[Introduction by Kathleen Prindle]
Most of you have been in here, but if you are new to the room, you are listening to Part 2 of the talk by the great coach, Michael Brooks.
Alright, I spent the first whole hour and it really kind of flew by at least to me. It’s kind of setting the stage. I want to talk now, fairly sensibly, about the motor learning principles and prescriptions that guide what we do in practice every day and how we try to make the changes, and make them stick.
I mentioned earlier that motor learning is the science of learning movement skills—how we learn best. It’s important to note at the beginning of this, that the kind of set, the format of the set that will result in optimal learning is very different from the format of the set that will result in optimal improvements in physiology. These are two different animals. So, I think it’s very important when you’re trying to write a practice, and the sets that will comprise that practice, that you understand what your aim is with each part of the practice, because you’re going to get certain results, certain adaptations and those depend on the kind of sets that you’re giving swimmers.
Here, of course, I will be focused primarily on formats that will result in optimal learning. Physiology is another talk. So, the basic format of this section, I’ll talk about the motor learning principle. I’ll talk about how it applies in swimming. Then, a sample format, or a couple of different kinds of sets that we would use to take advantage of this principle.
The first is modeling. I’ve talked about this already, so I won’t dwell on it. But it’s giving kids a standard of comparison, a standard of reference or to compare with, when they perform the skills. If I can get the screen to show us what we want, I will show you what I mean by my model.
For each stroke, I came up with what I call the stroke catechism. I’m Catholic, so a lot of the terminology I use is theological. The kids deal with it, you can deal with it. Stroke catechism. For each stroke, it’s a list of approximately six to 10 skills that I consider fundamental to an effective stroke. Each of these skills is illustrated by a video clip.
So, for instance, this is one of the videos that we use. This is to illustrate the high elbow catch. The words we use are wrist, rotate, press. So, wrist cocked, elbow rotated, press straight back. Each of these skills, each of these fundamental skills has a little cue and we use the same words every single time. It’s short, sweet, to the point, has to be replicated. Swimmers don’t individualize it and make it their own. They use the same words every time.
Another example. This is metronome six-beat. The idea here is I want to see a six-beat kick. It’s essentially straight up and down. It’s a metronome, regular beat. I don’t want strong, weak, strong, weak. I don’t want a broken rhythm, stops, or pauses, I want an absolutely regular six-beat kick. Because every single time there is a break in the rhythm of the legs, there is a problem some other place in the stroke, whether it is the head position on breathing or whatever. So, problems are always connected. But, for each of the eight or ten or whatever it is for that particular stroke, we’ll have key words for a skill. And, by and large, we will work on these skills in the context of full stroke.
I’ll talk in a few minutes about drills and what I think of them. Some of you already know and the rest of you will be scandalized, but, just as a basic idea, almost all of the technical work that we do, and we do a lot, is with the kids swimming full stroke focused on one skill at a time. The skills that we are focusing on are drawn from the stroke catechism. We use the same vocabulary every time to describe a particular skill. It’s really simple and I think very effective. Yes, question?
[Audience Member]: “How can we sign up for a stroke catechism class?”
[Michael Brooks]: Well, the question is, how do you sign up for stroke catechism class. I came to the stroke catechism and it changes a little bit from year to year, as I decide one thing is little more important than another, where I change the way that I describe a skill. But, I came to it by watching hours and hours and hours of elite swimmers video, primarily underwater video, and trying to figure out what the best people in the world were doing. No two of them had exactly the same stroke. The rhythms look different. Michael Phelps doesn’t look like Tyler McGill or like Chad le Clos on butterfly. They are different. But, they share about 99% of their technical DNA and there are a lot of commonalities.
So, boiling down all the individual differences, it came to a list of what I consider the most important skills. You know, probably no two coaches are going to agree entirely on what they think is important, on what model they have of the stroke. It’s probably not that important that we do agree, entirely, at least. But what is important is that you, not me, but you have thought about it, and done the legwork to figure out, “I want my kids to swim like this.”
So, I came to it by watching a lot of video and I change my ideas every now and then. Somebody does something new. It seems to me to work according to laws of physics and hydrodynamics and whatever. I don’t feel like I have to defend whatever version of the catechism was in the book because I retain the right to get better and to learn. So, I’m not going to stake my reputation on what I had in a book a few years ago. So, this way I get to write second edition and I can make oodles more cash in royalties.
[Audience Member]: “There you go.”
[Michael Brooks]: So, we’ve got the stroke catechism and we’ve got the video catechism, which is a set of clips that illustrate those important skills. Now, super fun stuff, random practice.
Usually, random practice is compared with what we call blocked practice. Examples, blocked practice would be 20x25s catch-up on 30 seconds. I am giving the kids two or three things to focus on. They swim the whole set doing exactly the same thing, thinking about exactly the same thing. That’s blocked practice. You’re doing a whole bunch of things and it’s very uniform.
