[Introduction by Kathleen Prindle]

Hi, everybody, welcome. We are going to go ahead and get started. For those that don’t know me, my name is Kathleen Prindle. I am the Vice President of the ASCA Board of the Directors, and am completely thrilled today to be able to be announcing Coach Michael Brooks. I’ll start by reading his bio for you. I need my glasses.
Michael Brooks has been the Head Coach of York YMCA Swim Team in York, Pennsylvania since October of 2006. In that time, in addition to scoring at the major domestic meets, York Y swimmers have represented the USA internally at meets ranging from Junior Worlds, Youth Olympics, Junior Pan Pacs, Pan Ams, and various World Cup Meets. Four of his swimmers have been named to the USA Swimming’s National Junior Team and two to the National Team. The York Y was named the Gold Medal Club in both 2013 and 2015. This is really notable because York YMCA is the smallest sized club to get a gold medal award from USA Swimming. It’s a huge accomplishment. In 2016, the York YMCA girls won the team title at the YMCA National Championships.

As of last week, the move has been official. Coach Brooks has taken the Head Coach position at the North Carolina Aquatic Club. So, they’re really lucky to have him over in North Carolina now, although my husband is from York. So, I won’t get to see him as much when we go home to visit. So I’m sad.

He is a featured speaker at several major coaches’ clinics across the country and Canada. He has spoken on wide-ranging topics, such as creating a culture of excellence, teaching technique, coaching effective practices, age group coaching for long-term success, coaching swim parents, creating talent in a small town, coaching IMers, coaching everything basically, and engineering success for age groupers at meets. In addition, he has taught the ASCA Stroke Technique School three times and the Physiology School once.

Coach Brooks has been named Coach of the Meet at the YMCA National Championships four times, Mid-Atlantic Senior Coach of the Year twice and Maryland Age Group Coach of the Year twice. His swimmers have raced to 50 plus YMCA National Titles and over 200 National Top 16 and Top 10 rankings.

Before coming to the York Y, he spent two years as the Head Age Group Coach of the Brophy East Swimming Team in Phoenix, Arizona, working closely with the great Dennis Pursley. And before that, he spent five years as Head Coach of the York site of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where he had the good fortune to work with and learn from both Murray Stephens and Bob Bowman.
You guys are in for a real treat today. This man is brilliant. He’s one of the most brilliant coaches of our time in my opinion. If you haven’t read his book, I will shamelessly plug it. It’s called “Developing Swimmers”. It’s fantastic. One of the best books I’ve read in our industry about developing swimmers. So, I’d like to welcome Coach Michael Brooks.
[Michael Brooks]: Thank you.

[Brooks begins]

Well, thank you very much, Kathleen. I liked like to thank ASCA and John Leonard for allowing me to talk. It’s always a bit nerve-racking at least for the first few minutes, but after a couple of minutes I’ll settle down and we’ll just get down to business. I wanted to start, if we can get this work, with the star of the show. There it is. That is a tiny sliver of a mouse’s cortex, so part of a mouse brain. A tiny, tiny sliver. And despite its tininess, there are hundreds of thousands of little connections, just in this slit of the brain. When you consider that a mouse’s brain is about that big and our brain is this big, and there are hundred trillion connections… well, you got the picture.

What we’re trying to do when we teach stroke technique is to rewire that thing and make those wirings and the connections stable enough that kids can swim beautifully, effectively, efficiently, consistently, at race speed.

I have two talks today, both of them are–each is for an hour. I’m probably going to run a little long on the first one, and I’m probably going to start a little early on the second one. I’m going to try and finish the second one on time, so I don’t bleed into the next speaker, but there is a lot to talk about. And I understand that a lot of what I say will appear, maybe even heretical but, you know, even if something rubs you the wrong way, just take a few deep breathes. Give me a hearing and if you have questions, please ask them. You don’t have to wait until the end of the talk to ask questions. Because if you’re stuck, I want you unstuck so that the rest of it makes some sense.

I have a bit of a cold right now, so occasionally I will clear my throat. Apologies in advance. And my suggestion is to take notes. Even if you don’t like taking notes, because if you don’t, within approximately three hours of the finish of my talk, you will only be retaining at most 50%. After about three days, you will have lost 90% of what I’m talking about. When you take notes, you’re going over the ideas in your head and trying to figure out what’s important and what isn’t, and that helps the retention enormously. So, suggestion, take notes. I will have a PDF available of a summary of it, but I hope that’s more a complement to what you do now and the thinking that you do now.

