Starting today and continuing for the next week, through August 4th (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on Aug 9 and 10 for the 10km Olympic Marathon) the world will pay more attention than ever before to swimming. Interest in, and awareness of, swimming is higher during the week of Olympic swimming, then gradually subsides until four years later. With that in mind, I’ll share some thoughts each day that help make the super-human performances of the world’s best swimmers relatable to the ‘average’ swimmers–including those who may be inspired this week to begin a swimming journey.
While the mainstream media will handicap the races — breathlessly speculating whether Lochte or Phelps will win the 400 IM– or look for human interest stories, I’m less interested in outcomes or personalities, than in what we can learn from Olympic swimmers that can positively impact our own swimming. And we can often draw more valuable insights from how Olympic swimmers think than how they stroke.
This week I was interviewed by a writer for an online site called Shoptopia, not a place likely to draw highly informed or opinionated swim fans. Thus my responses were relatively ‘low-tech’ but–for many readers–probably not what they expected.
Q: What’s the most common mistake new swimmers tend to make? What are some simple tweaks that anyone could apply to their swimming?
A: The most common mistake of beginners is trying to reach the other end of the pool–most often an exercise in sheer survival. They windmill their arms and churn their legs, mostly to avoid sinking. Even 10 to 20 seconds of effort leaves them exhausted–and thinking swimming is an ordeal requiring extraordinary fitness. They’d progress fastest–and have a better understanding–by starting with short, relaxing glides to imprint comfort, relaxation and a basic sense of how to work with, not against, the water. This isn’t only valuable for developing a foundation to swim efficiently. It’s even more valuable for creating an environment for calm thought—the real key to learning to swim well.
Q: What should a beginner focus on when trying to develop an efficient freestyle stroke?
A: The essential starting skill is comfort and calm. Glide short distances over and over, extending yourself from fingers to toes and releasing quiet bubbles from nose and mouth. Travel as far as you can without kicking. This is a Balance exercise—learning how to distribute your weight and extend your body mass over more of the water’s surface. Seek to create a feeling of being suspended in the water and of being able to travel with little effort.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for what swimmers should be thinking about in order to help them keep pace, keep calm, keep rhythm?
A: The most important mental skill is to choose a focus. Decide what specific aspect of your stroke you’re going to think about. While practicing assess the quality of your focus — your ability to think about that one thing, and dismiss other thoughts — as much as the quality of your movements. The first Focal Point we give all new students is: ‘Hang’ your head — I.E. Release it into a weightless, neutral position. Relax neck and shoulder muscles until you feel the water support your head’s weight. Can you stay laser-focused on that for one length? For two or more? Few people are used to thinking in such a targeted way, while swimming. Or perhaps to thinking at all. This is because those first attempts at survival swimming are purely reactive. This blocks any possibility of reflective thinking—and that can gradually becomes a habit of swimming ‘on autopilot.’
Q: Any transition tips for kicking off the wall, etc?
A: Don’t kick off the wall. Push and glide off the wall — with legs streamlined and relaxed. Let natural buoyancy and a sense of even weight distribution bring you to the surface in equilibrium This will reinforce your balance sense, positioning you to swim the rest of the lap more efficiently. (Note: The best example of this kind of pushoff will probably be Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, gold medal favorite, in the mens 400- and 1500-meter freestyles.)
Q: Do you have any recommendations for types of gear or training tools that are most helpful?
A: I believe most training tools are a waste of time. All you need are comfortable goggles. Paddles, buoys, kick boards, etc. mainly get in the way of acquiring a sense of the water and how your body naturally behaves in it. They also emphasize power over grace. The most important tools are patience, curiosity, concentration and self-awareness. And last but not least a love of swimming.
Q: What do you recommend swimmers pay attention to when watching the Olympics? Are there certain things in form they should look at closely?
A: In addition to how smoothly Sun Yang glides off walls with hardly any kick, I’d recommend viewers notice the following:
Align the head. Human swimmers instinctively hold the head high, to avoid choking. When the head is high, or moving around, it disturbs body position, increases drag and makes us unstable. It’s almost impossible to stroke efficiently. Elite swimmers keep their heads aligned with the spine with most of it submerged. They also hold it steady. In freestyle, you’ll generally see only a portion of the back of the cap (virtually all will wear caps to reduce drag) above the surface. In backstroke, little more than the face will be above the surface. Even in breaststroke and butterfly — where they breathe toward the front — you should see relatively little lifting and dipping of the head, as they’ll aim to keep the head (which represents about 8 percent of body mass) moving forward at all times.
Swim tall. Novices swim with choppy strokes. Elite swimmers fully extend the body line, from fingertips to toes, at some point in every stroke. In fact while you watch, think of the swimmer ‘finishing’ the stroke to the front, not back at the hips.
Swim slippery. Novices create a lot more commotion than locomotion, splashing water all over and looking anything but sleek. Olympians maintain fishlike body positions and make relatively little splash. The biggest advantage of elite swimmers over lesser swimmers isn’t how they push water back, but how they minimize resistance while moving forward.
Swim in harmony. When watching ‘average’ swimmers at your local pool, in many cases, you’ll see head, torso, arms and legs working with little coordination or harmony. Olympic swimmers will have all parts of the body working in almost seamless harmony.
While all the swimmers you’ll see on Olympic telecasts are elites, those who win gold, silver and bronze should display noticeably smoother form than those who finish out of the medals.
Q: What do you love most about the sport of swimming?
A: First of all, while swimming as a sport will dominate public consciousness this week—and I’ll be swimming an open water race myself on Day Two of the Olympics–I most love that swimming has unequaled potential to evolve from a basic skill to a movement art and form of self-expression like dance. Second I love that swimming has as more potential than anything else featured in the Olympics for Kaizen or Continuous Improvement. Even after 46 years of swimming and 40 years of coaching, I’m still improving my skill, artfulness and mastery.