Random practice would be 20x25s on 30 seconds, where each repeat, we focus on a different skill, from the stroke catechism so that with every single repeat, a swimmer has to think, “Okay, reset. Now, I want to focus on metronome six-beat. I have this idea in my head. I swim, trying to swim according to that model. I finished. I compared A and B. Okay, what’s next? High elbow focus or finger-drag recovery? Okay, reset. Now, I want to do this. I swim. I try and swim according to the model. I finish. I compare. Okay, reset. What’s next?”
So, every single repeat or very close to that, they’re changing the intention. They’re changing the attention, they’re changing the sensory information that they’re paying attention to. They are learning. With the blocked practice format, after the first two or three repeats, there’s not a lot of learning going on. Brain is on autopilot and the analogy I like to use is like from math, super simple. Question number one, what’s five times three? Fifteen. Excellent. Good job. Question number two, what’s five times three? Fifteen. Question number three, what’s five times three? Fifteen. Question number four — what’s five times three? Okay. Ad nauseam.
The first time, I had to think a little bit if in I’m second grade, but after that, maybe after the second one, there was zero thinking going on whatsoever. But, if I’m changing it up every time, five times three, 13 times seven, 48 times 17, you know, whatever, every single repeat or every single question, I’m having to start from zero again, kind of reboot and then attack the problem. Question.
[Audience Member]: I appreciate that you allow for an exchange, however an eight year old is going to be at a different level than a fifteen year old. Does the set vary according to the swimmers level?
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, does the kind of set we give kids vary according to the age and developmental level of the swimmer?
[Audience Member]: “How many things do they have to think about?”
[Michael Brooks]: A number of things they have to think about. Well, in reality, I’m only asking them to think about one thing at a time. I’m just changing after every single repeat. Did that make sense?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: So for, but it is the case that with an eight-year-old or a brand spanking new swimmer, I probably won’t do full-scale random practice. I would do more blocked. I might do four repeats in a row with one focus, because all these skills are so new, it’s going to take them three or four or five repeats to just get a general idea of the skill that we’re talking about.
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, do I have in my head kind of an idea of what sort of practice is going to work best with different ages? Yes, I got a lot of stuff crammed up in here, a lot. And, I’ve been doing this long enough so that I do have an idea. I can look at a swimmer and see how they respond, and that’s what I’m really gaging after. For instance, with my new group right now, and they’re senior level swimmers, I can’t do the kind of random practice that I could do with my York kids, because for these kids, everything is new. The vocabulary I’m using is different, the particular skills are different, so I’m having to treat them like I would have with my 10-year-olds in York.
So, yes, it does depend on the level, the experience of a swimmer and the group, the swimmers in a group. You pay a lot of attention to your swimmers and how they respond. But the idea is you want to keep them on the edge. As soon as they really get the skill, you change it, so that they are having to struggle again, or at least, to reset their onboard computer and attack another problem. Yes?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: Well, it’s really interesting because right now in Chapel Hill, I’m not only working with a lot of swimmers to whom this is completely new, I’m dealing with a coach and staff to whom this is completely new. I’m cutting them a lot of slack, because what I can do without thinking about it, because I’ve been working on these ideas for a long time and trying to implement them for a long time, they can’t do. So, it takes them longer. The tempo of practices isn’t nearly as quick. So, it’s hard at first. It seems really complicated at first. To me, it’s not complicated at all anymore because I have the framework in my head, and I can just put in different parts and keep it all organized. But, that has only come with a lot of practice.
The beginning of the season when you have a slower pace for practice anyway, is a really good time not only to introduce this to swimmers but to get it introduced to a coach, because practices will go a little slower, really working on skill work. Physiology isn’t quite as important. So you have time to make your mistakes and learn how to do it. But, it took a long time. Where I am right now is a level of sophistication that is well beyond what I had a few years ago, just because I’ve been working on these by tweaking and polishing these ideas every single day.
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, they are doing a lot of different things but where are they getting the repetition, the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice or whatever you want to call it if you want to go that direction, which I don’t, but I will for the moment. In motor learning circles, they talk about repetition without repetition. That you want to get a lot of reps of something, say freestyle, but you want to do that with as little back-to-back repetition as you can.
So when you think about it, if you’re doing a Michael Brooks random practice set, they’re doing 20x25s freestyle, but they’re focused on something different every time. They’re resetting the computer every time. When they do that, they are giving those different skills, those, say, ten skills in the catechism, a chance to work together and fit together which they would not get if they just did 20 of them focused on one single thing. So, it’s repetition without repetition. The learning rates are drastically accelerated, compared with your typical blocked practice. Kids have to think every single repeat. They have to compare their performance with the model every single repeat, so they are learning a lot.
