For me swimming is a closed skill. It is a skill that is not affected by external influences; it is just your body moving through water. We do not have opponents in our lanes or obstacles to overcome. A closed skill set can be practiced until the mechanics become second nature. However, the danger when we say it should become second nature is, that you switch off mentally and just go through the motions. I am not an authority on this by any stretch of the imagination, so I may be wrong, but I’m not entirely sure this is what we should be aiming for.
If we think of another sport for a second. Rory McIlroy practices his swing every day for hours to achieve perfection and to make sure that it is repeatable multiple times. Has his swing become automated? It is definitely second nature but is it automatic?
The dictionary defines automation as:
1. The technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, reducing human intervention to a minimum.
2. A device that functions without input from the operator.
So, Rory steps up to strike the ball and halfway through his back-swing someone calls out and distracts him. An automated swing would continue, strike the ball and mess up the shot. However, he has the ability to stop mid-swing, step back, re-address and start again.
To me this is not automated performance; this is a world class practitioner performing at the top of his game, being in the moment, entirely focused on what he is doing.
Therefore, if we practice perfectly every session, and the mechanics of what we do become second nature, has our swimming become automated?
I don’t believe so, no.
I believe we practice so much in order to avoid automation.
Automation to me implies that the athlete has disengaged from whatever activity they are doing. I want my athletes to be actively in the moment at every stage. I want them to know how to react to every situation and have the ability to respond.
When we train or practice any skill we are seeking to operate in a sweet spot. It does not matter if we are playing the piano, hitting a golf ball or swimming, we are striving for perfect practice.
The way I interpret this is, we are looking to practice at the very limit of our current ability.
With this in mind I actively encourage the athletes in my squad to fail.
Now that may seem a bit of a strange thing to say as we automatically consider failure as a negative but, if we are practicing at the very limit of our ability, failure is not only a positive, it’s an inevitability. When a swimmer fails a set or a challenge, they analyze the failed repeat and find out why it failed. They look at what was different from the successful repeats, correct it, and go again.
So for me perfect practice is about working to the limit in everything (drill sets should challenge you as well, albeit in a different way), working to the point of failure: pause, analyze, repeat. This is continued to the point where the correct skill cannot be performed through fatigue and then rest. In this way you push the limits of what you can do and, over time, be able to do more.
So how can this be applied to swim training?
The simplest and easiest to understand why is in relation to Race Pace work. Race pace should be about more than achieving a time, it should be about the ‘HOW’ of that time, the correct stroke count and correct stroke rate. All 3 elements make race pace. So when we do race pace sets we might spend 30 minutes swimming at pace but if 1 of those 3 elements slips then we rest, reassess and then go again. This means that these sets become highly specific to each athlete.
But it’s not just in race pace training that we can do this, if stroke count or technique fails during any set I am a big believer in stopping and assessing what is happening before returning to work. There is,in my opinion, limited value in performing at a level where technique has failed. Far better to take 30 sec and get back to perfect practice.
In my opinion, we, as coaches need to teach our athletes to think for themselves, to assess what they are doing in every set and actively learn from each experience. I don’t want them to become automated in their approach to training; I want them to learn that when thy are senior athletes, they will need to be able to react to unexpected tactics around them in racing situations to get to the wall 1st.
I try to encourage every athlete in the club system to become more thoughtful in what they do, more considered in their approach and to try things. When they fail, they learn and they improve.