Kathleen already told you who I am, so I won’t get on to that. But a few quotations to set the scene that I think are pretty important. John Wooden, the legend, “The proper execution of fundamentals can become instinctive if–underline if– taught properly, just like breathing or walking.” Percy Cerutty, he was an Australian track coach, again legendary, “Forming the correct neural patterns is 80% of winning on the highest levels of competition.” And last from someone still around, Sean Hutchison, a friend of mine, “Bad strokes, bad coach.”

Now, some of those are a little more abrupt and extreme than others, but, I think they do well to set a standard that we should try and hold ourselves to. The translation from all of those put together at least as far as I can see is, if we do our jobs better, kids will swim a lot faster. So, that’s the basic point here. And as far as technique goes, I think the situation right now is that most kids train ugly, and most kids race ugly.

If you go to just about any practice and watch, and you have a real and refined sense of beauty, it’s difficult. And, if you go to any meet, and this even includes a national championships, the technique is fairly poor, I think. Probably, if we want to search down to the root of the problem, it’s us. We’re not doing a good enough job at teaching skills and getting swimmers to retain those skills at the most important times when they are racing. It’s not looking really pretty for a 25 here or there. It’s being able to race on a very efficient stroke from the first to the last stroke of a race under the most trying circumstances, say Olympic Trials.

Now unfortunately, I didn’t do a very good job at that last one this past summer, so I definitely have a long way to go on this and I don’t say that I have come up with all the answers because to me this is sort of like the holy grail that I’ve been searching for, for a long time. And if you’re familiar with medieval romance, you know, they never found it. So, I’m expecting that this quest will go on as I try and figure out the answers.

I think that swimming is a technique-limited sport, by and large. Which means that the study of motor learning, which is how the body learns motor or movement skills, should be primary in the education of coaches. But, I won’t ask right here, I’ve given a decent number of talks on technique and teaching technique and what have you, and I usually ask how many of you are familiar with max VO2 or anaerobic threshold, and almost every hand will go up. I’ll ask how many of them of you are familiar with random practice or variable practice and there will be maybe one out of hundred. Well, if teaching skills is what we’re supposed to do, that’s our biggest job, then we need to know this field. Motor learning should be crucial.
You know, I was fortunate to have a brother who is in Physical Therapy Graduate School and he pointed me in this direction. Up until then, I was always a physiology guy, you know, train these kids, get their max VO2s and lactate, all the rest of that. And now, I look at swimming, I look at practices very, very differently and I think, I hope, a little bit more comprehensively than I did in the past.

Now, I am not going to be discussing the perfect butterfly or perfect strokes or anything like that. What I am going to talk about is how we most effectively teach skills and get them to stick.

So, I’m aiming for a program of technical development that is relatively simple. It might not sound like this, this first time through for you, but once you get familiar with it, it is that simple and cheap because not very many programs have tens of thousands of dollars to buy the most advanced technology. It’s got to be something that anybody can do if it’s truly going to be practical.

Second, it’s got to be practical for everyone from 10 and unders up through seniors. I think that my assistant coach, John Nelson at York, and I have spent a lot of time trying to make sure that we can do this with every level, every age of kid in a developmental program.

And last, it’s got to be able to work with a group, because very few of us have the luxury of being able to do one-on-one private lessons very often. We work with training groups. Sometimes, there are huge training groups, sometimes the range of abilities is huge, range of ages and thus, biological needs—very different. So, we’ve got to be able to work with a group and a program has got to be able to work with a big group.

Brain cells in swimming. You kind of got a little tiny, tiny picture of a very simplified part of a brain. Our brains are 10,000 times more complicated than that. And, kind of a subtitle for this section of the talk is the Power of Bad Habits or Why It’s So Hard to Change.

Practice makes permanent. And swimmers’ bodies learn from every length that they swim. They are adapting continually to what you give them to do. With swimming, it’s a very peculiar type of sport. If I’m playing volleyball, I might do 10 or 15 spikes in a day of practice. But if I’m a swimmer, I’m going to swim several thousand strokes. Over the course of the year, I will swim millions of strokes. If I’m swimming millions of very poor, ugly, ineffective strokes, then I have made those ineffective stroke mental or neural patterns very strong, practically resistant to change.

That is a real problem. We have made these bad strokes overlearned, habitual, and normal. It feels totally normal for a poor swimmer to swim poorly. So it is very difficult when you’re not necessarily teaching somebody a skill for the very first time, which is relatively easy. You’re trying to change something that is overlearned and very stable. Changing strokes really means rewiring those neural connections in the brain. I like to think of it as –- the analogy as a superhighway versus a cow path. You know, the superhighway has eight lanes, beautifully asphalted, no speed limit, a Starbucks every few miles. Those are nodes of Ranvier for the neuroscientist here. It speeds everything up a little bit.