Now, one of the ways that we put this into practice is really simple ideas called rainbow focus, pass it on. We’re doing our 20x25s on 30 seconds. I tell the kids one time that, “Okay, on repeat number one, the focus is metronome six-beat. Let’s say we’re doing 50 s because that’s easier. I don’t have to keep walking back and forth. But, say we’re doing 20x50s, okay. First, swim metronome six-beat. They swim. When the first group, the leaders in each lane get to the wall, I’ll announce the second skill. Finger-drag recovery. I say it one time. First person passes it to the second, second to the third, third to the fourth, all the way done the line, okay? They have to say it loud enough so I can hear it every time.
It’s like a chorus. I say it one time. We don’t have to wait for the last person in the lane to finish, and then, for me to give a speech. So, we can get a lot of learning done, a lot of repetition without repetition, a lot of deliberate practice, thoughtful planned practice in a short amount of time. It looks like a normal set. But the rate of learning is accelerated because they’re swimming. They’re not standing around waiting for me to talk to them for a lot of time. There’s very little downtime. Further, they have to take responsibility for listening to the message from the kid in front of them, passing it on to the person behind them. So, that helps reinforce that particular skill in their heads every single time.
It really works, and it works with the 10 and unders. John Nelson, my old assistant, now the Head Coach at York, had been working with our 10 and unders the last couple of years and they are really good! Kids can do amazing things if you give them a chance to prove it. They can pay attention, they can do the stuff, and it really, really helps. Question over here?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible] “I have them say thank you just to make sure that they received it.”
[Michael Brooks]: Okay. The statement was, she’s been working with rainbow focus for three years and, not only does a swimmer acknowledge the message but thanks the person who gave it to them, for passing it along. And I assume that also makes a much polite swimmers. So, thank you.
That thing about social media is totally true! My wife will text her daughter, my stepdaughter, who’s one room away. I thought it was only teenagers who did that, but it isn’t. So, yes, it’s nice to actually talk to each other and pass along important information. Was there a question over here? Yes?
[Audience Member]: “So when you are doing the random practices and you’re working on skills but you see that that the skills are not being demonstrated the way you like, how do you handle that? Do you have them repeat, or they just move on?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, what do I do if they don’t look the way I want them to look? I’ll usually make sure that I cycle that skill back in again relatively quickly. I won’t go through a whole cycle, just to see if it was maybe an aberration. If I notice that it’s still a problem, I might put that on the backburner until they do a few more. Then, I might stop the whole group and kind of reinforce. And, remember, finger-drag recovery means you’re not swinging your arm out, you’re picking the elbow up, just sliding it along, straight forward, setting it in nice and pretty.
So, I would probably, after a little bit, stop them briefly, unpack the skill a little bit just to make sure they all understand what I want to see, and then send them off again. But I try and make sure that any speeches from me are very short, very pointed. So, we are not spending a lot of time on the wall. They are getting as much learning as is humanly possible in any practice. So, I keep it very, very short.
Now, a variation on this rainbow focus pass it on is, what we call HRPK. Sounds, and it will sound, when I elaborate on it kind of complicated, but not really. HRPK means H: head, R: recovery, P: pull, K: kick. So, we’ve taken four fundamentals of how the body swims. And in freestyle, for instance, our H focus would be head steady, one goggle breathing. The R would be finger-drag recovery. The P would be wrist, rotate, press. The K would metronome six-beat.
So, if we’re doing any repeat that’s divisible by four, say hundreds divisible by 25s, or a set where the total number of repeats is divisible by four. It doesn’t really matter how you do it. I would just have kids focus serially on first H, then R, then P, then K, so that I don’t have to spend my whole time at the end of the pool telling them what I want them to focus on. They’ve got the main points of the stroke that they’re going to be focused on, one at a time. It keeps their attention much better. I know because the order is the same every time what I’m supposed to be seeing, and I pay fairly close attention to aberrations, especially when they become patterns.
It helps the different parts of the stroke harmonize with each other, because they are working one at a time. It’s a very simple way of allowing kids to do essentially random, you might call it serial practice, getting the main stroke focuses repeated over and over and over. It allows me to watch more than I can when we’re just doing a rainbow focus pass it on.
You can throw in so many different variations. I mean, you’re limited only by your imagination. You start throwing in breathing patterns on freestyle or butterfly, stroke count variations, stroke tempo variations, descending speed variations, and pretty soon, you’ve got lots of moving parts and kids are really having to be on the ball because they’re supposed to be controlling or mastering more than one variable at a time. It’s just fun. It really keeps them on their toes. They like it. I mean, they usually say, “Gosh, I have to think so much.” That’s their way of saying, “That was good coach.” Yes?
