Recently, a TI Coach friend of mine attended a seminar given by a swim coach somewhat well-known in the US triathlon scene. My friend told me she went with an open mind and heart to learn from this coach with a different approach to swimming and I supported her, looking forward to hearing some new perspective myself.  

However, this coach, upon learning an attendee was a TI Coach, took pains to distort and discredit Total Immersion in front of the whole group. It would have been interesting if not useful to hear the criticism if this coach actually new what TI taught. But clearly she was ignorant of what was taught and practiced by our coaches and devoted practitioners. 

 

What’s The Big Deal With The Swing?

But let’s set the insults aside. Knowing that TI takes great care of performing the recovery swing in a particular way, one of this coach’s pieces of advice in the seminar was that “anything goes” on the recovery swing. She said it in a way that made it appear that she was using that aspect of the stroke to clearly differentiate herself from TI. Going on, she explained that swimming does not need to be pretty, just effective – as if there is no connection between appearance* and performance. In other words, get that arm forward, get it forward fast, because it does not matter what it looks like or how it gets there. Any way will do because, I presume, she sees so many different ways that fast tri swimmers are doing it. In her view, there seems to be no other purpose for that swinging arm than to get it forward so it can get back to the real work of pulling back underwater. 

*Note: ‘Appearance’ in this case refers to all those externally obvious details about the body’s use of energy and the body’s interaction with the water. There is a great deal of useful information presented visually, if one knows how to read it and respond to it.  

Describing the differences between competitor programsis normal and actually useful. Put-downs and distortions of competitor’s program is not. It’s a sign of immaturity or insecurity. What is troubling about this, coming from a coaching colleague of another viewpoint, is that such generalized statements (about the swing, for example) reveal a disconnect from the reality of physiology and physics that clearly apply to most other movement arts and sports. On land, it is regularly understood that superior movement is smooth and graceful, even at the fastest speeds. Just watch the fastest sprinters, or lifters, or those who throw objects. The movement looks efficient because it is efficient, and vice-versa. The farther a movement pattern is from the ideal, the less graceful that movement is because it is further from how the human body should move. The less graceful it is, the greater the risk of injury, wear-and-tear, and the greater risk of error and stumbling there is. The greater the forces involved in the movement are – greater in a single act or greater in an accumulating repetitive action – the more important precision is for performance and safety. Very, very, very few athletes get away with moving in such ugly ways, and they don’t get away with it for long in their careers, or don’t have a long career. 

 

There Are Consequences

Because the swimming action happens within the soft padding of water, where the consequence of wasted effort and imprecision are not easily noticed right away, it is wrongly assumed there are no consequences to imprecision, especially in the recovery swing. But it is so clear in physics and physiology that movements in the dense medium of water, and massively repetitious movements, have great consequence when done carelessly. Every engineer that works with aero or hydro-dynamics knows this. High speed planes, boats and submarines cannot afford to have imprecision in their shape. There are inferior ways to be shaped and to move and superior ways, in terms of resistance, of power, of energy-efficiency and safety, and this applies to machines as well as to humans. 

The shoulder joint can permit a wide range of movements – or specifically in this case, a wide range of recovery swing styles. But they are not equal in the energy involved for movement, they are not equal in the stress and danger they impose on that shoulder joint. Repeat that inferior movement thousands of times in a single event, and repeat that movement pattern tens of thousands of times each week, and in a few months or years you’ve got the recipe for break down. The fact that a few people have shoulders that can hold up to this abuse is the very reason those patterns should NOT be imitated. Yet many coaches continue to promote poor shoulder mechanics because the keep seeing fast swimmers using them and assume it is therefore safe, because no one is talking about how much those variant movement patterns are injuring athletes. 

The prevalence of poor shoulder mobility or muscular imbalance in newer or older athletes is often cited as a reason for permitting a variety of recovery swing styles. But if that compromised shoulder is then directed to use a less-than-ideal pathway for the swing, the shoulder is being set up for a new injury. No, we need to deal with the immobility or imbalance before loading that shoulder with a great deal of swimming. There are several important reasons that the recovery swing should be a shaped and directed a certain way and one needs to understand those and heed them.

 

Insult Upon Injury

The next insult imposed by the dominant swimming (or triathlon) culture is that injury and pain are a normal part of being a serious swimmer. There are a few who are lucky enough to have resilient joints or an instinct for movement that allow them to avoid injury. The rest who want to be accepted in the community just know that it’s part of the culture’s honor code to not complain about your pain, if you won’t brag about it. So, coaches in this mindset can get away with prescribing questionable movement patterns because if someone does get hurt by it, the swimmer can be blamed rather than the coach or training methodology. 

I want to state emphatically – NO. Injury and pain are a normal part of training only under ignorant or irresponsible coaching. If injury and pain have been tolerated in the programs you’ve experienced then that is a sign there is ignorance and irresponsibility in that program. If the coach does not even inquire if there are injuries or pain present among the athletes of that program, that is bad. 

If you are getting joint pain and injury caused by your swimming, or aggravated further by your swimming, then something is wrong. If the coach is not paying attention, or not caring, or not correcting, then something is wrong with that coach. It should not need to be this way for athletes who want to care for their bodies. There are indeed skilled specialists who can show you how to move your body in a way that accomplishes both performance and safety, though, you should clearly prioritize one over the other. 

Safety Is In The Details

How you swing your arm forward matters a great deal. You’ll be doing that tens of thousands of times per week, week after week, year after year. If that joint is channeling force and twisting at the same time, you’ve got the recipe for disaster. How it exits the water to begin the swing, the shape of the arm, the pathway of that arm swinging forward, how it enters the water and confronts the resistant force of water, how and where that arm and shoulder direct momentum – all these details affect the safety and health of your shoulder joint, as well as how well you drive the body forward. 

Every detail matters. Just because you don’t immediately feel the consequence does not mean there are none. Safely swimming into higher performance requires great attention to detail because the early signs of consequence are subtle. The coach is suppose to teach you how to recognize those subtle signals so you can make corrections before a real problem arises. 

 

Do They Solve Your Need For Safety?

There are many coaches and ex-elites who can talk persuasively and sound authoritative. But when you think for a while about what was actually said, you might realize they really didn’t actually explain sufficiently how things work. Which then makes you wonder if they actually know how things work, however successful they happen to be themselves.

In a live coaching setting, if you find the coach gravitating toward the more difficult swimmer needs, giving full attention, and providing clever solutions, then this may be a good one. If you find that coach avoiding the swimmers with more difficult situations and becoming impatience or dismissing a swimmer’s concerns, then this one may not be. If you find yourself in an atmosphere where mentioning your pain or concerns for safe technique are dismissed, you should probably leave. 

Yes, there are a lot of ways to make your body swim faster, and no doubt this coach in her seminar is promoting one of those. But very, very few ways of moving faster can also keep you safe. That’s what getting professional help is suppose to provide. Unfortunately, in the sport of swimming at least, there seem to be too few coaches who know how to lead you to both. The competitive swimming culture and whole system is incentivized to make you faster, not keep you safe. So you should know which you value more and advocate for yourself.

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