Swim Team – Letting swimmers choose

How to give your swimmers the “illusion of choice”


I’ll begin with a story, because people like stories, and the substance of this article will generally be about what we do in our program and how that can serve as a model for others to use. If you didn’t know, I’m the Head Developmental swim coach of a USA Swimming Level 4 team in Illinois. During the 2016-2017 short course season I was the lead coach for 100 participants from barely making the team to regional qualifying 8 year olds. The third group that I coached daily was the new-competitive group; the group that just started going to meets and was able to swim all four strokes, but hadn’t yet made that super commitment to swimming as their sport. There were also 8 year olds there that had made that commitment but because of our group structure were still in that group until they were 9 and could physically handle the stresses of a highly competitive training group.

We did not have a set structure for my top group. By that I mean, we rarely if ever did something like:

– 8 x 50 on 1:30

More often our practices, which were 1 hour, followed more like this:

Warmup: Always a variation of the same distances

  • 100 IM kick
  • 100
  • 50
  • 50
  • Question of the day, correct answer a 50 something, wrong answer a 50 something else. Questions are about coaches or general Swimming knowledge.
  • 4 x 25 on 1:00 speedplay (Fartlek)
  • 100 or 200 swim or kick.

And then we’d do something like this picture:

At the end of practice, we’d then do starts or a game.

You can see that there are very few “intervals” and very few straight traditional ‘swims.’  If you’re still with me, you’re probably asking, “what does this have to do with core strength, body line, and posture?”  Look again at what the picture has. In this particular instance there are a range of short distance activities on the left hand side: 2x SL (streamline) with fly kick, 2x SL w/ Fly K + 1 fly stroke w/ no kick, 2x SL w/ NO Kick + 2 fly arms with no fly k, etc. It is a progression of short focused butterfly interspersed with 50 swims of free or back. We focus on skill work of fly and then build in aerobic swimming. Swimmers got a choice to do the listed activities in any order, which was an attempt at giving them self direction. It allowed them some ‘freedom’ of what to do. It gives swimmers the ‘illusion of choice’ but as a coach I’ve defined what choices they have. The top kids in the group (the stellar 8 year olds) chose to do everything in order from top to bottom left to right. They just wanted to go. Some kids went left to right, and down, others jumped around doing the things they didn’t like first and the ones they loved last.

What is the illusion of choice?

Here are two options, choose one: 100 free swim, 100 back kick.

It really is that simple. Just by defining the two choices, we’re directing and narrowing the scope of what is availabile to the swimmers, but giving them an active choice in their activity. Yes, they can only do one of two things, but they get to choose. The illusion is that they get to make a choice that directs their own swimming that day. It is a choice, yes, but it is a choice that we choose the options in.

If we wrote on the board, “Do whatever you want for 10 minutes for warmup,” the swimmers likely won’t read your mind and do 400 yards of decent loosening swimming and kicking, then wait for the whole group to finish, do a brief speed play set, then answer a question with a consequence. They would play around, some would swim a little, others would do flips and some might just wait on the side not even getting in.

The illusion of choice is when we preselect activities and then let the swimmers pick and choose which ones they do in which order. The illusion is that they get to pick, but we are actually defining the choices.

Here is another picture of an “Illusion of Choice” I gave to my advanced group of swimmers (9 of which went to regionals, and of those, 6 were 8 years old).

In this Thanksgiving themed game swimmers in small groups got to choose what they wanted to do in each section. Everyone needed to have at least 1 serving of each dish (1 activity in each square) and once they’ve helped themselves to every dish, they could go back for seconds on any food item.

The choices were inside each type of food, or square. They could choose which activity to do in each section. The illusion was that I had pre-selected different activities for them to do, and because the rule was they had to do one from each, I covered all the different things I wanted to accomplish in the 30 minutes. Each square had a theme, and minor variations on the same activity. So I knew exactly what they’d be working on, but they could choose small variations on how to accomplish the same goal. You can gauge swimmer involvement by how enthusiastic they are with choosing, and how interested they are in reading the different options. Some will simply choose the path of least resistance and just do it in order and only do the top choice, but others will mull over the different options and go for what they like the best or what they think is easiest.

Why do we offer choice?

From the article, http://www.edudemic.com/7-ways-to-hack-your-classroom/

“The psychological effects of feeling a sense of control are well-documented and include greater levels of happiness and activity and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Educational research has shown that choice leads to more confident, more capable, and more interested students. Alfie Kohn’s classic article, “Choices for Children” cites the findings of a number of studies on student choice.”

When we give a controlled choice to our swimmers they are happier, they are more engaged, and they have less stress and anxiety about performing or doing well. You can check out Allie Kohen’s article “Choices for Children” for more information. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/choices-children/


Removing Coach / Teacher influence

When I’m coaching I try to remove my influence from the swimmer’s choices by giving them the options, and then not answering when they ask me what they should do. I remove any inflection when they tell me their choice, and encourage them to go and do the activity. I’ve already made the choices for them and any choice they make will be good because I selected the options!

