Do you know what the difference is between a lesson and a practice? And, when is the right time for one or for the other?

Here are some definitions I am working with to help students identify their current needs and help me plan activities to fit those needs.

A lesson may be defined as an event where a teacher or a coach is imparting new understanding and skill to a student. This requires a teacher who knows what needs to be learned and how to impart that to the student. This almost always means the teacher will be in the water with the student, ready to demonstrate, guide, watch above and below, and offer immediate feedback.

A practice may be defined as an event where a student takes that new understanding and skill expression and engages in activities that integrate it into their body, into their performance. This may start with a teacher but we hope it will eventually not always require a teacher. When present, the teacher will not likely be in the water, but will be watching intently, ready to guide with words and video.

When you come to the teacher for the first time, or come back to learn a new skill, that teacher will be offering you a lesson, she will be teaching you, primarily, what to work on. But after you’ve understood what to work on, you need to shift into the work of integrating and strengthening that skill. At that point you benefit more from a coach-guided practice, where you will learn how to work on that skill. Any session you experience may likely have an element of both lesson and practice in it, but it is helpful to recognize the main emphasis.

In our local programs we’ve set things up so that students can come to a series of private lessons or small group lessons to get introduced to the set of fundamental skills for the stroke they are working on. These always start as lessons because we are working on something that is new to the student. Toward the end of each session we will transition from ‘lesson’ to ‘practice’, from getting acquainted to working on integrating that skill. We send them away with access to the notes of their lesson and a practice guide on our online training site, the Mediterra Dojo and we urge them to do practice those skills before the next session. The more practice they’ve done, the more ready they are to accept the next layer of skills that need to be build upon those.

After experiencing a series of lessons, we invite local students to our Swim Club – a weekly coach-guided practice session. To be efficient with time and with the coach’s attention, these particular practices are not generally open to the uninitiated student, because through that previous lesson series experience has the swimmer acquired the specific understanding of our main concepts, the skills for body control and attention control, the drills and the cues and the terminology we use so that the coach and swimmer can now communicate with a common language and a shared view on how swimming works. This makes it possible for the coach to guide a number of swimmers in a practice activity that is both inclusive and personalized. Everyone in the group can work on the same skill yet the coach can quickly help each student identify how they individually need to work on it (choosing individually appropriate drills and cues), and modify the activity to suit their skill and fitness situation (modify the length or number of the repeats, the intensity, the target metric, etc). Such efficiency within such complexity is only possible because everyone is working within the same paradigm.

Whether joining the Swim Club or continuing with private training sessions, these practices are specifically designed to teach swimmers how to merge both fitness and skill work together so that both are developed in proportion to each other. When we transition into more of a practice mode we will gradually increase the challenge of the activity to strengthen and urge those skills to become autonomous in the neuromuscular system. There are particular principles in motor learning and psychology, fused with exercise physiology that guide us in how to do this; it requires an understanding of how to assign both the right quantity of work (the distance and intensity of the swimming) matched with the right quality standard appropriate for each swimmer.

And, we do not intend to keep these principles a secret – no, we take time to explain why we do practice activities a certain way and how to conduct them so that eventually (if they like) they can take on more of the responsibility for planning and conducting their own practices in a similar way. Week after week in our practice sessions they are being exposed to and instructed about how these training principles work. We are glad to have practice time with them each week, yet we are also glad to see our swimmers guiding themselves since they will be doing that most of the time anyway.

So, after a series of lessons, when eager students ask what they should do next, I give them the general instruction: if you want to work on a new or advanced skill then we should set up another set of lessons for that. If you want to work more deeply on the skills you’ve acquired already, then look at attending Swim Club or set up some sessions with your coach so that he/she can teach you how to practice. After that, you may like to start one of our online training plans which are all designed around the blending of skill and fitness work together. The training plans were designed specifically with our experienced students in mind.

Some questions for you…

Right now, do you need more of a lesson or do you need more of a coach-guided practice? Do you need to learn something new, or do you need help refining and strengthening what you’ve studied already?

Are you the kind of person who would like to learn how to practice so that you don’t need to go to the coach continually? Or do you like having the coach guide you and find that attention and setting more motivating?

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