On the Writing Process for Swimming Coaches
Writing workouts and specifically the process of writing is one of my favorite aspects of coaching. An artist in the traditional sense I am certainly not, but writing workouts allows me to express my inner creative side in ways that align with my mathematical and logical thinking. Writing a swim practice is art for the scientifically minded, and in today’s article, I’ll take you through my writing process. I will also challenge you to write better (creative, efficient, productive, etc.) workouts, and should you choose to apply these principles, you will in turn become a better coach.
Token Trigger Warning: My thoughts on the Four Pillars of Elite Human Performance as they relate to writing workouts will hit hard for many of you. While I certainly do not intend to offend anyone, an inability to separate facts from emotions will trigger the ego nonetheless. Know that I want you to be a better coach, first and foremost, and my thoughts are meant to do just that. Also, know that the science is clear on the issues...those that choose to deny the Four Pillars are, quite frankly, limiting their professional potential and development, across all cognitive endeavors.
First, A Few Axioms:
Writing Workouts is Part Art, Part Science
There are few occupations that allow artistic expression and creativity to work in unison with human psychology, physics, and human physiology, and swim coaches enjoy this unique luxury. Show me a vocation, for example, where you can combine artistic creativity with the laws of physics and fluid dynamics...rare, indeed! Thus, we are artists, and the blank page our canvas. What we produce upon said page matters, and the better the workouts we write, the better our athletes perform. Our goal, while not attainable, but the goal just the same, is to construct the perfect practice, each and every time we sit (or stand) to write. And perfection not only in terms of the physiology of sport and exercise and the goals of the day, cycle, season, etc., (the science of writing workouts) but perfection as it relates to the intangibles and x-factors as well (the art of writing workouts). A Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology can write the world’s best scientifically designed workouts...but if they lack excitement and athletes do not buy in and work hard, you may as well let the athletes write instead - they’ll work harder, have more fun, and they’ll swim faster. All science and no art makes Jack a dull boy (and unhappy swimmer).
The Workouts Matter
What we write matters, and we must take the writing of workouts seriously. We must take writing practice seriously, yes, and we must approach the writing of each and every workout with extreme care if we are genuine in our ambitions to become better coaches and help our athletes achieve elite-level performances. While it isn’t a life or death proposition, depending on how good we want to be and how fast we want to swim, it can be close. In jest, but you get the point - the more “effort” and cognitive horsepower we apply to mastering the art and science of writing the perfect workout for the day, the faster our athletes swim. While yes, great athletes have a habit of making mediocre coaches look good, and in the end, we give all the credit back to our athletes, we know that what we produce upon the page plays a role. It matters.
The Brain Is Our Most Valuable Tool
And of the blank page...what becomes of it depends solely upon the three pounds of grey matter between our ears. What you write on the page (or in that software program) depends on the inner workings of the brain and the brain alone. Thus, the brain is our most important and most valuable tool; the brain matters. Poor brain performance leads to the poor writing of workouts. If you are serious about becoming the best version of yourself, you must learn to value your brain. As a coach, you are a cognitive athlete, and your brain is the end all be all in terms of the quality of the practices you write.
- Writing the perfect workout for the day is part science, part art form. Embrace both sides.
- What we write matters. Take it seriously.
- The brain is the tool we use to construct our practices. We simply must value brain performance if we are serious about fast swimming.
My writing process:
First and foremost, I believe we must approach the writing of workouts from a solid psychological and physiological base of cognitive excellence. In short, we need to put number one, number one. In order to write the best possible workouts for our athletes, we must take the time, energy, and effort to make sure that our brain is working at our highest genetic potential. There are myriad lifestyle choices that affect how well our brains work (cognitive performance), and if we are serious about elevating our coaching to our highest genetic potential, we simply must value the health and performance of our brain.
As such, the psychological and physiological base I mentioned above is one that I take seriously, and work daily to improve. Yes, every day I work to maximize my cognitive performance as though an elite athlete works to maximize the physical. I wrote in a previous article of what I believe are the four pillars of elite human performance, and I strive to optimize them daily. They are:
- Stress Management
If I am a cognitive athlete, as I believe all knowledge workers fit such a description, then the above four pillars are the foundation of my training. By following these four (and many other sub-categories) I ensure that my brain works as close to my genetic capabilities as is possible, at the highest level, every day. Without getting deep into the specifics of my pillars, know that:
I prioritize sleep. I track it, and I hack it. I put in the energy and effort to optimize sleep, daily. I have F.lux and use it. Nightshift for iOS? Certainly, and better still, I use 99% blue blocking glasses post 8:00 PM. Magnesium is a daily, as is darkness, an eye mask, a cold room, etc., and the list goes on and on.
