Every swimmer I’ve ever asked has agreed that they have one side that is easier to breathe on than the other. And just about every swimmer I have ever observed shows some sort of difference between their left side stroke and the right side.
It is very common and it is quite understandable why virtually every human has asymmetry and imbalance in our swimming. But this is not reason enough to live with it. There are far too many benefits and advantages for the swimmer who works to even things out.
Initially, looking at my stroke and even at my breathing you may have a hard time noticing any difference between the two sides. But I have been curious why my breathing to the right is so easy and seems like I have all the time in the world, while on the left I feel rushed and sometimes don’t get all the air I hoped for. At a glance everything else seems the same, yet I must be about 1/2 centimeter deeper when I breathe to the left than to the right and this makes a great difference.
And then there is the catch – my right arm catch does not feel quite as solid throughout the catch phase as the right side does. Yet, on the underwater video you would be hard-pressed to see a difference in the two in normal speed replay.
But I can FEEL the difference… and it bugs me. I can feel the consistent force and ease on one side and the minute amount of struggle on the other. The kaizen attitude urges me to figure out why and begin a process to correct it. I want this side to be as effective and smooth as the other – both for the effect on my performance, but more importantly, for the shear satisfaction that comes from the practice of mastery itself.
So I came to the sea today for my swim with an open mind on what I might do with that time. The glass smooth surface was perfect for fine tuning technique work. It took only a few minutes cutting through that heavenly calm water to notice these two imbalances. So I spent 45 minutes with uninterrupted strokes examining different details that were creating the effect on my good side then comparing them to the same points on the left to find where the discrepancies might be. All the while I was cruising along at a respectable pace, keeping warm enough, and getting a good ‘workout’ no doubt – but I gave little thought to that. I was totally absorbed in my corrections and having a great time.
Oh, I found a few particular things and worked on them, but what I want to point out here is this process of examination I engaged in.
I didn’t merely look for what was wrong on my weak side. I first examined what was working so well on the strong side, then took those observation, one at a time, over to the weak side to see where I was achieving the same and where I was not. Looking for the flaw in my technique was a process of elimination – I (somewhat) systematically worked my way through different features of my strong side technique and then compared them to the weak side. By this I found the specific parts of the stroke that didn’t feel the same. When I found those points I then started examining the points just before it to find how I might be setting things up for that error and find the actual point where I needed to affect the correction.
It is important to note that I might feel something wrong here, but actually I created the problem a moment or two before when I set things up there. And this is how we need to examine the stroke – not as a moment in time, but a connection of moments that affect each other. Each piece is a set up for the next – and it all becomes a fluid composition… or a clumsy struggle.
It can sound so technical and complicated – but this is the essence of continuous personal improvement – kaizen. And in TI we lay out a systematic way to unfold that complexity, break it down into essential components, and build it back up piece by piece in order of priority. In this way complexity is achieved by simplicity.
So in my kaizen practice, first of all, I noticed and acknowledged that something wasn’t quite right, or that something could be better. Then I looked, not first for what was wrong, but for what was right! I needed some reference point, something to measure by – and my strong side conveniently provided the measuring stick for the other. Then (in the example of my catch) I started working my way through each section, each detail – starting at fingers, to wrist, to forearm, to rotation timing, to the path of the catch hand, to the flick of the foot – I was aiming to match in the weak side, point by point, what I could feel happening so well on strong side.
For most people, or most of the time, you and I don’t have a coach standing there to point these things out – and in the level of details I am working on (that you will eventually want to work on also) an external coach is going to have a very hard time recognizing them as well as I can feel them myself.
You and I have to do this kind of coaching for ourselves much of the time, if not all of the time. But this is not a bad thing. Actually, YOU are your best coach, or you should realize that you are entitled to be. A good external coach has great value, but ultimately your best swimming is going to emerge because you develop a feel for the water that no outside source can do for you. A good coach will lead you to the skills that develop this the feel but he can never replace The Feel for you. And reaching your highest potential in swimming most certainly depends on this Feel.