[Audience Member]: “When you put that together, did you order it specifically or is that just random order?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, did I order the HRPK for a reason or is it just randomized? Essentially, it’s for a reason because with the H and the R, it’s kind of setting the body line. With the P, after you’ve got a nice straight line, you’re going to be able to pull more consistently. I always want kids hard on their legs coming home. So, it didn’t start out as HRPK, it was something else. I can’t even remember. Then, I started thinking, “You know, it makes a lot more sense if we do it the following way.” So, this is probably the third iteration before I found the one I really like.
But, you know, like I said, what I’m trying to do is throw out ideas for you to play with and presumably come up with better ideas than the ones I’m giving you. And then, it is your obligation to get back to me and tell me how I can get better, because that’s part of the deal. Yes?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: Okay. The question is, some kids are going to be more visual learners, some are going to be more verbal, just kids have different learning styles or skills, and how do we take that into account when we’re giving kids set formats?
I’m going to zip ahead for a moment and, talk about some of the ways we would use a video catechism because, we show a lot of video. It’s a huge part of our technical improvement program. We call it video catechism day, or video catechism set, where we would take one of the clips like I showed you. I would have it slowed down, about half speed or one-third speed, so slow motion. Kids would sit in their training group, in front of the very large flat screen television. They would watch, actively watch a particular clip for about three to four minutes, okay? And actively watching means you watch Michael Phelps do metronome six-beat, but you feel yourself do that skill just the way he is. Three minutes or so. Really dial-in. Then shut your eyes for a minute and I want you to feel yourself performing that metronome six-beat. Start at a slow tempo, same tempo you just watched, and I want you to gradually pick up your speed until your swimming race speed performing that skill.
So, watch first, observational learning. Then imagery or visualization. Then we’d pick another skill. Let’s just say since we just did legs, we’d switch to the other side of the body, other end of the body, and we do a catch: wrist, rotate, press focus. We do the same format. Three minutes watching, active watching, one minute imagery. Then we’d get in and kids would do for instance, 12×50’s on :50 or whatever, alternating the two skills. If kids are relatively good at this, we would have them descend by pairs, so they start very slow and they gradually build in speed. So they’re only alternating between two skills, but then, the speed or intensity is changing from start to finish.
It’s a way of bringing in that visual learning which I think is absolutely key; being able to see a model and to feel what he’s doing or she’s doing.
Another variation of that is we would wheel that televisions as close to the end of the pool as is financially possible, and the kids would watch the video clip in between repeats. So they’d finish, they’d watch about 20 seconds, they’d shut their eyes for about 10 seconds and kind of plan, “This is what I want to do.” Then they’d swim, trying to mimic or imitate the model. I might do three or four in a row with one single skill and then switch it. The idea is that they watch, they perform, they watch, they perform, so it’s very quick back and forth. I think that it’s a really simple format and very helpful for solidifying that ability to distinguish between the model and what you’re doing. Yes?
[Audience Member]: “Is that like the principle of neuroplasticity?”
[Michael Brooks]: This whole talk is about neuroplasticity. I didn’t want to scare anybody by using that. But, yes, we are after rewriting their brains, and that’s what neuroplasticity is all about. Yes, Bob?
[Audience Member]: “Would you use any physical movement in the curriculum?”
[Michael Brooks]: Some kids do and you can see them. For instance, when they are shutting their eyes and they’re on deck, I see some of them and they’re kind of knitting their brows and whatever. Sometimes, I’ll have them swim watching a mirror, so they can see themselves. So, yes, there’s some movement involved sometimes. Some kids more than others, sometimes, I’ll tell them to. So, there’s a lot of variety. But, the basic principle on both, the video catechism and the having come up with a cool name for that variation, but basic idea is they’re watching, imaging, performing and just trying to move their stroke closer and closer to that model skill that we’ve got on video.
So we talked about modeling, we talked about random practice. Very quickly, variable practice. That is distinct from constant practice. Here, examples would be constant practices, race pace training, 20×50’s on :45, hold your 500 race speed. Simple. They get a lot of repetition at a certain stroke, certain speed, certain stroke parameters.
Variable practice. The simplest example would be 20x50s on :45, descend one to four, five to eight, et cetera. Where they never do two repeats in a row. In this case, the same speed. They have to make adjustments the whole time.
Now, some ways of descending training are a total waste of time when you get a swimmer whose four repeats in a cycle are 32 flat, 31.9, 31.8, 26.2. That does nothing. However, if the swims are controlled and in a nice progression, then it teaches a lot. Sometimes, just from talking with some friends, we tend to think pacing is just kind of, well, whatever. Distance swimmers do it, and we’ll do some descending stuff every now and then. But, you know, what we really care about is number four, number eight, number 12, number 16 and number 20, how close are they to race speed. That’s how we really care about.
