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.
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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.
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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
- Steven M Smith, Arthur Glenberg and Robert A. Bjork “Environmental Context and Human Memory” Memory and Cognition Vol. 6 No. 4
- John Locke “An Essay on Human Understanding and a Treatise on the Conduct of Understanding Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell Publishers
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
Imagine that you have been given a new piece of electronic equipment for your birthday; say, a new phone or a games controller. How do you go about learning how it works ? Do you pore over the instruction manual ? Do you get someone to show you and take you through each function in a logical manner ? Or do you just have a play about with it and kind of pick it up as you go along ?
There are many valid approaches that will work for you to a greater or lesser extent but you’ll probably find that there’s one method which is your default. For myself, I’m definitely a twiddler and fiddler of knobs and buttons although in fact it would be far quicker for me to find someone who knows what they are doing to demonstrate each function! (Manuals don’t work for me at all and tend to get flung across the room fairly quickly in my house. Normally, shortly after I’ve realised that an instruction I’ve been puzzling over such as “insert mains lead to input housing and connect to a suitable power source – see fig. A” actually means “plug it in and turn it on”).
But maybe that my way of going about things is not how you go about things and that, of course, is perfectly fine. It doesn’t mean that either of us is right or wrong. Our styles are different and, to use a completely unscientific term, our brains are simply wired in different ways for learning.
The surprising thing is, as per my own experience, the way you initially choose to learn something may not be the optimum way for you to learn it. Therefore, knowing what works for you and what doesn’t is invaluable in saving you much time and money.
I had tried many half-hearted attempts at teaching myself to swim before eventually admitting defeat and turning to a coach in my late forties. My preferred approach of trying to work things out for myself was always going to be a disaster and whilst books, manuals and other articles definitely have their place in teaching swimming nothing beats having a coach alongside you when you are learning or developing your stroke.
But knowing that live instruction is best for you merely opens up a new set of options. Will you learn best in the relatively relaxed atmosphere of a swim camp abroad or would an intensive two-day course in a group work better for you? Or perhaps you would prefer to go at your own pace with one-to-one lessons? Hopefully, cost would not be the only factor in deciding; the likely effectiveness of the learning experience is also paramount.
Credit: Jamee Small © Mediterra International, LLC.
For example, what about when you get in the water, what sort of instruction works best for you there ? Let’s say the coach wants you to concentrate on getting your body moving forwards. They might ask you to feel the engagement of certain muscles. Or perhaps to tune in to the feel of the water flowing over your chest. Or maybe to imagine there is a fisherman at the far end of the pool reeling you in on their line. Each instruction is aiming at more or less the same thing but which do you think would be most effective for you ?
The more you can discover about how your brain responds to information and how it learns the better. Never be afraid to feed that information back to your coach, even in a group environment, so they can personalize you learning experience. Knowing what isn’t working can be just as valuable to them in as knowing what is. So if your coach is using weird images such as fishermen and fishing lines and it’s all a bit overwhelming or you just can’t connect with it, tell them. Equally if you simply can’t tune in to the internal movements of your body or the way it is reacting with its environment, that is just as valuable to them. Coaching should be a dialogue not a monologue and the more you know about what works for you and the more information you can give your coach the more likely it is that your instruction can be made even more effective.
Enjoy your swimming. And if anyone knows how to set the clock on my microwave, I’d love to be shown how to do it…
So you think you can become a better swimmer, do you ?
Well, don’t hold your breath!
One of the wonderful things about the human body is that most of the time it gets on with the job of keeping you alive without requiring the slightest intervention from the conscious mind. Can you imagine how busy we’d be if we had to remember to blink the eyes, digest our food or beat the heart ? ! By and large the conscious mind can let the body just to get on with these things – and that includes breathing.
So, let’s try a couple of experiments and introduce a little crisis into the system to learn something about how it works…
Just where you are, take a deep breath in and hold it for as long as you can. Time yourself if possible. Observe carefully what happens.
Have you done that ? Good. Now, this won’t be true for everyone but I am expecting that many of you began to feel a little light-headed during that, and far from comfortable. A little strain in the chest maybe and a build-up of pressure in the ears ? And, although you were completely in control of the situation, even a slight panic towards the end ? Then finally a big expulsion of air and….. then what ? Did you have to tell your body to start breathing again ? Or did it do it all by itself ?
There are lots of observations to make!
Before we go any further, let’s do it again. Only this time try moving your arms up and down, fairly vigourously. Notice what’s the same and what is different.
OK. So I would have thought there were two significant outcomes from that. The first being that you felt all the same things but this time slightly more intensely. You may have been unable to hold your breath for quite as long.
So what does all this tell us ? It tells us that that the body is quite capable of breathing all by itself without us having to worry about it and that even a little exercise tends to intensify the ramifications of being unable to breathe.
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So why do so many swimmers hold their breath while going along, or even just fail to breathe in the most efficient manner they possibly could? When we are running or cycling we wouldn’t do that; we would be taking deep breaths in an out constantly. So why do so many hold breath when swimming ?
The answer is ‘natural’. When untrained human’s face is submerged in water alarm bells will begin to ring. The brain knows that we are not naturally aquatic beings and that if we remain face down in the water very long we will drown. It is understandable then, that in order to protect its life and not accidentally breath in water, it believes the most prudent course of action is to shut everything down. So the breathing cycle stops and the breath is held. Even experienced swimmers can be found to hold their breath more than they should. The resulting discomfort and distraction (let alone the panic that some people feel) from breath holding will no doubt be detrimental to the overall efficiency of the stroke.
To overcome this, the body needs to have the skills for breathing in this submerged swimming position and the brain needs to be convinced that it this will work and all will be OK, so it can turn off the alarms and quit trying to keep itself alive so aggressively. It can take a long while – weeks and months – to build this skill and to calm the vigilant brain and its survival instinct. Consciously breathing out is the first important step to training the brain that all will be OK. The more that the brain feels all will be OK with breathing, the more space opens up for it to give attention to other things.
Thus, it is vital to practice – and keep practicing – the air exchange cycle, including that conscious exhale. The deep belly breath in, the slow release of air out, and the final blast to clear the airways as the face breaks the surface – these build confidence that the re-filling of the lungs will take happen more easily, even automatically. The more you practice, the smoother you get at this, and the more space you have to concentrate on the rest of the stroke.
Time spent practicing the air exchange is never wasted.
…Hmm, what ?
Are you still waiting for the second significant outcome from your exercise earlier ?
Oh, I thought that would be obvious eventually… You can’t hold your breath for long!