Teaching Swimming Dynamically and for Understanding

All my children were taught to swim. The coaching was direct instruction with practice style tasks requiring replication of coach prescribed movement patterns. Recently, I watched a youth swimming lesson on my travels in the US. It too, involved direct instruction of specific movement requirements, and was pretty much the same as the hundreds of swim teaching/coaching sessions that I have observed in school, club, and at 'swim school'. In this recent session, I observed the coaches telling students to modify their freestyle arm movements from straight arm in the recovery phase. Janet Evans did a pretty good job with straight arm recovery. I wondered what was informing the coaches ideas of what concepts were right for the students. The session had no obvious concept in focus, and appeared to be no more than 'lap work' to reinforce 'stroke mechanics'. However, across the squad I was observing, the youth swimmers had two common problems that the coaches were not picking up on - head position and hand entry. In the 45 minute session, neither of those areas were mentioned to any of the swimmers.

Before I go further, I must confess that I was a high school swim coach for 8 years in the late 1980s to mid 1990s. My coaching probably looked a lot like the session I am now critiquing. However, since my time as a swim coach in the 1980s to mid 1990s general ideas of what good coaching is have moved from behaviourist to more constructivist understandings of the athlete-coach relationship at all levels of 'game development'. However, my time recently watching this squad being coached got me thinking about swimming coaching, 'game sense' sport coaching, and the hegemony of direct and replicate pedagogy in swim coaching.

A few years back I wrote a paper with my colleague Terry Magias on how dynamic systems theory for skill acquisition might inform swim coaches and teachers to think differently about their pedagogy. In our experience, direct and replicate pedagogy, often in the form of demonstrate-explain-practice with junior and youth practice sessions, has been the dominant instructional approach we have observed in swim teaching of juniors and coaching of youth and adults. Direct and replicate pedagogy engages the swimmer in movement replication of what we could call 'text-book' swimming technique. Behavourist learning theory provides a good explanation of this conditioning of prescriptive behaviour by direction and control.

Although swimming might be seen as occurring in a stable or static environment of the swim pool lane where a determinstic approach to teaching movement is appropriate, a dynamic systems perspective suggests an organismic optimal style can emerge under the influence of the individuals coordination dynamics assembling to satisfy the unique requirements of the individual interacting with the environment. In the sport of swimming, Janet Evans, Michael Klim and Laure Manaudou might be seen as examples of functional movement solutions that deviate from the "text book description" while adhering to key biomechanical indicators of performance.

In our paper, Terry and I wonder what a swimming program developing from exploring movement solutions to get a "feel for the water" rather than programs designed to teach prescriptive movement mechanics from the "get go", might be - in other words, one that teaches swimming 'game sense' or teaches swimming 'for understanding'.

Do we need a new 'game category' to help this conversation? The work on 'game-based' coaching/teaching approaches emerging from the 1960s and into the 1970s identified four 'game' categories and their common 'principles of play' - invasion, net/court, target and striking/fielding games. I have long argued there is need for a fifth (and maybe a 6th) category - racing or competing, to capture sports like swimming, track and field, sailing, kayaking etc. Terry and I did some theorising about teaching swimming for understanding (available here), and Terry has explored the ideas further in a chapter in Perspectives on Athlete-Centred Coaching, as has Richard Light who uses the lens of athlete-centred coaching and positive pedagogy in a chapter in Perspectives on Athlete-Centred Coaching (available here). Richard has also published journal articles on this athlete-centred swimming and positive pedagogy approach, while Maria De La Trinidad Morales-Belando has looked at TGfU principles applied to sailing. With Terry, Richard and Maria's work there is the basis for starting to think about a '5th game category', but more work needs to be done in the area of applying game-based coaching principles to sports I would describe as being in the 'racing' game category. There is plenty of scope for 'game sense' research in this area. In what might be a 6th sport category, 'dance', Melanie Levenberg  calls her dance teaching approach 'teaching dance for understanding', and has an adaptation of the 6-step TGfU cycle for dance (see a handout from one of Mel's recent conference sessions here). If doing some research in these under explored areas for TGfU-game sense coaching is something you are interested in, maybe we chat. You can find my contact details here


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