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.

Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

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.

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