As a parent, sometimes your learning goes side-by-side with that of your children’s.  That was very much the case of swimming for me.  I could do just about a width, with my head held high and a sort of doggy paddle splash, but only if my feet could touch the ground.  As my children started to learn to swim and were asked by the swimming instructors to put their faces in the water, swim from the deep end and to use proper swimming strokes, I sat by the side and realised that I had to face my swimming demons and do what they were being asked to do.  So, I absorbed the pool-side instructions and with a bit of reverse mentoring from my children, I found in my 40’s I had finally learnt to swim – well at least far better than before with recognisable strokes and proper breathing.

Nowadays, having a family swim is something we like to do and at a recent Sunday swim, myself and my husband were joking about which swimming technique we were fastest in.  After timing my husband on two lengths it was my turn.  Typically, at our Sunday swim we would take turns doing 2 or 4 lengths of the pool whilst the other would play with the children.  So, I’m used to swimming up and down, with a short break ah the deep end before coming back.  What was interesting to discover was what happened to me when I was timed against a clock.  Right from the off I knew I was swimming differently, I was in my very own race and aware of swimming faster, trying to look out for flailing legs of passing swimmers and seeking out the quickest route between splashing kids.  When I got to the deep end, instead of my usual breather I pushed off straight away.  The impact was immediate, I quickly began to struggle with my breathing and just over half way I could hardly move my now leaden legs and was gasping for air.  All technique was out the window, as I had to stop and gasp for air and in the panic of the clock couldn’t find any stroke to work as a tried to almost run to get to the finish line.

It made me realise what an innocent time pressure had on my performance and how quickly I dumped my usual approach to one that I thought would get me back quicker – in this case not pausing.  This self-inflicted pressure not only stopped me from completing my swim but also in a way that really didn’t look like any swimming technique that anyone could recognise!

Often as leaders and coaches we put on a time constraint as a positive push approach to encourage a person along in a task.  We may reduce the time that they normally take as a way of stretching their ability to help them evidence that they actually can achieve, hoping that it will be more than their past performance. For many people this is a perfectly good approach and one that reaps positive outcomes.  However, as soon as we put on too much pressure or even a ‘you are running late’ approach, then the coaching support will inevitably create a negative impact.

In 1963 Darley and Batson conducted a ‘Good Samaritan’ study where they invited three groups of students to take part in an activity.  They were expecting to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan across campus, and before they left they were given one of three instructions.  The first group were told they had ‘plenty of time’, the second group were told, they were ‘just in time’ and the third group were told they were ‘running late.  En route to the venue they all encountered a man in distress and the research found that depending on which instruction they were given, the students helped to differing degrees.  Out of the students who were told they had ‘plenty of time’, 63% stopped to help.  From the students who had been told they were ‘just in time’, 45% stopped to help.  However only 10% of those students who were told they were ‘running late’, actually stopped to help the man in distress.

The moral of this story for us as coaches and leaders is that the sense of deadlines and the need to rush encourages people to shut down their natural awareness of the world around them, as they go into survival mode.  By putting on added pressure we actually do not support the person to achieve all they can and in fact put them under unnecessary pressure that doesn’t benefit them, their colleagues or the task in hand.  So next time, you decide to put someone against the clock make sure you give them plenty of time.