It’s easy to go down that superhighway. And if you want to get from A to B fastest, that’s the way to go. That’s the lousy stroke that a swimmer is practicing every single set. If we want to make a stroke change to a skill, so make a skill change. We’re going through this cow path that’s overhung with thickets like the Amazon rainforest, and we’ve got to take a machete and just blitz out every single step that we take. And it’s going to be easy to go to take the path of least resistance and go down the superhighway.

We’ve got to convince the swimmer that it’s in his or her best interest to take the cow path no matter how hard that is. And the more often we can get the swimmer to ignore the super highway, the Starbucks’ will go out of business, you start to see potholes and next thing you know it’s not nearly as efficient and easy to go down that road. The more we take this cow path, the more we’ve cleared it, the better we’ve grooved this path and the more like a superhighway we are making that new stroke skill.
So, superhighway versus cow path. Those are the competing patterns or networks that we’re dealing with and we need to basically make this one into this and make this one into this, if we want to get kids to truly change what they’re doing.

If a stroke change is properly understood, it takes a long time because new neural patterns are very fragile and subject to erasure. It takes a long time and a lot of very precise, probably easy swimming to groove in that new stroke pattern. Usually, neither coaches nor swimmers have the true patience to let that happen. We want to get back to work because we’re worried that kids are going to get out of shape and I am too, and I do too. I fight that as much as possible.

Further, this is really important. These new stroke patterns are not really learned until they are stable, consistent, and they are resistant to interference, and stable under training and racing stress. So many coaches and so many swimmers work on something that’s a problem and they’ll swim in 25 and they’ll say, “Ah-ha! I got it, I did it right!” And the coach will say, “My job is done.” Well, that’s the first necessary, but only the first of about 10,000 steps to getting a swimmer to actually be able to race at the national championships under tremendous stress and hold that stroke from start to finish. So, it is that first, first step. And it is very easy, and very common to train a stroke change right out of a swimmer.

For instance, if you spend say 20 minutes working on technique, skills on say freestyle and then you go right into 20 X 200 on 2:30, fastest average, try and hold your new stroke. Ready, go. That new stroke change will last for approximately four seconds and after that, it is back to their old normal, ugly, ineffective stroke and you’ve just wasted those 20 minutes. And then, when the swimmer looks terrible, you get mad at him, “Well, why didn’t you focus on that?” What the swimmer should say, but never does, because they don’t know enough neurosciences. “Coach, you’re a dunderhead and you didn’t give me the right stuff to do.” So, what we make sure we do is protect any gains that we’ve made. I mention this several times throughout this talk and the second part.

If I’m working on technical skills in a particular stroke, that’s what I do that day and I don’t train anything on that stroke. Nothing hard at all, period. Because I want to protect any gains we might have made, presumably have made, I assume we have made, and then give those changes a chance to stabilize a bit. It’s called long-term memory consolidation.
So anyway, our job is really difficult. When you look at just by experience, everybody knows how hard it is to get kids to change their strokes, and when you start looking at the science both motor learning and the neuroscience underlying it, you realize why it’s so hard. It takes a long time. You’ve got to be very, very patient because we’re not just changing a swimmer’s freestyle, we’re changing their brain, we are rewiring it. That takes time.

Now, getting to more of the fun stuff. Foundational skills. These are the kind of conditions of accelerated learning. In other words, this is what we want our swimmers to come to the practice with. The attitudes, the abilities and if they’ve got those, they’ll be able to make most effective use out of the sets, practices and formats that we give them.

Our first is what I call emotional priming. If kids are coming to practice, with the right attitudes, lessons get learned better and they get learned deeper. Namely, if they have a sense of choice of ownership of what they’re doing, if what they’re doing is emotion laden, L-A-D-E-N, and if the learner is truly engaged. So, basically you kind of boil all those things down and you’ve got to get a kid thinking, “This is important to me. This really matters. What I’m doing right this second really, really matters.” If you get somebody thinking like that, you’re 90% of the way towards getting changes made.

Next is focus. Because if a swimmer is thinking about what’s for dinner, what to wear to the prom or the fact that their boyfriend seemed a little distant during school or whatever, then they’re not focused on whatever skills you’re asking them to work on and they’re not going to be learning anything.

