly hard.

But hard work cant be the only ingredient, we all know of athletes who work their backsides off but for some reason it just doesnt happen for them. We put it down to a lack of ‘talent’ and lament that if only we could find that unique talent that also worked hard then we would really have something.

But is that really the case?

Maybe its not that our athletes with potential dont work hard enough or dont have enough talent, maybe its that they dont work smart enough!

So maybe when developing this talent hotbed or high performing centre my focus needs to shift from ‘how much’ & ‘how hard’ to just ‘how’. We need to develop an environment where athletes are allowed and indeed encouraged to practice effectively. Where there is no fear of failure because it is through failure that we learn to do better.

Often when we see someone practicing effectively we describe it using words like willpower or concentration or focus. These words however don’t do justice to what is happening, they don’t quite go far enough. They don’t capture the steep learning curve we are witnessing.

I have often told swimmers that

‘only perfect practice makes perfection’

BUT what is perfect practice?
Daniel Coyle in his book the talent code calls it DEEP PRACTICE
In that book he gives the following example of how to experience this for yourself

take a few minutes to look at the following lists

A                                   B

Leaf / Tree                   Bread / B_tter

Sweet / Sour               Music / L_rics

Movie / Actress          Phone / B_ok

Petrol / Engine            S_oe / Sock

Turkey / Stuffing         Pen / P_per

Fruit / Vegetable         Tele_ision / Radio

Computer / Chip          Lunch / Din_er

Chair / Sofa                  Beer / Win_

Now, cover the lists and try to recall as many of the pairings  as you can.

Which column did you remember the most from?

If you are like most people it wont even be close, they remember more from column B, the words that contain the fragments. Studies have shown that you are 3 times more likely to recall pairs from column B than from column A. Its as if for those few seconds your memory skills suddenly improved.

Your IQ didn’t increase, you didn’t feel any differently but when you looked at the fragmented words something subtle happened, you stopped, stumbled, struggled then figured it out. You experienced a microsecond of struggle and that made all the difference.

You didn’t practice harder, you practiced DEEPER

Perfect practice is built on a paradox
struggling in certain targetted ways, operating at the edge of your ability, where you make mistakes, makes you better. Experiences where you are forced to make errors and correct them end up making you swift and graceful without you realising it.

You can read more about this here

So the trick in developing a Talent Hotbed is to provide the athletes with the right stimulus at the right time, allow them to fail – repeatedly – without fear, encourage then to learn from each failure, to operate at the extreme of their ability.

The trick should be to set goals just beyond present ability level of the group, to

target the struggle

. There is an optional gap between what the athlete is currently capable of  and what they are trying to do –  find that sweet spot learning takes off!!

So what does all this mean for me as a club coach?

If I want to develop thus High Performing Centre then I am going to have to start educating swimmers, and (more importantly) parents, to teach them that it is ok to make mistakes when those mistakes are treated as an opportunity to learn.

So does this idea fly in the face of the LTAD Model? I don’t believe so, in fact, I believe that when we hit that sweet spot we are more in line with the LTAD than ever before.

Think about it the 1st stage of the LTAD is FUNdamentals – the clue is right there in capitals, a relaxed environment where learning the basics is fun. Right from our earliest days we learn by failing when we learnt to walk we fell every time and did our parents shout at us for failing? Of course not they encouraged us.

I see clubs paying lip service to following a Long Term Athlete Development plan but then not following through with it all the way. We do this 1st stage ok (and I think that we can still do it better) but then (in my experience) we rush and push and hurry young swimmers along and if they can’t keep up we discard them (figuritivly speaking)

At a 2 day conference last month Graham Wardell said something that stuck with me. He said as coaches we have a tendency to coach to the top of our squad. Now he used it in a slightly different context….
We see a pattern in swimming of a lot of junior females and very few senior females in our squads. He suggested that this could be because as juniors they tend to be at the front of their lanes as they physically develop earlier then as the males develop the girls naturally get passed. If we as coaches coach to the top we stop coaching the girls when this happens……no surprise that they quit.

I am starting to believe that the same principle happens to groups in general without a gender bias.  If we coach to the top of the squad, the younger swimmers are working at a level that exceeds their sweet spot simply to keep up, their skills disappear, they learn bad habits and these then get engrained.  The result? Fit athletes without the skills to transition from junior to senior sport.

Not to put to fine a point on it as coaches we are doing a fairly poor job

This statement was not especially well received I must admit (possibly because I said it exactly like that) in fact the response was “speak for yourself”
The sad thing is – I was speaking about myself

In Ulster, historically, we move our athletes through too quickly and they miss out on key stages in their development. This results in us having fairly fast 11 & 12 year olds who grow into ok 15 & 16 year olds and we have huge problems retaining any athlete beyond that age.

I for 1 am tired of meteocrity.

I was told (and have told others) if you want to be a successful coach you have to leave Northern Ireland. Why? Isn’t that just accepting that we can’t do it right here?

Well I like that as a challenge.


Building a High Performing Program

STEP ONE : – providing a safe environment for all squads where failure is seen as a positive step to learning.

posted by Peter


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