Improving performance through feedback: a swimmer’s reflections

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For many years I have stood at the poolside watching children learning to swim. It is so easy to criticise and correct areas that need focus and development. ‘Your toes are not pointed enough’ – ‘Your hands are slapping the water’ – ‘You are not pulling hard enough through the water’.  Encouraging them to correct these errors in the hope of faster times and more wins at swimming galas.

It was therefore an interesting experience for me, once again, to be on the diving block and swimming. My teenage daughter watched me swim competitively for the first time. She shared much feedback with me. ‘Do you know that your legs are bent up when you dive?’ – ‘do you know that you kick intermittently?’… and so the list went on.  I was flabbergasted – here was someone whom I had taught to swim now giving me feedback on what I needed to improve. My first inclination was to reject outright what she had told me. I knew how to swim – I taught others how to do this.

But her blunt feedback made me curious and I started to be much more aware of various aspects of my swimming. Next time I dived in, I realised she was right: I was bending my legs. Working on correcting this was much more complex than I had imagined. In truth, I must have been bending my legs for years as it was a habit that took much conscious effort to do differently.

However, some of the feedback I received from my daughter and other helpful coaches I decided to reject.  I had been breathing on one side all my life – to change to bilateral breathing was going to require the breaking of years of a habit, unilateral breathing, which is an acceptable way of swimming so was not critical to change.

Technological improvements now mean that swimmers can be captured on film to later observe their swimming style. This experience of seeing yourself in action, filmed from the front and side, yields an even greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of your stroke. You see yourself as others see you.

So, what does my improvement in swimming have to do with 360° feedback reviews? An organisation, like a swimming team, needs every person to be performing at their best. Our own view of our self is often flawed and one-sided. We fail to see some of the things we do well or for which we are most appreciated, how our behaviour impacts others in the team, and those behaviours and actions we could develop and improve. Being open to feedback through a 360° feedback process can give us insights and perspectives on ourselves which we previously never considered.

Being curious about how others see and experience you and being open to feedback can be challenging.  However, if you are open to this information and can use it to raise awareness about yourself, it can lead to changes which most likely would have a positive impact for you and your organisation.  A 2017 INSEAD study pointed to the need to “Strive to create greater self-awareness. The goal is for the executive to become a reflective practitioner, a person who doesn’t merely act, but also reflects on the implications of his actions”.

When you have processed feedback from a 360° feedback report, carefully considering and filtering the feedback through your own self view, it is sensible to choose only two to three areas on which to focus – those few actions or behaviours that you believe are the most important for your further development and growth. Research by Dai et al (2010) confirmed that, if a 360° feedback participant selects only a few areas on which to work, a significant improvement has been observed.

These chosen development areas can be incorporated into a personal development plan which aids in focusing your attention on the necessary actions required to change patterns of behaviour and improve performance. Committing to this plan and sharing the contents with your manager holds you to account and gives you the opportunity to review progress more regularly. To improve my swimming after the feedback I had received, I realised that I needed to improve my kicking. In response to this, my chosen actions were to start doing leg squats and more regular gym sessions. Your action plan may require you to build new skills, strengthen existing ones or to stop doing certain things. However, you need the regular feedback from a coach, manager or mentor to ensure that your endeavours are delivering the results you intended.  Goff (2002) states that “Our research shows that 360° feedback, while important, is not sufficient to guarantee development. While the process does provide insight to individuals about how others view their leadership capabilities, they must also be motivated to improve, have opportunities to learn and practice new skills and be held accountable for their development in order for real improvement to occur”.

Feedback on my swimming technique, brought to my attention by those who observed me, has helped me to gradually improve different aspects of my stroke. I selected which feedback I wanted to work on, have experimented and tried different things, have thrown out some advice and kept other bits of advice. I have tried hard during some sessions and eased off in others. I have sought feedback from both my daughter and coaches at the poolside to check whether my changes are visible.  The acid test – the competition – my performance has noticeably improved: I am now a faster swimmer than I was five years ago and age is not on my side!

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