Kids need to be able to focus. When they swim, especially because we’re suspended in water, their bodies and the pool they’re in, and their surroundings, the environment is sending them thousands and thousands of messages continually about what’s working and what’s not. How one thing is different from another. And if they’re not paying attention to that, “if the cellphone is off”, it doesn’t matter how many and how important that information or those messages or information are. Nothing is getting through.
And it’s especially hard with certain age groups. Teenage girls, they just love to chat and when you ask them to maybe, perhaps, stop talking and think about what they’re doing, it is like, “Well, this isn’t any fun,” and well then, you have to have all philosophical discussion about the different meanings of fun and situations and all that. So, it’s difficult, I understand that. And 10 and under boys or 12 and under boys, they’re always grabbing, splashing each other and spitting on each other and all the rest of that stuff.

So, again, it’s hard. But getting kids to remember and you convincing them that this is important. This is really going to help you, but you’ve got to stay focused. That is absolutely key. Just some really simple ways to get their attention. First is how you structure sets. I’m going to talk about that in a few minutes. Also, the use of random practice and variable practice. The basic point of both of those is variation, variation, variation. So you’re never asking them to think about one thing or focus on one thing for a very long time. You’re always changing it, okay? And second of all, guided attention. They’re getting a lot of messages being sent to them and you need to let them know which ones to listen to and which ones are going to help them, which ones are most important.

Increase their motivation. Again, convince them that this is in their best interest and it will help them meet their goals and all of that. One thing that we’ve tried recently is just after giving kids the instructions and the goal of a set or the instructions for a set, I ask them to come up with three things that they want to be better at when they finish a set. So it gets them thinking about, “Okay, well, this is what we’re doing, how can this help me?” They have to do a little bit of discovery trying to figure out, “Well, why are we doing this? Why are we spending 20 minutes on this set?” It really gives them a sense of ownership. It helps, you know, gets the hook in the mouth and you can start reeling them in. So it’s really, really important.

Lastly on focus. I try very hard and often to have kids practice what I call the optimal learning triad. Sounds kind of highfalutin but what it really means is before a swimmer pushes off, they plan. They think about, “What is my intention here? What am I trying to do?” They’ve got this model for the way a skill is performed, for example. Second, they swim it, perform. Then after that, the third step is comparing. You’ve got your model. You’ve got your performance. Now let’s put the two together and see how they did, okay?

If you can get kids thinking for even 10 seconds before they push off about, “What am I trying to accomplish here? What do I want to feel like?” Then, have them swim with attention to that model, and then afterwards, think for even 10 seconds about how did I do? What do I need to tweak on the next one so I’m just a little bit closer to my model than I was on that last one. So, getting their heads in the game, getting them really focused I think is absolutely key.

First was emotional priming, second was focus, now feel. This is a huge topic. Everyone talks about – coaches always talk about this, the mystical, magical FEEL for the water that Natalie Coughlin obviously has, Michael Phelps obviously has, and the Olympians obviously have, but that most kids just don’t. We pay a lot of lip service to helping kids develop a feel for the water and all of that, but I think it’s absolutely important. If you don’t know what you’re doing when you swim and if you can’t feel the difference between two different ways of performing a skill, you have no way to change, no way to improve. So, it may be mystical and magical, but we need to be doing every possible thing we can to help kids develop a sense of this feel, to become more sensitive to what they’re doing in the water.

A little bit of a digression on feedback, but it isn’t really a digression; feedback is really important. It’s the information that’s being fed to a swimmer after, usually after, sometimes during a performance. They swim a repeat, they get information about how they did. The usual distinction is between extrinsic feedback from the outside. This usually that means coaches or the environment like a stopwatch or a pace clock. Sometimes it’s from watching a film. Usually, it is coach provided.
Then there’s also intrinsic feedback and that’s the sensory information that they’re getting as their bodies swim in the water. Usually the coaches role is to watch a swimmer swimming terrible and then to step in and fix the problem. “Your right arm is terrible, do this instead of that.” You come in on your white horse, save the day. Kid thinks that you’re great because you fixed his stroke. You think you’re great because you fixed his stroke. Mom thinks you’re great because you’re actively helping the swimmer fix his stroke. Everybody is happy. That’s the usual way things are done.

A different way that coaches can coach with completely different assumptions underlying it, is to just ask a lot of questions. If I see a swimmer’s right arm is very goofy, I’ll say, “Hey, what is your right arm doing at a certain time of the stroke?” Or, “You know, do you feel the same thing on your left arm that you do on your right?” Just start asking them a lot of questions to kind of guide their attention to a problem. I’m almost never going to tell them what the answer is. I’m not going to tell them that they have a problem. I’m going to ask them enough questions so that they can go in that direction by themselves. When they figure it out, they say, “Oh, my gosh, my left arm is totally goofy when I kick.” And then, I’ll just start asking more questions. So again, guide them toward figuring things out for themselves. They need to become aware of a problem, then they need to diagnose what’s causing this, and then. They need to figure out how to fix it.

