Next time you’re at the pool or waterway, take a look at the swimmers around you. It is not hard to see the difference between those who swim like ‘machines’ and those that swim like ‘fish’- those that are mechanical in their movements, plowing through versus those that are fluid and quiet- slipping along smoothly.
Nevermind how fast or slow you think you swim. When you swim do you feel like a machine or the feel like a fish? And while watching, which one would your friend’s say you are like?
Machines don’t FEEL, they just DO. They move by some external program. To a swimming machine the water is a foreign environment, a barrier, an enemy even- something that must be overcome, to be shoved out of the way. A machine does not notice what the water feels like. It is concerned with power output and endurance, getting to the other side.
Fish, on the other hand, are all about FEEL, and what they DO is an intelligent, skillful response to it. For a fish water is the very means by which it can travel, explore, exist. Water is the air that a fish breathes and flies in. Water is something a fish works intimately with, and flows around in. For a fish water is life.
A fish swims by the feedback it receives from millions of nerve cells under the scaly skin communicating intricate knowledge about the water: temperature, density, pressure, flow, current. From this information the fish’s instincts take over and guide it to flow and slip through the water in the best way for its type and for the purpose at hand.
It is not just a cliche to say that TI teaches us to swim like fish.
I was working with a friend in the water this last week. He’s had various coaching input, including some TI instruction over the years, but still had not found the smooth stroke he knew he should have. So he looked me up. In three sessions working together it became clear that it was not the perfection of the mechanics that would bring him into that amazing stroke, it was a FEEL for the water that he needed to focus on. So we went about changing his perspective.
Ultimately, this is what the drills and focus points are meant to do- to build the swimmer’s deep awareness of the water and his relationship to it, to use all those nerve cells in the skin to recognize the water moving around his body, and work with the forces of his aquatic environment in a fluent, cooperative way.
So many people, slow and fast, execute their stroke like a machine, battling their way across the pool. And when they come to TI for their fix the first instinct is to master the mechanics of the drills to build more power into their ‘machine’. But the drills are meant to build the swimmer’s FEEL for the water, a sensitivity to the forces of gravity, buoyancy, and water pressure pressing on the body. The secret to superior results from drill work is not in the DO, but in the FEEL. The drills become much more powerful when this perspective is changed, and this is how the swimmer transitions from Swimming Machine to Fish.
The drills are not the point, merely the means to get to this ultimate intuitive skill- the fish-like feel for the water. We feel the forces of buoyancy and water’s density. We feel the flow of it around the surfaces of the skin. We feel it parting against the crown of the head, and the its hold behind the catch hand. We feel the pressure differences on the leading edge, the sides, underneath, and at the trailing edges of our body-vessel. We feel gravity pushing on any part that raises too far above the neutral line. And from this neurlogical feedback we adjust the body and the choreography of our stroke to better work with water and slide through it.
And during our swim, when we lose the feel for it in some moment, when we notice we are not ‘feeling’ as we should in the water, the drills and focus points are there as tools to help us find what’s wrong and get that feel back again.
I sometimes describe this process as building a relationship with the water. The drills are like communication tools enabling a swimmer to touch and test, to become intimately acquainted with how the water behaves, so he can build a sensitive, cooperative relationship with the forces of nature surrounding him.
Becoming like a fish in water is an exhilerating pursuit, worthy of all our practice time and attention. It is a pursuit that produces far superior experience and longetivity in the activity of swimming to any mechanical approach. Pursuing this intuitive feel for the water will change the experience of swimming from that of a mere sport to that of a fine, powerful art.