All that time you spend in the water is potential coach-training – i.e. SELF-coach-training. You can tune out and pass up that opportunity practice after practice, or you can tune in while you swim and get some of the best coach training on the planet. Every TI workshop, camp, and lesson is meant to pass on to you the skills for observing, learning and correcting your technique and enhance your performance so you can be your own best coach, and do it for the rest of your life, and even in other areas of your life.
So why come to a TI coach then, if we are only trying to work ourselves out of a job? Because TI Coaches are meant to model this lifestyle of continual personal improvement. We are passing on to you the lessons we learn on the path, perhaps a few steps ahead of you. We are foremost ‘coaches-who-swim’, swimmers practicing and proving everything we teach. We invite you to join us on this path of mastery and in this pursuit of swimming pleasure.
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Mat, how would you attack something that is injury related rather than just form? I have a minor neck problem on my left side. It is not as flexible due to an old injury. So I work on really good shoulder rotation to get me to the same point as my strong side. Any thoughts?
My wife is an occupational therapist who specializes in those with neurological and neuro-muscular limitations. What I’ve learned from her and have had verified working with a few with these kind of limitations is that activity that ‘strains’ the body and the muscles, movements that are forced rather than relaxed aggravate the problem and interrupt their ability to acquire skill. So when we work with these conditions we have to emphasize smooth, relaxed movement at all times. It’s the relaxation that opens everything up for these people and in many cases, for those who have injuries.
One problem is that people do the drills, or try to reshape some part of the stroke and try ‘too hard’ to make it happen. The effort is noble, but the manner of execution is problematic. Relax is not an emotional notion, it’s the physical key to unlocking the body so that it is able to move freely in the fullest range of motion.
I see this fairly often, now that I look for it- people will try swinging the elbow forward toward the head and it will get to about the shoulder and then they can’t swing the elbow any further, then claim they don’t have very flexible shoulders. But I can swing mine all the way above my head. The difference? I relax the whole shoulder joint, scapula and clavical together slide easily forward and allow the elbow to swing so high, with no strain. So when I see this ‘tight’ shoulder, or extremely limited range of motion I step in with my hands like a therapist and have the swimmer turn off their muscles, RELAX, and let me move the elbow and shoulder for them. And in a couple careful tries I can often show them how the joint will slide a lot further allowing their elbow to reach the ear or farther, with no strain, when they relax and let the whole unit move together. Its about learning to control the firing of muscle units- turning off some, turning on others, and turning them on to a certain degree and in a certain sequence. TI is built on the same foundation that therapeutic methods are (hence my wife and my passion for developing a service using it to help people with disabilities).
I am NOT an therapist however, so take my comments for your case under the shadow of your medical advice.
I wonder if you were to lay on a bed (or better, on a massage table) and relax your neck totally- and if a careful therapist were to take your head in her hands and gentle rotate it, how far could it go without strain or catch? This would be a way of discovering how much the restriction in your neck is structural versus how much is tissue related. If hard structure is bumping into hard structure then you may have a limitation you need to live with. But if soft tissue is getting tight, causing the restriction then there may be hope for reshaping that tissue to permit a wider range of motion.
Another thing- I don’t ‘stretch’ my shoulders and arms like a lot of swimmers do, yet I have a very nice (though not extreme) range of motion. I attribute it to the relaxation that is built into the drills and now into my stroke that have allowed my shoulders and neck to loosen up and move more freely in a wider range. My wife also recently pointed me toward an article that described the benefits of ‘dynamic stretching’ versus static stretching, and it made sense in light of what we do in TI drills and deck rehearsals.
With range of motion also comes the necessity of building stability in the joint. 20 year old (pre-TI) shoulder injuries due to butterfly have made my shoulders vulnerable, so at any time I have modified my technique as with a more vertical elbow on the catch, or as I have resumed butterfly (the TI way), I have done it so carefully to build the new range of motion in small increments so the muscle supporting tendons and ligaments have time to gently lengthen and strengthen in proportion to the increase in muscle load. Now I can swim kilometers with a moderately vertical forearm catch, or 50 meters continuous smooth, low-profile butterfly (though I still keep a very careful eye on the shoulder tendons).
So short answer after the long one- explore what is restricting the range of motion in the neck, isolate the pieces of motion, and experiment with relaxation and movement. You may spend more time in Skate Position just working on careful rotation and breathing together to even out the weak side.