Over-Thinking And Under-Achieving ?

Many swimmers, particularly Overgliders, have a tendency to over-think and over-analyse when they swim. They feel a strong urge to focus on every single stroke of every single lap of every single session in case their stroke falls apart or somehow they will not achieve their potential in the water.

Of course it's important to work on areas of your stroke that are holding you back - preferably in a targeted way using coach feedback or video analysis. However, obsessively thinking about the same areas of your technique over and over again soon leads to you hitting a plateau. If you've experienced this you'll know that this 'analysis paralysis' is extremely frustrating!


An important part of developing your swimming is the ability to simply switch off sometimes and feel your stroke rhythm. Over-thinking adds a noticeable pause within your stroke as you analyse you previous stroke and plan your next which kills your natural rhythm and timing. Also, all that mental pressure makes you tense and rigid as you try to be perfect, which only gets worse as you become more frustrated!

Faced with the prospect of 10hr+ English Channel crossings, SS Head Coach Paul Newsome and the rest of the Channel Dare Team know all about the dangers of thinking too much, which would be to the detriment of that key ingredient for distance swimming: rhythm. It's hard to explain what a channel swimmer really focuses on for ultra-endurance swim sessions, other than simply getting into a good groove and holding a nice rhythm for a prolonged period.

When you get into this zone you enjoy the experience and feel the natural rhythm of your stroke. In doing so you'll often find an area of your stroke starts to click or you become aware of something that was holding you back. Interestingly, Swingers like to switch off like this and are very good at it, so much so that they dislike technique sets for the disruption to the rhythm and momentum of the session.

Example 'Brain-Off' Set

Try this neat little set and see what happens, repeat it anywhere between three and five times through in your next session:
4x 50m drill with 10 seconds rest between each 50m. Choose a single drill for each set of four 50s which you know will target a specific aspect of your stroke, for example you might choose sculling, kicking on your side or unco. Restrict yourself to only thinking about that one aspect as you drill for each 50m but then:

200m continuous steady freestyle with the brain switched off - just feel the rhythm! Let the previous drill just do it's work and naturally filter into your stroke.

What If I Can't Switch Off? - The Split Screen View

At Monday morning's technique session here in Perth we tried this set with our squad and it was very well received by the swimmers. However, not everyone managed to find that rhythmical place in their stroke straight away, the place where they felt they were on auto-pilot.

One swimmer was struggling to find his flow during the 200m swims so we asked him to simply look at (and enjoy) the image of the water rushing past his face as he breathed. His goal was to see if he could keep one eye looking above the water and one eye under in a sort of "split-screen" view:

By giving this swimmer a visualisation which wasn't a direct technique focus (but still emphasised good breathing technique), he was able to improve the single biggest thing holding him back: sinky leg syndrome. He improved his efficiency in the water without having to think overly hard about anything, which normally makes him tense and rigid especially when he's frustrated and feels he's "not getting it".

If you struggle to switch off, try using the visualisation above and enjoy the motion of the water around you which will make it much easier to find that flow and rhythm. Before you know it you've crossed the Channel and are standing on the beach in France... well, nearly! ;-)

Swim Smooth!


James said...

Good stuff. I need to give this a try and I'm always concentrating in the pool.

Anthony Cook said...

I find something helpful in every mail you send me. Thanks a lot guys, one day I'll get the hang of it.

Dan B said...

I'm still a swinger, as I feel I don't have time for drills, ruining the rhythm, etc. I have moments of "That's not right", fixing it on the fly, and a sort of floating focus, flitting from catch (which I'm working on outside the pool) to cadence (is it quick enough) to feet (touching big toes, no scissoring or 'duck feet') to rotation (45 degrees?) to hands (finger first entry, middle finger lead) to head, etc. etc. It's almost as if switching off into a long swim allows me to switch my focus on, keeping me 'trimmed' in a way. Horses for courses, I guess.

Paulo Neves said...

I am glad you suggested this visualization technique because I have been trying it myself for long. The problem is that I really find this "drill" quite difficult! I keep swallowing water! If I raise my head a litlle bit higher it is Ok but then both eyes are above the water...
I guess I won't be able to switch off at all since this visualization technique is actually a technical drill difficult to acccomplish... Any suggestions?

Joseph Sacco said...

Thoughts from an over thinker:

When does "mindful swimming"end and over thinking begin?

Is T.I. coach Shinji Takeuchi an over glider? See:



Frank Sole said...