But, I think pacing skills are fascinating and I think, key to technical mastery. Because we’ve got all these skills and presumably, we’re doing a lot of technical work and learning these skills. Pacing is how we put them together under a range of expectations, demands, and needs. Can we control our stroke? Can we optimize our stroke through this range? That’s what pacing really is. Because, if I swim a 50 at 30 seconds, and then I swim a 50 at 28, freestyle, those are two very different freestyles. The tempos are going to be different. The distance per stroke are going to be different. The precise way that I perform each of these skills and how they fit together are different. The physiological demands are different.
These two things are like apples and oranges. And even more, if I swim 30 seconds on a 50 and I’m fresh as a daisy, that’s very different from swimming 30 seconds on a 50 if I am dog-tired. The motor unit recruitment of the particular muscle units that are being used, are very different. Usually, the stroke skills are going to be very different as well. It might not be easy for us to see it, kids can probably feel it, but a stroke is not this monolith that’s the same at all times. It’s different at every single point along this speed curve.
Fairly recently, I was listening to this really old talk by Bill Boomer, and he talks about speed choices or something like that. And, what I was thinking about with pacing, because by then I was already freaking out about these talks, was dovetailing precisely with what he was talking about. Kids are making choices. Often, those aren’t explicit choices at all. But we’re probably better off if at least initially while they’re learning to be, we make those choices as explicit as possible. How does your stroke change as you get faster? Because pacing is, how do you swim at a particular speed efficiently?
If the two of you swim 28 seconds per 50 and you can do it at 140 heart rate and you have to do it at 160, my bet is on Brant. And, you know, everyone has seen at the end of the sets almost always have the kids do 6x25s on 30 side-by-side racer guts out, because we want finishing kicks as good in the pool as the Ethiopians or the Kenyans have on the track. So, no matter how tired they are, no matter how long a set is, we finish with some crazy fast sprints.
Well, if in order to go fast the kid has to take eight more strokes than they’ve been holding throughout a set, then they’re not getting faster intelligently at all. And the kind of stroke that they use, usually one where they’re seemingly attempting to beat the snot out of the water, that’s a stroke, that’s a choice that they’re not going to be able to maintain, because physiologically the demands are so high they can’t do it. So, they’ve got to be able to swim at any particular pace as efficiently as possible, and they’ve got to be able to get faster intelligently. That takes a lot of practice.
Pacing is so cool when you think about it. There are a whole bunch of different ways that you can work on pacing skills that will help kids optimize their stroke at any point along that speed curve. It will give them technical mastery, and that’s what we’re after. It’s one thing to be able to swim the skills and have them harmonize together. But can they do it in different situations, in different needs, and in particular in racing? So having that control over the different speeds used in racing is absolutely a key, but training speed is important as well.
There are a lot of different kinds of sets that we use with variable practice. I kind of want to jump to the next thing because it’s the most controversial. And if we have time or if you buy me a coffee, I’ll tell you anything. We can postpone the kinds of variable practice until later.
Next, really important motor learning principle is the primacy of full stroke. If you look at our program, we might do drills at most 5% of our technical work. And the overall program maybe 2%. So, by and large, we are working to improve our swimming skills by swimming the full stroke. Again, not all the time but really close to it. We’ve been blessed to have had a number of these visitors over the last couple of years, because we’ve had some kids do fairly well. So, people want to see what we’re doing. And it astounds people the way we work on strokes. “Well, where are your drills?” “We keep them in that storeroom and we never open it.” So, there are ways to do this that I think work a lot better than drills, and I’m about to tell you why.
Probably most coaches use drills extensively to improve stroke skills from age group, all the way through the pros. Now, you always see “my top 10 favorite drills for freestyle,” by some famous coach. That assumes that when you work on this drill and improve on this drill, that you are going to get better on the full stroke. That there is going to be some transfer from this work to this work.
Usually, we assume, or we start from the observation, that these two things share a particular skill and that’s going to be our target. So, this drill has this particular skill A, the full stroke has this particular skill A. These two really aren’t the same, but they share the same thing. So, if we work on this, this is going to get better.
That is a highly problematical assumption because transfer works best when you’re dealing with a brand new beginner learning a skill. And the more that you work on a skill, the better your stroke skills become. The more precise, the more specific you swim. So, it may be the case for an eight and under or a new nine-year-old, 10-year-old. So, for the younger kids having them do, say, catch-up freestyle really does help their regular freestyle. But, once they’re older and their stroke skills are relatively good, there’s probably almost zero transfer from the one to the other.
Next, I have a wonderful quote by Richard Smith, about transfer and how it lessens as skills develop… but you’ll have to trust me that I have it.
So, transfer applies best with beginners, and that lessens as skills improve and become more specific. Further, it’s usually the case that coaches will give swimmers a particular drill and they’ll do it, but it causes certain problems. So we give them another drill, because this compensates for this problem. But, it causes another problem so we give them another drill because it compensates for that second problem. And we give them another in practically infinite regression.
