Why a video trumped a real life coach

I’m always in for a challenge when that involves learning or mastering something new. Some time ago I decided that I wanted to learn crawl swimming. As an extra motivational factor for this learning process, I enrolled in a quarter triathlon. I decided to work with a swim coach, in order to learn the technique needed to make it through the swimming part of the race in such way that I still would be able to cycle and run afterwards. Even though things started out well, I ended up swimming breast stroke in the last training sessions as well as in the triathlon. While it was nice to have finished that race, it was a bittersweet personal victory. My wish to take my swimming skills to the next level and the vision of myself gliding smoothly through the water, stayed strong. I kept looking for other ways of learning how to crawl, which lead to the discovery of a series of online tutorials about swimming. Less then 6 weeks later I was able to swim crawl for 1k at the local pool without the slightest sign of exhaustion. But before you think that I wrote this article to brag about my swimming skills, let’s cut to the chase. I want to share the insights that I got from asking two simple questions after the swimming challenge: Why didn’t things work out with the first coach? And how can it be, that a coach by means of a video tutorial was able to succeed in teaching me to crawl, even though he didn’t even see me swimming once?

What do you (not) see?

Only in retrospect I was able to see the differences between the two coaches. I came to notice, that things went totally different from the very start. The first coach started off our first session by asking me to swim one lane in the pool. He assured me that I could make it through the first part of the race, even though all I was able to show him was my struggle to make it through the first part of the lane, followed by an attempt not to drown while trying to get to the other side of the pool.

He assessed what would be the starting point and told me that I would need to improve my leg and breathing technique. The exercises all made sense and I tried my very best, but I didn’t improve as we had hoped, not to say that I showed actually no sign of making any progress. With the planned triathlon coming closer each training session, things didn’t look good. Three weeks before the triathlon, the coach suggested to switch the focus from learning crawl to swimming the breast stroke. That would at least give me a chance to overcome the swimming part of the triathlon as it was clear that crawling wouldn’t be an option.

How where things different with the coach using a video tutorial? For starters, he didn’t see me swimming once. He didn’t see my physical appearance: was I a child or a grown up, an athlete or a couch potato? He didn’t know. And he didn’t need to know. His videos started at the very beginning, explaining that it is natural that our bodies sink when not handled properly in water. To prove his point and make the client aware of that, he included a simple introduction exercise. This laid the foundation for understanding the behaviour of my body in the water. That was the crucial step I was missing. This is where the first mistake became clear: the first coach could have helped me in the very same way, but he had made the mistake to catalogue me during our first training session. Looking at my posture, my grown up body and talking about a triathlon, it was easy for him to fall prey to seeing me as an athlete complete with all the pre made assumptions that go along with that. He left out the fundamental steps about swimming, assuming I wouldn’t need them, whereas they were exactly what I was missing.

What’s the first (next) step in the right direction?

The next step in the process of learning how to crawl is about getting to the preferred result that you want to achieve. In other words, what are the necessary steps I need to take to be able to crawl?

For swimming, as the starting situation was not clear for the first coach, the planning failed. We started of on a level that I wasn’t capable of. I wasn’t able to complete the next step without understanding or seeing the missing link. It was certainly clear that I needed to improve my leg movement and my breathing skill, but a thousand different exercises aiming for the same result won’t do the trick if the bar is simply raised too high. This is as good as buying a lottery ticket each weekend and hoping to win someday. It might definitely happen someday, but it is of course more likely not to happen.

Planning a strategy takes imagination and creativity. The work gets done here by brainpower. The best way to plan is to never lose focus of the direction in which you want to go, which is the end result. This is where I spotted the second mistake in learning how to swim. And this mistake, was entirely mine to make. I had chosen the first coach because I had the thought that any coach would do. Crawling was crawling, no matter what. But I couldn’t have been further away from the truth.

I wanted to learn crawl because I wanted the experience of gliding through the water, in an effortless way. When I looked at other swimmers around me, I only noticed those that were swimming ever so smoothly without any visible effort. I didn’t notice any splashing water at the surface from the legs moving up and down, neither from the arm movements as well. It’s difficult to notice the remarkable things that you don’t see, this was the biggest clue I had missed to make up a plan that would work for me.

I had been advised a coach and I had gone for it, without asking the question if this coach would be the right one for me. I never really understood anyway that a certain coach could be the right one, or the total opposite of it. The real life swim coach didn’t share the same vision of my end result, which was effortlessly gliding through the water. His interpretation of ‘effortless’ was one of hard work. You train your body to get accustomed to that hard work, becoming less exhausting and ‘effortless’ through time. So even though we had the same objective in mind, the strategy of his version of crawling could have never worked for my version of crawling.

Once you know the right direction, you will be able to find the very first step you need to take to start your journey to get there. If you want to learn how to swim smoothly without splashing, then the very first step is to learn how to glide through the water, no matter which technique you will be using in the future.

How do you do?

I still remember my ‘Aha-erlebnis’ when I took that first step and I recognized exactly what the instructional video had explained me. It was normal for legs to sink in water (prove this to yourself by launching yourself in the water like Superman flies in the air). So I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have an especially heavy body that sinks while all others around me seem to float. The second thing the video said that sinking legs can be corrected by lowering the arms into the depth of the water (and not by kicking harder and harder). Second ‘aha-erlebnis’! I noticed the voice of the video talking in my ear when doing the exercise. What a feeling. I want more!

The next swims I kept on using that very first exercise adding different movements. First one arm movement, than a second arm, than trying to add a breathe, add some leg movement and before I knew it, I was swimming using crawl technique without getting exhausted. I swam over 500m for the very first time and came out of the water as a glowing ball of light and energy. I never felt so good!

