Friday, March 20, 2015

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 was 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, you are performing quite a complex set of movements in a very short period of time. Slow this movement by much at all and you start to lose the feel for the water which is critical. To develop your catch technique you have to do 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. They 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 speeds, distances and types of stimulus during your training week. Many drills can help in this way too, for instance our sculling and Unco drills help you tune into the feel of complex movements without you having to worry about every specific movement and thetiming of each individually.

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.

Swim Smooth!

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