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.
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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.
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?
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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
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.