If we can get kids doing that on a very small scale, just by asking them questions, soon, they learn to do it for themselves. And you always hear when they talk with great coaches who have coached Olympic champions or whatever, how the swimmer will basically say, “Hey, what’s wrong with my left arm, am I doing something weird?” And the coach will say, “Hey, yeah, it kind of looks like you are.” And say, “Well, would you watch this?” And they swim it perfectly, “Oh, you’re fixed.” I mean the super swimmers know how to spot, diagnose, fix problems quickly, intuitively, and practically. We need to teach those skills and ask enough questions so that kids learn those skills. Not just the superstars who probably are going to get pretty darn good even without us, but also of the kids who, if they just get taught some of these skills, they could be really, really good. So, asking tons of questions.

Of course, a problem with asking lots of questions is that it’s a struggle for the athlete. You’re not just telling them the answer and fixing the problem for him, you’re making him do all the work. That isn’t always appreciated. That usually isn’t appreciated. Twice this summer, like no clue – no lie, I got accused by two of my senior swimmers, “Well, you never help me with my strokes.” And after, they kind of revived me from my faint on the floor. I tried to explain to these kids how I was giving them the greatest gift of all. I wasn’t solving their problems for them. I was teaching them how to solve their problems, because I’m not going to be standing right over them fixing them 24/7. And even if I did, I know that as soon as I try to do that, they’re going to stop thinking for themselves entirely and just depend on me. They develop a reliance on or a dependence very, very quickly. But also, I want them to be able to go out into the world, go on to the next coach and the next coach after that in college or whatever, and be a self-reliant swimmer who understands his or her body. So, you know, it isn’t always appreciated when you do people enormous favors.

Obviously, I prefer asking to telling. I probably ask 10 questions for every one or two statements that I give kids. And then, usually, when I do tell them something, it’s more to just guide them in the direction of what information to pay attention to. So it’s all about getting them to think. Yes, question?

[Audience Member]: “I have heard you talking about asking questions. I’m wondering if in terms of talking to the athletes at practice? Or are you talking about just asking questions at practice and then coaching at competition they take that context from practices to nationals?”

[Michael Brooks]: The question I assume I need to repeat this. The question is essentially “Am I getting kids to think too much?” “Is that about it?”

[Audience Member]: “Do you find that issue at competitions?”

[Michael Brooks]: The way that I coach definitely requires swimmers to think about what they’re doing. I think it develops a sensitivity, discrimination between subtle differences and the way they swim. I think it makes them a lot smarter. It’s my job to make sure that by the time we get to a meet, the skills are down pat so that they are not having to think very much about how they race. The skills are in there. And, if I do have time to talk about periodization of technical work… Well, I’ll give you a snippet because I probably won’t have time. The last six or seven weeks before the championship meet, we’re not trying to make any real changes. We’re just trying to bulletproof the changes that we’ve made all the way up to there, so that those skills will withstand any stress, and kids have the confidence in them that they can go to a national championships and race on this new stroke. Also, that they can do it without thinking, without having to go through a checklist of 27 skills to the perfect stroke. They know how to do this. Hope that answers your question.
[Audience Member]: “In reference to athletes who overthink, do you have skills to help them not to?”
[Michael Brooks]: Right.
[Audience Member]: Is there a certain tool helping them not think, ultimately not overthink? How do you get them to kind of relax?”
[Michael Brooks]: Right. The question is how do you get kids not to think too much, to over think, when you’re working with a group; because some kids are going to get skills very quickly, some are going to get them much slower. Kids work differently and they have different abilities.

I think that to a large extent, what I’m trying to get them to do, is to get them to connect the dots. To realize how different parts of their body are relating to each other and it might be explicit at first, but it becomes very intuitive as kids learn these skills. So, the really good swimmers, they get it. When they’re doing something wrong or ineffective, when their strokes starts to fall apart, they can feel that. They don’t have to explain it. They can feel that and they also can take the next step of making whatever changes are necessary so that they maintain a high elbow as opposed to dropping or whatever the problem might be.

So, I do believe in teaching kids to be intuitive, and getting them to pay attention to feel, without giving them a lot of verbal instructions with lots of, you know, ace of one and two, three, you know, all that. It’s just asking them questions, asking them to feel how different parts of their body are working or not working together. I haven’t had that problem, so I’m going to assume for purposes of answering your question that if you coach like this, you do an end around that problem. I think that is the case.