I eat an extremely clean diet. High fructose corn syrup is a foreign substance to me; I do not know it, nor do I call it friend. Added sugar, processed food, and “food” from a box take the same place in my diet; that is, there is no place. A mixture of Paleo/Keto; my diet is high in fat and includes as much organic everything that I can find. Grass-fed meats are a must, and I even go as far as to use organic toothpaste, deodorant, soap, etc.. As I grew up on a farm, I learned to eat dark green leaves and vegetables at an early age, and while eating clean doesn’t always taste good, it matters not as I do not eat for pleasure or taste. I eat to optimize brain performance, and for that goal alone. Sugar impairs cognitive performance, vegetables improve said performance. It need not be more complicated, and the opportunity cost for coaches (and athletes) is real.
Furthermore, I believe in the efficacy of brain-specific supplements and cognitive enhancers and take them daily. While I won’t expand on supplements here, the book Headstrong by Dave Asprey of Bulletproof Coffee fame is a must-read for anyone serious about brain optimization and elite-level cognitive performance. In short, fish oil supplements are but the tip of the iceberg, and you can take a deep dive into the world of nootropics if you desire. Your brain will certainly thank you!
In a real-world example of food choices, at a recent club meet this summer a 10-year old volunteer walked the deck passing out sugary sweets to the coaches. He approached, and he offered, the poor lad not knowing and certainly not ready for what was to come. Without missing a beat (and with a wink and a smile) I politely told him that if he were passing out broccoli I would most certainly accept his generous offer. His reaction - priceless, as though hearing the language of the Pirahã for the first time. Perhaps I moved the needle, at the least, he will certainly remember that day.
Exercise - of course. That is the “easy” part for coaches (or it should be) as we have access to some of the best facilities in the country, for free, and the overwhelming majority of us were athletes ourselves. If I were an Athletic Director, regular exercise might be part of the job description and included in the contracts coaches sign. Is that legal? I don’t know, but to think that a coach in sport would choose to abstain from regular exercise is a cognitive fail of epic proportions.
As for the stress of “first world problems” and so forth, meditation is a daily practice of mine, as is gratitude, journaling, mindfulness, prayer, etc.. I take the time to unwind and manage the day to day. Perspective is key, and I constantly regulate my internal dialogue. Is it really THAT bad? Is it really THE worst? Often times, the answer is most certainly no. But perception is reality for the brain, and a stressed brain is a low performing brain, thus I manage stress accordingly. A fabulous read for harnessing the power of rest and relaxation is none other than Rest by Alex Pang. It is a fantastic guide for stress management and also brain health and productivity in general.
And so it is, before I even start to think about the workout for the day, I come at the challenge from a foundation of cognitive excellence. If I am serious about the quality of the workouts I write, there is simply no other option. Here is your challenge, coach - if you are not attempting to maximize your cognitive performance, you are not serious about writing the best workouts you possibly can. Brain performance is intertwined with our lifestyle choices, and we cannot separate the two. Sure, I may have lost some of you here, but the science is undeniable. Lifestyle choices such as sleep, diet, and exercise absolutely do affect how well our brains work, and a poorly functioning brain cannot possibly write the best possible workout for the day, week, micro/macrocycle, season plan, individual athlete, etc..
If you still aren’t convinced, consider what you would think about a swimmer on your team who eats poorly, sleeps poorly, and does not manage stress well...how serious would you gauge his desire to be a great athlete if he verbalized as much? We as coaches are no different, we’ve simply traded the performance of the body for the performance of the brain.
Time-Block, Focus, Think Deeply
Secondly, I block off and create chunks of time in my daily schedule to focus on the writing process. I take time to focus and THINK about the workout. I schedule this as though it were the most important meeting of the week...it just so happens this meeting happens nine times every week, one for each workout. In short, I schedule the writing of workouts as I would any other high-priority and high-value task.
