Taking responsibility for safety

In recent weeks I have been watching the Six Nations on TV. For the uninitiated, that’s a rugby union tournament. And for anyone still none the wiser, rugby is basically 80 minutes of legalised high-speed car crashes. Without the cars. It’s an exciting but often brutal contact sport played by huge, muscular but highly athletic players. Tackles are fearsome and frequent.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time with Kelly Brown who was then the Scottish captain. Six foot seven of repressed power. Awesome on the field, surprisingly mild-mannered off it. The previous day he had been taken from the field after a tackle from the English player Matt Bannerman (whom he described as an animal which probably given the size of Mr Brown, gives you some idea of how big and fast Bannerman was!). Brown was telling me how he was forced off for an HIA (Head Injury Assessment) so that the doctors could judge whether he was suffering from concussion. He had been convinced he was fine and apparently was quite vocal about the point on the pitch. Unfortunately, he said, one of the effects of concussion is an increase in aggressive behaviour so, the more he insisted he was fine, the more the doctors insisted that he wasn’t. So off he went. In the end, he got the all-clear and returned to complete the match.

HIA’s are now part and parcel of the modern rugby game and have been introduced as a compulsory safety measure solely for the protection of the players. The decision to make an HIA is always made by an independent medical professional.

All very interesting and important, but how, I hear you ask, does this relate to swimming?

Swimming isn’t a contact sport. Head injuries are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, many swimmers damage their bodies through the sport. Maybe not in a one-off incident such as the tackle on Kelly Brown, but more likely through persistently and consistently moving the body in a way in which it was not designed to do. Over time, this may range from an annoying little niggle to something far more serious, and debilitating.

Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

What then, is done to protect the swimmer and keep them safe? Safety in rugby isn’t limited just to HIA’s. If, for example, a player lifts an opponent off the ground during a tackle, it is their responsibility to return them to the soil safely rather than simply dropping them or falling on them. Failure to do so can result in the tackler being sent off. Safety is enshrined in the rules of the game.

Is the same true for freestyle swimming? Do regulations exist to keep swimmers safe? (And by “safe” I don’t mean safe from drowning but safe from developing injuries).

The simple answer seems to be “no”.

In all fairness I guess there’s a clue in the name, however, freestyle rules seem to be fairly thin on the ground. It seems that more or less anything goes. Rules are defined by the Federation Internationale De Natation and the basic overview is somewhat sparse. Freestyle is simply defined as any stroke other than backstroke, butterfly or breaststroke and it says that swimmers must touch the wall at the end of the pool when turning and that their head must break the surface no more than15m after a turn but that’s about it. A little more delving finds that swimmers must start the race in a forward direction (!) and can’t use the lane ropes to propel themselves forward nor can they push off from the bottom of the pool. Bizarrely it appears completely legal in a race to stop and stand up for a little rest (providing one stays still and doesn’t begin to walk down the lane).

But you’ll notice there is nothing in there to prevent the swimmer from employing a swimming method that might actually end up harming them. That responsibility is left entirely up to the individual.

Which is a worry, because most people have very little idea which movements are likely to be harmful and which aren’t. Habits are often instilled at an early age when they are first taught to swim and not everyone takes the opportunity to review them later. The problem here is that children are often first encouraged to swim by their parents (or forced to do it as part of a school swimming lesson). And a significant proportion of parents have no more idea about how to ensure the body is moving safely than their pupils. They will judge themselves as a success if they get their little ones t from point A to point B without sinking to the bottom of the pool. Less attention is paid to exactly how this is done with the assumption being made that the finer details will work themselves out over time. There’s no guarantee or reason why this should be so.

School teachers may have a better idea of the rights and wrongs but realistically they can be faced with an entire class of snotty spotty adolescents to motivate and keep in order. Individual care and assessment may well not be a practical option.

All this means is that the role of the swim coach becomes crucial; they must be knowledgeable about the potential dangers of injury and the ways these can be avoided. And that they can communicate this in an easy to understand format. And this can mean they require the ability to be flexible in their teaching approach and strong-willed enough to stay on a particular aspect of the stroke, perhaps approaching the mastery of that skill from multiple directions, before moving on. Proficiency in the basics of the stroke is crucial to long-term success and swimmer safety. Speed and endurance training may have to wait until the fundamentals of the stroke are mastered and that may require not only patience from the swimmer but also expertise on behalf of the coach.

