Breaking the Cycle
In swimming, the same motions are repeated over and over again. They happen in a cycle, and as implicit in the definition, there is no distinct beginning or end to each cycle. While this is may seem obvious, the implications, particularly for technical change, are often overlooked.
We tend to see technical errors as acting in isolation, independent of what’s happened before and what’s happening after. However, for cyclic actions, this isn’t what’s happening. Each action is affected by previous actions and each action affects subsequent actions. To effectively facilitate technical change, we must consider how each movement exists and interacts with each other movement, allowing us to best determine where to intervene, and how to do so.
Cause or Effect?
Once an opportunity for technical improvement is identified, it’s easy to assume that the demonstrated error is the point of intervention. However, this is often not the case. The visible error may be the result of movements occurring earlier in the stroke cycle.
As an example, consider a swimmer who fails to adequately hold water through the back of their stroke. This may be the result of an inability to hold water through the middle of their stroke, which is affected by a poor stroke set up in the front, which is affected by a poor entry, which is a poor recovery action, which is affected by a poor exit strategy, which is…
The visible issue may not necessarily be the original problem. We have to think carefully of where the issue is originating to effectively intervene. A quick rule of thumb is that if the cause has been correctly identified and communicated clearly, significant change should quickly be apparent. Continued ineffective attempts to create change is likely the result of identifying the effect and not the cause.
Another important consideration is that it may be best to make the point of intervention the skill that the swimmer can most effectively control. In the above example, the swimmer in question may be effective at controlling and manipulating their arm recoveries. For this swimmer, that may be the best place to start an intervention, and the effectiveness can be gauged by watching how the swimmer reacts.
As a quick example, late timing of rotation relative to entry in backstroke can cause swimmers to enter with the hands behind the head. Continually cuing swimmers to enter wide is going to be ineffective because the entry issues are caused by the late rotation. Once the rotation timing is addressed, the entry will clean up on its own, or simple cuing will suddenly become effective.
Another example is swimmers who wiggle down the pool during freestyle. In many cases, this is the result arm recoveries that take an excessively lateral path. This may occur during the recovery itself or during an entry that crosses over in front. The solution is not to address the body movement, but to address the recovery path.
Some swimmers will also drop the elbow on the pulling arm while breathing. This can often be the result of excessively lifting the head to breathe. This causes a loss of body balance and body position which swimmer attempts to correct by using the arm to balance, not pull.
Identifying Root Causes
How does a coach get better at identifying true causes? It starts with remembering that swimmers are suspended in fluid. This is no anchor point in the water. Any movement will be compensated for in some way. For every action, there will be a reaction in the water. We depend on this phenomenon to move forward in the water. The flipside is that unwanted movements will cause further unwanted movements as an opposite reaction.
A simple example familiar to all is that when the head comes up for any reason, the hips go down. Of course, the reverse is true. Action and reaction. These types of actions are happening to some degree in every plane of movement, all the time. We can use this concept to identify problems and create change. If it’s a negative motion, where could it be coming from?
Beyond considering action and reaction, look before and after an identified fault to see if further faults are present. If there are flaws before or after the identified issue, which is likely the contributing factor? Think it through, consult your experience, consult footage of expert swimmers, and consult what you know about technique. If you changed one of the actions, what would happen to the other actions? Just as importantly, what change would be most easily implemented by the swimmer.
With these strategies in mind, trial and error, observation, and critical thinking become a coach’s best friend for better understanding cause and effect. A simple rule is that the more problems one change solves, the closer you are to identifying the cause as opposed to the effect.
Another critical aspect of cyclic movements is the use of momentum. Throughout a stroke cycle, there will be varying limb velocities and varying amounts of force application. Effective use of momentum allows for better force application, easier recoveries, and better rhythm. Effective swimmers best use momentum to flow from force application to force recovery and vice versa. Individuals who fail to make these transitions effectively can significantly improve their swimming.
The two common errors are failing to use momentum to facilitate the recovery and a failure to control momentum when transitioning into the beginning of the stroke. In the first case, the failure to maintain momentum of the pulling hand through the recovery require a more muscular recovery, which is not only slower, but more energetically demanding and fatiguing.
Instead of finishing each pulling action with a fully extended elbow joint, swimmers should focus on finishing the with a fully extended shoulder and a partially extended elbow. The finish should be rounded off instead of linear. With a rounded finish into the recovery, more momentum will be conserved into the recovery. Swimmers will start the recovery with a higher velocity and lesser energy expenditure. Watch the best. They almost never extend the elbow.
The second failure in controlling momentum is inadequately decelerating the limbs following the recovery. This often results in a rushed, ineffective stroke set-up. Unfortunately, the highest limb speeds are followed immediately by actions requiring the most patience. If the stroke is not patiently initiated in the beginning of the stroke, downstream consequences are present.
This issue is further exacerbated as swimmers who fail to hold water often try to compensate with more aggressive stroke rates. These higher strokes rates often make the transition to effective stroke set ups even more difficult, and the problem gets worst, a clear demonstration of the impact of cyclic actions. Of course, the opposite is true as well. The more effective the transition, the more patient the stroke set up, the better the pulling action, and the more patience is subsequently possible. Again, watch the best. They are almost always patient upon entry and the front of the stroke, even at the highest levels.
Addressing Errors of Momentum
When working to improve the use of momentum, the key word is smooth. There should be smooth transitions between stroke phases. There should be smooth transitions during breathing actions. There should be a smooth sense of patience, even if the swimmer is moving at maximal speed and effort.
When viewing any component of a swimmer’s stroke, how could that component be modified to better flow from a prior skill and into a subsequent skill. Can the action be more direct? Can the action be more rounded during transitions? This is a grey area of skill acquisition where there are not hard lines and concrete skills. It is more about achieving movement concepts, as opposed to achieving specific joint angles.
Beyond the impact on specific technical actions, the effective use of momentum has a significant impact on the rhythm of movement. The more rhythmic the action, the more ease the swimmer will be able to move through the water, with obvious implications for sustainability. As a general guide, the more rhythm the swimmer has, the better they are utilizing momentum.
Unfortunately, there is not a concrete strategy for improving rhythm and the use of momentum. It is less about specific actions, and more about how specific actions blend together. It is about the whole as opposed to the parts. While this is a significant challenge for coaches, those who can master this skill will be able to help swimmers learn anything.
A Quick Checklist
Below is a quick series of questions coaches can ask themselves when considering implementing a technical change, keeping in mind how the cyclic nature of swimming impacts any change intervention
What is the problem? Is it the real problem, is it cause or effect? Look before and look after the problem for other related errors.
Does the change matter?
How hard is the change to implement? Can you influence that effect more easily somewhere else?
Where is the intervention point? What will have the greatest impact?
Which change will be best understood and implemented by the swimmer?
What is the least information you can give for the most impact?
Momentum issues can be identified by jerky movements or abrupt changes in limb velocity or direction.
How can swimmers swim smoother? How can they round off transition points? How can they create more rhythm?
For any change, what change will have the greatest impact on as many skills as possible?
By viewing technical skill as a wholistic cyclic process, as opposed to a series of distinct components, we can gain a different perspective on how to best influence these skills. While some technical problems exist in isolation, many technical problems will be solved exclusively by considering the global nature of a swimming stroke. Carefully consider the difference between cause and effect, as well as how momentum can be harnessed to enhance the global expression of technique, and ultimately speed. By thinking bigger, we can help swimmers swim faster.