A whiteboard is a valuable tool and highly recommended. There are times when I will stand in front of my office whiteboard and think about workouts for long, uninterrupted and undistracted periods of time. As though the 19th-century scientist in front of the blackboard with chalk, thinking deliberately about the mathematical proof before him, I stand in front of the whiteboard with the dry erase marker and attempt to create brilliance. While the tools have changed with the times, the neurophysiology of the brain has not. We simply most focus deliberately and think deeply in order to write great workouts.
Yes, we must think. We must sit, stand, pace, walk, or exercise, all while thinking deeply in undistracted states about the what, why, and how of the workout. I become engrossed in the challenge, and it is not uncommon to see a sign on my office door letting would be interruptions know that I am involved in cognitively demanding tasks and will not accept visitors. I keep a kettlebell in my office, and a few swings or cleans here and there help tremendously in getting the creative blood flowing to the brain. Movement has a funny way of stimulating creative thought; the giants throughout history knew as much and harnessed this power.
Few coaches think about the workout writing process as though one is a writer. We think of ourselves as coaches, and certainly, many of our thoughts are geared towards what happens at practice and the way we interact with our athletes. When at practice, that is always where we should focus, certainly. But prior to that, in our downtime and in our personal time, when we are thinking about practice and what we want to accomplish and so forth, we should think of ourselves as writers and act accordingly. We need to treat the brain as though we are a Dan Brown, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, or any other prolific writer. All practice deep focus, all create long blocks of uninterrupted time for writing, and all take the process seriously. We should do likewise if we are serious about creating great workouts.
To add to the concept of focus and time blocking as it relates to the writing process, I believe we must give careful consideration to our environment. The environment matters. I believe the details in terms of the environment will change the quality of the workouts written. Just as we would advise students writing a paper to limit distractions and write in an environment where they can focus, I believe we as coaches should employ the same methodology when writing workouts.
If we hold our student-athletes to a certain standard of excellence in the classroom, when we as coaches (cognitive athletes) involve ourselves in the cognitively demanding work of writing practices, should we not expect the same from ourselves? I believe we should hold ourselves to even higher standards. If I advise our student-athletes that the environment and the distractions (or lack thereof) matter when writing papers or studying, then wouldn't it also matter when I write workouts? Are the workouts we write any different than the academic papers of our athletes? Are they any more or less important? Perhaps we view each and every practice as though a one-page paper, graded, and the overall grade (athletic performance) of the class (swim season) depends on the cumulative quality of the many one-page papers along the way? Would it help us focus to see workouts through the lens of academia?
Ideally, your phone is out of sight and out of mind. I turn on airplane mode when thinking about a workout and engaging in the writing process. Brain.fm focus music and noise canceling headphones are a must when I think, when I write. Often times I will meditate on workouts, and it is not uncommon for some of my best and most creative workouts to spring from those meditation sessions. Meditating on swimming workouts? Why not? Speaking of phones, If meditation helped Steve Jobs create something as powerful as the iPhone, certainly it would have an impact on a power workout?
The last step, of course, is to determine specifics and put fountain pen to paper. What do I want to accomplish for the workout? What, why, for whom, and when are valuable questions. What if we, and how might we often follow. What energy system(s) do I want to train, what skill(s) do I want to develop, etc.. As this is highly indvidual to the coach and her personal philosophy, I won’t go into detail here. I am more interested in the actual writing process for this article and not what coaches write specifically. The point is not to dive into the science of swimming fast, more so how we get to the end product of a successful workout. I don’t want to offer advice on what to write...only how.
I recommend approaching the writing process from a firm foundation of cognitive excellence. You will write better workouts if you optimize your sleep, diet, exercise routines, and stress levels. Your brain will simply work better, in the various ways we can measure such things (memory, creativity, processing speed, executive function, etc.). After a firm foundation is set, focus is the next key. Think, and think deeply. Focus on the task at hand. Eliminate all distractions and allow yourself time to think, time to write a high-quality workout. Ask questions, then ask a few more. Why, what if, and how might we will open up your subconscious mind to explore the possibilities. Finally, write. Assuming you have a surplus of cognitive horsepower (base) and you allow proper time and space to think deeply (focus), the actual writing of the workout should be “easy” for lack of a better term.
As is often the case with the writing of substantial works, the heavy lifting is performed by the subconscious mind in your downtime. Use this as a tool, as many of the great writers throughout time instinctively learned. Again, I highly recommend Headstrong by Dave Asprey and Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang as must-haves for swimming coaches. The combination of these two works, in addition to your own expert knowledge of our sport (physiology, psychology) will lead to better workouts and faster swimming.