Becoming a Wizard Part I
Many times, coaches claim skills can’t be taught. I’ve always resisted this notion, believing that we simply weren’t skilled enough to create significant changes consistently and reliably. From early on, I’ve been interested in developing the skill set to create any technical change
I’ve always thought of it as learning to become a wizard, where you can create instant change that lasts, with minimal communication, and without anyone else even realizing what you were doing. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that the better you are, the less others can even tell when you are working at your best.
It should look like magic.
While I’ve certainly not attained this level of skill, it can be value for others to consider the various skillsets that comprise wizardry, as well as how to develop these skills. Below are the skills I have pursued, as well as what I have done, and continue to do to improve on the path to wizardry.
To be effective at creating change, we need a general model of how movement occurs, how swimming ‘works’, and how skills operate for each stroke. Without this foundation, there is no basis from which we can begin to act. This model creates a basis from which to act.
I’ve described some of the models that I have settled on elsewhere on this site, both for swimming as a whole as well as the individual strokes. In both cases, I tried to work from first principles and then scale upwards from those principles. These models are available in the links below-
These models are a starting point, and they need to be flexible. An important component to any model is to understand which aspects are rigid and which are flexible. Appreciating the rigid components is the starting point from which an interaction with a swimmer begins. From there, you can problem solve and individualize your approach as required.
The real value of creating a technical model is NOT to create a rigid movement pattern that swimmers must conform to. It’s about having a system for evaluation so that effective movement solutions can be determined for each swimmer. The more this model is built on first principles, and the more these principles are understood, the more effective the application will be. The model needs to relay concepts more so than instructions. Specific movement requirements will not be effective.
How to Develop a Model
It’s valuable to have a basic understanding of physics and the fundamental laws of motion. This can help create a foundational understanding of movement occurs secondary to the creation of force. When you understand how force is created, and how it is expressed, you have a much better framework for appreciating what is happening in the water.
What’s the impact of gravity? How does buoyancy work? What is torque? What is acceleration? What are levers and how do different levers impact movement? What is momentum? What does it mean when momentum is conserved? What are the basic properties of fluids? These are all basic physics concepts that impact technique and how swimmers move in the water. Understanding these basic laws informs the boundaries of what is possible in the water.
Beyond basic physics, it’s extremely valuable to understand movement of the skeleton (flexion, extension, etc…), as well as the muscles responsible for creating these movements. The body’s muscular system is redundant in multiple ways, and there are multiple (infinite?) muscular activation patterns that can achieve a movement. If someone wants to accomplish a task, they will accomplish it somehow. While there may be a set of ‘ideal’ solutions, movement limitations may result in the use of compensatory actions that can decrease efficiency or increase injury risk.
Beyond an understanding of what is ‘supposed to happen’, understanding the common and not so common compensation patterns can help coaches understand the intricacies of movement. This is critical for identifying movement solutions, as well as determining how land-based training is helping or hurting what is happening in the water.
An appreciation of movement is the baseline for understanding how movement works in the water. The better the foundation, the better the ability to understand what you are seeing, and find solution to movement problems.
Read a basic physics text. Read a basic anatomy text. The physical therapy and strength and conditioning professions both have many resources, both free and for sale that can help coaches better appreciate movement. These are resources that are available to all. This is often an area that is critical, yet often overlooked by swimming coaches.
In the last 50 years, there have been thousands of research articles published about swimming technique. The abstracts, or summaries, of each study is available for free on pubmed.com. The full articles are often available to those with university affiliations, and many are typically available at researchgate.net. Many of the questions coaches are interested have been investigated previously, and for whatever reason, many of these studies have been performed multiple times.
It should be noted that the research is not perfect, and reading it is a learned skill. In addition, any given study is NOT going to tell you what to do. It will provide clues that begin to paint a picture over time. As this information stream is free, and provides information in a format and perspective that is very different from that provided by coaching peers, it in incredibly value in gaining a broader understanding of what technique is all about. It requires an investment to pursue and learn to understand what is being described. However, that investment is worth it.
There are many, many swimming books that can be purchased new or used for available. Almost every book will include the author’s take on technique. Some will be much more based in biomechanics, while others will be more oriented toward practical application. All potentially have value.
What is important is to consider what the author is proposing, look for the commonalities amongst authors. What is everyone saying? What makes sense biomechanically? What explanations are most relatable to your experience? What explanations are most relatable to swimmers?
