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


The Zen of Martial Arts

Not so much a blog today as a plagerism

Thanks to Mike Gustafson who postes this originally the full article is here.

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of s martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo, he was given an audience by the Sensei.

“What do you wish from me?” the master asked.

“I wish to be your student and become the finest kareteka in the land,” the boy replied.

“How long must I study?”

“Ten years at least,” the master answered.

“Ten years is a long time,” said the boy. “What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?”

“Twenty years,” replied the master.

“Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?”

“Thirty years,” was the master’s reply.

“How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” the boy asked.

“The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way.”

Sometimes, we get so fixated on goal times and far away swim championships that we forget to be in the present. This doesn’t just happen with age group swimmers. It can happen with collegiate and professional swimmers, too. And when we’re focusing on a far-away destination, what we’re really doing is not putting all our efforts and focus on the journey itself. When we have one eye looking down the road, we only have one eye focused on the practice at hand.

It’s great to have goal times. Goals are very much needed throughout the swimming journey. Goal times get you out of bed in the morning, they motivate you, they make you feel inspired, and they give you something to shoot for.

But when you obsess too much about goal times, they can be a negative motivator. They can feel like a burden, or an obstacle, or extra amounts of pressure – and this isn’t what you want. You don’t want to be scared by a goal. Because you’re not actually scared by the goal itself, but scared about what happens if you don’t reach that goal. You become scared of failure. 

Unfortunately, here’s the thing: Everyone fails. Everyone experiences failure. Everyone gets knocked down, doesn’t reach a goal, misses a championship final, or loses a race. Even Michael Phelps. What matters isn’t the failure, but how you react to it – both after and before the race itself. If you are scared about failing, you will never truly feel confident on the blocks.

You need to try to let go of that fear of failure. Everyone fails. What matters more is getting back up, focusing on the journey, and not on the destination.

When you place all your focus on the journey – having a great practice, nailing a start, a turn, or just trying your best in every practice to improve one small thing – you begin to focus less on the destination and more on the journey. You begin to accept that you will occasionally fail – and failure is OK. You will feel less scared about not reaching a goal time or not reaching Zones, because you know that swimming is a long road filled with failure. It will happen. What matters is that you not be scared by it, but instead, just do the best you can every moment.

Swimming can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. You’re so young, and you have a lot of swimming ahead of you. Swimming is a life-long journey with little baby steps and accomplishments along the way.

Goals can bring extra pressure. It’s true that tons of pressure can make diamonds. But it also can suffocate the fun. I know many swimmers who burned out throughout the swimming journey because they were no longer having fun, because they were feeling lots of pressure to succeed. But what defines “success” anyway? Some people define success about placements and times, and others define success about having fun, enjoying the sport, and enjoying your time with the sport. I tend to view success as the latter.

If you’re feeling too much pressure, take a few steps, breathe, and try to focus on the journey. I will tell you the truth: It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t make Zones. Sure, it will be disappointing, but it shouldn’t ruin your love for the sport, and it shouldn’t make you feel as though everything you’ve done – all those 10,000 yard practices you do – are worthless. Peter Vanderkaay, when he was your age, didn’t even qualify for high school states. Imagine if he didn’t qualify for states and then thought of himself as a failure. Maybe he wouldn’t have become the Olympic swimmer he is today.

But he did become one. Swimming is a long, long journey, and while goal-setting can be good, if you’re experiencing so much pressure that you’re scared about the journey, press the reset button and focus both eyes on the journey itself. 

Remember the anecdote from above: When you focus on the destination, you aren’t using both eyes to see the way there.

Breathe. Smile. Keep working hard, and keep having fun, and you’ll get to where you need to go, wherever that may be

Hope you enjoyed that as much as i did


Creating a High Performing Centre

There are a number of things I struggle with in the sporting arena. Actually there is a great deal I struggle with if I’m being honest.

At the moment its high performance centres and what that really means.

Right now I am filling my days planning year 1 (next year) of a 5 year plan I have set myself (and my club) to produce a system that will guarantee success.
You see I am firmly in the ‘nurture camp’ when it come to the debate about nature over nurture or vice versa. I firmly believe that we are all products of our environment and our experiences. So the challenge is to develop an environment that provides the right experiences at the right time to the athletes in order to enhance their potential (a better word than talent i think)

Sounds pretty simple right!! 🙂

I was once asked what place I felt High Performance Centres had in swimming, at the time my answer was fairly blunt – I dont think they will work.

Part of that stemmed from my fear, as a coach, of losing my best athletes. How was I supposed to improve myself as a coach if every time an athlete achieved a standard they were moved into a ‘High Performance Centre’?

In some ways I still harbour those feelings but I am trying to tackle the issue in a different way. As a club coach I cannot change a club set up into a HPC, the entire club needs to be nurtured and grown not simply the top end. However that does not mean I cannot develop the club program into a high performing centre. A program where there is a realistic expectation that if the systems are followed success will be inevitable.

