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Shapes and Skills Part III

In part I and part II, we explored how innate characteristics can determine how swimmers move through the water, and distinguished between those factors that are unlikely to change and those factors which coaches have some control over. In this article, we’re going to take a look at what it all means, and what we can do about it.

What’s the Point?

While his information and this conceptual framework is great, it’s not all that relevant unless we can use it to improve our coaching. If our ability to increase performance is not enhanced, it doesn’t really matter.

The point-

There are aspects of modified that can be positively modified, and there are aspects of movement that cannot be modified, or modifications will not improve performance. It’s important to spend our time in areas that can be positively improved, and avoiding those areas that cannot be improved.

Appreciate how individuals naturally move and work to build skills around these natural styles. Every swimmer has their own rhythm. How they use momentum and how they time movements is fairly innate. Rather than working against these rhythms, it makes sense to construct skills based upon these rhythms.

With developing swimmers, it’s important to expose them to a variety of rhythm and timing sequences. Rather than prescribing a particular rhythm, watch for the rhythm that emerges naturally and build upon it. With mature swimmers, these rhythms will be pretty obvious. When creating change, work with these rhythms. If a change disrupts these rhythms significantly, be VERY careful.

Appreciate why swimmers swim the way they do. The more we understand why swimmers move the way they do, the more we can help them find better ways of moving. By understanding why movement happens, we can better appreciate what is likely to change and what is not likely to change. This allows for better use of our time, and more effective interventions.

Respect these styles. Every swimmer is going to have their own individual style, and this style is going to reflect their innate characteristics that WON’T change. Respect that style and reflect on the difference between and a technical variation and a technical flaw. Some individuals may not be able to perform ‘textbook’ movements, yet find a solution that is just as functional and effective from a performance perspective.

Build on what already exists. If technical change is required, build on what already exists as opposed to blowing it up and starting over. What already exists likely exists for a reason, and working against this existing framework is going to be problematic. Further it is A LOT easier to shape what a swimmer is already doing as opposed to requiring them to learn a totally new movement strategy. Over time, continually building on what exists can result in total transformation. Doing so in this manner allows for a lot more control of the process as change is more gradual.

Improve what can be improved. There are some skills and some traits that cannot be improved. It’s important to know what these skills and attributes are so that time is not wasted trying to improve them. In contrast, understanding what can be improved allows us to invest in areas that will yield significant improvement.

Use dryland to create movement options. We can improve movements options on land by expanding mobility and strength. The more options a swimmer has through each of their joints, the more options they have for executing effective technique. If an effective option is not available to a swimmer, their performance can be limited. If we can provide that option to the swimmer through appropriate training, we can enhance their performance. Dryland training should be geared towards opening as many movement options as appropriate.

Some aspects of shape and structure are not modifiable. However, there are many that are. Using this information, we can help to move swimmers closer to shapes and movement possibilities that are better suited for swimming. This can allow for improve skill without any direct technical intervention.

Create learning environments where swimmers can find best solution for themselves. Because of the various differences in body shape and type, different swimmers are going to execute skills differently. No matter how much we know about the differences between individuals, we don’t necessarily know how these differences are going to manifest themselves in terms of skilled expression.

By appreciating our ignorance, we can develop strategies that take our lack of knowledge into consideration. As opposed to prescribing solutions, the best way to account for our ignorance is to put swimmers in learning environments where they can discover optimal solutions for themselves. As a concrete example, instead of providing precise information about pulling patterns, we can use resistance to enhance feedback about the effectiveness of their pulling patterns, thus steering swimmers towards solutions that are effective for them.

The idea is to keep minimize instruction and maximize guided exploration. Because of the many unknowable factors described above, we can’t know what solutions are best for each swimmer. We have to give them the opportunity to find them for themselves. The skill resides in designing the best environments.

Be careful creating change until you understand what’s going on. As mentioned above, an awareness of the influence of structure on skill does not remove our ignorance of how this dynamic plays out for each individual. As such, it’s critical to be cautious with any intervention until you feel like you understand what is happening. It’s better to take more time and understand the situation, as opposed to acting prematurely and intervening incorrectly. Nothing is better than wrong.

The more you understand the GLOBAL picture, the better decisions you can make. Understanding the role of the shape in skill acquisition and expression adds another perspective the global picture of performance. There are many interacting factors that all result in the time seen on the board. The more we understand what these factors are, and how they influence outcomes, the more we can make effective decisions once our understanding becomes actionable.

If coaches fail to appreciate the impact of body shape and structure on skill acquisition, they may consistently impose technical models on swimmers that are unsuited for their body. Not only could these changes be ineffective, they could be counter-productive. A little understanding and wisdom can prevent a lot of frustration and unnecessarily poor performances.


Size and shape influence skill. Rather than molding swimmers to specific models, we have to account for individual differences in movement capacity and potential. Individuals have differing levels of access to joint range of motion, have more or less favorable levers for certain movements,

More importantly, as the change process unfolds there will be challenges. Appreciating the impact of the constraints imposed by the body, we can begin to evaluate the nature of our challenges, and design effective interventions. Some changes may not be possible considering the physical possibilities of the body.

However, knowing the importance of shape on skill expression, it becomes critical to address the aspects of structure that are modifiable through sound interventions that are both safe and effective. This can provide opportunities for better skill and performance that would be otherwise inaccessible, regardless of the quality of the technical intervention on behalf of the coach.

From a skill acquisition perspective, it’s critical to appreciate the difference solutions different swimmers will create to solve the problem of swimming fast. For the most part, they are choosing these solutions for a reason. Rather than assuming we should move our swimmers towards idealized models, we need to appreciate how each person’s structure dictates their movement capabilities.

When watching a swimmer, ask yourself whether what you’re seeing is a flaw, or an expression of the constraints of their body. The answer to the question will greatly inform your decision about how to intervene and create an effective solution.

You can either work with someone’s capabilities, or against them, with all of the resulting consequences.

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