Faster Than You Can Think?

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How quickly can you say the alphabet in your head, A to Z? You can probably do this in under 5 seconds without undue effort. You learnt this order a long time ago as a child and it will stay with you forever - it's largely an unconscious exercise requiring very little effort.

Now try saying the alphabet backwards in your head as quickly as you can, Z to A. How long does that take you? This is a lot slower, harder and requires lots of conscious thought. The likelihood of you making a mistake is much higher too.

You can probably guess where we're going with this: If you can already swim freestyle well then all the movements of the stroke are as easy as saying A to Z to yourself - everything happens smoothly and reliably on autopilot without you having to (consciously) think.

But if you're learning the stroke for the first time, or trying to improve your technique, then things are much harder. Like saying Z to A, it's slow, it feels clunky, it requires lots of concentration and you don't always get it right.

So Slow It Down?

One school of thought in swim coaching is that to improve your stroke technique you should slow it right down so that you can consciously think about and control every movement. The theory goes that over time you learn those movements and they become fluid and natural.

You will have learned to write this way as a child, slowly and carefully tracing out the shape of every letter with your pencil. Over the months and years you gradually perfect this skill until handwriting becomes an easy subconscious exercise.

This 'mental concentration' style of learning can work for some areas of swimming. Focusing on keeping your legs straight when you kick or extending the lead arm straight forwards in front of the shoulder can be effective.

But in other areas where the timing and speed of the movements is important it can fall badly short. For instance as you extend forwards, catch the water and press it backwards at the front of the stroke, you are performing quite a complex set of movements in a very short period of time. Slow this movement by much, or make it mechanical and jerky, and you start to lose the feel for the water which is critical. To develop your catch technique you have to try it at pretty much full speed.

This is a similar situation to when you learnt to walk as a child. A one year old tottering forwards across the carpet is not consciously thinking "Oh I'm leaning a bit to the right I'd better move my right leg out a bit to balance that" - by the time they'd thought that they would have fallen over already. Instead you learned to balance and coordinate walking through trial and error, experimentation and feeling.

This is a type of learning that is largely subconscious and in fact too much conscious thought can actually stop it happening. The key is to give your body a range of experiences and let it learn its own path. This might seem overly simple but it really does work.

So within your swimming week, strike a balance between time when you are consciously focusing on specific areas of your stroke technique and time when you are simply swimming - aware of the rhythm and overall feel of the stroke without a specific agenda. Sometimes something will click during a long continuous swim or perhaps when sprinting or maybe even when swimming slowly.

To maximise your chances of success make sure you experience a range of stimulus, so swim at different speeds, distances and in different water conditions. Many drills can help with this style of learning too, for instance our Scull #1 and Unco drills help you tune into the feel of the catch without you having to worry about every specific movement and the timing of it.

As the great Ian Thorpe said in his autobiography This Is Me:

The way I swim is largely about the way I feel. Rather than analysing it or explaining why I swim a certain way, I prefer to just let it happen. Sure, a lot of things we do and the way we train is determined by science, but that doesn't answer everything.

To strike the perfect balance between these two learning styles use our new Swim Smooth Coaching System. It tells you what to focus on when, and also when to turn your (conscious) brain off and just swim. Try it out for free today:

Swim Smooth!


Pawl said...

Thanks as always for an interesting post. At the risk of setting up my little experience against your considerable one, I'll offer a few thoughts:

1. Some swimmers (think people good at dance) are able to pick up complex combinations of motions, or to alter some elements of a complex combination, easily. Others of us are not so good at this and need to work on one thing at a time. Sometimes slowing things down helps.

2. For a good drill which helps stroke and catch, I recommend breath control (breathe every 5 or 7 strokes, not every 3). The point is to go slowly enough that you can be relaxed. At the same time, you realize it is in your interest to make your stroke as efficient and productive as possible, because then you consume less oxygen.

3. Looking at another discipline, musicians practice very slowly precisely in order to get their motions as perfect and as controlled as possible. Once they've got that, they can speed them up. The difficulty the other way around is that sometimes you can "get by" with a fast motion which isn't really quite right. Practicing it at speed just burns in the bad habit. You really need to take it apart to fix it.

Unknown said...

Hi Pawl - Yes certainly some people are more naturally proprioceptive than others, its a skill to observe this and coach at the right speed that learning is happening. Yes breathing less frequently can help keep the focus on the stroke without the interruption of breathing, equally its good for breath control too! We're just encouraging people to try motor skill learning at all speeds.

Emily said...

I try to consciously focus on two things - controlling my breathing rate and doing my best to relax so that my strokes are more fluid.

Unknown said...

HI Emily,

That's great! Relaxation is key!

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Jim said...

Hi Paul and crew,

I've been contemplating this post and your general feeling about "gliding" while at the same time trying to reconcile what I'm observing in this video with Nathan Adrian:

I'm sure you've address it before, but I think I missed your response. Would you kindly offer your thoughts again on what appears to be a gliding stage?

Thank you,


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