Practice really does make perfect

In 1979, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats famously sang “I Don’t Like Mondays”. For me, Mondays were OK, it was Wednesdays I wasn’t keen on, starting as they did with double French. I never have really got to grips with the language, even though, ironically, one of the French teachers at my school was the sister of Bob Geldof. I do seem to remember learning “Où est la bibliothèque?” although, being unable to speak the language, even at that young age, the library seemed a rather odd destination to want to visit. Thanks to several foreign holidays I have now progressed to the stage of being able to ask some rudimentary questions in French although, sadly, I am completely unable to understand the answers (unless they are provided in perfectly unaccented English, which is usually the case).

My problem at school, of course, was that, between Wednesdays, French simply ceased to exist. I didn’t think about it, practice it or, indeed have any interest in it. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, I made very little progress with it. Had I put any time or effort into French between lessons I still may not have become fluent exactly but I most certainly would be a better French speaker than I am now.

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The same principle of devoting time to practice between lessons holds true for those embarking on a programme of swimming instruction. If the only times that a student swims are during the lessons themselves, progress will undoubtedly be made, but a massive learning opportunity will be wasted. 

Instruction provided by a coach either one-to-one or in small groups is invaluable but, if one is learning a different way to move one’s body then it is unrealistic to expect that to come together in the relatively short period offered within a formal lesson.

The primary function of lessons is to provide information about a particular movement both regarding the physical movements required to perform it and also the rationale behind it to explain its importance. Having isolated a movement the coach will then attempt to provide ways in which the swimmer can replicate it. A variety of techniques will probably be used. These include performing a demonstration of the requirement themselves, taking the student through a series of drills or providing images or sensations which the swimmer can think about whilst swimming. Whatever methods are used, throughout it all the primary aim of the coach is not necessarily to perfect the movement then and there but to get the student to tune into how it looks or, even better, feels, when the task is mastered.

However, to do this, the student must spend time away from the lessons practising by themselves. This is when the magic happens! 

Coaches are often asked how much time should be left between lessons. There is no hard and fast rule, however, most would recommend that the student has at least two sessions by themselves to attempt to imprint the instructions from the previous lesson. Anything less and it is unrealistic to expect that enough time has been spent on a particular skill to come close to improving upon it. Equally, however, too much time between lessons can result in swimmers imprinting less than perfect movements or forgetting some of the finer points from the lesson. 

Before starting lessons, therefore, a swimmer needs to decide a realistic schedule for the amount of time they are going to be able to dedicate to practice to ensure that sufficient time can be devoted to this. This does not have to be a rigid structure and, as time goes on, it may well transpire that the timings can be adjusted depending on the rate of progress made. However, without sufficient practice, the impact and effectiveness of the lessons will undoubtedly be diminished.

Practice may not always make perfect but without any practice at all progress will be far slower.


A less than perfect body can prove to be the perfect body

I need to start with an apology. I may offend a few of you by using the F word in the following paragraphs. Whilst some are fine with it I am aware that others are a little uncomfortable talking about sport and fat (there, I’ve said it), in the same sentence. Many of us aspire to the perfect physique, and lifestyle magazines at this time of year are full of articles about getting ready for summer and creating your beach body. However, often we are faced with a rather sobering reality when looking in the mirror. And if you’re anything like me, one of the effects of COVID has been to add inches to the waistline not remove them. In Western society being fat brings with it a myriad of preconceptions about the sort of person you are.  Most are ridiculous and very few are concerned with being a top sports man or woman.  

Which can be equally ridiculous  

Granted, the next Olympic 400m champion is unlikely to have the nickname “Tubs” and will probably be blessed with a toned body most of us could only dream of, but what about the rest of us? 

There’s no getting away from it, for most sports being overweight is a definite disadvantage. Fortunately, at the grass-roots level, this doesn’t matter much and it is still possible to see less than ideal specimens of the human form, panting up and down football fields, sweating on tennis courts and squeezed into Day-Glo lycra on bicycles most weekends. And I’m not knocking that at all (living in a somewhat glass house as I do!). Good on them I say; more power to their elbow and all that. However, it can’t be denied that the excess poundage is rarely helping them. 

