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On Models and Principles

Throughout the history of swimming, technical models have often been based upon the traits of the successful champions of the day. These swimmers formed the basis technical models, until the next champion came along.

Through this process of trial and error, aided by several forward-thinking kinesthetic geniuses, the sport of swimming has progressed significantly over the last 150 years. In many respects, this process has served us well.

While model-based coaching has moved the sport forward, it also has some drawbacks. It is a reactive process in that we have to wait for a breakthrough from an elite swimmer as opposed to moving the process forward ourselves. This restricts the opportunity for both innovation and individualization. The latter issue is particularly relevant as many champion swimmers have anthropometric peculiarities that make their skills more or less appropriate for a given swimmer. Not everyone can swim like Ian Thorpe.

As the major technical errors have slowly been removed from performances, only the less obvious technical improvements remain. To take the next step, I believe that we need to move from model-based instruction to a system based upon problem solving within the context of biomechanical principles. Coaches and swimmers of all levels can then innovate within their own constraints, move the sport forward, and discover the subtle technical changes that modeling may be insufficient to address.

Basic Principles

To be effective, these basic principles must be simple and straightforward so that any coach and swimmer can easily understand, interpret, and work with these principles in practice on a daily basis. I believe 3 basic principles are the foundation for successful technical application- propulsion maximization, resistance minimization, and coordination optimization. I will outline these principles, including the implied tasks that swimmers must successfully navigate.

By viewing technique through specific, idealized movements as opposed to the outcomes they must facilitate, we are confusing cause and effect. By focusing on the tasks that must be accomplished, we can expand the available movement possibilities and actively solve the problem of swimming fast in a manner that is appropriate for each individual.

Propulsion Maximization- Swimmers should strive to create as much effective propulsion as possible.

  • Maximize surface area with the propelling limb.

  • Maximize pressure on the propelling limb.

  • Optimize the duration that surface area and pressure on the propelling limb are maximized.

  • Be aware if a specific propulsive action incurs an unacceptable level of active drag.

Resistance Minimization- Swimmers should strive to minimize the amount of resistance they experience as they move through the water.

  • Ensure the torso is as straight as possible.

  • Minimize vertical deviations of the torso.

  • Minimize lateral deviations of the torso.

  • Minimize disruption of vertical and lateral integrity when breathing.

  • Minimize motion of the limbs outside of the frame of the torso

  • Any of the above principles should be violated if doing so results in propulsion that is proportionally greater than the drag that is induced.

Coordination Optimization- Swimmers should strive to move in a way that maximizes movement economy so that the outcomes they achieve use as little energy as possible.

  • Use momentum of the recovering arms to efficiently facilitate changes in position or maintenance of velocity.

  • Use momentum of the undulating torso to efficiently facilitate changes in position or maintenance of velocity.

  • Appropriately time motion of the limbs relative to motion of the body.

  • Appropriately time motion of the limbs relative to ipsilateral or contralateral limbs.

  • Learn to optimize the trade-offs between creating propulsion and minimizing drag at various points in the stroke cycle to maintain velocity.

Once these principles are understood, coaches can design tasks which allow for swimmers to explore the limits of these principles. Various tasks can help swimmers appreciate their different options for maximizing propulsion, minimizing resistance, or optimizing coordination. Rather than providing a specific solution, we can present a problem and the environment that allows swimmers to find the best solution for them.


The process of observing each principle does not exist in isolation. Trade-offs exist. Actions that maximize propulsion may create more drag than desired. A given action may maximize propulsion and minimize resistance, but it can’t be done in a coordinated manner.

Without adequate technology, most coaches will lack the ability to accurately quantify some of these trade-offs. However, this issue can be avoided if the idea is appreciated conceptually. Whenever evaluating any technical change, it is important to consider not only the intended consequences (perhaps an increase in propulsion), but also the unintended consequences (a concomitant increase in resistance).

When reflecting on trade-offs, it is my belief that favoring the maintenance of coordination and rhythm is of primary importance. Any changes that result in losses of rhythm should be cautiously implemented.

Trial and Error

Trial and error has had a significant impact on the improvement of swimming performance over time. To be clear a principle-based approach does not negate the value of tinkering. As opposed to reducing trial and error, a principle-focused approach actually encourages trial and error.

A principle-based coaching practice is not prescriptive in nature. It specifically encourages active problem solving within the constraints of mechanics which seem to remain consistent, at least on Earth.

Incorporating the Value of Modeling

For coaches who understand the underlying principles of swimming movement, referencing elite swimmers remains a valuable activity. It is important to watch what the best are doing, looking for the commonalities AND the differences.

If all elite swimmers are performing certain movements, it is likely a successful solution. While the differences are often dismissed as noise, they can also be an important source of information. Are the differences biomechanical quirks or biomechanical advantages? Have 1 or 2 swimmers found a better way to move? Does it hold up biomechanically? Do you need a specific anthropometric set up to make it happen?

A principle-based approach allows for the incorporation of modeling great swimmers. Their movements can then be evaluated within the context of biomechanical principles and evaluated as to whether they can be appropriately applied to specific individuals. Using modeling is more effective once we have developed a filter through which to evaluate movement.

Another important source of information is to identify what are other coaches advocating and teaching. Is it congruent with fundamental biomechanical principles? How does it fit in the technical framework that you have established?

By referencing what the best swimmers are doing and what leading coaches are advocating against a background of biomechanics, coaches can make educated decisions about how to improve their swimmers’ skills.

Summarized Advantages of Basing Coaching Strategies on Biomechanical Principles

  • Swimmers take ownership of their learning. This enhances motivation to learn which enhances learning outcomes in a feedforward cycle.

  • Coach are required to possess a deep understanding of technical skill. The knowledge required to operate with this framework will enhance a coach’s ability to facilitate learning.

  • There is flexibility in learning approaches. There are no rules, just results.

  • The focus is on outcomes. Does the change work?

  • Individual adaptation to the task can be made. Swimmers can find biomechanically sound solutions that work for them.

  • As the swimmers’ technical and physical state will change over time, it allows for continuous exploration and updating of current skill levels. There is no ‘end point’.

  • All potential changes are possible. In many cases, novel and superior solutions can emerge which were not previously conceived by the coach.

  • The coach can still teach towards modelled actions if so desired. This takes the form of directed attention. Ironically, these actions are often easier to teach when operating from a principle-based framework because the subsequent learning environment is more effective.

Modeling elite swimmers has taken the sport far. By shifting the focus to an understand of the underlying biomechanical problems swimmers face, we can work toward finding individually oriented solutions that satisfy the constraints competitive swimming creates. This can take the sport FURTHER.

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