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Continued from Part 1

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#3 – Personal Physical Conditions

Within the context of Universal Human Physiology we would see how much an individual is tapping into his/her potential there. This refers to the current physical condition the swimmer is in his structure, his posture, his mobility, and his fitness (ability to generate and sustain power).

In the previous point we are looking to understand what all human bodies are generally, universally capable of. In #3 we have to take into account what this particular human actually has to work with in the water, right now, with all the advantages and disadvantages of his nature and nurture. Now, we start to look at how this individual may be different from others.

There are two main types of physical conditions:

  1. Those conditions that are not improvable, and
  2. Those conditions that are.

A person cannot change his genetics, race, age, sex (well… let’s not complicated things here), swimming history, and structural body dimensions (i.e. bone dimensions), to name some big ones.

But though the swimmer feels limited in many ways, there are many conditions that can be changed, if only he is guided in how to do that properly. He may very well be able to change his posture, his mobility, and his fitness in many ways. Hence, a good program does not excuse and ignore improvable conditions but rather shows the swimmer the way to improve them. This is a rehabilitative or corrective approach to swim coaching and performance training. It makes sense that this should be the approach of all training  programs, doesn’t it?

Whether through lack of use, misuse, injury or illness – there are some mobility and power limitations that can be improved and some that (as far as we know) cannot. The point of going to a professional coach or trainer is to help you find out which are which, then learn how to improve what can be improved and learn to adapt to what cannot.

So, in an initial swimmer assessment we are first taking into account the realities of physics, then physiology, then current personal physical conditions to come to set out goals, identify obstacles, and prescribe solutions.

What we want to avoid is mistaking Physical Conditions that can be improved for those that cannot. We don’t want to use as an improvable limitation an excuse to not seek change and improvement in that physical condition. We should not cover up removable dysfunction with an inferior stroke style variation when a superior one is available. Seek out a training program that can expand your physical capabilities, not one that gives you an excuse to stay within your current removable limitations.

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As I have seen a few times, a swimmer with arthritis in the joints may indeed not be able to fully straighten his arms at the elbow, and the stroke must accommodate this reality. But he still needs to project his force forward through that arm, as straight as he can comfortably make it – physics says this is the direction force must flow and we can’t get around this fact. So, we will improve what can be improved in his conditions and adapt to what cannot.

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On the other hand, a swimmer with limited range of motion in the shoulders from being a commuter (holding the steering wheel) and an office worker (sitting at a desk, hands on keyboard, head bent forward) for 20 years may not currently be able to bring her elbow up into ideal entry position during the recovery swing. She might have a seemingly fixed-curve thoracic spine, but through the gentle rehabilitative actions of recovery swing drills, her tissues will loosen and lengthen, her musculature will develop and balance out, and her range of motion will expand into the full expression that she is, as a human, entitled to – this has nothing to do with ‘body type,’ it is a mobility issue. She may not start her training with full capabilities but a good train program will show her how to expand her body’s capabilities to its full healthful range for human beings.

So, training plans need to be designed with the specific physical improvement objectives, and the truly unchangeable physical limitations in mind.

And within those considerations, there is the person inside to consider…

#4 – Psychological Conditions

We definitely do not want to underestimate the importance of good psychological conditions for performance, but we first apply psychology in the context of the more inflexible laws that determine how the swimming problem can be solved. Even psychologists (I have heard), as a matter of best practice, consider physical roots and solutions to their patient’s problems solutions before working on a purely cognitive or chemical interventions (as noted by Professor Ronald D. Siegel Psy.D. in The Great Courses – The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being. I think I heard the quote in Lecture #12 of the audio version of the course. My swimmer-psychologist friends reading might chime in on this and I am expecting your comments!).

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Psychology is the realm where solutions become divergent* – where an array of solutions is often the better approach to allow better fit for the complex variety of human experience. When dealing with the mind and personality of the swimmer, wisdom is the application of knowledge and insight to make a unique solutions that fits this person, in this place and time.

Even here we must differentiate between:

  1. psychological principles that apply to all humans
  2. personality types that attempt to represent the variety of human expression and individual uniqueness

Now, we get down to the point where personality does play an important role – in guiding how the person interfaces with the three preceding zones. Her psychological condition sets the tone of her relationship with physics, physiology and her personal physical conditions, but it does not excuse her from dealing with them. A swimmer’s personal style needs to align with physics and physiology and express itself through those. Consider the athletes we see who blow us away with their speed and their beauty of movement. They seem to have tapped into the best of both worlds and harmonized them – the material world and the mental one.

We may easily agree on certain attitudes that lead to better performance and attitudes that lead to worse. We know these apply to ALL humans, and are not so dependent on personality. They deal with human psychology in general. An understanding of these should be built into the value system of the coaching program.

But then there is a person’s individual communication style, her personality, her preferences for how to process information and respond to it, how to interface with the water, with her own body, with her coach, with the other participants, etc. This should be nurtured through the art of coaching.

This is where the practice plan becomes even more uniquely personalized to each swimmer, even the coach/swimmer relationship. A swimmer needs to find a program/coach that definitely satisfies the first three zones, then empowers her positive attitude and also enables her personal expression and helps her enhance it in that fourth zone.

In Conclusion

So, when we listen to the advice from some coach or program, we can consider how well it covers all four zones to provide us with a thorough solution to the swimming problems. After some time of exposure to a coach or program we may have a sense of which zones they cover well and which ones they may be weak in.

Some programs may have a super encouraging and kind coach, but be weak in understanding how the human body works, or not know why we do the stroke a certain way. While another program may have engineer-like coach or ex-pro swimmer who can explain how the physics is suppose to work, and can demonstrate it all himself (or back when he was a champion), but he can’t pass those skills on to people who are not talented like he was.  It’s pretty hard to be competent in all four zones – no one starts out that way – but to pursue strength in all four is what is meant by being a professional, especially one with a continual personal improvement attitude.

We may readily see how different programs, different coaches will have styles of their own and attract certain kinds of people and not attract other kinds. I think we want it to be like this  (variety is good, to a point). It is hard to imagine a program that would be psychologically universal to all kinds of athletes. But I am arguing that variety belongs mostly in Zone #4. When it comes to Zone #3, #2, and #1 (in that order) there should be less and less room for variation – except for those looking to start a revolution! For the professional trainer these days physical and physiological science knowledge applied to swimming is becoming so accessible even to the non-specialist. As swimmers, we need to find a program, to find a coach that understands how the physical universe and the humans in it work, what are the common obstacles and the best (= safest + powerful + sustainable) solutions to our swimming problems.


* I want to give credit to the late economist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher in his book “A Guide For The Perplexed” for providing this powerful and useful understanding of convergent and divergent solutions and their relationship to lower and higher realms of knowledge.

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