Let me give you a short answer to the question in the title of this post:
Yes, there is a technical ideal we are aiming for, for every standard-equipped human swimmer. And, yet we recognize that there is so much variety in bodies that some compromise is often warranted. However, we are going to put in a lot of patient and skilled effort to help the swimmer safely conform to that ideal with the body they have, before excusing a deviation from it. We do this because we understand there is a price to be paid for every deviation. The more understanding, skilled and experienced the coach, the more open and dedicated to change the swimmer is, the farther toward ideal they may come.
Now, the basis of this question and answer…
Some months ago I sent out a request for questions from my audience that they wish they had answers for, or better answers for. I received this one from Alex in Singapore that I have pondered for a while…
Basically my question is: if you have 3 students with very different physical characteristics, should they be taught exactly the same TI principles or should there be a 10% tweak for each one? For example, if I have very long legs, should I continue to use a 2 Beat Kick or is it better to switch to a 6 Beat Kick? If I am a very slow swimmer with tempo at 1.45, should I increase my tempo to a more ‘acceptable’ level? If my back is arched [from spine deformity], what in my stroke technique should I emphasize, prioritize or do differently from other students?
I hesitated, not for lack of an answer, but wondering how to trim down an answer responsibly. I could write a book on this, and, scattered among over 500 posts in this blog, I probably have. I gave the shortest answer above, but I feel it deserves the explanation to follow.
Here are a few previous attempts I’ve made to outline thoughts on this topic, from a different angle:
In this post, rather than give an over-generalized answer for every situation, which we then could easily find exceptions to, what I continue to do is offer an outline of the complexity behind this topic so we can understand why a responsible answer requires some length. It may also help you see why we stick to our guns on teaching an ideal and how we make very thoughtful deviations from it, only if necessary.
And, let me point out right from the beginning, that when I use the word ‘ideal’ I refer to a shape or movement pattern that does permit some small range of variation without affecting the physiological integrity or the economy of action. But that range is quite small, the differences subtle. For the purpose of this discussion, I am including with the ideal those very small, acceptable variations which may not be easily detected by the untrained eye, and the larger, questionable variations in movement patterns which are obvious to an observer. So, when you read the word ‘variation’ from here on, it refers to the latter.
[Note: This discussion applies to all four competitive strokes – which we also have a marvelous way of teaching and training – though most of you reading this may be interested in freestyle only. Just understand that no matter the stroke style, every style is meant to take the swimmer forward through water, and that means physics determines how to do it at lowest cost. For each stroke style there is an ideal that is constructed according to the best of our current knowledge, in terms of physics and physiology, and this is what we aim for.]
Start With Universal Principles
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an alien scientist, unfamiliar with humans, who has suddenly dropped down at the local competitive pool during practice time (the Bondi Beach pool shown above would be an exceptional place for an alien to visit, no?). What would likely catch its attention first is how all the organisms churning up and down the pool look alike and move alike in the same general human way. Assuming an understanding of physics, in the quest to understand how humans swim, that alien would search for the common movement principles for all those creatures before it ever looked for the individual variations and the reasons behind them.
Likewise, in building skill and fitness, we always start with universal principles of physics and human movement, and after understanding and mastering those, we work on individual variations.
We first have to recognize that there are physical principles that all human swimmers must conform to, regardless of individual differences, if they want to move forward faster, and/or more economically (= less wasted energy and less wear-and-tear on the body). It doesn’t matter if they have all appendages or missing one or two. It doesn’t matter if they are flexible or have a neck problem, or a crooked spine. It doesn’t matter if they are short or tall, short arms or long, slender body or stout. Physics is physics and any vessel moving through water has to abide by the rules. Physics says that the better shaped the vessel, the more easily it moves forward in the water.
So every swimmer, regardless of individual differences, has to respect physics. Certain ways of moving the body do better at respecting physics and some do worse. No two different ways of moving are equal. Swimmer who create better shape require less energy to move forward.
Conform To Physics First
Standard equipped humans have body parts positioned in the same locations, which articulate in generally the same ways. It seems beyond dispute that first and foremost, swimmers need to be understand this, and learn how to get the body they have to conform the physical principles that allow that body to move forward more economically, which translates into moving more quickly. To the degree that you can get that body to conform to what physics requires, the easier and faster you can move forward. To the degree that you cannot or will not get that body to conform, you pay a price. It’s that simple. What is so difficult is actually measuring and proving definitively the price paid behind certain stroke variations because you can’t, to scientific satisfaction, honestly test fully-developed, but different stroke variations on the same test subject, because his body will be adapted to one stroke, locally efficient in that one, and not the other its being compared to. (So, we continue in this debate with words and anecdotes!)
Therefore, like in so many other sports and disciplines, we insist: be disciplined and master the fundamentals first. Only after integrating those, may you develop your individual variations without violating the principles.
Since humans, compared to their aquatic mammal cousins, are not shaped well for swimming efficiently, even the best among us suffer terrible percentage of wasted energy- like more than 90% – which means energy going toward something other than moving the human forward. So anything we can do to improve conformity to the demands of physics is going to help tremendously. Every compromise we make, however small, adds up to greater resistance and faster energy depletion, and possibly more wear-and-tear on the body.
Every Skill Has A Critical Role
Every single skill we teach for the standard stroke styles has a role in bringing the body into conformity to these principles. However varied in shape and size and starting condition our swimmers may be, we do have a ideal stroke for human bodies in mind – because physics points us to an ideal for vessels moving through water. We introduce every swimmer to the the full sequence of skills, which are all based on these physics principles. We don’t teach anything that is not based on them.
Where individuality comes in is when we guide that swimmer through the series and see that she might have a challenge in conforming in one particular skill or another. When she encounters a difficulty, we study the nature of it by running some experiments with drills and/or whole stroke. We need to get an idea of how much that difficulty is caused by something she could possibly improve in her body (whether immediately or over time), or how much it is something she cannot possibly improve.
When we run into a difficulty, we don’t simply give up and excuse the swimmer to swim anyway she pleases. It would be unheard of for a physical therapist or strength training instructor to handle a patient or student this way. Like they, we understand there is going to be a price to be paid for any deviation from that ideal. So we want to help her improve anything that can be improved, and then allow thoughtful deviations from the ideal to compensate for her individual limitations.