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.

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

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.

 

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.

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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?

Photo by Quinton Coetzee on Unsplash

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 

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

 

True story. In 1995 a man called McArthur Wheeler, robbed two banks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.. He wore no sort of discernible disguise and happily smiled at the security cameras on the way out. The police viewed the CCTV, identified him and quickly arrested him. He was astonished. He couldn’t work out how he had been caught. He assumed he had stumbled on a failsafe method of disguising himself because he had smeared his face with lemon juice.

Huh ?

Well, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink he had assumed that it would do the same trick for him and render him invisible as well !

It’s easy to dismiss this story as the act of an idiot. However, it piqued the interest of two phycologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger who decided to investigate further. Their findings, published in 1999  (https://www.avaresearch.com/files/UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt.pdf)  gave birth to what is known as the Dunning Kruger effect. You see, their conclusions were that the man wasn’t a fool at all. Just extremely misguided and misinformed, leading him to have a massive overconfidence in his own ability to succeed.

Further studies on people rating their own levels of competence have backed up their conclusions. For example, in a group of US software developers 42% ranked themselves in the top 5% of performers.  Another study showed 88% of US drivers rated themselves as “above average” in their skills.

Interestingly, the lack of self-awareness about one’s true level of competence in whatever area was being studied was not limited to those with little knowledge of the subject. People with a genuinely higher level of expertise tended to make incorrect evaluations regarding their own ability in the other direction. i.e. they tended to rate their performance lower than was actually the case.

Their perception of their performance only began to improve once a pretty high level of competence was achieved. The explanation for this apparent dichotomy was that this group simply assumed that everyone possessed their own level of expertise and knowledge and thus they set a higher bar for their perception of average performance.

The Dunning Kruger effect on people’s self-assessment of their own ability can be plotted a chart like this:.

Initially, while competence is barely started, there is a huge spike in confidence. But as knowledge increases and the true difficulty of the skill set becomes apparent, confidence plummets for a while before recovering again once as skills are mastered.

That initial exaggerated level of competence could, I guess, be extended back to the period before someone even attempts a particular task. How often have you ever looked at something without ever appreciating the level of skill involved? Just because a person is making it look easy doesn’t mean that it is. The “how hard can that be?” mindset can be applied to almost every walk of life be it writing a book, cooking a meal, servicing a car or decorating a room… or learning to swim.

Swim coaches often encounter clients who do not have an accurate self-assessment of their own ability. Most have met clients who believe that they can pick up the skills required to make them into an excellent swimmer within a few lessons just by making a few tweaks here and there.

Photo by King Lip on Unsplash

Sadly, in reality it often quickly becomes apparent that their confidence is somewhat misplaced and in fact their technique is in need of a complete overhaul and that many bad habits need to be unlearned and re-constructed. 

But in order to do that the swimmer needs to be aware of how far along the path of competence they currently are and how much they still have to learn. The coach needs a certain degree of tact and sensitivity. It is important not to crush the spark of motivation completely or to present the path to competence as being immeasurably long and unachievable. Goals must be carefully set which are both attainable and measurable. The downward slope from that initial spike of overconfidence needs to be carefully managed to ensure the swimmer does not lose their confidence even while their competence increases steadily.  Equally, swimmers need to approach the process with a mind open to new ways of thinking and moving, perhaps discarding old inferior practices which have become ingrained and second nature when in the water. It is important to view the body as one integrated system with every body part linked to and responding to previous actions.  Thus the key to resolving a problem in one area of the stroke may lie in correcting the actions of a completely different part of the body.

Following the curve of the Dunning-Kruger effect we see that a mismatch between confidence and skill may apply not only to inexperienced swimmers but to experienced ones as well. Equally challenging for the coach are the swimmers who are further along the path of competence but whose level of self-confidence might be less than those who are further back. In these cases, the job of the coach is not only to build on the current ability but also to boost their sense of self-efficacy, or the ‘I can do this!’ attitude and enthusiasm. The acquisition of new skills is recognised as being as much in the mind as it is in the body. But it is perhaps less obvious that a significant part of this is simply to recognise one’s own level of competence.  Sometimes swimmers simply need to be kinder to themselves and have faith in their own ability

Confidence is a major factor in providing a foundation for understanding and mastering new skills. Whilst some may need to be gently shown that they have some way still to go, others may need to be built up to understand that they are very close to perfecting a particular area already. 

The challenge for the coach is to recognise which type of swimmer is before them as the Dunning-Kruger effect may well mean that some swimmers will have difficulty in evaluating this for themselves.

Getting into cold water swimming. And getting out again.

Covid 19 has severely limited the options for many wishing to be active as gyms and pools remain closed and look to stay that way for some time to come.  So for many the Great Outdoors has beckoned !  Let’s assume you’ve decided to join them (maintaining a respectful social-distance at all times of course) and that cold water swimming is for you. Great!  

Be safe !

We’ll assume that you have found a safe location and that you have supportive, experienced albeit socially distanced friends to accompany you. It is absolutely essential that you minimise the risks as far as possible (you’ll never eliminate them entirely), especially as medical services have more than enough to do at the moment without rescuing the likes of those mucking about unprepared in freezing rivers and lakes. At SwimMastery we like to encourage people to enjoy open water swimming and build skills for safely handling the wild natural conditions. 

Getting In

Still determined to go in ? OK, well it’s important to know how your body is going to react to the dramatic decrease in temperature. We could go into all sorts of medical jargon here but essentially it boils down to this. Your brain will divide up your body into two categories; first, those providing vital functions to keep you alive and second, everything else. The vital parts are things like the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and the brain itself. Your brain will instruct the body to do all it can to protect these areas by circulating warm blood around them. Although you might be quite attached to the other bits (arms, legs, hands and feet etc) these are unfortunately regarded as expendable when the brain perceives the threat to life posed by the water. Thus blood circulation to these limbs is either reduced or stops altogether.