More often than not, coaches have stumbled upon and understanding and appreciation of what skills work. Time and exposure to the sport often help to distill what is effective. As such, it is very valuable to appreciate what others believe is happening in the water. In addition, coaches are often not only describing what is happening, but their strategies for communicating that as well (see below for more information).
You can always choose to apply any information, or not. Carefully considering what each coach recommends will serve to help build your model, as the critical thinking skills required help you evaluate what makes sense or not, and WHY.
Watch the Best
Watch race video of international competition, particularly underwater footage. It’s ALL available on youtube.com. Watch it at normal speed, watch it in slow motion, watch it frame-by-frame.
What’s happening? What are the commonalities? Are the differences between champions technical flaws or adaptation to unique biomechanical constraints (more HERE)? Are there consistent differences between medalists and non-medalists, champions and non-champions? How does what elite swimmers do compare to what you see in practice every day? How does what elite swimmers do compare to what coaches are recommending? How does what elite swimmers do compare to what is suggested in research?
This can be an incredibly rich source of information. However, the answers will only present themselves if you go looking for them. Engaged viewing is required as is thoughtful consideration about what you are seeing. If you take the time to really considered what is happening and WHY it’s happening, there is tremendous opportunity to learn. It’s all free.
By utilizing the above information sources above, you’ll have 4 very different, yet complementary sources of to rely. With a deeper understanding, we can begin to see the commonalities and how
It forces us to ask questions and reconcile apparent discrepancies between information sources. If research suggests one thing, and coaches adamantly support something similar, why does this discrepancy arise? Is it a communication issue? Is the same phenomenon being described with difference words?
With disagreement comes the opportunity to synthesize a deeper understanding of what is happening, and this is an opportunity for innovation. Differences between information sources usually can be described by differences in context. What holds ‘true’ for one situation does not necessarily hold ‘true’ for a second situation. When a coach is able to reconcile this contextual difference, they will be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what is happening. More importantly, they will be more able to adapt to changing environments.
Every source of information is providing clues about what is happening. Different types of information often center on different aspects of swimming performance. The more global our learning, the more comprehensive our perspective will be, and the more effective our working models can be.
There will never be answers, only hints of reality. Appreciating different types of evidences broadens our understanding, even if it creates confusion in the beginning.
2. SEE It
Once you have an effective model, you need to be able to recognize it in real time at the pool. If you can’t see it in real time, it’s going to be challenging to intervene during practice. While videoing and going back to the swimmer later can work, it’s a cumbersome way of doing business, although it can be useful for SHOWING swimmers. Wizardry is about IMMEDIATE impact. To apply your knowledge, you have to be able to recognize a problem.
How to Improve Visual Recognition
There are two main strategies to improve visual recognition. The first is simply to watch your swimmers and REALLY pay attention. What are they doing, what are they doing well, and what could be better? How does their movement compare to your model? Are they making fundamental errors, or are the differences more stylistic nuances?
While I mentioned the inefficiency of video, it can be a great way to learn more about your swimmer’s skills without the pressure of time. One of the most valuable parts of my technical development was watching 1000’s of video clips over the years during swim camps for technical advice. You start to see patterns in the mistakes that swimmers make.
The best way to develop a great eye for great technique is to spend a lot of time watching elite swimmers. Watch video of the best during championship races. It’s all available on youtube.com. There is a lot of frame by frame analysis of championship swimming available HERE. While the commentary can provide some insight, what do YOU see? Watch video in slow motion and at regular speed. Watch swimmers over the surface and under the surface. Whenever possible, watch great swimmers in person. It’s different.
It takes a lot of repetition to get good at it. It also requires a lot of attention. There are no real short cuts and seeing what happens is about recognizing opportunities for improvement as compared to the model you’ve established.
The first steps to becoming a wizard is understanding movement and possessing a DEEP understanding of how swimmers effectively move through the water. All subsequent skills are based upon this understanding. Having great communication skills isn’t much use if what you’re communicating is wrong! This knowledge comes over time by accumulating and comparing information from a wide variety of sources.
Beyond having a theoretical understanding of swimming movement, we need to be able to SEE it. The ability to recognize swimming skills and technical opportunities is critical to actually apply knowledge to specific situations. You must be able to process what you see in REAL time.
Once we have these skills, we can take the next step, communicating with swimmers.