Practice Design

Considerations when designing practice tasks in swimming

Swimming is the only sport where performance outcomes are so dependent on the interaction the athlete has with their surrounding environment and medium (e.g. water). Sports biomechanics and fluid mechanics have enhanced our knowledge in swimming kinematics and kinetics and fluid motion properties. Yet looking from a skill acquisition perspective, the relationship between the swimmer and their aquatic environment is still to be assessed.

Swimmers’ interaction with the water from a different perceptive

The swimming movement induces changes to the fluid flow in the aquatic environment which both perturbs and supports swimming performance. For this reason, the interaction between the swimmer and a performance context need to be adequately captured in practice.

Ecological dynamics looks at the performer-environment relationship. The term ecological dynamics refers to an integrated approach using concepts and tools of ecological psychology and dynamical systems to understand phenomena that emerge in the transactions between individuals and their environments.

Representative Learning Design for the aquatic environment

The ecological approaches has facilitated the development of the representative learning design framework (see link for related article). Applying this framework in training is of particular relevance in the sporting realm as it emphasises the necessity for learning tasks or drills to representatively simulate the competitive performance and avoids them becoming stand-alone components of training.

Looking specifically at swimming,  the coach or researcher has the possibility to design training environments with three main performance objectives:

  1. Maximise propulsion
  2. Limit resistances
  3. Develop propulsive efficiency

The constraints led-approach can facilitate the emergence of functional behaviours. Constraints can be classified into  three categories:

  • Organismic – the individual characteristics of the performer (e.g. physical or mental)
  • Environmental – external physical and social constraints surrounding a performer, and (e.g. light or temperature) ;
  • Task – constraints relative to the specific rules or goals of an activity.

Appropriate manipulation of these constraints may prepare a performer to functionally respond to events in the competitive environment. Examples include:

  • Using hand paddles increases the propulsive surface to teach effective hand position and hand underwater path. This focuses on a particular task without decomposing it.
  • Performing a specific task with added distractions to their environment or equipment (e.g. have another swimmer splash the swimmer or have the swimmer wear ripped or fogged goggles).

The goal is to educate swimmers on how to transfer acquired skills from practice contexts to continuously changing performance environments.


Guignard, B., Rouard, A., Chollet, D., Hart, J., Davids, K., & Seifert, L. (2017). Individual–Environment Interactions in Swimming: The Smallest Unit for Analysing the Emergence of Coordination Dynamics in Performance? Sports Medicine, 1-12.

Seifert, L., Button, C., & Davids, K. (2013). Key properties of expert movement systems in sport. Sports Medicine, 43(3), 167-178.

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