[Audience Member]: “Do your swimmers become dependent on your questions?”

[Michael Brooks]: The way that I coach hasn’t seemed to cause that problem. The kids have learned how to diagnose, how to fix. It all tends to be varied by feel; that they work by feel. They don’t work by sets of instructions. I definitely think it’s the case that showing is better than telling, and that I can show them a video clip of a model stroke. I can say a few words guiding their attention, but by and large, watching for 10 seconds is going to be worth my explaining a whole long set of skills for 20 minutes. It’s much more effective to watch than it is to listen.

Alright, I had a little bit of a digression on feedback. I think it’s absolutely important that we always steer the swimmers down or back to intrinsic feedback. The information that their bodies are giving them, sensory information is absolutely key. Another digression that isn’t really a digression, is on the use of equipment. Error detection is key to learning. You have a model. You perform trying to imitate this model, and then you’re able to feel the differences. You’re able to detect your own errors. Often, swimmers are completely oblivious to their stroke problems. I mentioned why earlier. It’s because they perform millions of lousy strokes and that’s the norm. That’s what’s comfortable to them.

Further, because swimming strokes use the whole body—a lot of times if a swimmer has a problem, mistake, or flaw in one part of their stroke, another part of their body is hiding it by having a compensatory problem. So, two or even three different strokes kind of work off against each other. The kids don’t even realize they have a problem and it’s making them a lot slower.
A very, very simple example on backstroke, if you have a swimmer who enters right here for instance and they push sideways, what’s that doing to their hips and their legs? They’re just going all over the place. However, if they’re kicking madly at the same time, their kick is going to compensate for that problem and essentially hide the problem from the swimmer. There is so much information that’s going in there. One part of the body is compensating, or accommodating another, that they don’t even know they’ve got a problem.

We’ll, if you take that same swimmer and put a pull buoy between his ankles, and he pushes like this, goodness graces, his hips hit one lane line and his feet hit the other! And, it is really clear that something strange is going on here. And you ask him at the end of a 50 or a 100 of ankle buoy backstroke, “Hey how is that?” Say, “Is something strange going on with your legs?” And they’ll tell you, “It was just crazy, they’re going all over the place.” Say, “Well, okay, awareness.” Ding, check one box. “Okay. Well, what’s going on? Do another hundred or two and tell me why this is happening because, remember, this isn’t happening to you, it’s happening because of something that you are doing. You are causing this. So, swim a couple of hundred and give me your report.” So they’ll do a couple of hundred and they’ll say, “Well, whenever I push this way, my legs seem to go sideways.”

And then, I’ll ask the next obvious question, “Well, that makes sense, right? Because when you do that, you know, you’re suspended in the liquid, so doing this first line over dive and all the rest of that fun stuff. So, every time you go off line, you’re going to throw the rest of your body off line.” Say, “Okay, we’ve made some steps and discovery here. It’s like Columbus. It’s cool.”

The next step, “Okay, well, we obviously don’t want this, right? Of course not, I want you to swim some more and I want you to tweak, make whatever adjustments you have to make so that your legs aren’t swaying but rather your body is in a nice line.” And it might take six or eight or 10, for some kids, a 100; but usually six or eight, or 10/50’s before they look like they’ve actually made a really nice adjustment to their stroke. Not because I talked to them about how they shouldn’t push sideways, but because they have discovered the true effect of that problem which was being hid from them, because swimming is so complicated. And, if you can, use equipment as a way to simplify the stroke and to clarify the information that they’re being given, because they’re getting a lot, and for the most part, it’s just noise. What we’re trying to help them do is clarify the signal through the noise.

If we can do this in a way that maintains the normal rhythm of the stroke, as I think ankle buoy does for both back and free, we’re not departing too far from the normal full stroke swimming. It’s much easier for swimmers to take the problem and solution that they just found, and then translate that to swimming better, improved stroke skills with a full stroke. Yes.
[Audience Member]: “Are you doing this at regular speed, a slow speed or at their own speed?”
[Michael Brooks]: The question is, are we doing this at super slow speed, moderate speed, fast speed? Usually, when we’re playing with guided discovery, it’s at a moderate speed. Just because the faster you go, the less precise anything is, and the less precise those signals that the information is. But obviously, we want to transition to swimming well, fast, but that’s several steps down the line.

