Control the Controllable: 5 Pillars to Bridge the Ability Gap
by Jason Pullano
Ability = Uncontrollable Variables + Controllable Variables
I have the great pleasure of living two unrelated (but constantly overlapping) lives. When I’m not on a pool deck with a stopwatch in my hand, I’m in front of a school with a laptop. I am fortunate enough to work for a school district, Granbury ISD in North Central Texas, that gives me the opportunity to serve as their Head Swim Coach as well as District Instructional Technology Coordinator.
While those two jobs seem like they couldn’t be any more different, the reality is one job constantly teaches me about the other. The other night I was reading an Educational Leadership Book, Lead Like a Pirate by Shelly Burgess and Beth Houff, where the topic of “closing the achievement gap” was discussed. The “achievement gap” refers to gaps in academic performance among ethnic, gender, ability, and income groups. And while the “go to” strategy to close this gap is decreasing the number of instructional days in a school calendar by testing our students to death (sorry...I’ll avoid that pet peeve), it got me thinking about the “ability gap” in swimming. What variables can coaches address to ensure athletes of all talent, economic, ethnic, etc. groups have the same opportunities to achieve in the water?
On my high school team, I see some of the best of the best and some of the worst of the worst when it comes to ability. Roughly 50% of my team comes in with knowledge of all 4 strokes and seldom do they come with an extensive club background. Roughly 50% of my team comes in having to spend the first day blowing bubbles. My yearly focus with ALL swimmers is to enhance the “controllable equalizers” that will allow them to perform at their highest level.
I like to view ability in swimming as a math problem…
Ability = Uncontrollable Variables + Controllable Variables
Uncontrollable variables are factors that swimmers and coaches have little to no impact on. Genetic variables like swimmer strength, size, flexibility; developmental variables like athleticism, talent, exposure to youth sports; and familial variables like family income, parent availability, or family dynamics.
So I choose to look at coaching as being dealt a hand in Blackjack. I cannot control which cards I’m dealt. But I have the ability to influence how the cards are played. Regardless of the “talent” that comes in, I choose to focus my attention on the “skill” development. By skills, I do NOT mean tight streamlines, bilateral breathing, or rock star kicking (all of which are essential to success in a pool). I mean the “skills” that can translate to a swimmer’s life once they have hung up their goggles for good. We ALL have our “Top 5” list and I pray that we are ALL successful in implementing our chosen pillars for our kids! I would LOVE to hear from coaches on what THEIR top 5 list may be…But for now, here’s mine!
Jason's 5 Pillars to Bridge the Ability Gap
Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, describes grit as “passion and perseverance over prolonged periods of time.” I define it more simply as “the intoxicating desire to overcome obstacles and better oneself.” Duckworth has done studies to show that “grittiness” (measured by her grit scale test) is an accurate indicator for success in various organizations (most notably retention in the military). Grit can look like a lot of things - but what it doesn’t look like is: talent, luck, or short term desires. Swimming is the PERFECT sport that prays on those gritty kids capable of grinding out the work while entertaining process and performance goals for years on end.
How can you promote grit on your pool deck?
- Praise effort over ability/performance in your groups/teams
- Reframe difficult tasks/challenges as being “opportunities” rather than obstacles
- Model grit - let them see it in action
- Loving, Competent, Supportive Stakeholders (Coaches, Parents, Teammates)
Truthfully, as a coach, you can only control 2¼ of these. You have 100% control over your ability as a coach to love your athletes as if they were your children, support your athletes through the best and worst moments, and improve yourself as a coach through continued learning. You also have the ability to influence the culture of your program to value athletes taking vested interest in one another's lives (on and off a pool deck) and fostering the “we” versus “me” approach to youth sports. Finally (and this is the ¼ you control), your role as a coach is to educate parents on what their roles should be. Ultimately you cannot control the “dreaded ride home” from the bad competition, but you absolutely can provide information that promotes a healthy relationship between athlete and parent.
How can you influence a culture of loving, competent, supportive stakeholders?
- Tell your athletes you love them every day (you might be the only one they hear it from)
- Educate parents that the only words that should come from them are “I love watching you do what you love”
- Encourage athletes to cheer for and with one another in practice, at meets, and in the community
- Process over Performance Mentality
Looking back at my coaching career, I am the biggest offender of this rule. In my early career, I consistently rewarded swimmers with “practice off passes” if they went a certain time...let that sink in...I rewarded a swimmer’s performance...by incentivizing the release from the “process”… Makes me sick thinking about the disservice I did to those kids...We have made sweeping changes since. We wanted to target minimizing a swimmer’s need for immediate gratification. And instead, we aim to instil a concept of growth - that every day is an opportunity to get 1% better - while redirecting the concept of fixed - you’re only ever as good as you were born.
How can you foster a “process over performance” mentality
- Try this once: Put down your stopwatch and turn off the scoreboard for a swim meet. Still collect times through timers and electronic systems. Reflect on the results afterwards. You’ll be shocked. We were.
- Before a set or meet, tell your swimmers “I want you to take a risk. You have the freedom to fail - though it’s not a requirement”
- Openly highlight swimmers that “speak growth mindset” and redirect swimmers that “speak fixed mindset.” Task them with “How else could you say that?”
