The Learning Cycle
Above is the typical learning progression of an athlete. The athlete starts with no diving experience, and then they attend some practices. The athlete learns some skills and the progress is evident (Period 1-4). After some time of steady growth, the athlete will plateau, and progress will not be so evident (Period 4-6). Following the plateau there will be a dip in progress (period 6-7) followed by another growth period where improvement will be evident and surpass the previous plateau (period 7-9). Then there will be a plateau period, followed by a fall off then a growth period etcetera, etcetera. This learning progression is fairly uniform for athletes. After years of working with individual athletes these periods become pretty predictable, and the coach and the athlete learn to navigate the highs and lows, and eventually learn to plan training around the athlete’s individual learning progression to achieve their competitive goals.
Individual athletes handle different stages in the learning process differently. Initially children start diving for fun. They are enthusiastic and excited and may not even recognize they have progressed through several learning cycles. Parents from the stands may see that their child learned a lot in the first few months but hasn’t learned a new skill in a while, or that the child seems to be regressing, all the while the child may be completely unaware. Initially children don’t get frustrated when they are in a plateau, and they don’t get upset when their learning troughs for a period because they are solely focused on the activity of diving without attention to progress. Then at some point, for some reason the athlete recognizes that they are progressing faster than other athletes, or that progress isn’t being made in one aspect of diving. When they see themselves progressing, they feel more confident in their diving and they attach themselves to the sport even more. If they recognize that they are not progressing as fast as others or not as fast as they once were, their opinion of diving will diminish.
Children may emotionally recognize they are in a improvement, plateau or trough period, but may not recognize it intellectually. When a child comes to a plateau or a trough without understanding it, they will cope with their emotions with the strategies they already have. They may exibit passive aggressive behavior to avoid diving… they “forget” their swim suit, or “get sick or injured” when it is time to leave for practice, or they may take many bathroom breaks during practice, or stand a long time on the diving board preparing for a dive. These behaviors will last a couple practices until eventually there is that car ride where the child may break down saying “I don’t want to dive anymore, I don’t know why I don’t like it anymore, I just don’t.”
It is usually at this point where the parent of the athlete calls me about their child wanting to quit. They will comment that their child started with such enthusiasm, and now they don’t want even to go to the pool. I try to reassure the parent that it is normal. Typically, the parent and the coach and the diver sit down to discuss what is going on. During this meeting the parent and the coach validate the athlete’s feelings. We explain that the highs and lows of sports are normal; that the diver has the power to dive or not to dive and that it is ok to get frustrated and to be scared. At this meeting we talk about how important communication between the athlete and the coach. The more the coach knows about what the child is feeling and wants, the better prepared the coach will be to help. We talk about setting some short term goals to help provide the diver with specific direction, and as these goals are met the diver’s confidence grows and the avoidance behavior decreases. The athlete’s attitudes about diving move from it being a fun activity into being an aspect of their life that is important to them and that they are deliberately working to improve. Many times after a meeting like this the parent will comment that their child now introduces themselves to new people as a diver…”hello, I’m Joey and I am a diver.”
Athletes handle periods in their learning with the coping strategies that they use in their everyday life. The emotions are the same, so if the athlete withdraws when they are frustrated in life, then they will withdrawal when they feel frustrated in the dive tank. If a child becomes combative when they become angry at home, then they will become combative when they get angry when their improvement takes more effort than it once had because they are in trough. As the coach and the athlete go through several cycles of the learning process, the coach learns the individual behaviors that athlete exhibits when they are feeling a plateau, or a trough or an improvement period, and they devise strategies to make the transition between these stages easier.
After working with an athlete for several years and living through several learning cycles I learn how individual athletes train and perform while in specific stages of the cycle. As a coach I try to guide each athletes learning cycle to be in a plateau stage when the competitive season comes around. Clearly you wouldn’t want an athlete to be in a trough portion of a cycle during a competition, but you also don’t want the athlete to be in an improvement period. The reason you don’t want an athlete to be in a learning stage is that learning is not linear or consistent. Any piece of learning can affect the overall performance of several dives, and the goal of a competition is to be as consistent as possible. If you have new dives, or a new hurdle, or a new technique that isn’t yet made automatic (in the plateau stage) then under the stress of a competition these “new” learnings can lead to an inconsistent performance during competition.
With regards to the learning cycle, there are small cycles that run from plateau to trough to learning stages in the course of a week, and there are cycles that last months and even years. The order of the cycle is consistent with regard to specific individual skills and dives, and can be global affecting the athletes entire diving, but the duration of each stage is not consistent. A coach can help train an athlete to “peak” for performances that the athlete makes as a goal, but because learning isn’t linear and the duration of each stage can last days or weeks or months, it doesn’t always work out that the athlete is in plateau at competition time. That is why I train athletes not only how to put effort and passion into their diving when they are feeling like they are improving, but also when they feel like they are not. Working through those tough times with an understanding that they won’t last forever is one of the most important lessons a long term athlete can learn.
As a coach I try to honor the learning cycle. When a diver appears to be ready for a new skill or a new technique I advise the athlete to strike while the iron is hot. This is much easier in athletes that are not yet competing in the 16/18 age group. In the 16/18 age group athletes compete every category, which means as a coach I have to try to have that athlete plateau in all 6 categories (forward, back, reverse, Inward, twister and armstand) on one meter, three meter and tower. With the younger age groups, I have some wiggle room to plateau divers as they only compete a couple of optional categories. So if they are in a plateau stage for the 3 directions they compete, then they can be in the learning/ growth stage or trough stage in the other categories and it will be less likely to affect their performance.
As you can see, there is a lot of planning, coaching and learning that goes into a long diving career. The more we understand the cycles and processes of the journey, the more successful and rewarding it can be. Hard work and dedication is a necessity to excel, and helping athletes define what excellence looks like throughout their journey is one of the aspects of coaching that I really enjoy. For divers that begin their career before high school, it is important to think of the process as a long distance race. There is a plan, and there are times to speed up, and there are times to slow down, but generally keeping an even pace provides the most successful end result.