This continues from Part 1 of One Stroke Technique For Everyone?

Improve What Is Improvable

Let’s consider some of the features that could be improved if an athlete were motivated to do so:

  • soft-tissue and joint immobility
  • low flexibility
  • low strength
  • poor coordination (precision) of movements
  • slow speed of movements
  • less than ideal body composition
  • poor fitness
  • weak attention
  • poor attitude
  • lack of understanding

If our swimmer could possibly improve some feature of her body, her stroke or her mindset, then we have to assess how motivated she may be to do it, or how open to being motivated she might be. How likely is it that she could work on that improvement, in terms of her time for additional practice, her understanding of how to change, her access to supplemental help (like physical therapy), and her attitude about making changes? We may permit a compromise when it seems too costly or too unlikely this person will do what is necessary to make that change.  But we’ll still explain the cost of the compromise, rather than deny there is any.

And, the knowledgeable coach has an opportunity to persuade and improve this athlete’s motivation to change, when change may initially be met with resistance.


When Change Is Hard

If this practical consideration of the ‘cost of making the change’ is the intent behind promoting different variations of the stroke for different personalities or body types, then I could see an argument for it. But if the compromise is made because the coach doesn’t understand the costs associated with those variations, or doesn’t know how to affect those improvements, or doesn’t know how to motivate swimmers to change when change is hard, then I would see this as a professional short-coming. Certainly, physical therapists and strength trainers would not give up so easily and let their patients compromise. These professionals have an ethical mandate to get people moving in the safest and strongest way possible, according to their current scientific understanding for how the body works best. I wish more swim and run coaches felt this mandate as well.

Ethical considerations aside, just consider how well a compromised approach would work in the realm of martial arts training, for example. A fighter who develops a habit of deviating from the fundamental principles in his practice is going to get pummeled by the opponent who doesn’t.

Even with all the varieties of martial arts we have seen there are still physical fundamentals that all of them adhere to. When masters are leading their students, we don’t see them breaking them up into groups according to their personalities or body types, do we? No, they are all urged to conform to the ideal because physics has laws that those students must learn to work with before developing any individual idiosyncrasies.

Photo by Thao Le Hoang on Unsplash

Fortunately, unlike martial arts, a swimmer’s work is against water which is a consistently predictable ‘opponent’, though I would not prefer to view it in an oppositional way. The laws of physics for moving through water are applied universally, immediately, impersonally, without discrimination, without mercy. So, the swimmer does well to study and conform to them regardless of her personality or style. Working against the laws simply exhausts and wears out the body sooner.

But it makes sense to me that programs that give people excuses to compromise would flourish in this society that loves to seek out hacks and shortcuts for what otherwise must come from patient and persistent work. 


Careful Modifications For Unimprovable Features

Now let’s consider some features that may not be improved:

  • less-than-ideal length (or proportions) of body parts
  • some kinds of structural damage (to bones, joints)
  • some kinds of tissue damage
  • some kinds of neurological damage
  • some kinds of age-related limitations
  • some forms of ‘hard-headedness’ (a write that one half-serious, half jokingly)

See, this second list is not very long. 

If the swimmer cannot improve a particular feature, then with acknowledgement that there is some price to pay for deviating from the ideal, we help her to carefully modify her stroke to work within her limitations.

The first consideration is keeping her body safe. Any change away from the ideal has to be made with careful consideration for how that change in the movement pattern will affect her tissues and joints, not just in a single movement, but in thousands of repetitive movements, over years and decades.

Unfortunately, this concern for wear-and-tear does not seem to be a priority in elite athletics where the pursuit of a podium a few months or few years ahead is more important than having a well-functioning body for the decades after that. And, more tragically, though it is given ample lip-service, the priority of longevity and health is lacking in the age-group and ‘go-hard’ adult programs trying to imitate those elite programs. But for you who value longevity in your body, you must make safe-and-strong movement a priority and work with a program that does not merely give lip-service, but demonstrates an approach that aligns with those principles. 

Each Piece Is Critical To The Whole

Every skill we teach has a critical role to play in the efficient stroke, in terms of physics and physiology. Each moment of the ideal stroke sets things up for the action in the next moment. All the parts of the stroke we teach are inter-dependent with other parts. If we permit a compromise at some point in the stroke then it affects another part. It is critical that the coach understand how a compromise at one moment sets up the possibility of trouble in the next moment of the stroke, or on the other side of the body at the same moment. Each part is feeding or supporting or responding to other parts. You can’t randomly mix and match, tweak a few things, and leave some things out then expect to get the same superior results that all the parts working together can achieve.

The swimmer and the coach need to understand that no two variations of the stroke are equal. If you see two competing swimmers (in freestyle, for example), with apparently different stroke variations, one is costing more than the other, in terms of energy cost and wear-and-tear on the body, even if the variations seem to fit their body types. Why? Because physics does not care what your body type or personality is. Thermodynamics does not award a tie between two differently shaped boats. Which ever one causes less turbulence, and less internal conflict and friction in the body is the one that is more energy efficient and more mechanically safe (less wear and tear). If it could be measured, we would see that one variation costs more than the other, even if the accomplish the same thing. The swimmer and coach really need to know where those costs are in each variation and make compromises with great care.   

As I explained in Judging Stroke Advice we must first work on conforming the body to physics, within the constraints of physiology (specifically, safe mechanics), and only after we have taken all practical steps to do that, do we then help the swimmer to make adjustments that fit their unique physical and mental situation.

Of course, while we do this, the learning process we take them through recognizes the differences in learning styles and in attention-span, and sets things up to work better for that person. But the method is still aiming for the ideal movement pattern as far as we can get them there. 


You may view all three parts of One Stroke Technique For Everyone? Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

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