In order to plan the next cycle of practices for a swimmer working towards a particular performance goal, I need to see various kinds of data from both their objective measurements and their subjective measurements. We are, after all, training the whole person to perform well, with their objective and subjective parts included. To create a whole, healthy, thriving, efficient athlete, we need all that information, not just part of it.
When I request a report on their practice, a new athlete might say, “Hey, can I just send you my Garmin [watch] data?”
The Limited Role Of The Watch
Yes, he can. But I want more than that.
That watch will provide me with some of what I need, but not all, not even most. I will ask for more. I will ask for anything that swimmer can tell me about what focal points have been most useful; I want to know what they have been counting with their own head, what they have been observing about failure points. I want to know what they have been experiencing in their nervous system, muscles, metabolism and in their mind during those practices.
I am looking to see if this swimmer is actually paying attention to information coming from their own body, or to see if they’ve fallen into the hole of thinking that the watch will do it for them. It may be giving them a false sense of ‘being adequately informed’ about their performance. The fancy watch data may serve me as the coach more than it serves them as the swimmer.
Watch data treats performance as a matter of ‘effort and quantities’, while many coaches like me view performance primarily as a matter of ‘skill and qualities’ expressed through quantities. To build a more complete picture we need both the information that the watch provides and the information that only the athlete’s brain and perception provides.
First, I want to validate those of you who love your data-gathering watches (I have one for running myself, but not for swimming). They are useful, and I realize those accumulating workout records fulfill a legitimate emotional need (I collect too). And, some people are combining the objective data from their watch with a proportional amount of subjective data they are gathering with their own attention and nervous system. They keep records of both. Those with this array of information are the ones who can best make the steady progress.
But, gently, I want to challenge those of you who may be using the watch as an excuse to neglect your own attention and mental measurements during practice. If you find that paying attention to stroke count or to tempo (BEEP of a Tempo Trainer) is hard to do while paying attention to some stroke quality – I can appreciate that, it stretches the brain to hold attention on dual-tasks. It’s hard, but its the right kind of hard. It’s the kind of hard that make a practice effective at expanding your capabilities. It’s the kind of hard that grows your brain-body connection so you can train more intelligently.
If you find that paying attention to a single task and keeping attention there intentionally for shorts periods of time is too difficult for your self control, then you are in a difficult spot for making steady improvement. Complex skills are built in the brain a certain way and after a point there are no more hacks to it, but simply doing the work to build strength of attention. It’s hard but it’s necessary.
I am going to kindly urge you to push through and start doing more of it, even just a little bit more. To make progress, you need to move from single task to dual task situations in practice, as I described in the series Moving From Novice To Expert.
Here is the punch line: your own nervous system is the primary and the best feedback system you have to help you improve steadily. You have to pay attention to information coming from your body in the act of swimming in order to use this feedback.
The watch doesn’t even come close to this because it supplies that information after stroke action is done (at the wall), or worse, after the whole practice is done. The best feedback in your early stages of training is going to come as direct and immediate as possible. Though there is some cool technology out there for various sports, for swimmers only your own nervous system and perception is in position to provide this kind of feedback.
If you use the watch to complement the information you are taking in with your own attention, that is good. If you use the watch in attempt to replace information you would otherwise take in with your own attention in the act of swimming, that is not good. Technology, in this context, should enhance our own capabilities, not replace them.
There is likely more coming on this topic. Stay tuned!