Accomplished musicians can play not only many different songs, they can also play the same song in different ways – changing the feel without changing the essence. Different artists will play the same song, sometimes trying to play it precisely like another, or sometimes applying a unique emphasis or style to it.

Now consider how we swim. Not only can we swim different strokes (like playing different songs), we can swim the same stroke with different variations (like playing the same song differently).

A piece of sheet music has precise musical notations on it that capture the essential features of the song – the fundamentals we might say – which allows any musician to read and replicate that piece of music in some fashion. We would expect that if any two musicians follow the same sheet music without reference to an original recording, we will likely hear the same essential song but played in two somewhat different ways. This reveals the difference between the fundamentals of the song and variations that can be applied while preserving those fundamentals.

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Musicians starting out often learn to play a song imitating the original – they need not only the sheet music to communicate the essence, they need a recording to hear and feel the style in which it was originally played. We might call this the fundamental song.

Then later, once the fundamental song has been mastered, the musician may then learn to vary the way they play that song – speeding it up or slowing it down, changing the intensity or varying the flow, creating different emphasis and feeling. They may learn to imitate different masterful renditions of the same song.

Following this analogy in swimming, we can argue that there are fundamental features and their arrangement for each of the strokes (freestyle, back, breast and fly). These fundamentals satisfy the safety and efficiency concerns of universal human anatomy.

Every human swimmer – across the range of ambition from highest performance to longevity to recreation – should first learn and master these fundamentals because they establish the strong foundation upon which any further ambition can most safely and effectively be pursued. The fundamentals of the stroke are the equivalent of the essential features of the song recorded in notation on the sheet music, something that can be communicated and learned in terms of momentary positions, movements, sensations, and effects.

When a swimmer is new at learning the stroke or rebuilding a poorly-formed one, the fundamentals are appropriately taught as a fairly strict ideal the swimmer should be aiming for. Mastering these fundamentals may take some time – weeks or even months. But as those skills are integrated more deeply into the neuromuscular system, the swimmer can start exploring how the same stroke fundamentals can be expressed in different ways for different purposes.

While preserving the fundamentals of the stroke, there can be slight variations in the positioning of a body part, in the synchronized timing of two (or more) moving parts or their rate of speed, the level or proportion of tension and relaxation, or the pressure applied against the water. Variations within the fundamental range change the effect and the experience of the stroke in subtle or possibly profound ways. Different ways of expressing the same stroke fundamentals are what allow us to adapt the stroke to different conditions – different swimming speeds, different effort levels, different water conditions, even different moods. 

This leads us to the lessons of this analogy…

First, there is a fundamental ideal we do well to master first, before experimenting with variations. This will establish a baseline from which we can evaluate whether later adjustments to the features of the stroke we make are leading us in the direction of benefit or harm.

And second, while retaining the fundamentals, we should expect to adapt our stroke to different internal and external conditions for swimming. The stroke will not be exactly the same from day to day, speed to speed, event to event, setting to setting. But from that baseline of the fundamental stroke, with regard to our intention or purpose for swimming on any given day, we can decide for ourselves in what ways we need to push for conformity or flex with conditions to create the effect we are seeking.

Upon mastery of the fundamentals, when we learn to make appropriate adjustments to better fit our internal and external conditions, we open up a whole new level of adaptability and satisfaction in our practice of swimming. This is when swimming truly becomes an art form.

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