For some sports, such as rugby, the responsibility for safety becomes part and parcel of the game; if the players abide by the rules then they are going a long way to avoiding injury. For many non-contact sports though those taking part must be aware that, to a large part, they are responsible for themselves. They need to do all they can to ensure that they have been taught with the most appropriate techniques available.

Can a frog on a bicycle help you swim better?

What has a frog on a bicycle got to do with swimming I hear you ask? 

Well, nothing at all. Obviously. That’s the point.

Let me explain

As swimmers, we are constantly told to swim with a specific goal in mind and to use cues to achieve this. A good cue acts as a constant feedback loop. By honing in on a specific aspect of your stroke you can use the cue as a yardstick by which to measure your performance. Thus you can assess the success (or otherwise) of your swimming instantly and make any corrections or adjustments necessary to improve your performance. 

There is an important caveat to remember though in that you can only gauge your results for that particular swim and, more importantly, only for the particular aspect of your stroke being addressed by the cue in question. Thus if your cue pertains to the way your hand is entering the water but whilst swimming you become aware that, say, your legs are sinking, this does not automatically mean that you have failed in the execution of your cue.

Because the body is one unit and a problem in one area can cause a reaction elsewhere there might be a connection between the two issues, but it doesn’t follow in all cases. The trick is to keep focused on the cue you are working on and not to worry about anything else. You may find that if you can increase the level of adherence to the aspect you are working on then other problems seem to magically disappear. If they don’t, no worries just choose another cue later to address the second problem.

That’s the beauty of a good cue. They act as a small and precise hammer chipping away at the block of marble trying to gradually reveal the statue within. 

But what is a “good” cue? And what happens if you use a bad one? Or no cue at all?

One of the joys of leading our Masters class on occasions is the opportunity to work with a group of swimmers willing, albeit sometimes unwittingly, to be guinea pigs into my little explorations into some of the theories behind how we learn and improve our stroke.

Photo by Kirwin Elias on Unsplash

To this end, last Thursday I gave the group a seemingly random set of 25 cues and asked them to time themselves over 25 metres for each one to see if there were differences in their performance. Some of the cues were familiar to them as traditional SwimMastery favourites like keeping the head away from the feet and sending the head forwards with each stroke. But some were phrases that coaches normally try to avoid such as “Don’t over-rotate” and “Prevent splashing”. I also included some frankly bizarre things for them to concentrate on. 

Trust me, if you’ve never seen the look on the faces of a group of swimmers as you tell them you want them to swim whilst imagining a garden gnome playing a trumpet or a giraffe on roller skates then you’ve missed out on one of life’s rare treats!

Although I didn’t make this obvious to them before the session started I had chosen a number of broad topics (the amount of rotation, the level of connection, the focus on forward motion etc.) and assigned to each, one “random” cue, one “don’t” cue and three “good” cues.

Getting them to use familiar tried and tested cues was an obvious choice although providing different types in order to reach the same ultimate result may have led one or two of them to move away from the security of what they were used to and instead try a different approach.

The reason for using the random yet, I hoped, quite vivid images was an attempt to take their mind off their performance in the water completely so that we could look at how they fared if they reverted to pure muscle memory alone. 

The most interesting results for me though were the ones from “Don’t do this” group. The problem with telling someone to concentrate on not doing something, and the reason why SwimMastery coaches try to avoid doing so, is that there is no instruction regarding how this should be achieved or what should be done instead. It’s like telling someone you want them to go to the bottom of the garden but they mustn’t walk. What should they do then? Run? Skip? Jump? Crawl? Fly? With no further instruction other than “Don’t Walk” it’s impossible to know how the task should be achieved.

Thus “Don’t over-rotate” for example might be a very laudable and worthwhile aim but the brain needs some further information regarding how this should be achieved.

The reason I think this is so important is that there is a great temptation, when practising or training alone, to slip into using these “Don’t do this” cues by default. Have you ever started a swim thinking “I’m not going to drop my elbow before the catch today” or “This time I’m going to concentrate on not splaying my legs as I kick”? It’s an easy trap to fall into.

In order for a cue to be effective, it must be clear, achievable and measurable. If it isn’t, the effects on the stroke will be at best negligible and at worst detrimental.

So what was the effect of my experiment on my Masters group? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that any results have very little statistical validity. The group was very small and the distances they were swimming made it difficult to record any major differences in times. We also need to consider the inaccuracies involved in using time as a measure (but I wanted to avoid them wasting brain space by counting strokes) plus the fact that after a while tiredness inevitably affected performance.

