Lessons from the Dark Side.

The devastation wreaked by Covid 19 has seen the passing of a fair number of the great and the good this year. Amongst these and almost un-noticed was actor Dave Prowse. 

I’m sure most of you know exactly who he was but for the uninitiated I guarantee you will have seen his work at some point either at the cinema or on TV. Dave Prowse was probably most famous for being the actor beneath the black helmet of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films. 

But if you grew up in the UK wearing flares and a tank top during the 1970’s Dave Prowse had a second equally iconic role. Sporting a rather dodgy low budget spandex get-up, he found fame as the Green Cross Code Man in the Government’s Road Safety campaign. He would pop up at random moments in ad breaks telling us all how to cross safely without being knocked down by a reckless driver of a brown Hillman Avenger or the like.

He was, by all accounts, very successful in his role and I got to wondering if he would have been equally successful as a swim coach, particularly if his pupil was Darth Vader. (Hey, come with me on this one – it’s Christmas-time !)

It’s widely recognised that getting the head position right is one of the non-negotiables when it comes to efficient swimming, and mastering the turn to the air is a huge part of this.  Therefore, the basic message from the Green Cross Code man of looking left, looking right and then left again (begin with the opposite direction if you drive on the right!), seems a pretty useful start point. It does at least get the eyes moving on the correct plane. So often we see swimmers who can easily master this basic instruction whilst standing vertically but find it much more difficult once they get horizontal. You would be forgiven for thinking that Dave Prowse had said “Look at the sky, now check out the shoes of the chap standing over your left shoulder, right, now back at the sky…” and so on. 

Once in the water, the brain enters a slight panic mode. It is used to being able to see where it is going and definitely used to the body being able to breathe easily. It might be a natural instinct for a swimmer to want to look forward but translate that back to the vertical and the swimmer would be staring at the clouds with a crick in their neck. Uncomfortable for any period of time but, more importantly this restricts the movement of the scapulae resulting in a lordosis of the back, the raising of the rib cage and a loss of connection between the torso and the lower body. 

Equally, looking over one’s shoulder in order to take the breath might seem a good idea for some. However, it can easily result in over-rotation, with the knock-on effects on the timing of the stroke and definitely will take the head off the central axis which in turn will take the body away from the desired forward direction. 

This might be the time of year to be looking forward and also looking back but it’s never a good idea if swimming freestyle.

So if you’re looking for a new image for your swimmers you might like to get them to imagine that they are wearing Darth Vader’s helmet.  This might prove to be a useful aid. Like many elements of the costumes worn by fantasy heroes and villains (what is this obsession with capes ?), Darth’s helmet looks impressive but is massively impractical for day-to-day living, restricting, as it does, both vision and movement. However, for the swimmer this is no bad thing. If they imagine that the helmet makes it impossible for them to look either up or down then the head can only move in a horizontal plane. If it helps, they could visualise the Lego version of Darth Vader if they like, who is completely incapable of moving in the incorrect plane

 

Photo by Gita Krishnamurti on Unsplash

Additionally, strap his light sabre to the top of the helmet and instantly they have a cue for the desired direction of travel for the head as well. 

Of course this only addresses the basic plane in which the head should travel. Once this is understood, it is essential to connect it with the rotation of the body and to the correct timing in order to achieve maximum efficiency. However, these are huge topics in themselves so for the moment let’s just concentrate of making sure the eyes and head are moving along the correct path and that bad habits are not being imprinted.  To quote another Star Wars icon, the wise Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”  Granted I don’t think he was talking specifically about freestyle swimming but he easily could have been.

Turning one’s head correctly may seem like a very basic skill, yet in such small steps are galaxies overthrown. The position and movement of the head is the first step in unleashing the true power within the body.  

Get it right and the force may be with you !

Don’t pay attention to your hands. But know exactly what they are doing !