I just published an article that was posted on Active.com "Stop thinking so much" based around the same concept, so it really good to know that other coaches see and experience the same things with their swimmers. By my definition, over thinking is just that thinking through the stroke instead of letting it just happen, simply by performing perfect repetitive motion throughout the entire cycle, easier said then done.
Joseph made a great comment "mindful swimming versus over thinking". Mindful swimming will let you know if you are swimming correctly a sense of feel takes place that indicates, "wow I got this, this feels really good" over thinking has a tendency to create confusion and a constant mental battle, you start to lose all focus, I tell my swimmers to simply check in with their stroke from time to time, they will know if it is going well or not. Not unlike the wisdom given to young Luke Skywalker, Feel the force Luke

Rudolf said...

yet another suggestion would be: "never turn off your brain completely, you might not get it back again" - just joking here, i have another little helper:
I simply focus on counting the laps!

Not sure if other folks have the same problem i do, but swimming a program of 4km plus each day i want to make sure i count my laps within blocks of various swim styles. That alone prevents a great deal of drifting away into self analysing every motion!

A note from Zen Buddism talked about the caterpillar that decided one day he wants to find out when his 97th leg pulls up and his 368th leg steps down - he ended up paralysing himself too!

Adam Young said...

Hi DanB, that's a great approach mate - adjusting on the fly works well for experienced swimmers. Keep swinging and refining!

Hi Paulo, are you looking forwards a little to breathe? That could well be the problem you're experiencing. Try the tips here: http://www.feelforthewater.com/2011/02/tips-to-improve-your-freestyle.html

Hi Joseph, 'mindful swimming' isn't a phrase I've heard of before. Can you tell me what it means in practise? Is that fella swimming properly there or doing a drill? Can you see how hard he's having to pull through underwater to sustain that for a single lap - especially in the second half of the lap as he starts to lose the speed off the wall.

Sounds good Frank, have you got a link to your article?

Hi Rudolf, nice Buddism quote, I must try and remember that!


Brindabella Mel said...

Hi, I always feel like you are writing just for me, an overglider, overthinker, who just can't seem to get any better. I wish you guys ran clinics in Melbourne!

Scott McGregor said...

This is absolute gold.
I am currently writing a 'swim block' for my athletes with exactly this idea in mind.
Mon and Wed is technique sessions - switch the brain on.
Tues & Thurs squad sessions, just GO HARD!!
Thanks so much

Sarah B said...

An over glider and over thinker here. I have to make sure that I have my session written down before I get into the pool so I just get on and 'do' and feel the water. If I then think about too many elements of my stroke my shoulders just seem to get all stiff and my over gliding gets worse! I'm not getting any faster, but swimming seems to tire me less.

Anonymous said...

Simply brilliant!

Paulo Neves said...

Adam Young, Thank you for all your breathing tips!
I guess I am not an overglider! I am 180cm tall and have an arm span of 186cm and usualy need 23 arm strokes to complete a 25m lap on a 25m swimming pool! If my speed is below 1:45 per 100m I really can't find any "air pocket" to inhale from and end up inhaling water!
Anyway a single training session is not enough to draw any conclusions! I'll keep trying! Thanks for all the help!

kevinf said...

Just love your posts, thank you so much, and as much as I try and practise I still can't manage to swim further than a 100m without the 10 second rest.

Now considering I run sub 3 hours for marathons I still can't get the hang off it, tried breathing, blowing bubbles the lot but still can never get in that zone, I'm I missing something or should I go back to basics?


Abu Ahmadain said...

One of the best posts. It gets me to think that I might be swimming too mechanically. But then again, I might be thinking a little bit much here.

Kinda remind me the advice that the amnesiac blue fish gave to the clown fish in Finding Nemo: "Follow me, just keep swimming, just keep swimming...."

Adam Young said...

Hi Paulo, don't worry, the bow-wave is definitely there at around 1:45 per 100m. Do you have any video of your stroke?

Hi Kevinf, tell me a bit more about how you feel when you swim. Are you anxious at all? What do you find hardest of all about it?

Hi Ashaadi, that's a classic quote! It's a motto of our Rottnest Channel squad: "Just Keep Swimming!". Thanks!

Paulo Neves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paulo Neves said...

Hi Adam, I don't mean to bring all the attention to myself but I must say I am quite happy for all your prompt "replies"!
Watching my swimming fellows I did notice that the bow-wave vanishes as soon as one raises our head.
Some keep their head low in the water and breathe beautifully and smoothly while others, struggling to breathe, make the bow-wave rather distorted.
I tried the smoother version myself and I guess I've got the hang of it, at least when I breathe to the left which, oddly enough, is NOT my preferred side!
Nevertheless, at the end of the session, when I was quite happy with my new achievement, my coach said my arm stroke was falling apart: thumb first (!) and dropping elbow in the water as soon as my hand passes my face...
It was a bit frustrating to recognise that while I concentrate on a single detail I forget about the rest...
I am prepairing for my first "open water crossing" in Pontevedra-Spain next Saturday, 7.5Km long, so I guess I'll "keep swimming"!
And, yes, I have a very recent video clip of my stroke in http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdropfaria/5929757958/in/set-72157627172982312/
The other clips in the album are from other people in the same training session.