When you think about it, if you have to have a series and a growing series of drills to solve all the problems that the drills have caused: A.) It takes you a lot of time to go through all those, and. B.) It’s a highly indirect method of getting faster at freestyle. We can get faster at freestyle by working on freestyle and working on one skill at the time. Again, using that stroke catechism as the basis for skill work. But it’s very direct, to the point way of improving the skills.
Now, it is the case that with the younger kids, say 10 and unders, we would have them do more drills, because the goal is different. With a 10-year-old, I might not be aiming at explicitly improving, optimizing this little kid’s freestyle. Instead, the goal would be to give the swimmer the biggest arsenal of movement skills they can possibly acquire, not only in the water but out of the water as well. Make this 10-year-old kid a master of movement, so that it’s easy from that foundation to have him or her improve and work on strokes skills more specifically later on.
So for 10-year-olds, I think the goal is very different. So, the guidelines that I have always used are different from the ones, say the 11 and overs, unless you have a new swimmer. You know, 11 and 12, new to this sport.
Another reason why drills don’t work, just to be blunt, and that’s for the most part, because there are a couple that I really like. But for the most part, drills don’t work because a swimming stroke… again, let’s just use freestyle… is a collection. It’s a series of skills that all fit together continuously. And how I do one, affects how I do the next one.
Super simple example, if a swimmer breathing lifts the head up and tosses the arm on their recovery, then one time their stroke is starting right here. Then, they don’t breath, it’s going to start right here. Sometime it starts two feet underwater, sometimes it starts six inches underwater. They never start a stroke in the same place twice because of what the previous skills or, the poor performance of the previous skills. All of those skills were together. That’s one reason with HRPK that we started beginning with body line because I realized that if the body line skills were awful, the pulling skills couldn’t be good. So, these parts all fit together, really tightly. They interact strongly. Everyone affects every other one. And given that interaction, it isn’t a reasonable assumption to say that these two things, this drill and this full stroke share this skill.
So, if I work on this, I get better at this. Because this skill is embedded in a drill whose wholeness, whose parts… the interconnection of the parts, is completely different from this one. We can’t say, “Well, this skill, take it out like a surgeon and transplant it into this.” Because motor skills just don’t work like that and it’s so much easier. So, if I need to fix a recovery to work on freestyle, and have them think about recovery, and I want to have them work on the kicking skills, we do metronome six-beat. Yes?
[Audience Member]: “So, in essence, the drill is basically another stroke?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, in essence, the drill is another stroke. Exactly. For new swimmers, beginner swimmers learning a skill, that is probably not true and there is transfer. But, once kids have gotten to reasonable level of confidence, the body sees them as different animals, one’s a cat and one’s a dog. And even though a cat has ears and a dog has ears, the cat’s ears are all working with the cat’s parts and needs, and the dog’s ears are working with the dog’s parts and needs. So, they aren’t the same and you can’t just take my dog’s ear and put it onto my cat and have everything work well. It just doesn’t work. Those two things are different. So, that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make. Said very succinctly and I’ll put that into edition two. So, thank you.
And really, full stroke swimming is the only thing you don’t have to make accommodation for. It’s a very direct way of getting to the heart of the problems and solving the problems. And I do understand that, you know, for most people, what I just said is heresy because, you know, I learned how to coach from a coach who did drills all the time. And when I was starting out in coaching, I kind of called myself the “drill king.” And, yes, I am not proud of that. But, I had a whole smorgasbord of drills that I used because I thought that was really, really smart, because that’s what my coach told me to do and that’s what I knew.
And fortunately, my brother steered me to motor learning and I starting to learn. I was just in shock and in horror with each page. “Oh, my God, what have I been doing?” And, you know, one of the challenges is that a lot of the motor learning experiments have been centered on very simple skills because they’re easy to measure, like tapping drills. They’re very simple skills, rotary.
The problem with really using and applying the principles of motor learning has been that, I’m dealing with a full-body movement, very complicated timing among the different parts of the body and the limbs against resistance. So, physiology plays a huge part in swimming. It’s a really complicated thing. One of the newer schools, probably not new anymore, but the newer schools that constraints led ecological psychology, dynamical systems. I mean, they go by different names, but they’ve really started looking at these complicated movements like we do. I’ve been stealing from them as much as possible and trying to figure out how their teachings apply in the water.
Another challenge is that so few people have worked in the water with swimmers because it’s hard. Water goofs things up. It’s hard to get really good on-the-spot video because Wi-Fi doesn’t work underwater. And, when you’re on deck what you most need to be able to see, you can’t see very well. Even when somebody is in the lane closest to you. What’s really going on underwater, you don’t have a clear view of. If they are eight lanes over, no chance, what so ever.