The moment you make that first step in the right direction, you will feel it. You will feel the excitement of making progress, it’s an energy in the form of joy that you cannot deny. It’s an invitation, almost a cry for more learning, more improvement. When looking back now, I notice that this is where I made a third mistake. With the first coach, I kept repeating exercises that all had the intention of improving leg movement and breathing patterns. The coach and I had a plan and we stuck to it concerning this step and the next ones to take according to the plan. Sure, both the coach and I knew a plan should be flexible and we thought it was, changing and trying new exercises every training session. What we considered flexibility was not sufficient.

It doesn’t really matter what the form of the exercise is, as long as the intended result of that exercise is too far stretched, it won’t take you to the next level. Instead of going for different for different forms of exercises (and believe me, there are many exercises for leg movement in the water), the solution was to downgrade to a basic form with actually no movement at all, just gliding or floating in the water. It was an entirely different step to take in the opposite direction. But how could I (and that coach) have known?

When you act and take that first step towards the goal you have set, you are interacting with the environment. Your environment will give you feedback. Either it will give you a positive message, expressed with amounts of joy and pleasure, or it will give you a negative message, expressed with amounts of disappointment, sadness and pain. If it doesn’t communicate at all, then the changes you have made are not considered by you as progress nor stepping back. When working with a coach, it is easy to fall prey for what is called ‘the authority bias’. It’s when you put 100% confidence in the coach because ‘he knows what he is doing’. In order to overcome this, I could have asked myself the question, are these the exercises I would have done on myself, without any stimulation from a coach? Probably not. My motivation would abandon me soon, looking for other ways or leaving it all behind.

Acting confronts you with your motivation. Do you really want it? Every action will result in a new situation, with a new challenge, choice or opportunity ahead, showing the way you need to go step by step. It’s easy to get of track, lose the focus on the end result and be distracted by all those other things that are competing for your attention. Dedication and persistence are key to reach your goals. The environment is the best teacher if you can learn how it communicates with you through changes, giving you hints like certain results and emotions that are (not) in line with your expectations.

Why do you do it the way you do it?

I challenged myself to learn how to swim as I was inspired (and actually also a bit jealous) when I saw other people swim graciously and without effort twice as fast me. Learning how to swim would be my biggest challenge and seemed  impossible to me. It still gives me a tremendous boost every time I go swimming, knowing I thought swimming to be impossible and is now part of my world. That boost is pure energy and has the power to lift me up whenever I think something is not possible.

The last mistake I made during the learning process of swimming became clear to me a while after I learned to swim. I got stuck again. There was something holding me back and it was only then that I noticed that emotions are involved in every step of the way. These emotions tell you exactly what you need to know to go further. This is how I learned this most important lesson so far in my life:

At a certain moment in time, I could no longer feel the joy of swimming. Instead I noticed a sense of frustration every time I got out of the water and checked my watch to see my stats. I usually saw the same over and over again. Same speed as usual, no progression even though I felt more exhausted and I tried very hard to swim faster. I didn’t know back then, but I had changed my intention, from learning how to swim effortlessly and graciously to swim as fast as possible. That these two do not rhyme together when being a beginner swimmer, is pretty obvious. But not for me at that time. It took me a lot of frustrated sessions before I asked myself the question what was going on. Yes, it was obvious for me that I felt frustrated because I couldn’t swim as fast as I would like it to be. I didn’t realize however, why I was approaching swimming in this new way, which was not my original intention. But then again, what’s wrong with setting new goals?

The question of ‘why’ has the power to set you back on track. When I examined my ‘new goal’ to swim faster, it became clear that it made no sense for me to just try to go faster. I didn’t have any race planned, nor did I have a specific time in mind which would tell me when I have reached my goal. Every new best time would be a new reference point to go faster. Where would it end and when is fast actually fast enough? It became clear I had to reconsider, especially because I felt frustrated after each swim, which was a big contrast with the joy that swimming brought me originally.

I adjusted back again towards the original goal of swimming as smoothly as possible and the feeling of inner joy and happiness came back to me in an instance. Soon afterwards, I realized that speed came as a consequence of swimming smooth. The moment I let go of my pursuit of speed, I used the attention that came free again to focus on the swimming itself, making me more aware of myself and the water, being able to improve technique with improved speed as a side effect.

Ask yourself regularly why you do something. Your motivations affect the way in which you do certain things. When you do something half-heartedly, you will notice. So will the persons around you feel as well. And the way you do things is being reflected by the outcome of your actions.

The true learning process

A good learning process includes looking back and seeing the crucial stages of the journey. From being stuck, to planning to get unstuck, to taking action, becoming passionate, maybe even experiencing a state of flow. When being in flow, you are one with your environment, in perfect harmony. That state of being is inspiring to anyone who is ready to notice it and to go for it himself. My quest for crawling started from seeing swimmers clearly in a state of flow. I wanted to experience the same and found my way to make it happen, hoping that I might inspire someone else to take that same journey.

Learning to swim has brought me more than just learning how to behave in water so I can move forward using the water instead of fighting it. Learning to swim taught me how to ask questions, especially these that make me aware of my perspective, my thinking and my actions. They come to me in words and images, but far more important, they talk to me in emotions.

The following questions are some that are never far away:

  • What do you (not) see – think – feel?
  • How do you see it – think about it – feel about it?
  • Why do you see it – think about it – feel about it in this way?

Instead of using ‘you’, change it to ‘I’ or any other person and see if you can come up with some answers. Then check these for the assumptions that are hidden in those answers and see how you can either confirm these or reject these.

This story is my invitation for you to look back on your successes and your failures, to review them. This is the true purpose of learning, knowing why something succeeded or didn’t. The principles you will find by doing so will apply for any field that you want to learn more about.