“Deliberate practice” is a trendy phrase in human performance, but it involves a lot more than an athlete practicing deliberately. While the mental focus of the swimmer is essential, there are also requirements for both the program (team) and coach.

Before addressing how to implement deliberate practice for swimming, let’s consider what experts generally advocate. General characteristics of deliberate practice have been identified (Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Romer, 1993), and include:

  • an athlete’s motivation
  • tasks designed to account for skill level
  • clear instructions
  • immediate feedback
  • a sufficient number of skill repetitions
  • a variety of learning strategies
  • an athlete’s ability to stay in cognitive/associative learning stage

When the above guidelines for deliberate practice are applied to swimming, important roles for team, coach, and swimmer emerge.

General Program Investments – Team

  • a team-wide system for technique instruction and analysis to ensure consistency
  • a model of optimal technique
  • a database of visual and kinesthetic cues that complement the technique model
  • instructional presentation technology (images, videos)
  • analysis/feedback technology (studio and underwater mirrors, above and below surface video, measurement of force and drag coefficient)
  • strength training equipment that allows simulation of specific swimming motions

Essential Learning Strategies – Coach

  • classroom and poolside presentations of technique model
  • accurate presentation/demonstration of the orientation of body parts for specific swimming positions and motions
  • precise wording of specific cues as phrases to simplify communication
  • progression from basic to advanced skills as developmentally appropriate
  • progression from proximal to distal body parts as developmentally appropriate
  • classroom and poolside analysis sessions
  • scheduled coach-swimmer dialog

Structured Practice Components – Coach

  • pool drills that isolate selected technique elements (without negative effects)
  • classroom and deck exercises that simulate selected technique elements
  • short swims at a slow speed with limited breathing
  • reminders about cues before a swim
  • feedback about compliance with cues immediately after a swim
  • swims with increasing speed while maintaining accuracy
  • sets with increasing speed while maintaining accuracy

Practice Habits – Swimmer

  • commit to the requirements of deliberate practice
  • continual focus on auditory, visual, and kinesthetic input
  • comparison of actual and optimal positions/motions
  • adjusting (or maintaining) a position/motion on each repetition as necessary
  • verbalization about perception of technique elements

Even when all of the above requirements in place, there is still a need for a swimmer to log many thousands of hours of practice. However, if the team, coach, and swimmer are all doing their part, the benchmark 10,000 hours of practice may not be necessary to achieve “expert” status. Research shows that swimmers improve almost as much with a one-week treatment of carefully structured deliberate practice as they would normally progress with a year of traditional practice.