Courtesy: Jason Pullano
Like most coaches, swimming is not my sole source of income. When I’m not on the pool deck, I’m in K-12 classrooms working as an instructional technology specialist in Granbury, TX. Essentially, my job is to teach teachers how to integrate engaging technology to enhance learning.
There is a huge push in education to “gamify” learning. “Gamification” draws on this generation’s: desire for instant gratification, plays on their natural competitiveness, and tricks students into learning without realizing that they’re learning. If you haven’t watched Mark Rober’s “Super Mario Effect” TEDx talk, stop what you’re doing and take the 15 minutes to watch. Educators are reframing learning processes to be “challenge based; learning focused” instead of “result based; work focused.” This change empowers kids to see failure in a positive light, and not the disappointing end of the road.
My wife, a former swimmer, speaks to the fact that “A coach’s job is to build motivated kids that strive to get to the ‘NEXT LEVEL.” This got me thinking about how swimming closely parallels video games. Coaches helplessly watch as age group and senior athletes lose hours of sleep to online gaming. Why not play to that dynamic and steer into the skid? Swimming follows a natural progression of “levels”, just like a video game:
B>BB>A>AA>AAA>AAAA>Futures>Juniors>Nationals. Or. Learn to Swim>Age Group>Senior>College>Masters
If coaches could reframe the idea of “improving” to “leveling up,” then maybe we could reach the kids that are disengaged or have fundamental issues with the sport. The kids that have “peaked” might see the “level up” concept as less threatening. The “burn outs” might just need a tool to know what their next goal should be. The “cocky swimmers” might realize they’re not far along on the journey. It could be a motivator among peers for “who can be on the highest level.” Or you can record scores at the beginning of the season and highlight the largest gains in level at the end of the season! But most of all, this frames the work to be driving towards a GOAL (a fact that is sometimes lost in the grind of a season).
If you’re looking for an organizational tool to aid this idea, I’ve compiled USA Swimming’s motivational age group standards (11-17) & national meet standards into a google spreadsheet with stair stepped “levels” (if you’re confused reading this, click here to make a copy). As a swimmer improves or “reaches a new level,” the swimmer (or coach) can update their best times in the sheet. The spreadsheet highlights each cell/level that they’ve reached and calculates their new cumulative score.
I know clubs and organizations around the country have been doing this with extrinsic rewards for years (as a swim camp counselor, I can’t BELIEVE how heavy bag tags can make a 12 year old’s swim bag!!) But this “level up” concept removes the tangible prize without taking away the excitement of improving, and isn’t that the message that we try to convey? To value the process and not the reward? This isn’t a new idea, just new terminology.
In our current world climate where mental health is prominent in the sport, the idea of “leveling up” might be the stress free/non-threatening way to motivate your swimmers. Leaving a 3 day prelims/finals meet thinking “I’m stuck on level 60” is a less demoralizing way of saying “I had a terrible meet.” Or leaving a meet saying “I went from level 75 to level 80!” places emphasis on the thrill of improvement and minimizes the effects of poor or disappointing swims that might have happened between the good swims.
Ultimately as educators, we want our students to be excited about the process; to learn from, and not focus on, the temporary failures. Finding what works best for your kids is the fun in coaching! There are times to reframe our coaching, and there are times to stay the course. Consider this concept as just another tool on your coaching tool belt!
About Jason Pullano
Jason Pullano is the Head High School Swim Coach for Granbury ISD in Granbury, TX. He swam collegiately (somewhat successfully) at Division II Ouachita Baptist University. After graduating in 2014, Pullano accepted a position with Granbury ISD as a High School Biology teacher and head swim coach. In 5 years, Pullano has been recognized multiple times as District & Regional Coach of the Meet, he’s been a featured coach on the Swim Coaches Base Podcast, and has published articles in the NISCA journal. In the summers Pullano works at swim camps in Texas and Indiana where he assists on deck with the age group and college workouts.
Connect with Jason at [email protected]