The old adage is that “practice makes perfect,” but the science shows that “practice makes permanent.” We can all agree that a person’s brain controls their body. Electrical signals are sent from the brain to the muscles to control movement. This is done through cells that act as links in a chain called neurons - these neurons form “pathways” for specific actions/skills. The speed at which these electrical impulses move is directly related to how efficiently that task is performed. With consistent and “deep” practice (done intentionally, mindfully, and - added bonus - enjoyably!) the myelin that insulates the neurons forms at a higher rate. This is NOT to say that 10 year old athletes need to practice 30 hours per week...It means that a consistent schedule that fosters love of the sport, appropriate technique, and performed with intentional effort will scientifically yield greater developmental results.
How can you foster a culture that encourages consistency?
- Praise consistency in effort, attendance, and attitude - athletes want to know that their actions do not go unnoticed.
- Be creative and find ways to have fun while being precise and focused. Anything can be turned into a game. Exercise your creativity muscles as a coach.
- Model consistency and foster grit when trying to help athletes break bad habits - it’s NOT the athlete’s fault! Myelin is tough to “unwrap,” it just takes time.
Each year I try to find one overarching rule to coach by for that season. This year it was “say yes.” Choice is POWERFUL. If you give your athlete’s the ability to make decisions, their choices are made consciously, deliberately and intrinsically. Athletes choosing to do a threshold set will inevitably be more engaged than if they are compliant with their inevitable and predetermined set. I understand. Giving away control is terrifying. You fear that the athletes will make a poor choice, stumble, or fail. But success is forged in the fires of failure. As a coach you want to teach your athletes to fish, not give them their serving of fish sticks.
How can you safely and responsibly create a culture of autonomy that empowers athletes?
- Try this: Come to practice with nothing prepared - give your athletes the opportunity to write their own practice and invest in their craft.
- Guide their decisions - it doesn’t always have to be an “open response” question. A “multiple choice” approach is more powerful than compliance. Give them the option on intervals - “You can do them on this, this, or this. You choose”
- Avoid athletes becoming too dependent on you as a decision maker - warning signs are frequent questions like when to warm up, what to focus on, how do they look in the water, what should they be eating, etc.
But that’s just my opinion! We’re fortunate to live in a moment where coach to coach collaboration is simple and easy! Listen to what other coaches had to say! (Taken from the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange Group on Facebook)
- Sam Snyder - think the single most important factor in successful swimmers is the drive to compete. Whether it's against themselves or others, every single great swimmer I know has an insatiable appetite for competition. I'm the same way, I hate to lose and I hate to be mediocre at anything. I find that people with that same mindset will always look for ways to improve and get faster.
- Jared Kaminski - I think you should investigate two things. First, great technique with good talent will trump poor technique and great talent. The idea that you can literally beat someone on the sole fact that you execute better is worth getting into. Second, the idea of "want" and what is driving it. If the swimmer is driving then it is easy. If someone else is driving, for example a coach, parent, or friend, it is not as easy. If you want more details please let me know.
- Joe Plane - Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Not my quote, but true. Too many kids with talent aren’t willing to put in the work to be excellent. Michael Phelps has unmatchable talent and also put in the work from 12-17 to be the best ever. There has to be a combination of work and talent to be the absolute best (I.e. Steve Prefontaine).
- Mindy Dougherty - I think there are many controllable variables..Of course the athlete must have the hunger. Next, the grit..or the ability to bounce back from disappointment. Great coaching..the athlete has to believe in the program..and the coach needs to be cognitive of the uniqueness of each athlete. Parental support is huge. The coach gets a few hours, what input a parent has during success and challenges is huge. Support from peers. And of course, a pure passion for the sport!
- Paul Morris - Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. For me technique is the most important thing to develop. When someone focuses on developing techniques their speed, power etc will come through. I've seen powerful swimmers with terrible technique.
- Lee Schwartzman - Goal setting. Athletes ...heck, people...who go through their daily lives with achievable goals with a plan to reach those goals are the ones that succeed. Swimming lends itself very well to this with state cuts, time standards, or even the "break 30/sub minute" barriers. Those coaches and swimmers that embrace and take the time to really think about their goals and set the right plan will achieve more. This goes back to your control the controllable because the goals need to be controllable to be able to have a chance to succeed. I find when I have my kids during HS season and they have their goals literally on the wall of the pool and are working together and celebrating the goals of each other that I have a very highly motivated bunch. Often when they go to their club teams and that social part of encouraging each other is not as present, I find that they are not as highly motivated anymore. Not a knock on the club team, but I think the way our HS has state cuts that everyone knows and everyone knows that the team is better off the more kids get those times really helps.
About Coach Jason Pullano
Coach Pullano graduated cum laude from Ouachita Baptist University with Bachelors of Arts in Biology and Secondary Education. He also swam all four years for OBU.
Pullano is now the Head High School Swim Coach for Granbury ISD. While at GHS, Coach Pullano has led the Pirates to 5 consecutive District Championships as well as consecutive Top 5 placings for the boys and girls at the Region 2-5A Championship meet. He was named Boys and Girls District 7-5A Coach of the Meet in 2015 and 2018. He has coached at Texas A&M's annual summer swim camps in 2015, 2016, & 2017 and summer of 2018 he worked under NCAA coach of the year, Ray Looze, at Hoosier Swim Camp in Bloomington, Indiana.
Coach Pullano works at Granbury ISD as the District Instructional Technology Coordinator.