When you get in, your body will require a few moments to adjust to the temperature. If you stand on the shore, dipping in one toe at a time you’ll probably never pluck up the courage to get in. However, to take the “Geronimo” approach and leap with gay abandon from the jetty is equally ill-advised. The shock to the system could bring about all sorts of unpleasant consequences. A confident, determined yet slow approach is the only way to do it.

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Whether you’re striding out into the lake or gingerly descending a ladder one of the first things you are likely to do is gasp at the cold and take a huge intake or air. (This is one of the reasons you shouldn’t be underwater at the time having jumped directly in). The next step is blindingly obvious but often more difficult to remember when you are actually in the water. Breathe out ! And in again. Get the breathing cycle under control as far as you are able. The reasons are obvious. The practice of doing so is sometimes more difficult if you aren’t used to it.

If you are standing waist deep in water, you might like to try splashing a little water on your face before you begin swimming. Again, this is to get the body used to what is to come. Normally it’s nice to swim with as few accoutrements as possible but some basic equipment is advisable. An inflatable tow float has multiple uses. In an emergency you could hold on to it for buoyancy, the highly visible material from which they are made can help you be easily located by others and finally the waterproof pocket can be used to hold valuables such as phones and car keys which you may want to keep with you, and other useful equipment such as a personal locator beacon. On windy days or in strong currents the float may begin to get ahead of you and interfere with your stroke. Nevertheless serious consideration should be given before discarding one.

Moving Around

Entering the water requires not only a degree of fortitude and courage but also common sense and preparation. Once you have managed it, however, you need to remain vigilant. Try to calm your stroke as much as possible. The temptation will be to swim rapidly to maintain what warmth you can. However, this can easily lead to hyper-ventilation and loss of buoyancy leading to panic and possible disaster. Try to remain calm and swim at your normal tempo. It may not be as easy as it sounds. If you normally swim freestyle you will no doubt return to this as a default. However, for the novice this may not be the best idea. Heads up breaststroke will not only keep the head above the water but will also remove many of the problems which may arise with breathing technique. Until you are used to the shock of the cold it’s always best to be as kind to yourself as possible.

Deciding how long to swim will depend on the individual and on the conditions. Some prefer to stay in for a set amount of time, others will come out once they feel they have had enough. Whilst the latter approach might seem to be the more sensible one, bear in mind that in such an alien environment, you may not be able to accurately judge exactly how you are feeling. You cannot base it merely on how long you stayed in last time because even slight decreases in water and air temperature can greatly change your body’s tolerance level. You might be feeling really exhilarated whilst in reality your core temperature is plummeting to dangerously low levels. It is likely to take several swims before you know the boundaries of your tolerances. it’s best to come out before you think you are ready rather than risk getting into trouble. As a general rule of thumb, you should exit the water before you lose feeling and control in your fingers and toes. 

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Getting Out

Whilst it may appear that getting into cold water is the most difficult bit, it should be remembered that getting out also needs to be carefully managed. A little preparation for this can make all the difference. The process of re-warming the body needs to start as quickly as possible. Towels need to be accessible immediately. Investment in a dry-robe is worth the money as these not only retain body warmth but also provide useful modesty cover whilst wet garments are disposed of. It is important to remember that your core temperature will continue to fall for up to twenty minutes after exiting the water – a process known as Afterdrop. A warm bath or shower might be tempting but in reality may not be advisable as this will stimulate the circulation too rapidly. Cold blood from the extremities will be pumped around the body into the heart causing a drop in blood pressure and possible dizziness or fainting. The continued cooling of the body may well result in slight cognitive and muscle impairment. Beware of driving home too soon after a swim.

The best method is to get as many layers on as possible and warm up slowly. Minimise evaporation from the skin. Don’t worry if you are shivering excessively. This is perfectly normal and will pass. Lay out your clothes in the order in which you will be putting them on and, if possible leave them so they can be slipped on with the minimum of fuss. A useful tip you could try is to take a hot water bottle inside a supermarket freezer bag. Wrap your base layers around the bottle before you go for your swim and they should be nice and toasty for when you return. Make sure you leave the freezer bag open though, you don’t want to be struggling to open it with freezing hands later. However, if you do need to warm your hands quickly, try placing them on the back of your neck. You have two large arteries there full of warm blood which you can use to your advantage.  

Think about where you will be getting changed too. You may not have the luxury of a changing room. As a substitute many people use a large plastic laundry bucket. Not only can you stand in this to keep off the muddy ground but it is also a useful way in which to carry home your wet stuff. Take a little gentle exercise to get your system functioning normally again but don’t over-do it. If you have a car by all means sit in it with the heater going. But don’t be tempted to drive straight away.

And the best bit about finishing a cold water swim is that you are well advised to have something to eat and drink. A completely guilt-free hot chocolate and slice of cake ! What could be better ?! In fact, in reality, a hot drink is unlikely to warm your body a great deal (think about the volume of liquid in a cup compared with the amount in your body !). You’d probably be better off simply holding it rather than drinking it. But where’s the fun in that ? Besides, now’s the time to maximise on that natural high that you will be feeling hopefully with friends who are in the same zone.

Those who partake in cold water swimming on a regular basis will tell you that it has enormous benefits for your health and general well-being and next time out we’ll delve just a little into some of the science which backs up these claims.  However, it must be approached carefully with good planning. Know your limits and push boundaries extremely cautiously and over a period of time. However, for those who are hardy enough to partake it’s an excellent way to extend the pleasures of swimming all year round.

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…

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