As a coach, you need to get really good at being intuit about what’s going on underwater from what you see on the surface. That’s why I love to watch from the side of the pool, because I can watch momentum. I can see changes in speed. I can try to put together, connect the dots between what I see them doing, and how much forward momentum they get or don’t get. But the reason I have to do that, is because we’re not playing volleyball. I can’t just set up the camera on the edge of the court and be able to see in great detail exactly how a player is performing a skill. It’s so much harder for us. And that difficulty has funneled into the motor learning field. So very few people have really worked on what we need, desperately need, if we want to do our jobs really well.
So I’ve started to kind of amass a little network of motor learning people. Thanks to email. Goodness gracious, you can talk with a Brit in two seconds and it’s wonderful! But, try to get some people who are interested in these questions, thinking about our questions, and how to solve our problems, and not a volleyball player’s or soccer players. Yes?
[Audience Member]: “If you’re into learning motor skills in the full stroke, where do you see the dedicated kick sets and the focus on kicking with strengthening the legs?”
[Michael Brooks]: Great question. If I like full stroke, what do I think about kicking sets? Because, that’s part practice if there ever was any.
Okay. Well, I’m of two minds about it. I know that kicking is very important, but I also know that kicking inside the rhythm of the stroke is what really matters. And, I see it all of the time, kids who are wonderful kicking on a board, as probably most of my current senior group. Put board on them… Boom, they are awesome kickers. Take the board away and say swim, not so great. Because they are being able to integrate a true metronome six-beat kick into the full stroke, the rhythm of the body, the role of the torso, et cetera. Those two things are really different; kicking on the board and kicking while you’re swimming. This is more important than this.
And, one of the things I’ve done just in the last week, because it took me about four seconds to see this gaping problem, was when we’re working on kicking skills. Right now, we’re alternating. So they might do a 50 with a board and then a 50 regular freestyle focused on metronome six-beat. And, I’ll be asking them questions the whole time. When I see weirdness, I’ll just try to guide their attention to problems that they might have, so that a couple of weeks from now, I will see orthodox six-beat kicks and I’ll have a group of kids who, at least in theory, are ready someday to go off and break a world record, because right now it is not happening. Yes?
[Audience Member]: “How do you feel about equipment?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is equipment basically. I feel about equipment the same way I feel about drills. My grand principle is the more I digress from full stroke free swimming, the better reason I better have to do that.
So, if I’m going to use a piece of equipment, I need to know why I’m using it and not just for a change of pace, or to give the kids a little break or whatever. I have to know exactly why I’m using it. I have to ensure that I’m not getting reliance or dependence problems so that there’s going to be some alternating between equipment and full stroke drill and full stroke.
I’m going to have to pay very close attention to unintended negative consequences. And as soon as I see them, change what we’re doing. The drill, or the piece of equipment, has to give kids access to important information that they weren’t getting otherwise. So, it’s got to actually bring something to the table and at least, in theory, allow them to improve the full stroke. In the end, that’s what I want. We want to get better at freestyle, we want to get better at backstroke, et cetera. I don’t care how well they do with an ankle buoy. I don’t care how well they do one arm backstroke. I want to make sure that their full strokes are getting better and everything else is a means to that end. As soon as it starts becoming the end in itself, then we’re going off in the wrong direction.
Let’s just take at least a few minutes for questions.
[Audience Member]: “Do these principles work in all four strokes?”
[Michael Brooks]: Yes.
[Audience Member]: “For young swimmers?”
[Michael Brooks]: For young swimmers?
[Audience Member]: “Yes.”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, do these principles work in all four strokes and even for younger swimmers? For instance, butterfly.
We do more drills. The proportion of technical work would be higher with drills when we’re working with younger swimmers and fly. But even so, we really only have two drills that we do in butterfly. One is what we call a one-arm B, so one-arm butterfly. The arm you don’t use is down by your side, and you breathe forward every other stroke. It’s pretty challenging.
The other is what we call single-double B and that’s single arm, full stroke, single arm, full stroke. You breathe on the full stroke. But, those two drills retain the rhythm of the overall stroke. They simplify it, both in terms of motor learning and the number of moving parts, but also physiologically, so kids can do more of it.
But, I would say even with the 10 and unders, we do try and do full stroke butterfly for technique, or we just might do more interweaving of alternative freestyle and fly, or dolphin kick and fly. This is so that they’re never going to be asked to do more consecutive fly than they can handle well, because I love beautiful things. I love beautiful swimming. And ugly swimming turns my stomach. I can’t handle it at all. I spent a lot of time on deck. I want it to be aesthetically pleasing.
So, we don’t do more butterfly. We don’t do more of whatever stroke than they can do. So, yes, the same principles apply, but they’re tempered a bit to the ability level of the swimmers’ strength and the fitness levels as well. Okay, yes?
[Audience Member]: “So you mentioned how you format your sets for technical changes different than how you format the physiological changes.”
[Michael Brooks]: Right.