But with swimming things can be different.

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Because fat is less dense than water it floats in contrast to muscle. Fat people also tend to have a larger frame and consequently large lungs which also aid buoyancy. Fat can provide stores of energy, transport vitamins around the body and provide protection and insulation of vital organs. Thus, although those with excess fat deposits will certainly create additional water resistance creating drag and reducing overall speed through the water, if this isn’t the primary goal, then an excess of fat can be a positive benefit. Thus for long-distance and endurance events where fuel management and cold protection become equally as important, if not more so, than basic speed, to have more mass can be extremely beneficial.

That’s not to say that those with a larger frame can’t be fast swimmers.  With a good technique and proper training there is no reason why they should be unable to register times which most other folk can only dream about.  It’s only at the elite level of top competition that size really does begin to matter. 

Below that pinnacle of performance larger swimmers find that many of the restrictions which hold them back on land are removed once in the water.  Because it will support the body equally, fat people do not have the problems of creating undue strain on joints and muscles in the way that, say, running or jogging would do. Thus swimming can provide an invaluable route to maintaining (or starting) physical activity in a safe way which is not provided by other sports. It should, however, be noted that the benefit is not split entirely equally across the genders. Women tend to accumulate fat deposits on their legs and hips which can aid overall balance when immersed. Men on the other hand tend to develop large bellies whilst their legs can remain relatively skinny. They, therefore, have to work harder to counteract the tendency for the legs to sink and to maintain a horizontal profile. A large stomach can also introduce imbalances when the body is rotating as the centre of mass shifts.

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Very large people may experience some issues regarding flexibility and movement, however, compensations can be made for this. The overriding principle for swimmers regardless of body shape or weight is the use of good technique. If the basics of good air management and connection between the body parts are in place then factors that might initially be seen as a disadvantage for the swimmer can be quickly turned into positives. An understanding of how your body interacts with the water and acceptance of that relationship may mean a slight adaption in how you perceive your overall targets and goals. However, swimming can be enjoyed, and success achieved, regardless of body type. With the right technique, being fat is no barrier. Don’t wait until you reach some idealised view of what the perfect swimmer should look like, just go for it !  You might be surprised that having a body which you thought might hold you back is in reality a positive advantage!


The rapid development of the Japanese Crawl

Human beings have been swimming (or at least, trying to swim) for thousands of years.  You’d have thought by now that we would have figured out the best way to do it wouldn’t you?  The trouble is, that, as a species, we aren’t really designed to be in the water.  Fins and gills are conspicuous by their absence.  Some sort of rudimentary propeller would be useful but evolution seems to think otherwise.  Even the internal layout of our organs is all wrong, meaning that we constantly battle to get some bits to float whilst trying to keep other bits down.

Developing a style and method that works for the human form has been a long process and it’s one that’s far from finished.  New ideas are constantly being proposed, tested, adapted and adopted or discarded.  

The other day I came across the story of the Japanese Crawl.  Perhaps I am very ignorant but I’d not heard of this before.  The American Crawl and the Trudgen Crawl, yes, but not the Japanese version.  

It dates from the late 1920s during a period when swimming was virtually unheard of in the country.  No swimming representatives were sent to the 1920 Antwerp games and indeed there were only two public swimming pools in the whole of Japan.  Then in 1928, against all the odds Yoshiyuki Tsurata won gold in the 200m breaststroke, only the second Olympic gold medal ever won by the country.  This sparked a national interest in the sport and public pools began springing up across the country.

However, they faced a problem when it came to trying to replicate the success at the highest level.  During this period swimming was dominated by the Americans.  The typical build was epitomised by Johnny Weissmuller who was famously to go on to have a successful movie career portraying Tarzan.  He was tall, powerful and broad-shouldered, attributes which did not apply to the average Japanese competitor.