In everyday life we take our hands for granted. Incredibly useful things for picking stuff up, holding onto things, pushing, pulling, waving, stroking, scratching; they all need hands. Without my hands I wouldn’t be able to type this article and I wouldn’t have been able to let that driver who cut me up this morning, know exactly what I thought about the standard of his driving.

It’s no wonder that our hands have a bit of an ego and an inflated sense of their own self-worth.

However, all that changes when you get into water and start to swim freestyle correctly. Yes, the hands still have their part to play, but they are no longer the indispensable members they once were. Now we are more interested in the body as a whole, the right amount of rotation for forward momentum, the relaxed position of the head to lead spine alignment, the movement of the scapula and the position of the pelvis. Even when the hands are involved vitally in the catch, the forearm is contributing just as much.

It’s little wonder then that the hands can get a little miffed at this lack of prominence and, like a moody teenager, start to wander off and lose interest in the whole process. It’s important, therefore, that you let them know that they are still appreciated. Still part of the team. And, as such, from time to time, you must spend some sessions giving them a bit of attention.

This may seem counterintuitive. During the arm recovery we are told to lead with the elbow and to disregard the forearm and hand completely, letting them dangle below it, just going along for the ride. An easy enough instruction, but turning off muscles in this way is often more difficult than engaging them. Go to any public pool and you will see hands doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things, heading off in unknown parabolas, flying high above the swimmers’ body and often completely taking over the process of bringing the recovering arm forward rather than simply being a passenger.

Photo by Marcus Ng on Unsplash

Often the problem is that once the arm and the hand have exited the water, the swimmer has very little idea exactly where they are. Out of sight and with no other reference point, the hand takes this as licence to effectively go AWOL for a while. Yet for every moment the hand is heading off in its own direction and for every moment when it’s above the swimmer’s body, it is adding inefficiency to the stroke. Ideally the hand should be just skimming above the surface of the water being taken directly forward by the elbow above it. If the hand is travelling out to the side or high above the body then, aware or not, the swimmer needs to make compensations to bring it back on track. The higher the hand is in the air the more the weight of the whole arm will be pushing the swimmer deeper under the surface. It may only be for milliseconds, but if it happens each and every stroke, the cumulative effect over hundreds of strokes is significant.

One useful drill which can be used to heighten awareness of the hand position during the recovery phase is to leave that hand in the water. Start by swimming small repeats leaving the hand in the water to the depth of the wrist. Let the resistance of water against it remind you to let it dangle. If this doesn’t feel restrictive then you probably aren’t doing it correctly ! But now the brain can begin to tune into the path of the hand and the movement required of the upper arm in order to keep it there. As the sense of position and path of the hand during recovery gets stronger, gradually remove the hand until just the fingers are submerged and then just the fingernails brush the surface. Simple enough to describe in a few short sentences but these exercises will be challenging you to undo what may be deeply ingrained muscle memory, and it may take many sessions and much practice until this is mastered.

Photo by Tracey Baumann

Once this new pattern has been ingrained, with ego restored, the hand can feel that, even by doing almost nothing at all, it is still making a vital contribution to the overall stroke.

Now all we have to do is consider how it enters the water again and what it does once it gets there. But those are topics for another day…

Location!, location!, location!

It’s not uncommon that with swimming drills you can find yourself stuck in a rut trying to get a skill to stick so that it shows up in your normal swimming. No matter how hard or how often you practice any improvement seems elusive. If that sounds familiar here’s an experiment you might like to try.

Now, cards on the table: this might not work. But it might. That’s what an experiment is right, testing out stuff to see what works and what doesn’t ? And what do you have to lose ? It’s really simple. Just try changing something about how you are doing the drill.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the whole point of doing drills is to try and repeat the same actions in the same way, over and over, in order to imprint them into ‘muscle memory’, isn’t it? Yes, it is. And this is why you should try changing something else about the drill. 

Let me explain where my idea comes from.