[Audience Member]: “So could you give us insight to the thought process behind your daily planning and simple planning to achieve that balance?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, sets for physiological improvement look different from sets for technical improvement and how do I figure out all that – how do I figure it all out. And unfortunately, that’s about a 40-minute long answer. It depends on how I structure the season. And, in a very small nutshell, we have about a 4-5 week technical improvement phase where there’s a lot of technique work all the time, all the time, all the time. So lots of random practice, lots of varying and all that.
Then we have kind of our ordinary time where we have four-week phases. Each phase is completed by a meet. In particular, by a prelim, final relatively important meet. Where are in this phase, we have one week that’s called a Techweek. We’ve use the data that I’ve gotten from the previous meet, like what are our most important problems that we need to aim at. So, we have one week where we really aim at those, a bridging week, where the goal is to take that new skill and give it legs; make it a little stronger, make it a little faster. Then, two weeks of just more normal training where in theory at least week and now train on this new skill.
The last six or seven weeks, which consist of a pre-taper and a taper. My kids will tell you that our taper last about two days. This actually is longer than that. But, you know, this last six or seven weeks, the goal is to bulletproof the different technical advancements we’ve made throughout the first, five, six months, whatever, of the season. Because if kids are not ready to race on those skills, they’re not learned and they’re of no real value to us when they get on the blocks at nationals. But it’s a long answer. Yes?
[Audience Member]: “Do you incorporate underwaters as its own stroke or as part of all the rest?”
[Michael Brooks]: Do we incorporate underwater work as its own thing, a separate animal, or do we work on it with all the rest? A little bit of both. And probably, it depends more on the part of the season. Right now, it gets its own place at the table. As we go, it’s just part of maybe not every set, but pretty darn close. So, yes. Yes?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: Okay. Once we get in to more of the conditioning focus where the aim is physiological improvement, are we still using this random practice, variable practice, et cetera, et cetera formats? Yes, yes, yes. I think a lot of times, coaches will have the first month, where we want to get better technically, and then the goal for the rest of the season is just to maintain. We can train the snot out of them and hope like crazy that we maintain the strokes, but that doesn’t happen. So we’re trying to get better all the time. Yes?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible]
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, how do you implement this more random practice or rainbow focus when you’re dealing with kids with a wide range of ability and wide range of send-offs? Well, one variation to rainbow focus is the leader of each lane determines the stroke focus, which means that no two lanes may be doing the same thing, but the rule still applies. You need to pass it on. This does give them some ownership of what they’re doing. Especially, if you’re changing the order of lane so that everybody gets to lead some time. That’s a way to take into consideration this difference in abilities and still get the same kind of learning done. So, yes. Yes?
[Audience Member]: [Indiscernible] If you are working with a high school team, and you’re not the high school coach — if they train with someone else in the morning, and with you in the evening will they still be able to retain what you have taught or will they lose it.
[Michael Brooks]: Okay. The question is, if you’re dealing with, for instance, high school age swimmers and they are training with somebody else in the morning and with you in the afternoon or vice versa, how do you ensure other than lots of Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers that the lesson you’re trying to teach them make it through the gauntlet of this other coach or practice and show up the next day? Is that a good translation?
The answer is, if you have communication with the other coach, it really helps if you let them in on some of the mysteries. It helps a lot if you’ve educated your swimmers that they need to take responsibility for their own technical improvement and not just depend on you or your teammates, or your practices, but it’s something that they need to be thinking about and working on all the time, whether they’re with you or with somebody else. That helps a lot.
Sleep helps consolidate motor memories, and just as a general thing, if they get enough of it will help a bit at least. But, if swimmers are watching a little bit of the video catechism before they go to bed, you know, just watch five or 10 minutes and really actively watch observational learning that accelerates the consolidation overnight. So I highly recommend that our swimmers do that. It also helps make those new patterns, new connections more stable.
[Audience Member]: Do your swimmers have access to the videos?
[Michael Brooks]: Yes. I make the video catechism the whole series available to the swimmers. I don’t force it on them. They have to bring in a flash drive and I give it to them. I tell them how I think they can most effectively use it. Some of them do. Some of them don’t. Yes?
[Audience Member]: “You said they think that taper is two days. How long is it actually and then what age?”
[Michael Brooks]: Do I taper the younger ones? No, not really. For senior level swimmers, I’ll start planning for the last day before the meet, seven-week. Well, since the beginning of the season but really I’ll start setting it up seven weeks up. The actual taper in my eyes is three weeks. But we swim fast all the way. We swim faster and faster as we get in, but for shorter and shorter repeat distances and with greater and greater rest.
So, we go into meets swimming crazy fast. The kids who have tapered best and had the biggest improvements, are the ones who are swimming the fastest going in. Because some kids will self-taper and say, “Well, you know, I’m just going to make myself tired.” I think that what they really are doing is not sharpening those motor skills enough.
Unfortunately, we have to call it an afternoon. Thank you very much.