I was chatting recently to some of my fellow coaches and the subject of exactly why we swim came up. As the summer draws to a close and temperatures start to drift downwards I was curious to know what motivated them, particularly when it came to open water swimming. Was it the feeling of being at one with nature?; the calm meditative nature of the stroke?: the feeling of freedom and weightlessness from being supported by the water? I was predicting a range of answers along these lines.
In fact, the answer was unanimous and unequivocal. There was no debate with regard to the best bit about swimming:
It’s the cake.
Specifically ginger cake apparently.
Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash
Now I am aware that not all open water swimmers will agree with this, some might see it as quite a controversial view. Particularly those who favour a Battenburg. However, there can be little doubt that, whatever the exact type, there is very little that can beat a nice thick slice of cake after a swim. Preferably accompanied by a hot chocolate or at the very least a strongly brewed cup of tea.
But is any of this relevant? And if so, how? Are Swim Mastery swimmers not here to exercise, to practice and improve, to train and travel on the road to higher learning? Well, yes, clearly. That’s definitely part of it. A pretty large part of it. And indeed if you want to make that your sole experience then good luck to you.
However, there is a whole other side to things to consider. SwimMastery is all about making connections. Connections in the body when we’re in the water to ensure that we are moving as one coordinated unit. But connections are equally important out of the water. Social connections, bringing people together who have a shared love of the sport. People who would probably never meet any other way.
Just in my own relatively small circle of swimming friends I have met government advisors and grannies, prison officers and stay at home Mums, acrobats and architects. Plus people I consider that I know quite well yet have absolutely no idea what they do for a living. Because swimming, like many sports, is a complete leveller. It doesn’t matter what folks do away from the water. All that matters is the enjoyment which is had within it. And success in business is no guarantee of success in the water (but no barrier to it either obviously). Normal hierarchies can be completely overturned. Not that it really matters; in my experience most swimmers focus on the challenges presented by the water and are less focused on the performance of their colleagues. Some competitve element may creep into affairs from time to time but rarely is this representative of serious rivalry.
I observed a coach the other day who was drilling a group of youngsters in the pool. I was horrified. If he felt they hadn’t swum a length well enough the whole lane had to get out and do press-ups or crawl on all fours back to the other end It was meant to be fun I’m sure but looked simply degrading and humiliating. None of the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. I had no idea why they didn’t push him in. Needless to say, he was not a SwimMastery coach. Perhaps he was having success in creating a few swimmers capable of winning a race in a school gala. However, I am certain that he was completely failing to nurture a life-long love of swimming in any of his pupils which would have been a preferable outcome by far and may well have been a more successful strategy in producing successful race swimmers to boot.
Photo by Angelo Pantazis on-Unsplash
Because if you aren’t enjoying your swimming, if everything becomes a grim-faced slog, then it’s unlikely that you will build those all-important bonds which unite both formal and informal groups. It’s probably no coincidence that the SwimMastery swim groups I see tend to have a lot of fun and laughter together.
Let’s Hear It For Ears
My Dad, (who is a genius by the way), once told me the ideal way to talk to six-year olds. It’s simple, all you do is repeat back to them exactly what they have just said to you by making it into a question. Thus a typical conversation when I was young might go like this:
Son: “Dad, I’ve lost my ball”
Dad: “Oh, you’ve lost your ball have you ?”
Son: “Yes, the red one”
Dad: “Oh, the red one, eh ?”
Son: “Yes, it’s my favourite”
Dad: “Your favourite one, is it ?”
Son: “Yes, I think I’ll go and look for it”
Dad: “That’s a good idea, you go and look for it”
Brilliant eh ? An entire conversation and I’ll guarantee that Dad didn’t listen to a word of it.
Sometimes I wonder whether if, as coaches, we are guilty of the same thing; having an entire conversation with our swimmers without ever listening to what is said. Which would be a pity and an opportunity wasted.
Our ears are superb gatherers of information supplying a never-ending stream of facts to the brain. It’s the brain which filters this information deciding what is important and what isn’t. This information flow is relentless. Even when we’re asleep the ears are still providing it and the brain is still filtering. That’s why a noisy lorry passing by outside the house will fail to wake us but a quiet, unexpected footstep on the staircase will mean we are instantly awake.
But sometimes our brain needs guidance on what is important and what isn’t. The reality is that every interaction we have with our swimmers is an opportunity to learn more about them, about their motivations, their ambitions, their opportunities and their restrictions. Of course swimmers usually provide some level of background information before attending a session. However, this can often be wildly over-optimistic and exaggerated or woefully under-representational of their true level of expertise. Thus athletes with a stated intention of completing an Ironman in six months’ time are found to able to barely swim a stroke whilst others who state they can swim just a little are clearly quite able to complete a 10K swim already without any trouble.
Only by talking to, and more importantly, listening to our swimmers can we tailor our sessions accurately to their needs and abilities. And the more accurately we are able to do that the more beneficial our instruction becomes and the more likely they are to return. It’s a perfect virtuous circle – but one which often needs to be initiated by the coach.
So a seemingly casual conversation about the swimmer’s home life, the number of children they have, the job they do, how far they have to travel to a pool, the length, type and frequency of their current practices, etc., can all provide valuable clues regarding the conflicting demands they may have on their time and the amount of time they are able to dedicate to practice.
Photo by Christof Görs on Unsplash
Our eyes can tell us how a swimmer behaves in front of us in the water but only our ears can give us clues regarding how they may act between sessions.
Of course one should not make assumptions. The busy entrepreneur running a fledgling business may not be able to find any time to practice her swimming. On the other hand she might be precisely the sort of expert in time-management and self-discipline to dedicate herself to any goal she decides upon. Only once a coach has discovered which type of person they are dealing with can they decide the structure of their sessions and the amount and pace of information they contain.
But the coach doesn’t only need to listen to their pupil. They also need to develop the often far more difficult trick of listening to themselves and the teaching they provide. Is it clear, precise and comprehensible? Is enough explanation being given for the reasons behind the instruction? Or is it too much? And does all that apply to the swimmer in front of them? Everyone is different and an approach or an image which is usually a sure-fire winner with most people may not be hitting home this time. A coach needs the ability to listen to themselves and evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction, adapting it instantly if necessary.
Feedback from the swimmer can be invaluable here, so coaches mustn’t forget to constantly ask for meaningful responses from them which can demonstrate the level of their understanding of what is being taught. A swimmer who is able to articulate and quantify an experience or feeling is likely to be able to replicate is far more easily in their own practice even if they haven’t yet been able to master it in the session. But only by listening carefully to what a swimmer is saying and never being afraid to push for more information if it is not freely forthcoming can a coach be confident of the effectiveness of their teaching.
So let’s make some noise for our ears. They are amazing and unique things. No two human ears are identical (even on the same head) just as no two swimmers are identical. They are providers of a constant stream of information. We may, like my Dad when I was a kid, merely hear that information without processing it. Or we can truly listen to it, channel it and mine it as the rich and valuable source for better coaching that it is.