Did you know that your skin houses the extremities of your brain?
Yes. The nerve endings (all various kinds) covering every square centimeter of your skin are extensions of the brain itself, not a separate organ. All those nerve endings are in constant contact with water flowing over the skin, detecting temperature, pressure, friction, etc. That is critical feedback for the swimmer. We technically regard it as ‘subjective’ feedback because it is processed by our brain and not some inerrant ‘scientific’ instrument – but sensitivity to and accurancy in how that information is interpreted can be refined to a point where – for all practical purposes for a swimmer – it is objective.
And you’ve heard of the word proprioception? Technically, it means your ability to tell exactly what your body is doing without having to look at what your body is doing. Interoception is your ability to read information within your body and flowing through it (which bypasses your external sensory organs). It is the presence of these skills in high refinement in the most graceful athletes and artists that puts us in awe of them. Yet these are not secondary, elective skills that only super-people can or should develop. You would need serious medical intervention to stay alive if you did not have some level of ability in these two areas. They are critical skill sets for any athlete to raise above the level of struggle and mediocrity.
For instance, if you have to lift your head and look forward to see where you are going or what track your hands are taking during the extension, then this is a sign of weakness in your proprioception. Using the eyes for assurance in what is happening is a replacement for proprioception.
Drills are used to build proprioception. When you have refined your proprioception you will be able to feel that your hand enters the water and extends forward just right without having to look at it. You will be able to feel that your spine is aligned and you are swimming straight as an arrow without having to look for some external assurance. You will be able to feel your legs streaming behind placing a compact kick within the envelope.
There are stages to developing this proprioception in drills, and it works best with the help of a partner or coach. Imagine yourself in some drill position:
- Someone directs my body part into correct position so I can feel the difference between ‘wrong’ position and ‘right’ position.
- Someone shows me (by demonstration) the difference between ‘wrong’ position and ‘right’ position to I can form a mental map of it.
- Someone mirrors for me (or shows me video) of what I am doing wrong, and where to make the change so that I can do it right so I can recalibrate my brain’s perception.
- Someone gives me verbal feedback (play-by-play) as I am doing the movement so I can make corrections in the middle of the movement.
- I recognize the feel of water, the ease in my body, and the absence or presence of certain natural forces when I am doing the movement well.
- I recognize the changes in the feel of water and the natural forces if I deviate from correct even a little bit.
Drills are meant to build your relationship with the water, with the natural forces and with your body. They are explicitly NOT about turning you into a swimming machine, a robot that moves through the motions in a mechanical way. Everything in the drills is meant to turn on and strengthen your subjective skills of proprioception and interoception. So you will begin with external help and feedback from a coach, a friend, from a video camera, or from your own eyes, but all that external help and feedback should be guiding your towards using your own internal senses to find and hold excellent swimming position and movement patterns.
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And this is exactly why wearing a wetsuit can make swimmers surprising uncomfortable. Yes confidence rises from the bouyancy gained but the nerve endings beneath the skin are no longer able to feel the water and the brain becomes confused at the lack of feedback and is unable to instruct the body movements learnt in the pool.