Anyone who’s been swimming a while will have some sort of a ‘normal’ stroke- a pattern of movement that is accepted and so familiar that we are able to ignore it and think about other things.

However, normal does not necessarily mean effective.

What we want is to automate the pattern of our stroke through careful repetition to where it becomes so easy that we can then turn our attention onto more complex aspects of our swim. But we want to make sure we are automating an effective stroke pattern, and we want to do it in such a way that we make a habit of continually checking back and making it better.

Walking is an example of something most of us have automated already. And the skill is continually being refined by the daily challenges of our foot-terrain. Yet, improving our stroke requires us to go seek out water, then to tune in, and actually challenge the stroke enough to discover how it needs to be improved. It’s too easy to check-in for our lap-swim hour but check out with our brain.

To develop a good stroke, and then to automate it requires intentionality and effort.

So for the purpose of this essay I will define normal then as both an ‘accepted familiar pattern’ and by the attitude- “ah, my stroke is good enough.”

If we are in pursuit of excellence we don’t accept normal and we certainly don’t tune out during our swims, ignoring our body, its movement patterns, and the water flowing over us.  We want to check in frequentlyto see if the current normal is as effective as it could be, and keep working on it.

Now, you might ask, how do I bump myself out of normal and check my own stroke patterns?

Part of this comes through developing a deep inner sensitivity to our body and the feel of water flowing over it. This is what advanced TI training provides.

Another part of this requires getting outside our own body- getting outside feedback from something and some one beyond myself. This can happen in a variety of ways:

  • stroke counting in a pool in combination with time or tempo measurements,
  • a mirror on the bottom of an endless pool to watch what you are doing with your catch and body alignment,
  • underwater video (or from the deck) to see yourself from different angles,
  • a coach watching you (or better yet, getting in the water with you to see up close, and underwater),
  • getting the coach (or fellow swimmer) to stand beside you and use touch to correct body positions and timing of movments as you swim by.

To improve our stroke we need feedback in various forms: measurement, touch-input, outside obersvation and comments, and watching other swimmers execute a pattern we’d like to imitate. These all send fresh, challenging signals to the brain giving us the opportunity to make things better.

It’s really hard to assess normal by our own feel alone because normal means, in essence, that we are desensitized to whatever normal is- we just don’t notice it very well until something different from normal comes along. This is why we need something to interrupt the normal patterns and send us information that causes normal to be challenged. This is our opportunity to experiment, test, and improve our pattern. (Yes, there are some deep social and cultural implications to this too- I live as a guest in a foreign country and am subject to opportunity this daily.)

When some new information threatens to take us outside the box of normal the very-human tendency is to defend normal and resist change- we like normal because it is so convenient after all. But the purpose of good feedback is to show us how we can be more effective. It helps to recognize this tendency to defend the status quo and develop an attitude and the habit of taking the risks to pursue positive change. 

I will touch on that and give a recent example of this from my own experience in my next essay…

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PS- even if not for the sake of better swimming, subjecting ourselves to challenge and change is an extremely beneficial form of mental and spiritual exercise. Like stretching the body to keep it agile into old age, so goes the brain and heart- if you don’t use it, you lose it.

I am a swimmer-philosopher at heart, after all.

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