So, equipment can be a very valuable tool for error detection and fixing problems, correction. But, you have to avoid reliance or dependence on that piece of equipment, and that happens really fast too. So, if we were doing the example I just gave you, when they figure it out and have made those adjustments, tweaks immediately, I’ll have them alternate between ankle buoy and regular, so that they can start to translate that discovery into the context of the full stroke, which is what we really want. So, it’s not letting them use a piece of equipment to the point that the lessons don’t transfer or translate to full stroke swimming. Do you have a question?
[Audience Member]: “Do you tell them why the equipment would be limiting? Do you help them in that process, or not? Do you tell them the equipment can do this, but it’s also up to you, so that it’s ownership on their part? Do they understand the equipment so much when you’re helping them?”

[Michael Brooks]: The question is, “How much of my explaining the rationale behind using equipment?” Probably, right now, not much. I’ve got an entirely new group of kids and it feels sometimes, since I’ve only been there a little more than a week, that I’m speaking Greek to them. So, I’m having to slow down a lot more than I would have had to with my York kids, because they were totally comfortable with me and understand my thought process. Right now, I haven’t explained too much, just kind of keeping it simple. But, for the most part, when we use equipment, it’s not for building strength or anything like that. It’s for error detection and technique skill work, not exclusively, but primarily.

A few kinds of equipment we use–I mentioned ankle buoy. We use tennis balls or fists. Either way, as long as they have tiny fists and not cheating. So, I think that’s great. We’ll use parachutes a lot, but again, mostly for technical work and not so much for power, speed work et cetera. We’ll do some of that, but it’s primarily for technical work. Paddles once in a while, but almost always with backstroke. Usually just to point to entries and catches, because when they enter with a paddle vertical, the resistance is zero. When they square up and rotate the elbow, the resistant should be infinite. So, they go from zero to infinite, and it’s easier to feel that huge difference when they have paddles, compared with just hands.

So, whenever we use equipment, it’s very thought through first, because I do believe that the more that you digress from full stroke, free swimming, and here free swimming is defined as swimming with no equipment; The better reason that you need for that digression. So, if we’re going to use equipment, the same argument holds for the drills, we have to have a very good reason because there are always unintended consequences, negative consequences, of what we give kids. We need to be thinking through those so that we’re truly helping kids get faster, and not just helping them get better at using ankle buoy, freestyle or whatever.

A few different kinds of feel sets that we will do and I think this is really important. We’ll film kids, and with as quick a turnaround as possible, they swim and then they watch what they are doing. That is to align what their actually doing, with what they THINK they are doing. With a lot of kids, those two things are really far apart. When you tell a kid you want them to do X, you watch them, they are doing Y. They come back and they say, “Well, I did X.” Say, “No, no, no, no.” So, they don’t really know that they’re not doing it correctly. Filming, having that instant feedback, can be really, really helpful. But again, you don’t want to rely on it. The point there is to teach them to connect the dots. So, filming can be really, really good.

Eyes closed swimming. Obviously, you have to be pretty careful about kids swimming with their eyes closed, just like if they were driving with their eyes closed. We try and set parameters so that there are not going to be any major traffic problems. But, if you close your eyes for five or six strokes, and then open them just to make sure you are where you thought you were, and still going in a straight line, and then, eyes back closed. It can really, really help because for the same reason that blind people are much more sensitive to feel and sound than we are. Most of the time, the eyes and all of the sensations coming in to the visual cortex are kind of monopolizing a lot of your brain power. If you shut that off, you give these other senses a chance to really work to their optimal. It really helps kids feel what they’re doing and it makes so much more sensitivity. But again, you have to be careful or you’ve got problems.

Random and variable practice. I mentioned this already and I’m going to talk about it more in a few minutes. We do a lot of that where they’re varying how they swim, what skill they’re focusing on, what piece of equipment they’re using, so that they’re never getting the same sensory feedback or information twice in a row. They have to stay on their toes.
So we do a lot of random and variable practice. We do a lot of alternating with and without equipment, again, to feel changes every single repeat, so that they’re being guided toward paying attention to those differences. There are a whole of bunch of others, but just a couple. One is called a contrast exercise. Say, a swimmer is swimming with a certain problem or certain fault on freestyle, say they’re dropping their elbow, simple stuff. We are trying to get them to swim with a nice high elbow catch and pull.

Well, as soon as they have kind of figured out that idea and can perform a high elbow pull, we’ll have them do contrast exercises where, for instance, they’ll assume a 25 the old way and then a 25 the new way, really focusing on how those two things are different. Okay? So a contrast drill, it’s old versus new, bad versus good, feeling the differences between them. And, in theory, as kids solidify, stabilize and start training on those better skills, as soon as they start to fall back into the old patterns, they’re going to be able to feel the difference. And so, being able to discriminate between two different ways of swimming the same skill is absolutely crucial. I think contrast exercises can really help kids do that. Yes.
[Audience Member]: “Would you compare a contrast drill to an exaggeration drill? If you take the dropped elbow, and ask them to exaggerate, and then you’ll have to fix it, would that also be effective?”
[Michael Brooks]: Would it also work to exaggerate a problem and then do it correctly, exaggerate, do it correctly? Well, have you got it working?