In the mid 1970’s a trio of psychologists from the University of Michigan performed an experiment to study the effect of location on learning 1. The basic structure was to take two groups of students and ask each of them to study a list of forty four four-letter words. They were given two ten-minute sessions to do this. Then, three hours later, they were tested to see how many they could recall. The difference between the groups was startling. One group averaged a recall rate of 16 words whilst the other managed an average of 24.

The difference was that the study sessions for one group were held each time in a neat bright room overlooking a courtyard. However, the better performing group held the first session in the courtyard room whilst the second session was held in a cluttered room in a basement. Care was taken by the researchers that the environment for the study was the only element of the experiment which was altered.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash Photo by Hitoshi Suzuki on Unsplash

So why the difference ? Why should the same task have an increase in success of 40% simply by varying the location in which the study was held ? Frankly, it seems that opinion is divided, and far too complex to cover here. The upshot really is that no-one seems to know for certain. What should be of interest to us though is whether there is evidence that this study using an    academic task could be replicated with a motor task such as swimming.                 

To be honest, research seems to be sparse (which is why I said your experiment may not work !). A study was done by the philosopher John Locke who observed a man practicing a fairly complicated dance in a room which contained an old trunk.2 However, having perfected it, the man had difficulty replicating the dance to such a degree of competency in environments where the trunk was not present. It’s possible that a similar connection between environment and learning may have been occurring.

So, next time you go to practice your drills I suggest you try a similar experiment and see if it works for you. Don’t change the drills themselves, instead, if you normally swim at a certain pool, in a certain lane and a certain time of the day, try changing one of those variables. If you are able, try swimming in open water rather than the pool. Even just wearing a different costume might make a difference. Maybe no costume at all if you can get away with it ! (Please note, however, that you’re on your own with that one; I accept no liability for any consequences arising from skinny dipping at the Family Swim sessions of your local pool!).

At the very least, before you get in the water, take a few moments to fully take in what’s going on around you; who else is in the pool? Is the lifeguard sitting still or wandering about? How noisy is it and exactly what can you hear? Is the water a different temperature from normal? What can you smell and is that usual? Intently tune into your surroundings and become hyper-vigilant. See if you can spot any small detail about your surroundings that might make this swim stand out from all the others. 

Photo by AllGo – An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash                Photo by John Fornander on Unsplash

Let your brain become aware of anything and everything which differentiates this session from the last one you completed. Who knows the effect of any variations might have on your success once you start the actual task of swimming?

What I am proposing is that when you change something in your environment or routine, or even just a change in your awareness, this can have a positive effect on your performance in the drills. You just might discover something new or break through to the skill you’ve been aiming for. I’d be really interested to hear how you get on

 

  1. Steven M Smith, Arthur Glenberg and Robert A. Bjork “Environmental Context and Human Memory” Memory and Cognition Vol. 6 No. 4
  2. John  Locke “An Essay on Human Understanding and a Treatise on the Conduct of Understanding Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell Publishers

Do SwimMastery Coaches Know ‘The Best Way’ to Teach? 

I don’t think SwimMastery coaches know The Best Way to teach swimming.

Now that, I grant you, might sound a bit of an odd thing to say from a SwimMastery coach but it’s true. Let me quickly explain…

Before I got into serious swimming I didn’t really think much about how swim coaching was done. I think I assumed there was just one way to teach each stroke and everyone did it that way. Now, of course, I know differently. There are a myriad of approaches and opinions on how to do this, many of which clearly contradict each other. Some of those systems will even claim that they have the best, indeed the only, effective method.

SwimMastery do not count themselves amongst those.

Why? I think it all comes down to simple mathematics. There are thousands and thousands of swim coaches out there each teaching multitudes of swimmers and among all those people there are thousands of kinds of needs and problems and challenges. Coaches, being a resourceful lot, are constantly responding to the people they work with, tweaking their methods, pushing back on the boundaries and coming up with creative solutions to those problems. Some of their ideas work well, some of them don’t. Some of their ideas work for most of their swimmers and some for just a few. 

