I have a few students like this: they have been practicing faithfully for months if not years. They have the expected pattern of the stroke seemingly memorized. At first glance one might say, ‘Yeah, your stroke looks great!’. But these swimmers tell me they can sense that something is not quite right, they feel they go slower than they should be. I notice that they are indeed going slower than the amount of power they apply suggests they should be going. The pieces of the stroke are there, but assembled with what I would call a rigid, mechanical connection. They move through the stroke cycle, but it is more like a machine than a fluid wave of motion that creates ease and acceleration on each stroke.
When I see this ‘mechanically-correct’ stroke it reveals the need that swimmer has to go inward and find what is holding her back from more.
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When you stop at the wall, look up at the coach and ask the question (or just give that ??? expression on the face), “Coach, did that look correct?” the answer you might get is only a small part of the information you need.
You may better ask, “Coach, this is what I felt inside when I did that. Is that what I am suppose to feel?” This is a much more important answer to get from your coach. To blend what it looked like with what it felt like is making the best of both forms of feedback.
To the degree your coach can answer that ‘feel-like’ question for you each time, in language you can connect with, you can make progress in those lessons. That is the challenge for me in each teaching session – to speak the internal-sensation-language of my swimmer.
As a coach, standing on the outside, I can guide my swimmer near the result she seeks by offering advice on how to adjust the outward appearance of her stroke. But if we only deal with the external appearance, the swimmer may get a technically correct stroke pattern, but one that lacks the fluidity and speed she seeks. It moves mechanical, robotic, rather than organic and smooth. There is power but little acceleration. The most critical parts of the stroke, that ones that make the beauty and speed happen, occur inside the body and manifest outwardly. It will eventually be misleading if one takes an external-appearance-only approach to swimming (or coaching).
This internal-swimming skill is something that cannot be learned by watching and imitating a beautiful (and fast) stroke seen in a video. Those are the external characteristics – the product of many things working very well inside the admired swimmer.
Can you imagine trying to learn how to do tai chi or golf, or pay violin by watching a video demonstration of the external movements alone?
Yes, it can be done, but only so far. Anyone who actually does those activities really well knows that the greatest part of what is making their amazing performance possible will not come by imitating external mechanics alone. There is a control over and flow of power inside the body and inside the mind that makes a performance beautiful to watch and powerful in its effect.
This is what we seek out a master in those arts and disciplines for – to help us learn and master that art inside ourselves. It requires a language for communicating with one’s body.
More and more, I am looking for ways to take my swimmers beyond appearance into the internal experience of amazing swimming. It is very abstract and personal territory. In TI we use a set of widely comprehensible Focal Points (in English) which help a swimmer become aware of things happening inside the body so they can learn to control them in a more productive way. These have been developed and tested on hundreds of thousands of people over 3 decades so they are not accidental or haphazard terms – they are a very mature product of experience. However, I work in a cross-cultural and multi-lingual setting. Language has limitations. Then there is the great variety in how each person tries to communicate with his own body – so I am constantly looking for better ways to translate what I experience into the personal language of the one trying to learn to do this same thing. I am attempting to build a bridge from his experience of swimming to mine. This can only be done by working together, coach and swimmer, to lay out a language for communicating with his own body that works for him, or teach him how to use mine.
- Recognize that there is a difference between being mechanically correct in imitating a stroke and actually being fluent with it. Ultimately, you need to recognize and produce the correct sensations inside your body in order to produce the external appearance you expect. You will get only so far trying to ‘swim like Shinji’ by only watching his video on Youtube, with no understanding of what he is doing on the inside to produce that amazing flow of energy through the water.
- Realize that your coach can provide part of the solution but she cannot provide all of it, nor can she complete it in you. Nothing will replace the need you have to put in the time, the mindful attention, and the trial-error process to learn to communicate better with your own body.
- Impatience for external results (speed) will most likely slow down or restrict your ability to achieve it. The better you can communicate with your body, the better position you will be in to produce the results you seek. You must work hard and invest the time, but invest that time and effort wisely at building internal control which leads to external performance. Remember the classic martial arts and elite military mantra: Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast. Slowing down allows you to increase complete control of what’s happening inside the body as well as outside. Once complete control is in place, speeding up gets easier to achieve, even unavoidable.
- If you fall in love with the pleasurable sensations of moving through the water more easily – finding the path of least resistance – and grow passionate about increasing that pleasure, this love will, because of the laws of physics and physiology, take you in the direction of faster swimming. Smooth swimming is indicated by pleasure. Smoother swimming sets up faster swimming.
- Start with the language provided to you by your chosen training program, then personalize it to your own style of body-communication – use terms and imagery that make sense to you, that allow you to recognize and gain control over specific parts of your body. Dialog with your coach to get a translation of his sensations into your own body language so you can get acquainted with them and produce them yourself.
- Keep in mind that You are You – you are not me, you are not Shinji, or any other swimmer you would like to imitate. Your body, your mind, your stage in life – this is what you have to work with, and it is good to accept your Self and your situation and work with what you have. Enjoy the improvement process from there. This is where the treasure and pleasure is found: in being You and being present in this moment. Working to make yourself a better swimmer inside, better than you were an hour ago, will make the outside steadily improve as a byproduct.
- And, it is possible to go far on your own – some people can intuitively go farther than others. But eventually, we can all benefit and go much farther when we seek out a master to teach us what we can’t see on our own.
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Very insightful blog. Maybe the hardest skill for some to learn (like me). Being able to have an inner awareness of what is going on will help in all facets of your life. Some can do this naturally, but I struggle with the actual concept of doing it–rely too much on luck or some innate talent for certain things.
I have read and reread this article several times. Is there any way to incorporate this inner awareness outside of the pool? For instance if you are taking a walk and instead of just thinking of all the things you have to do when you get back home, try to feel the wind on you face or notice how you are breathing, or any little thing that might affect your walk. This is sort of like the dryland exercises that we do outside of the pool
I guess what I am asking is how do you develop this inner awareness sense. some people come by this naturally, but others go through life without noticing what is happening in their body.
We may say that meditation, at its core, is the practice of being mindful, or rather, being attentive in a non-judgmental way of what is happening. This mindfulness can be practiced stationary or moving. I think the stationary practice is ultimately meant to serve the active practice of keeping mindfulness in all daily activity, every day of life.
I am merely a kindergartener at it myself outside the pool, though I feel even a kindergarten level application of the practice is enormously helpful to my daily emotional stability and smoother sailing through tough times, and just for making better decisions in general, big and small ones.
I am sure there are hundreds of excellent references for guidance and advice out there – and hopefully a source or two for even those who may be concerned whether the practice or the teacher lines up with their preferred spiritual vein. I’ve gathered insights from a range of influences, TI being only a piece of that.
I might recommend Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits site and blog – http://zenhabits.net/start/
I also recommend The Great Courses: Practicing Mindfulness course. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/practicing-mindfulness-an-introduction-to-meditation.html
I am an Audible subscriber so I downloaded the audio of this course as part of that subscription. 24 lectures at over 12 hours. He provides a step-by-step approach to learning to practice mindfulness.
Maybe these suggestions deserve a blog article too.