Nevertheless, although there were only broad trends visible, even with the limitations outlined above, the “don’t “ cues seemed to perform less well (or no better anyway) than the traditional SM group. 

What was fascinating though was that one of the group said he felt he swam better when using the bizarre “random” cues! His reasoning was that he felt more able to relax and “just let it all happen”. It is worth noting, however, that he is a very experienced and graceful swimmer and no doubt his muscle memory is excellent. It would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a group of novice swimmers and see if the results are more marked.

It is difficult to replicate this experiment completely now that I have explained the rationale behind it. However, if you wanted to, you could try a slightly modified version. 

Next time you are at the pool decide on your favourite SM cue – one that you know works for you – and time yourself over 100m concentrating only on that.

When you’ve finished, take at least a minute rest. Not to rest your body so much as to rest your brain. Now decide on an aspect of your swimming that you know needs improvement; a bad habit you just can’t kick. Swim another 100m with your only thought being not to do whatever that is.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash                              Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Take another rest and now pick a random image, the weirder the better; a hippo in a hot air balloon, a yeti doing a tap dance, a chicken on a roller coaster, whatever. Swim another 100m and compare your times. 

Let us know how you got on. At the end I suspect you’ll either learn something about the importance of choosing a good cue or the difficulty you have in maintaining a given cue over a longer period of swimming.

Or maybe, more thrillingly, your feedback will help change the way SwimMastery is coached forevermore!! 

Filming Swimmers: An Opportunity with Challenges

There is little doubt that video analysis is one of the most powerful tools in the swim coach’s armoury. The ability to record a swimmers’ stroke, review it carefully in slow-motion and frame-by-frame, and to play this back to them so that they can see for themselves exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are is invaluable, particularly for those who are not very aware of what their own body is doing (which is called ‘proprioception’).

However, before a coach can whip out their device to start filming in a seemingly public place there are a number of factors to consider. With heightened awareness of child protection and data privacy rules one has to be mindful of the situations where filming is restricted or simply not allowed. The rules are, of course, understandable and vital for protecting the rights of the swimmer but there is no doubt that they present difficulties for those people who have legitimate and innocent reasons for filming.

Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash

For simplicity’s sake, I will deal only with the situation in the United Kingdom. For those coaching in other countries it is vital to acquaint yourselves with the appropriate information regarding the law in your own region.

In the UK, the position regarding children is very clear. Swim England have a published policy to minimise the risk posed to under-age swimmers by filming which could potentially lead to images being published on-line. Wavepower 2020-23 | Child safeguarding for Swim England clubs (swimming.org) This, in turn could potentially lead to the identification of that child and their personal details, with repercussions for child grooming or safety concerns if, for example, a parent has been denied access for legal reasons. Although primarily written to cover swimming galas and competitions, the guidance nevertheless covers training and coaching in general. On page 89 it states “parents/guardians must be provided with full information, such as when the filming is proposed, its purpose, who is filming, how the film will be used or published and an agreement on what will happen once the film has served its purpose. This allows parents/ guardians to provide informed consent or otherwise. Written consent to the filming should be requested from the parents/guardians. Invite parents/guardians to be present at the filming; if this is impractical allow them to view the film before publication”.

This is, of course, common sense and hopefully comes as second nature to most coaches by now. Nevertheless, it is essential that all proper procedures are followed to ensure that the coach does not place themselves in a position where they might be accused of misconduct.

The exact position concerning the filming of adults is a little less well defined although it could be assumed that many of the same principles should apply as for the filming of children. Since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rolled out on May 25th 2018, filming in EU countries entails awareness of the law to not breach the privacy of the public. Within reason, it is perfectly acceptable to film in public areas (which covers most Open Water scenarios such as beaches and rivers) where the public could have an expectation that they might be viewed by others. However, significantly, public swimming pools are not considered as “public areas”. As such, permission needs to be sought from the facility owner for the right to film.