Thats the starting point for this 5 year plan.

To develop a high performing centre in Ulster and Irish swimming where athletes in the program can have realistic expectation of fulfilling their goals – to out perform the performance centre.

Should be a trip

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Posted by Peter

ASPIRE to be World Class

I have been very fortunate to be part of the panel of coaches enrolled on the 3rd Aspire coaches development program run by sports coach uk. The weekend just past (or rather Monday and Tuesday) was the 2nd seminar and to say that it was challenging would be an understatement.

Now I am not for 1 second suggesting that I have ever considered myself to be a world class coach or anything but. ……..If pushed I’d probably say I was pretty good. I have had some success at national level and managed to get swimmers selected for representative national trips with some degree of regularity.
I consider myself to be relatively driven to succeed and improve my knowledge, I think I am fairly critical of myself and would say I am on a bit of a quest for perfection or rather the perfect way for me to operate. I strive to be world Class I guess you would say.

And I thought I was doing a pretty good job all things considered.

A BIG theme from the Aspire program is self reflection, again, something I thought I did. As it turns out……not so much.

So after yet another lengthy spell in Birmingham airport (I wonder how much shares in that place cost) I decided on the flight home that I would actively reflect on the weekend, on what I had heard and what parts of it I could apply directly or indirectly to my coaching.

I started thinking about how I reflect, I reflected on my reflection. I record, almost, everything and evaluate performances, I alter sets depending on how swimmers react to the workload in specific sessions, but……..not once do I mention me in my reflection. I don’t mention my own performance, what has distracted me, what I have done well or done less well. I assumed that a good session by the swimers ment that I had done a good job. In hindsight and on deeper reflection I don’t think that’s the case at all anymore. Swimmers can perform in spite of the coaches short comings in sessions or coaches can have their best session and it just not work.

So that’s was the 1st step……change how I evaluate, actually start evaluating my performance not just my athletes. See what I can learn about myself and how I can be a better coach.

But next problem was what do I compare myself to? What is the benchmark?

I have had the privilege of working beside, and swimming for, some excellent coaches (coaches far better than me), but are they world class? Are they the best in the world at what they do? Should I set the bar higher?

Seems obvious to me when I think about it…….If I want to be world Class I need to look at world class examples, stop limiting myself to comparisons within Ireland and evening within swimming.

I actively encourage my athletes to seek out world class examples of performers in their events and compare themselves to it.

Why do I not ask myself the same question? How hard can it be?

Turns out……pretty tough.

I could name world class coaches of course but this isn’t about copying other coaches, this is about finding what makes them world class and adding it to who I am to improve me not turning me into them.

I’m 40 years old this summer and it turns out I had no idea how to get to where I want to be.

I know what I want, to be a world class coach, to enjoy podium success, to influence the lives of the athletes in my program in a positive way but…….After 20 years have I gotten any closer than when I started? Probably not.

That was a low point.

Every day in training I write some words on the board

#HBDYWI (HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT) is a personal favorite. So decided to apply the same principles I ask of my swimmers to myself.

So what makes for a world class coach?

Here’s what I think

Six Practices of World Class Coaches

This is by no means exhaustive but I guess it’s a start

Setting the bar high.
World Class coaches know what constituted excellence, and wont settle—or allow their athletes to settle—for anything less. They persevere, session after session, without lowering their standards or giving up on the pursuit of excellence. As a result their athletes reach a level of excellence never attained before.

Stating “shoulds” clearly.
Clear shoulds provide targets, which in turn prompt desired behavior. This is why fund-raisers like to create visuals showing the amount of money collected compared to the goal. World class coaches don’t simply say “do that again and make it better.” they go over race, strokes, points, games etc, pointing out the where improvements can be made. Their feedback is specific, words are never minced, they do not hesitated to tell exactly what they liked and didn’t like, however the primary focus is never on how bad a performance was, but on how it could be made better. Interestingly, clear shoulds not only provide unambiguous targets to hit; they also help to clarify the current “as is” and the distance between the two. With world class coaches the distance between the target and the as it becomes crystal clear. The athletes job then is to close the gap.

Refusing to “rescue.”
World Class coaches put the onus on the athlete to make the adjustments needed. They encouraged their athlete to come up with solutions.

Testing for understanding.
World class coaches never assum the athlete understood what was expected of them. They provided feedback, then ask “So, do you understand what you need to do? How will you go about doing it?”

At the start of every session, a world class coach carefully lays out the steps and what they expect to accomplish from it. Having a firm focus and deliverable outcome for every session.

Having patience.
We all get frustrated by the need for repeating drills over and over, but world class coaches never let it show. Athelets are on a learning curve,and the coach needs to give the time needed to get up to speed.

So that’s what I got, not exhaustive but a start. And how do I compare beside these things? About as good as I thought I did. Truth is I am literally miles from where I want to be in my career but at least there is a clearer idea of how to move forwards.

Now the journey begins……….finally

Til next time


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posted by Peter

Adventures in Swimming

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