To try and narrow the disparity the Japanese turned to scientific analysis and they set about developing a style more suited to the shorter stature of their swimmers. They studied underwater footage of Weissmuller and noticed that his method was to remain stable in the water relying on his powerful arms to propel him forward.  They experimented with allowing their swimmers to roll their shoulders more and increase the length of the arm movement.  They also placed a far greater emphasis on the kick.  This was what became known as the Japanese Crawl.

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The results were astonishing.  In the 1928 Games, the Japanese swimming team had won just one gold, one silver and one bronze whilst the Americans brought back three golds, a silver and two bronze medals.  By 1932 the fortunes had been completely reversed; the Americans achieved just two golds, a silver and two bronzes but the Japanese haul comprised five golds, four silvers and two bronze medals.  In the process, they proved that superior technique could win out against raw power.  The 100m Freestyle was won by a 15-year-old schoolboy Yasuji Mijazaki who not only won the gold but, during the semi-finals, also broke  Weissmuller’s Olympic record.

And Mijazaki was not even the youngest winner in the team.  That honour went to the winner of the 1500m event, Kusuo Kitamura who at 14 years and 309 days remains the youngest ever male swimmer to win a gold medal.  (His overall record remained in place until 1988 when Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi won the gold in the Women’s 200m backstroke).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to analyse the importance of the Japanese Crawl to the overall development of the stroke.  In many ways it was rather ahead of its time, and indeed in the immediate aftermath of the Amsterdam Games, it tended to be dismissed by other countries as being uniquely relevant only to the shorter stature of the Japanese.  Today, however, whilst the emphasis on a big kick has once more been reduced in significance, the relevance of using rotation to generate forward momentum is widely adopted.  Neither should we overlook the importance of analysing the swimmer from below the surface to the eventual success the team achieved.  Today, this seems an obvious and essential process but in 1932 to use of underwater cameras was in its infancy and somewhat revolutionary.

All of which makes one wonder what techniques and methods which we take for granted today will over time become outdated and irrelevant and what may develop to replace them.  Like the Japanese Crawl, no doubt some innovations will prove to have elements relevant to all whilst other features will fall by the wayside.  Only time will tell

The pace of change is relentless and seems to be increasing. If we were to pop into a time machine and end up a hundred years into the future I have little doubt that many new and exciting developments will have occurred.

Who knows. We might even have made a start on those propellers.

Why learning from the best is not always a good idea.

One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others.  Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets.  With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible.  Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away.  It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game.  If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.

However, it is important to recognise the limitations too.  It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives.  The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite.  It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication.  Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak.  Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.

But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own.  There are, however, other factors to remember.  Swimming is a “whole body” sport.  Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result.  Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water.  Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns.  Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.

Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash

Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training.  Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race.  This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes.  If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change.  The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.

And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers.  A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic. 

There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level.  These are not normal people!  That is not intended in a derogatory way.  It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals.  In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone.  Some were much taller.  Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot.  For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone.  In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties.  However, an athletic build is often just the starting point.  To take Michael Phelps as an example.  It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick.  He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility.  He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height.  His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.  

Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.

In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming.  There is much to be learned from this approach.  However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming.  Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.




How Are You Feeling?

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin. 

If you grew up in the UK back when childrens’ stories tended to concern pixies and elves rather than wizards and witches you’ll almost certainly recognise this phrase from the BBC’s “Listen With Mother” programme.

So, assuming you are not sitting cross-legged on some hard wooden floor let me ask you; are you? Are you sitting comfortably? I hope so, but how did you come to your conclusion? What factors did you take into account? Did you do a thorough analysis of your body or was your decision merely a knee-jerk reaction based on the absence of discomfort? Because that’s not the same thing.

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When taking swimming lessons, your swim coach may well get you to perform a drill and then ask you how it felt. And although that sounds like a simple question it’s one that many of us are simply not used to answering with any level of detail. The tendency is to give short, superficial answers such as it felt “fine” (or “good” or “nice”).