You’ll sometimes have kids that are scared to pick a fun activity, or to pick something they think you might not want them to do. Remember to present an unbiased reaction to their choices because you should have put effort into offering the options they have and anything they do pick will be appropriate.

I have seen some coaches influence their “illusion of choice” games by discouraging certain choices, or yelling at the kids for having fun with their choices. Why would you get upset with a swimmer choice that you gave them the option to choose?


How to come up with choices

You may be saying, “Jeff, this is all well and good, but how the heck do I come up with all these choices?” Great question! If you haven’t seen the book I published on How to Create Fun and Effective Swim Games, this might be a good time as most of this process is outlined in detail there. http://amzn.to/2nTa8vf

Basically, I like to think of the choices as a single activity or game. Follow these basic steps to defining your choices:

  • Who are you working with?
  • What topic do you want to cover? Freestyle, backstroke, fly, breaststroke, and do you want to do aerobic training or learning, maybe a combo.
  • Will this be fun? If it is boring, how can you allow for small interesting fun portions?

We can begin crafting a series of activities once we’ve answered these questions. Let’s take a look at some sample answers and then I’ll give you a list of something I would come up with as an example based off the answers.

  • Beginners on swim team: 5-9 year olds that know how to swim front crawl with limited side breathing.
  • Position 11, Free swim with side breathing
  • Most of it should be fun because it’ll be non-traditional swimming or challenges.

I’m immediately thinking about my beginning group, knowing that they can’t swim for long distances well or unattended. Because they’re beginners and younger (5-9) they will not have as much control over their bodies and may not be entirely comfortable in the water and manipulating their movements in the aquatic environment. I also know that they have limited ‘reaching’ ability and time to truely focus their efforts. Activities should be short and dynamic as possible; keep them moving and interested, but also rely on established procedures. Too many instructions will derail the process and slow things down because they’re beginners they won’t have the experience doing complex steps.

With these qualifications in mind, and my goals defined, next we write out our activities.

“Form groups of 4, and in your lane as a group, do 4 from Group A and 4 from Gromp B”

Gromp A:

– 5 front flips

– 3 handstands that turn into a front flip

– 2 x front float, roll over on back, 3 breaths, roll back over on belly and do 10 kicks in position 11.

– 1 x streamline + roll around like a log, then do 10 kicks in position 11 after you rolled once completely around. CHALLENGE: continue rolling in position 11 while kicking.

– Hold the wall with 2 hands, and do FR kicks with face in the water for 5 breaths.


Gromp B:

– 2 x 25 position 11

– 2 x 25 10 K in position 11 + 1 FR

– 3 x SL + 3 FR swim

– 3 x SL + 2 x (5K in position 11 + 1 FR)

– 3 x SL + 5 k in NOT 11 (something wrong), and 5 K IN position 11.


Look again at the two groups of options. Group A is more short distance in the shallow end activities and the ones in Group B are more distance swimming and short distance trainings after a streamline. To make it a little more interesting instead of just doing 4 of one and then 4 of the other we can allow swimmers to alternate from group to group. So you could modify your instructions to “As a group, pick 1 thing from Group A, then do 1 thing from Group B. You cannot repeat an activity, and we’ll do this for the next 20 minutes.”

Kids then can democratically choose an activity or they can select a representive to chose for them each round cycling who gets to pick. This way you can break up the monotony for beginners of endless swimming, and provide learning opportunities in Group A, and then ‘do it’ or ‘practice what you learned’ moments in Group B.

By allowing for as many rounds possible in 20 minutes it gives the coach a chance to stop the activity at a certain time, and allow for faster groups to do everything, and slower groups to get some quality work in. Some groups will race to finish all things, and others will move through a little slower with more feedback from coaches.


Swimmer Choice

I have found that swimmers on the team really enjoy the self guided or illusion of choice activities. The swimmers have to talk to each other, and form relationships with their team mates. The challenges of the activities are fun, and they are motivated to move and manipulate their bodies to accomplish the tasks. Simple things like going underwater and laying on your back is a skill that has to be learned through trial and error, and these type of activities are a good place to practice them without segmenting a whole activity around the one small skill. I find that it encourages swimmers to read the board. I like establishing early that the set and activity will be written on the board and that they should read it first after hearing the explaination as it is a guiding resource for them. Sometimes I’ll write things on the board I don’t verbalize as additional tips or help. These will often be ways to make their swimming easier or special instructions to modify an activity. This rewards the attentive and reinforces paying attention to details.

My favorite part of giving swimmers a choice is that it involves them. They get an opportunity to start finding the things they like and searching them out during activities and sets. We know that when they’re interested, they’ll put more effort in, and be better for it.


Have you done something like this? How did it go? Share your thoughts in the comments below or connect on Facebook or Twitter: @swimmingideas https://mobile.twitter.com/swimmingideas


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