Swimming Is A Complex System

Swimming is a very complex package of movement skills. When it is at its best the whole body is moving as a well-tuned, unified whole – it feels relatively easy, it is energy-efficient and produces pleasing results. All the parts are positioned and moving in a finely synchronized pattern.

Behind each ‘ideal’ position or movement in the stroke (at least, in how we teach it), there are principles working together or held in tension with one another. We may form certain ‘rules’ about the ideal way the body should be positioned or how it should move to simplify the process for more people. A rule like this is something that is meant to get most people close to the best position or movement, most of the time. However, because movement rules are short-cuts for the relationship of principles underneath, they can be misunderstood or misapplied. In the attempt to respond to feedback and shift toward the ideal, a swimmer can do too much as well as do too little of a good thing. If the coach says ‘a little shift’ in this direction is a good thing, that does not mean that ‘a big shift’ is better.

Because swimming is so complex, most of the ideals for individual features of the stroke are related to and affect other details. When you put one feature into its ideal place, it makes it easier for the other connected features to find their place. When you shift it away or have yet to correct one feature toward the ideal, it makes it harder for the other connected features to find their place. Every thing works together. As more features are made closer to the ideal and the whole system experiences more ease and efficiency.


Easy To Misunderstand

In the freestyle stroke, here are some examples of features that are easily misunderstood and overdone:

  • Pushing or holding the head down, rather than releasing it to the water’s support
  • Rotating too far, rather than just enough to maintain connections through the body and transfer force smoothly through them
  • Spearing the arm ahead, rather than the arm being an expression of the torso’s rotation
  • Pulling on the water with the arm and shoulder rather than holding water and letting the rotating torso slide the body forward
  • Snapping the leg kick to drive the body rather than pressing the leg to enhance rotational thrust
  • Holding the recovery arm stiffly shaped (straight or bent) when a relaxed arm will shape and perform better

These errors are often exaggerations of instructions meant to shift things toward the ideal, but were carried too far. When a shift like this goes too far, it creates new problems in the system. Those new problems could be a restriction in movement, another part of the body shoved away from the ideal, a waste of energy, an increase in drag, forces diverted away from the direction of travel, etc.

Understand What You Are Aiming For

It is important that you understand the ideal you are aiming for, and that you can go too far and that this can cause new problems. You might be starting out with an error on this side of the ideal, but overshoot and end up with an error on the other side of it. It will help if you study the material or interrogate your coach to the point that you understand that ideal – why it is an ideal, what it is suppose to feel like and what it is suppose to produce when you get closer and what it will feel like and what the consequences will be when you go too far.

One technique we use to get a stronger feeling for getting closer or getting farther away from the ideal is to perform exaggerations or extremes of the position or movement (without causing pain or injury, of course). For example, with head position, we can hold the head up against gravity for a few seconds to feel the strain and then release and experience the dramatic relaxation in its neutral position. We can hold it down, pushing against water pressure more than necessary, and then release and passively experience water’s full support. We can tilt the head and look forward and feel the strain in the neck and lower back, then release to feel the relief as the spine returns to neutral on its own.


The Ever-Present Opportunity For Improvement

One of the great (and for some, frustrating) things about swimming is that creating ideal position and movement in water on every stroke, stroke after stroke, is virtually impossible. We have yet to see (or even agree upon) a ‘perfect stroke’, or even see a consistently performed ‘best stoke’ on any swimmer at any level. Water – the dispassionate, inanimate yet slippery partner in the dance – creates a perfection-impossible situation; there is always something that could possibly be made better inside the body or in how the body works with the water. That realization can be seen as fuel for never-ending intrigue in the art of swimming, or it can be seen as fuel for never-ending frustration that there is no perfection one can ultimately arrive at.

When the conditions are easy, and the water environment is fairly stable, one’s best pattern is relatively easy to maintain. One could always stay within the easiest conditions and perhaps feel like they are getting close to awesome. When conditions become challenging, and the water is relatively unstable – like swimming in a crowded pool or wild open water situation – a great deal more skillfulness is required to adapt that pattern to the unpredictable moment to moment changes in the environment, and to do that for thousands of strokes. Swimming in the sea, for example, can be exhilarating (even if tiring) for those who enjoy the flow state of this moment by moment stroke customization, while be frustrating for those not quite ready for that much concentration or for those who are just not interested in doing it.

There should not be a fear of overshooting the bullseye, just an awareness that the ideal you are aiming for lies somewhere between the extremes. You can do too little and you can do too much. Get to know what it feels like and what it produces (the consequences) when you shoot too far on this side and shoot too far on that side of the ideal, so that your nervous system and ‘swimming conscience’ become more sensitive. The closer you get to the ideal, the more refined and nuanced your sensitivity to ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ must get. By this you keep homing in on that bullseye.

There should also be an awareness that the bullseye may shift a bit when the conditions change. A change in the conditions might mean you need a little more or a little less than the moment before. The underlying principles have not changed, but the way they are applied may need to shift to fit those new conditions. You may have first learned how to perform the skill under easiest conditions, but more mature or nuanced understanding is required when the conditions get more difficult. The more varied or the more challenging the conditions are in your swimming diet, the more you can develop this sensitivity and refined control. 

This means that for as many possible changes in swimming conditions there are, you have that many opportunities to learn something new and improve your swimming. In other words, endless.


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