From a coaching perspective, there’s not a lot that can be done with that. Imagine someone going to the doctor and telling her they felt “a bit poorly”. That’s not terribly helpful is it? Now imagine them telling her that their knee feels like it’s on fire. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the doctor has something she can work on. But with pain it’s easy. The brain has fewer problems identifying and focussing on pain as it is anxious to get rid of it as quickly as possible. It’s in its own interests to be able to convey this feeling in as much detail as possible and as graphically as possible,

How, though, does that work when everything is feeling…. well, …“fine” (or “good” or “nice”)? How can those feelings be expressed verbally? Well, rest assured it can be done, but it might take more concentration than you are used to and a little practice too. The fact is that right now your brain is receiving loads of information from your body that it’s simply ignoring.

Let’s try a little experiment. Let’s take your shoulders. What are you feeling right now? Not much? No problems? I hope so. But let’s go a little deeper. How tense are they? Could you relax them more? Are they cold or warm? Do they feel stiff? Imagine them as being connected to the rest of your body. Do they feel part of the whole or independent? Now concentrate on the feel of the fabric of your shirt or blouse. Does it feel soft or scratchy? Is it heavy or floaty? Is the material smooth or taut? Take some time and concentrate on each of those areas in turn and really focus on what you feel. Is the feedback the same for both shoulders? If not, how do they differ? At the end of this, you may find you now have a plethora of sensations and images you could use to describe your shoulders. All the information is there, you just need to learn how to tune into it.

But, as I say, it can require a little practice and it becomes more difficult when there’s more going on. . Let’s take your breathing now. Just as you sit there take a few moments to focus on your breathing; the air coming into your body and being released out of it. Notice how it affects your chest and diaphragm. Observe how quickly or slowly you are doing it and how much air you need on each breath. Now get up and go for a little walk around the room. Just 20 or 30 steps or so and keep concentrating on your breathing. For most of you, I’m guessing that the task of analysing exactly what is happening becomes more difficult once the body is in motion as the brain now needs to focus on avoiding objects, the heightened sensations of other parts of the body and even keeping count of the steps taken. But despite all that, it is possible to maintain some level of focus on the breath and even notice the differences that being in motion as opposed to being stationary make to the overall rhythm of the process. Even with everything else going on I’m sure you were able to hone in on your breathing and provide at least some meaningful feedback on how it felt. And if you can do that walking around your room, you can do it in the swimming pool too.

Perhaps though. you don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps you found it very difficult to notice your breathing pattern once you were walking. Don’t worry. Remember, the information is all there, you just may not be used to identifying it all just yet. Try it again, see if you can notice more. The more you do it the more you’ll notice. Maybe a little check list will help. Did you breathe in through your mouth or through your nose? How did the breathing relate to your stride pattern? If you increase your pace, or take shallower breaths, what changes? And most crucially of all, for what we’re talking about here, how would you describe it?

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The skill of being able to isolate parts of your body and analyse exactly what they are doing and feeling can often take a while to develop but it’s one that can be practised at any time, not just when in the water. Get used to standing in the supermarket queue and feeling the weight of your body on the soles of your feet or the hunch of your shoulders as you drive your car and think how you might convey that feeling to someone else. This doesn’t have to be terribly poetic. If you want to describe the movement of your hips when swimming as being like those of a drunken sailor on deck in a high storm then that’s terrific but if simply to say “I feel as if I’m over-rotating” is more your style then that’s also providing far more useful feedback to your coach than, say, “it feels wrong”.

Everyone will feel their bodies differently but it’s important to remember that there is a deep well of information that is waiting to be exploited which can make the process much easier. The more you can tell your coach the better the learning experience will be. What your coach is often looking for is for you to describe a sensation which they can tell you to aim to replicate in your swimming away from the lesson (or perhaps one to avoid !). It will be far easier for you to go away and swim with your head as relaxed as a melon floating in the sea as opposed to being told to go away and swim until it feels “nice”.!

If you can develop the habit of firstly noticing how your body is feeling and reacting and then developing a way of expressing that to your coach they will find it much easier to help you improve your performance.

And then everyone can live happily ever after

The end 

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