Make an ‘attempt,’ do not “try”

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The language we use as swim coaches and swim instructors is important. Even subtle language has a profound impact on our participants.

I make an effort with every sentence to speak exactly with instruction as literally as possible. Yoda had it right when he says in Star Wars, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

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Whenever I give goals and direction it is always using the words, “attempt to” or “make an effort to” I avoid using “try” because it implies failure. Saying the word “try” when we are talking about eating food is acceptable, logical, and totally okay. Trying food implies that you will do it. You will put that food in your mouth to taste it. If you don’t like it, well, at least you tried it to see what it is like.

In swimming, or any other physical activity. Trying implies that you will attempt to do something, but that you’re unsure if you’ll succeed at that attempt. The phrase itself is like saying, “I’ll put effort into attempting what you’re asking, but if I don’t succeed at don’t be mad because I tried it.”

When I remove the word “try” from my instructions and directions, I am attempting (actually doing with the hope of the desired result) to get a specific action from my participants. In my language I want to remove any possibility of failure. Using ‘attempt’ gives the participant an actionable goal with a specific command: make an attempt at this. When it is framed with ‘attempt’ and not ‘try’ the implication is that there is an actual attempt; a documented, or actual event done that was made with effort to accomplish a specific given goal. When we say ‘try’ it, we are imploring the person to see if they like it. Remember, ‘try’ is associated with tasting something. You can ‘try’ to do something, or you can ‘try’ to taste it. The implication is that if the person doesn’t like it, they don’t have to do it again.

In swimming, the participants don’t get a choice whether they want to do it again, they need to because there is a correct way of swimming well and an wrong way. Our goals as swim instructors, or coaches, is to get the participants to move their bodies in a very specific motion to attain a goal. Typically that goal is to move through the water with the least amount of effort in the most efficient fastest way possible.

To move people in a motion or direction that we know they need to do, but they are unwilling or ignorant of how to do themselves requires that we use language to get a result. We need to issue commands or instructions on how to achieve that specific body motion. Were we to always say, “well, try this,” it feels like we don’t know what we’re talking about, and it offers the participant an opportunity to reject the action if they don’t like it or if it doesn’t illicit an immediate change.

When we change our instructions to, “attempt to do this,” we are offering a direction and encouragement towards an actual goal with the singular ‘attempt’ as a stepping stone in the desired direction result.

I teach with my instruction, language, and overall theme in mind. My directions often follow this formula:

  1. What are you going to do?
    1. are there special circumstances?
  2. Your goals are:
    1. Up to 3 goals, fewer for beginners or younger swimmers
  3. Follow up on the goals with each person on each attempt
    1. Correct for basics as needed: no streamline, not leaving at the right time, etc

Here is an example:

” (1)You are going to do four 25’s on the minute. They are all freestyle, and (1.1) you go 10 seconds apart. (2) You have 2 goals. #1, you must do a streamline every time you push off the wall; underwater, and doing all 3 things (locked thumb, squeezed ears, looking down). #2 when you swim, remember to keep your body straight and avoid wiggling your torso. Make an attempt to keep your core, your stomach and chest straight like a soldier even when you’re swimming.”

“To review, 4 x 25 on 1:00, 10 seconds apart, streamline to the flags well, and swim with your body straight in soldier. Any questions? Ok, on the zeros, go.”

This is as close to actual instructional speech as I can write to make it clear what we’re doing. Notice how we give a goal, and we give an way to achieve that goal with specifics. I want to make our direction clear, and our goals attainable by our participants. If I exchanged “try” for attempt, or “must” then there would be more people that ignore the command, or who try it on the 1st 25, but don’t for the other 3 because, well, they “tried.”


In the end, remember Yoda when you are teaching. Speak in “do’s” and not in “try’s.”yoda_by_valval-d61g9rh

What do you think?

Try to leave me a comment, or make an attempt to share your thoughts with me?

Let me know in the comments below

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