Even if granted, notices should be displayed so that other users of the pool are made aware that filming is taking place and they can opt to swim in an area where they won’t be seen. Failure to follow these simple rules may have serious repercussions. In my local Health Club, for example, a coach was filming a pupil during a lesson. However, a female swimmer in an adjoining lane took exception to this and made a formal complaint. Despite the fact that it was proved to her that she only appeared on the film very briefly as she passed by in the opposite direction and was certainly not the subject of the film, nevertheless the coach’s actions threatened to spiral into an extremely serious incident. Fortunately common sense prevailed and the matter was resolved. However, despite this the potential damage to the reputation of the coach caused by rumour and gossip about inappropriate filming could have been significant.

The reaction of the lady in this story could be seen as disproportionate. However, coaches would be well advised to remember that the standards they apply to themselves are not necessarily shared by others. By the very nature of swimming, participants are invariably in a state of undress to a certain degree and, for some, this makes them feel somewhat vulnerable. Add to this certain cultural and sometimes religious considerations regarding being seen in swimming attire and it becomes clear that coaches need to show some caution and sensitivity before beginning filming.

Often, however, the question becomes somewhat academic as pool owners will impose a blanket “no filming” policy at their venues regardless of the reasons behind the request to film. Whilst they may accept the legitimacy of the request by a coach and understand the benefits to be gained, it is easier from their point of view not to relent in their policy for anybody for fear of setting a precedent for others.

Photo – Julie Ward

So, unless the pool has been closed to the public, (for example, if the coach is running a training camp and has hired the entire pool for the duration) this presents a dilemma and a significant restriction for the coach on their ability to be able to provide feedback to their swimmer.

If filming is completely restricted, creative solutions to overcome the absence of video analysis will be required. To fill the gap a coach may need to rely more on verbal feedback, using dry-land rehearsals, in-water demonstrations and hands-on assistance in correcting the stroke. 

If allowed, before making plans to film, it would be a good idea to connect with the pool director or owner to understand their policy completely, then work out ahead of time a plan for satisfying the privacy rules and minimizing the chance of a misunderstanding with other patrons. A coach might choose more suitable times, use certain camera positions to reduce the likelihood of capturing others in the background, and even going so far as to chat first with the swimmers in adjacent lanes to let them know and demonstrate your consideration for their privacy before any filming starts. 

Among our community of coaches there are likely many stories of things gone wrong with filming as well as many good stories where solutions were found for filming or ways of working without it. We do well to take advantage of our colleagues’ experience to ask questions, hear stories, and learn how to avoid these problems.

Mastery In An Unstable Environment

What does it mean to learn the skill?

What does it mean to master the skill?

We might say that a swimmer has learned the skill when they can execute it every time, consistently, on demand. Then we might say that a swimmer has mastered the skill when they can execute it every time, consistently, without having to pay any attention to making it happen.

In the realm of motor learning (a.k.a. learning complex movement skills and improving athletic performance) the ultimate need or goal of the athlete determines when learning or mastery has actually been achieved.

In a ‘stable environment, under very easy conditions, in a relatively short amount of time we can teach someone to swim with a particular stroke style and they can be successful for the simple test swims set for them. But if that swimmer needs to use this stroke in competition, or in serious open water, they have not yet done the work to master that skill for the unstable environment.

A stable environment is where all the challenges the athlete will face are invariable and predictable, where the skills don’t need to be very flexibility. Swimming alone in a pool lane, with no competitive pressure, with the aquatic environment completely controlled is a very stable environment.

An unstable environment is where the challenge the athlete will face are quite variable and unpredictable, where the skills need to be applied with great flexibility. Swimming next to a serious opponent in competition adds some external pressure to the environment. Swimming in rough wild water adds a lot more instability to the environment. There is external pressure to perform presented by the opponent and by the context of being in a timed race. Wild open water and the weather present infinite variations and unpredictability to each swim, to each stroke even.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The conditions in which a person is practicing matters a great deal to how strong and flexible their skillfulness becomes. To get an initial grasp a difficult skill the athlete might need to first practice in a stable environment, under very easy conditions, to reduce the complexity down to a level they can manage at the start. But if these are not the conditions in which the swimmer will ultimately need to use those skills in, we have to lead them on a path that gradually moves them from practice in stable environmental conditions into practice in unstable environmental conditions of their objective.

When we are assessing the swimmer’s level of skill in test conditions that are unlike those that will be present in their ultimate objective then we call this ‘in-practice’ testing. When we are assessing their level of skill in test conditions of their ultimate objective then we call this ‘in-performance’ testing.

On some easy level we might see that they have ‘learned’ or even ‘mastered’ the skills, but true learning, true mastery has occurred only when the swimmer is able to execute those skills under the full stress of the unstable environmental conditions they intend to perform in.

