Finding Acceleration Again
The other day I was helping one of my students, whose challenging life circumstances in the last few months had regretfully kept him away from the pool too much. He was in need of tune up on some skills that were progressing previously, but after months away he’d lost some ground – specifically, he’d lost the effect of acceleration on each stroke. We were working on reviving the connecting of his torso rotation to the catch, to feel it empowered by the rotation. We were working through the focal points that compose this stroke intention: Hold the water firmly with the shapely catch arm, and press against the water with the rotation of the torso, which we might say, ‘pull with the hip’ to give a specific reference point on that turning torso.
The greater objective is to hold a point in the water and slide the body forward past that point – or more specifically, hold that point in the water with the arm on one side, transfer that resistant force through the torso rotation, and into the lead arm of the other side of the body to deliver that force into streamlined forward motion, taking you past the catch point. The better the catch shape, the more resistant force is available for transfer. The better that torso rotation is connected and timed, the more force is transferred and more smoothly. The better the timing of the entry and extension, the better the Skate Position, the more that force is transformed into forward motion.
It takes great perception to make this connection and refine it, but once you do, it is profound in its effect on the sense of power you can transfer through the body, into forward motion. When done well, you feel noticeable acceleration on each stroke. It is not only effective in making longer, faster strokes, it feels wonderful too.
Through a carefully designed series of incrementally more complex drills, this swimmer was reawakening his awareness of this connection and gaining consistent control over it. But it was still very easy to let it slip away, if he let his mind get ahead of the moment. And, that is the tendency we guard against when crafting a series of drill activities with incrementally increasing complexity. These are meant to train both the body and the attention. The supreme challenge is to stay present in this stroke and make it the best stroke you possibly can. As you gain mastery of attention and control in this simple activity, then you can graduate to the next incrementally more complex activity. In this way, your neuromuscular control and your attention get programmed deeply.
Toward the end, I gave him this final task:
Start with Superman (1 second), then pull into Skate, and be fully present with that moment, your attention fully on producing that synchronized catch + rotation, which you will feel in the core. If you execute the action as you intended, only then are you permitted to take a second stroke and attempt to execute it again. And then stop.
Stay Fully Present, In This Stroke
Even if he was successful on both, I had him stop after just one switch. Why? Because I was training him to stay fully present in each stroke, as if it is the only stroke he will take. And, he would only be rewarded with a second stroke if he gave the first stroke his best attention. He would notice and I would notice if he did or not.
At first, he got excited and took a third stroke against my instruction, though his second wasn’t that good. I kindly pointed this out, ad corralled him back to doing just two. I appreciate that he trusted my guidance enough to follow my instructions from there on, because I had an important reason for having him do the activity in this particular way.
He was practicing in such a way to make every stroke count, and to habitually make every stroke count. A series of marvelous strokes starts with the first marvelous stroke, and that doesn’t often happen by accident. You have to be fully present with that stroke in order to train your body to do it. Do this enough, and eventually, after tens of thousands of successful, mindful repetitions, your body will be able to do it without you consciously having to focus on it. You have to earn that state of automatic, consistent precision. And you will.
As he got going in this task, once I saw him achieved that connection on both the first and the second stroke, for several repetitions, then I let him add a third stroke under the same conditions and work for a while on that. And then add a fourth stroke, and so on.
Correcting And Protecting
One of the mistakes we make, which degrade the quality of our training, is to let our attention ‘swim ahead’ of the action we are controlling right now in this moment. We get caught anticipating the breathing stroke coming up a moment later. We wonder what split time we’ll arrive at the wall ahead. We feel fatigue and a little anxiety arising because of it. We are counting how many lengths are left until this repeat or this set is over. We get caught up in concern about the future product, when staying present in the action right now, correcting or protecting to make it as best as it can be, is the very thing that makes the desired outcome in the future more likely to happen. The future product is dependent on the quality of movement we control in this moment right now.
Obviously, staying present to protect or correct the action right now, requires training to know what focal points are most important for helping you maintain those qualities in the stroke that make it more likely for you to produce that desired outcome at the end. So, you need to be present with attention and to have a short list of very specific focal points that keep the vulnerable points of your stroke on track. Your attention remains on the specific part of the body you’ve chosen, with one or two very specific focal points to receive feedback and send corrective or protective commands.
In the middle of the action of this stroke right now, you are sensing how the movements are going, and assessing the feedback of what’s happening right now. When something is right you note what action you did to make it that way, so you may replicate that again on the next stroke. When something is wrong you note what action (or inaction) you did to make it that way, so that you may correct that on the next stroke. When you get to the wall for a rest, you don’t let attention wander. Instead, you immediately review and assess the series of strokes you just experienced, and based on the feedback, set a new corrective or protective intention for each stroke on the next repeat. Then when you start that next repeat, you discipline yourself to stay present with each stroke, as if it is the only stroke you will take.
My swimmer came to the lesson with body parts all moving generally as they were trained to do individually. He had not lost that. His body was moving along down the lane, but looked like it was merely plowing through the water. There was no acceleration in those strokes, like there was some months before. But once we tuned up this synchronization of the catch, torso and entry/extension, he took fewer strokes, slide farther per stroke and moved faster, with no additional power per stroke. Though once he regained this inner connection, he could add more power with a much better reciprocal effect.
This came from restoring attention to the present moment of the stroke, tuning in to the specific focal point which would activate the connection, and staying loyal to that intention for each and every subsequent stroke, until his body remembered what to do again.
Photo used by licensed permission from 123rf.com
Whether Sitting, Walking, or Swimming
If you’ve done some guided sitting meditation practice before, you may notice the similarities in how we pay attention to the in-breath, and pay attention to the out-breath – how we pay attention to this breath right now, not the one that just happened, or the one to come in just a moment. This is the most elementary form of training to be present in this moment right now. Though, in sitting meditation, we are often practicing the discipline of letting go of reaction (see response inhibition), of refraining from doing anything, in order to achieve a better state of open awareness and control. While in swimming, we are obviously trying to construct and maintain certain movement patterns that require effort. If you’ve done some walking meditation as well, then this may be even more similar.
If you are noticing how much people are losing control over their attention in this modern digital device addicted age, then more than ever you may see how we can benefit from training our attention to stay in this moment now, with the real, live sensations and interactions with people nearby and with our environment. Using our stroke training as meditation could be a legitimate and convenient form of attention training that would serve us outside the pool as well.