It doesn’t matter. The point is that all those coaches are probing for the optimal method by which the instruction can be given to the people they work with. Over time, by sharing and by spreading out these ideas to be tried on more people, some replace old wisdom whilst others expand it.

 

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Coaching methodology is a living, organically developing thing, perhaps as free-flowing as water itself. It cannot be some dust-gathering dogma carved in granite.

In my understanding, SwimMastery doesn’t believe it necessarily has The Best Way for teaching swimming.  However, it does believe it is teaching the best methodology it knows with the current understanding garnered from its members and what they have seen or experienced elsewhere. The sum total of that experience comes to many thousands of hours of teaching.  

But is it the best ?  

Who knows ? 

SwimMastery know that tomorrow they may hear of a new idea or encounter new research which challenges what we’ve done, or give us better insight which might take the  methodology in new directions. With inquiring scientific minds and practitioners expanding knowledge as rapidly as ever, we believe that it is vital to keep an open minded and flexible approach to our work if we are to continue to develop and embrace the latest validated ideas. 

In addition, though collectively SwimMastery have worked with thousands of people around the world, we’re open to the possibility that some new students could come along and present problems we haven’t tackled before and new ideas will be needed. Despite the experience represented by our members it’s never possible to know absolutely everything and because of that we always welcome challenging and constructive discussion on technique and training. Among our chats and in our forums, in the academic spirit, we are always happy to expound on our theories and to explain why we believe them to be the best for maximising the swimmer’s learning experience whilst balancing that with the need to keep them safe and minimise the potential for injury.

In that spirit the discussions and practice are also laboratories where ideas can be examined, tested and pushed to their limits to see how they perform. This, we hope, is always done in a constructive manner. There are a few fundamental principles which SwimMastery will always stand by because those are already well-established in principles for safe human movement and others we hold onto because we see them as those best supported by science and practice. 

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

But many of those ideas held by other coaches or programs we don’t  consider wrong or flawed – just different ways of approaching the same needs or problems. They may not be how we would like to approach those for certain reasons, but nevertheless we would like to see a variety of approaches being used and tested out there. That keeps the realm of knowledge-building fresh and more responsive. We are not interested in provoking conflict between different systems and we are keen to build bridges and exchange information wherever we can.

However, in order for this system of improving our ideas to work we rely on a two-way dialogue and a constant stream of queries and new ideas. We love questions which begin with “Why do you do this?” or, even better “Why don’t you do this?”

In our opinion that’s the only way in which we can move the current thinking forward, help more coaches become better coaches, and help more people to become better swimmers – and we trust that is, after all, the goal for every coach regardless of the methods they use.  

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Open Water Relief for COVID Effects

The effects of Covid 19 have been extensive and profound this year and, whilst far from being the most important aspect, the world of swimming has not been immune. Whether swimming for a story of glory or simply leisure and pleasure, swimmers have been constantly frustrated by the cancellations of events and the restrictions necessarily imposed on the opening of public pools.

Photo by Marcis Berzins on Unsplash

It was heartening therefore, amongst all the doom and gloom to see the BBC heartening report on Louise Buxton, a healthy and active triathlete who was struck down by the virus earlier this year. Fortunately she survived but not without some long term effects on her well-being. Damage to her respiratory system meant that day-to-day life has been dramatically changed. The simple task of walking has become a struggle and she suffers from constant pain in her chest.

However, whilst running and cycling are no longer possible, she has discovered that open water swimming is not only still an option but actually one which relieves her symptoms for a brief period. The reasons for this are not entirely clear; it may be that the support the water provides relieves some of the pressure on her chest or perhaps that, because it is such a vital function, the increased focus Louise requires to breathe in water also helps. It could be some other reason or perhaps a combination of several.

Whatever the cause we are delighted that Louise has been able to rediscover an area where she can enjoy physical activity again and we wish her well in making a full recovery.

 

 

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