I was blessed with three great kids. They are adults now and I am so proud of who they have become. At this point I can now look back and review my performance as a parent. Overall, I feel I did a reasonable job, yet I remember times when I got it wrong. One such incident came to mind the other day…
We were on holiday on the beach and my son Jack and I were kicking a football between us. He was probably about six at the time. He merrily toe-punted the ball as hard as he could as is the wont of small boys. He had no control over where the ball went and, as a result, there was a lot of running about involved from me which was rather tiring. Jack though was loving it and roared with laughter throughout.
I decided it was time for Jack to learn how to control the ball a bit better. Accordingly I showed him how to place his non-kicking foot alongside the ball and to strike it with his in-step rather than his toe, leaning forward to get his head over the ball at the point of contact.
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I noticed two things immediately. One was that this instantly improved the control he had over the direction of his kicks. And two, he stopped laughing. For Jack, the sheer exhilaration of being out in the fresh air mucking about with a ball and his Dad on a cold and deserted beach had gone, to be replaced by a lesson in coordination and timing which, if he got it wrong, he felt might displease me.
Inevitably, we stopped playing soon after, and I felt really rotten.
Now I find a parallel in working with swimmers.
Recently, I overheard a swimmer asking for tips on how to swim faster. He said he swam at a fairly low tempo, often achieving that Nirvana of free-flowing, effortless swimming he sought, but still wanted to find a way to increase his pace.
Undoubtedly there were things that he could do to change his stroke. But part of me wanted to ask a simple question.
If you’re already swimming beautifully, why would you want to change it?
I can imagine many different and valid answers to that. I get that. Our kind of swimming can be viewed as a journey towards self-improvement and, as such, is a journey without an ultimate destination. Who can honestly say they are the perfect swimmer?. I know some awesome swimmers but I don’t think that any of them would claim to be perfect. And therefore they try to improve which means they must try to change something.
I understand all that. But do we sometimes lose sight of another reason for swimming? We swim to enjoy ourselves; to improve our state of mind as well as the performance of our body.
Factors such as time and strokes per length are so ingrained into our coaching and training that it is easy to think that they are the be-all and end-all when it comes to measuring performance. After all ,when did you last get out of the water and think “Wow, that swim made me 87% happy – and I was only 83% happy last week”? It can’t be done. There is no way of categorising our level of happiness at any given time and thus we usually fall back on relying on the time or the number of strokes taken to complete a swim in order to judge its success.
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Of course there are many other measures that we can, and do use. Ask an open water swimmer at this time of year how their morning swim went and they will tell you that they spent 15 minutes in water of 5 degrees C. They might be focussed on their performance whilst actually in the water but, once out of it, these won’t be the factors they use to judge their success.
A first-time Channel swimmer will not be primarily focussed on how long it will take to get to France, merely completing the distance is reward enough. (These priorities might be reversed on subsequent attempts!). On a smaller scale, when we are on holiday we might set ourselves the target of swimming out to a particular buoy or landmark and back. Rarely do we add the extra parameter of achieving it within a certain time.
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We can measure our swimming in other ways too but seem to do so less often, somehow perceiving them to be of less value than time taken and stroke rate because they are more difficult to measure objectively.
Thus we might spend a little time working on our ability to maintain our concentration on conforming to a specific task or cue. Or alternatively noticing the exertion level we are using and the degree of fluidity in our stroke. But these never seem to be our primary measures.
Why does all this matter ? Well, in my view, of all of the ways to measure our success, that elusive one I mentioned right at the beginning is the most important of all. How happy does our swimming make us feel ?
The job of a coach should be not only to change the performance of their swimmers, but just as importantly to influence their mindset; to help them recognise that what we have come to accept as the traditional ways of judging success – speed and efficiency – aren’t the only ones available. And that might mean that they have to make a fairly seismic change in their own thinking and their own perceptions of achievement too,
Of course, for many swimmers an improvement in something like their speed will automatically result in an improvement in their happiness too. Even if you’re never going to win a race, who doesn’t like smashing a PB ? But maybe for some, like Jack all those years ago kicking his football on the beach, they are perfectly happy with a level of competency which is some way less than perfect, but just perfect enough for their happiness in the moment.
I’m not expecting all of you to share this view – and I’m certainly not saying that swimmers should never try to improve their stroke. However, I do believe that sometimes coaches can be blinded by the perceived need to produce faster swimmers or more efficient swimmers and forget that ultimately, by whatever means, what we really should be producing are happier swimmers.
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.
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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…
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
Encourage Self-Guided Practice
It is certain that some students won’t prefer to work on their own, and want to pay for your time to guide them all the way. That is ok. Some students may take those practice principles and walk away, content to work on their own from then on. That is ok too. And some will, as we hope, take over managing their own basic practice and keep coming back to us for deeper, more advanced work, building upon what they already know and can do.
As the coach designing and guiding your student through a practice, you are using a collection principles to guide you. Internalizing those principles will enable you to make the practice fit with the immediate developmental needs of this student. By leading them through this principle-based practice, you are giving them an example of how to practice on their own. You know the principles involved, and over time, you have the opportunity to impart an understanding of those practice principles to your student so that they become a better self-guiding practitioner. When your student eventually takes on more of the responsibility for planning and conducting their own practices, this then frees you up to guide them into more advanced skills and more advanced training.