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.

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