Short and sweet

It’s not uncommon for swimmers to come away from their initial assessment with their coach fired up with enthusiasm and buzzing with new ideas and techniques they are desperate to try out within their stroke. And that’s terrific. Just what we want.

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Why then, doesn’t your Swim Mastery coach recommend that the best thing to do next is to go for a long swim to try out all these new ideas?

The great temptation is to go to the pool and put in multiple lengths. Indeed many non-Swim Mastery coaches will recommend doing exactly that. I remember a couple of years ago, talking to one coach who was teaching a group of three swimmers in our local pool. After giving them ten minutes or so of quite intense drilling he then set them off swimming laps for the rest of the session. When I asked him about this he said it was important for his pupils to get the miles under their belts to practice what he had just been teaching. In addition, his view was that his pupils should complete two to three long swims before their next lesson.

The Swim Mastery approach is diametrically opposed to this view advocating instead short repeats of no more than six to eight strokes with no breathing (exactly as per the coached sessions in fact), There are several reasons for this. Primary amongst them is the fact that the coach is trying to instil new movement or thought patterns into their swimmer’s stroke. This can be easily achieved in short bursts but much more than that and the body will revert to the old default way of moving.

Don’t believe me? Well, try this. Go and take a walk down the garden but as you lift each foot make sure the knee bends at an angle of 90 degrees before you straighten it at the end of each pace. Come back and tell me how you got on.

Done it? Good. OK, so a slightly weird way of walking but easy enough to do right? I’m guessing that you believe that you achieved that easily enough. But answer me this. How did your thirteenth pace compare with your nineteenth? And how did either of them compare with your fifth? Were they all completely identical? Are you sure? If not, which was best? Why? What would you do to improve?

If you can answer all that with any degree of certainty I would be amazed (and you would almost certainly be wrong!). There’s just too much information coming at the brain far too fast for it to process it all completely. And if I’d asked you to walk up and down the garden six times instead of just the once, my guess is that by the end of it your 90-degree bend would have decreased significantly and you would have begun to revert to a more familiar way of walking.

Similar sorts of principles apply in the pool. If a swimmer is trying to compare how their second stroke felt to how their fourth one felt they are far more likely to be able to do it (and make the necessary corrections) if they stop after the sixth stroke as opposed to having to process another twenty or so strokes after them.

By swimming in such short bursts the swimmer can make an instant evaluation of their performance, even without their coach present. If they feel they are achieving whatever task they have set themselves, terrific. Time to do another set and see if it can be repeated and the movement pattern imprinted on the brain. Alternatively, if it didn’t feel quite right, by taking a break the swimmer gives themselves time to work out why that might be and what they need to do to change without falling back into old, bad habits.

And there is another major benefit. Short repeats mean that the swimmer can simply stand up when it is time to breathe. Even for experienced swimmers, the breathing stroke can look a little different to the non-breathing strokes. For the novice swimmer breathing strokes are often massively disruptive; the head can be raised resulting in a bend in the back and a complete loss of connection in the body. The leading arm has a tendency to come across the centre line and the overall loss of balance can result in the legs splaying out of the shadow of the body’s forward propulsion. It can take a stroke or two to recover, and by then it’s almost time to take another breath!

None of this is unexpected and is part of the natural survival instinct to get to the air. However, it is also massively disruptive to the overall stroke and takes brain power away from the specific cue which is being taught or practised.

When learning a new movement pattern the average attention span is surprisingly short and it is important to stop before the processing power of the brain has been exhausted and to remove as many distractions as possible. One of the greatest challenges to a coach is to overcome deep-seated assumptions or practices previously acquired over many years. The swimmer’s brain and body will have become accustomed and reliant on them even whilst also acknowledging that they may not be the most efficient ways of moving. Given half a chance they will return to the old familiar practices simply because that is what feels most comfortable.

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To break the cycle, the swimmer must receive constant reminders of the new methods and movements and by far the most effective way of doing that is to instil these through short repeats and evaluations. Only once the skills have been mastered in these small bite-sized chunks and become the “new normal” is it time to take the next step and see if they can be replicated during longer swims.

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.

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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.


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?

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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

The end 

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.

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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…

Encourage Self-Guided Practice

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.

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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.


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