Self-regulation is an important success factor in elite swimming  

The FINA World Championships (World Aquatics Championships) in Budapest are in full swing. What makes one swimmer reach the top and another not? Over the past four years, Aylin Post from the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) has been conducting research into talent identification and development in swimming. She hopes to obtain her PhD on this topic next year. The project is a unique collaboration between the UMCG/RUG, the Royal Dutch Swimming Federation (KNZB, Koninklijke Nederlands Zwembond), and InnoSportLab de Tongeelreep, with the aim of improving talent programmes through new scientific insights. The central question in this is: What characterizes successful development to reach the highest podium?  

To answer this question, talented youth swimmers have been tested multiple times a year since 2018 on all sorts of underlying qualities that could contribute to being able to swim faster. In this study, Aylin Post has explored the development of swimming performance but also of physical, technical, tactical, and mental skills. Her latest partial study focuses on the importance of self-regulation of learning. 

Talented youth swimmers and self-regulation  

Self-regulation is a process that happens in our heads but influences our behaviour. It is a collection of all sorts of skills, beliefs, and strategies that help us to achieve our goals. Examples include planning and reflecting, but also effort and a belief in one’s own abilities. All in all, self-regulation is about the extent to which someone is involved in their own development in terms of metacognition (thinking about your thinking), motivation, and behaviour. And it can help in learning and training more effectively and efficiently. For youth talent, this is very important, as the top must be reached within a limited time frame.  

‘We had 157 talented swimmers complete a questionnaire to measure how often they used self-regulation before, during, and after training’, explains Post. Subsequently, the swimmers were divided into two groups based on their best season times and progress: one group of swimmers on their way to the top, and a slightly less well-performing group. 

Important role for trainers and coaches in developing self-regulation 

From the results, it appears that the swimmers who were on their way to the top reflected more often during training and evaluated more frequently after training than the swimmers who performed less well. In addition, and surprisingly enough, it was found that the swimmers on their way to the top scored slightly less well (but still very highly) on their effort during training. It therefore appears that these athletes carefully choose which tasks matter most and then commit all of their energy to those, instead of putting all their efforts into every situation. Post: ‘These findings suggest that swimmers on their way to the top learn more effectively and efficiently and that they work on self-regulation both during and after training. This process therefore does not end once a swimmer leaves the water, but seems to be continuous.’ 

According to Post, the research shows that self-regulation is an important factor on the way to the top. The good news is that self-regulation can be developed. There is thus an important role to be played in this by trainers and coaches. They could stimulate athletes during training to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses more often, and could help to focus their efforts on the tasks that matter most. After training, they could encourage the athletes to assess their training results in relation to their goals. 

Embedded scientist for the Dutch swim team 

Aylin Post combines her PhD research with her position as an embedded scientist for the Dutch swim team. In collaboration with swimming innovation centre, InnoSportLab de Tongeelreep, she carries out measurements and analyses during training sessions and competitions—including international ones—with the aim of optimizing swimming performance. You can read more about her research on: Talent Topics