Thank you so much! (From Portugal)

Kevin Ferry said...

Hi I'm OK for about 50m and I 'feel' the water but as I go on my breathing starts to go- I think about relaxing but my arms and kick all start to go- I try to slow my stroke down but my breathing goes, this is the spot where I have to stop, catch my breath and then I go again, I would love to be able to just swim and swim where I'm in 'the zone' I do get anxious as I get near the 50m to 100m mark as I know my breathing starts to go and I end up gasping- :(

Paulo Neves said...

Hi! I've just finished my first Open-water "long" distance crossing! I completed 7.5Km in 2h11min. I thougth of you guys, and all your tips, all the time! It was great! I was aiming to 2:20 or 2:30. What do you guys wear on your neck to avoid chafing (caused by the wetsuit - yes it was allowed & mandatory!)?

Adam Young said...

Hi Paulo,

Don't worry, when you work on one thing another can slip, that's normal. Keep working on it and it will all come together. Incidentally many swimmers are better at breathing on their non-dominant side as they don't have any bad habits on that side.

Just had a quick look at your video clip - I have to say that you have the makings of a nice stroke there. You are often holding your breath underwater - are you aware of that? Also, yes, thumb first entry on the left side (how's that shoulder?). Generally you could so with a bit more of a smooth timing and feel to your catch. Hows's sculling and doggy paddle feel?

Nice work with the swim!! Some vaseline on the neck should help... of it you want to 100% protect your wetsuit then KY Jelly or Bodyglide, although it's not as durable as Vaseline over long swims.

Hi Kevin,

Try this little mantra: 'bubble-bubble-stretch'

Say bubble to yourself on a non-breathing stroke to emphasise exhalation into the water. On the breathing stroke say 'stretch' to yourself to make sure you keep your lead hand stretched out in front of you and not let it collapse down in the water. I suspect you might be doing this as all your focus switches to 'give me that air!' - this mantra will help you keep focus on the lead hand and let the breath take care of itself.

Hope that helps guys!

Paulo Neves said...

Hi Adam,

Your comments do really help! You're 100% right on everything you say. I was definitely not aware I was holding my breath! Now that you've mentioned it, I noticed I do it especially after pushing off the wall, but also when I become tired...
Thumb first entry happens actually on both sides but I am working on it. I think I can handle this problem sooner or later. In the meantime, yes, I usually have a slight pain im my shoulders after swimming for about an hour.
What exactly is sculling and doggy paddle? We do use paddles in our training. I used to hate them, because I definitely used to be a kicktastic, and my legs would sink in the water even using two pullbuoys! But now I just love them! I guess I have improved my body position and now I can swim with paddles and a single pullbuoy without moving my legs at all, which is similiar to what I can do in a wetsuit. I completed the 7.5km crossing barely moving my legs.
Reading the comment you added for Kevin, I realise that probably my main problem is not being able to keep my left hand streched out in front of me while I breathe to right side! When i am a bit tired my left hand definitely collapses in the water while I grasp for air. I do a lot of "catch-up" to try and improve this... but I think that, even in the long run, this is the most difficult issue to tackle.
I still don't really know what is holding me back, but, lack of rythm, poor catch and head position while breathing to the right side (maybe due to sinking left hand) are the best candidates!
In the video I was quite relaxed, but I cannot keep that stroke for long, unless I am on a wetsuit. I am becoming addicted to wetsuits!

I used Bodyglide (or maybe some other brand) but after about 3km my neck started to burn!

I bought the DVD Catch Master Class but haven't had the opportunity to watch it thoroughly! What do you think can help me most?

Thank you!

Adam Young said...

Hi Paulo,

OK, if your shoulders are sore then you definitely need to act on this now - you don't want a shoulder injury, they can dog you for life. Seriously.

Improving your hand entry will also improve your catch setup...

Definitely catch development is critical for you now. It'll help bring your legs up a bit higher too. Catch Masterclass has everything you need mate - you've got the perfect program for you right on that spinny disk!

Yes, sinking hand on breathing is a big part of why breathing's difficult for you - it's all in Catch Masterclass.

With chaffing - maybe putting a lot more on or dry vaseline instead.



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