[Audience Member]: “Sometimes.”

[Michael Brooks]: Well, then, sometimes it works, okay? I think it’s really important that you understand what my function is or I understand my function to be here is to throw out ideas, and then, for you to play and experiment. Because what I’m doing in practice right now is different from what we were doing six months ago, and VERY different from what we were doing a year ago. I’m taking an idea, trying to figure out an interesting set that would help elaborate on that idea, or unpack it. Then, paying attention to how it works or doesn’t, and trying to make it better. So, if it works, go for it. Always, however, pay attention to unintended consequences which usually are lurking in the background somewhere. So, you need to pay attention. Yes.

[Audience Member]: “Somebody has given the example of recovery as they’re rotating their hip late or early or whatever and dropping the elbow and we find that a lot of times, they’ll come inside the line.”

[Michael Brooks]: Right.

[Audience Member]: “I’ll say to them, I think, it is on the timing of the rotation and when they’re pushing their hands. It’s like experience. But, I’ll say when you enter the hand, I want you to go outside the shoulder line, and they think when you tell them that– when they hear that, they think when they try to do what they think is right, that they’re doing that, they’re actually going inside the shoulder.”

[Michael Brooks]: Right.

[Audience Member]: “What message I gave then outside the shoulder was basically was in line. Do you know what I’m saying?”

[Michael Brooks]: I do. Okay. So, the question/statement is, sometimes, by asking kids to exaggerate what you want.

[Audience Member]: “Like all overcorrect.”

[Michael Brooks]: Right, overcorrect, exactly. They’ll actually be doing it correctly. And, I think this goes back to what I said earlier about how so few kids know what they’re doing when they swim.

[Audience Member]: “But, you’re saying too, that there could be consequences to that?”

[Michael Brooks]: If it’s working right now, it’s working. As long as it stays working, you’re probably good. But, as soon as you start seeing a problem, then you need to reel it in. That’s what I’m always doing. I give kids a set, or ask them, to do something based on my understanding that this is going to help them be better. And, as long as they keep getting better, we’re good. But, if I start seeing negative consequences, I’ll stop it right away, try and figure out what’s really going on here, what did I miss? Is this just poor execution of a good idea, or a truly bad idea, and take the next step of, “Okay, well, what’s next?”

I’m going to go for a couple more minutes even though I’m right on the edge.

Degrees of freedom set. I think this is really kind of fun. We are so fortunate that we have joints. You know, thank God for the human body, because I love rowing. And, if my body were a rowing or a sculling shell, I’m going to swim, I’m going to row, I’m going to paddle, I’m going to move like this. Put my hands in here, my paddles, my sculls, and here, the spoons, and I’m going to push hard. I’m going to be pushing mostly out. And then, for about a 30 degree sweep, I’m going to be pushing almost directly backwards. Oh, wonderfully efficient and really powerful if you’ve seen those rowers. And, then, after that, most of the pressure is pushing in toward the shell, very ineffective, inefficient.

So for only 30 or 40 degrees of that sweep, am I pushing in ways that I really want to be pushing? That’s because I don’t have any joints. Well, we are so fortunate in that we’ve got wrists, elbows. A paddle does have shoulders essentially, but we’ve got these three joints which help us be exponentially more effective than a rower. Because, by manipulating the degree of bend of my wrist and changing that as I do a stroke, by manipulating the degree of bend of my elbow, manipulating the internal, external rotation of my shoulder, I can put effective pressure almost the entire stroke. It’s wonderful being human.

But, most kids don’t think about this. Don’t take advantage of the different options that they have available to them. They just swim the way they always swim. By doing what we call a “Degrees of Freedom Set”, we’ll ask them to manipulate all these bends as they swim, and do things differently from what they are used to, and just pay attention to the results. It’s fascinating what kids will learn by just letting them go play swimming. You know, just tell them what you want, to what constraints you want them to manipulate and, then, let them find out really interesting things about how their bodies work in the water.

I’ve used up my first hour, so we’ll call it a day for that. I want to start in about six minutes, so take a really quick break.

The Theory of Motor Learning, Part 1 | Michael Brooks | 2016 World Clinic Talk