Wulf, G. (2007). Attention and Motor Skill Learning. Human Kinetics.


Let’s Hear It For Ears

Let’s Hear It For Ears

My Dad, (who is a genius by the way), once told me the ideal way to talk to six-year olds. It’s simple, all you do is repeat back to them exactly what they have just said to you by making it into a question.  Thus a typical conversation when I was young might go like this:

Son: “Dad, I’ve lost my ball”

Dad: “Oh, you’ve lost your ball have you ?”

Son: “Yes, the red one”

Dad: “Oh, the red one, eh ?”

Son: “Yes, it’s my favourite”

Dad: “Your favourite one, is it ?”

Son: “Yes, I think I’ll go and look for it”

Dad: “That’s a good idea, you go and look for it”

Brilliant eh ? An entire conversation and I’ll guarantee that Dad didn’t listen to a word of it.

Sometimes I wonder whether if, as coaches, we are guilty of the same thing; having an entire conversation with our swimmers without ever listening to what is said.  Which would be a pity and an opportunity wasted.

Our ears are superb gatherers of information supplying a never-ending stream of facts to the brain.  It’s the brain which filters this information deciding what is important and what isn’t.  This information flow is relentless.  Even when we’re asleep the ears are still providing it and the brain is still filtering.  That’s why a noisy lorry passing by outside the house will fail to wake us but a quiet, unexpected footstep on the staircase will mean we are instantly awake.

But sometimes our brain needs guidance on what is important and what isn’t.  The reality is that every interaction we have with our swimmers is an opportunity to learn more about them, about their motivations, their ambitions, their opportunities and their restrictions.  Of course swimmers usually provide some level of background information before attending a session.  However, this can often be wildly over-optimistic and exaggerated or woefully under-representational of their true level of expertise.   Thus athletes with a stated intention of completing an Ironman in six months’ time are found to able to barely swim a stroke whilst others who state they can swim just a little are clearly quite able to complete a 10K swim already without any trouble.

Only by talking to, and more importantly, listening to our swimmers can we tailor our sessions accurately to their needs and abilities.  And the more accurately we are able to do that the more beneficial our instruction becomes and the more likely they are to return.  It’s a perfect virtuous circle – but one which often needs to be initiated by the coach.

So a seemingly casual conversation about the swimmer’s home life, the number of children they have, the job they do, how far they have to travel to a pool, the length, type and frequency of their current practices, etc., can all provide valuable clues regarding the conflicting demands they may have on their time and the amount of time they are able to dedicate to practice.

Photo by Christof Görs on Unsplash

Our eyes can tell us how a swimmer behaves in front of us in the water but only our ears can give us clues regarding how they may act between sessions.

Of course one should not make assumptions.  The busy entrepreneur running a fledgling business may not be able to find any time to practice her swimming.  On the other hand she might be precisely the sort of expert in time-management and self-discipline to dedicate herself to any goal she decides upon.  Only once a coach has discovered which type of person they are dealing with can they decide the structure of their sessions and the amount and pace of information they contain.

But the coach doesn’t only need to listen to their pupil.  They also need to develop the often far more difficult trick of listening to themselves and the teaching they provide.  Is it clear, precise and comprehensible?  Is enough explanation being given for the reasons behind the instruction?  Or is it too much?  And does all that apply to the swimmer in front of them?  Everyone is different and an approach or an image which is usually a sure-fire winner with most people may not be hitting home this time.  A coach needs the ability to listen to themselves and evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction, adapting it instantly if necessary.

Feedback from the swimmer can be invaluable here, so coaches mustn’t forget to constantly ask for meaningful responses from them which can demonstrate the level of their understanding of what is being taught.  A swimmer who is able to articulate and quantify an experience or feeling  is likely to be able to replicate is far more easily in their own practice even if they haven’t yet been able to master it in the session.  But only by listening carefully to what a swimmer is saying and never being afraid to push for more information if it is not freely forthcoming can a coach be confident of the effectiveness of their teaching.

So let’s make some noise for our ears.  They are amazing and unique things.  No two human ears are identical (even on the same head) just as no two swimmers are identical.  They are providers of a  constant stream of information.  We may, like my Dad when I was a kid, merely hear that information without processing it.  Or we can truly listen to it, channel it and mine it as the rich and valuable source for better coaching that it is.


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