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In Deference to Differences

In the past, we have looked to the champions of the day to inform about effective technique. This strategy can be fruitful for identifying the technical traits that underpin championship swimming.

As I outlined in Models and Principles, this strategy is even more effective when the process is grounded by a sound understanding of the bio-mechanical principles and constraints that govern fast swimming. Further, this process can be enhanced by focusing on the commonalities expressed by champion swimmers. The traits demonstrated by ALL champions exhibit are likely to be the traits that swimmers of lesser ability would be well served to emulate.

These critical components are the technical skills that must be executed. However, what needs to happen within a stroke cycle for these critical components to be executed effectively, is much more fluid. Here, there can be variation. As described in Goal-Directed, the outcomes matter, not the process.

Champion swimmers do exhibit differences. These differences ARE important. However, they are important for the individual swimmer and not as a trait to be emulated by other swimmers. Swimmers must learn to accomplish the critical technical components in a way that best suits them. This is why the differences are so important.

I’d like to discuss the nature of these differences, how and why they arise, without dwelling on the specifics of these idiosyncrasies. It is the concept of how these differences affect the critical technical components that is of importance. With careful exploration and observation, coaches can begin to understand how the differences can make the difference.

Where Do Differences Arise From?

Each individual is attempting to achieve the critical technical skills within the context of their own constraints. Each individual brings their own unique physical, mechanical, and cognitive skillset to the pool and the solutions they can employ will vary due to the differences in these skillsets.

Beyond the differences between individuals, differences will also arise within individuals from changes in velocity and due to the onset of fatigue. As changes speeds go up, or swimmer get tired, how they execute skills changes. However, the main task continues to be executed while the manner in which swimmers accomplish these tasks changes. As velocity increases, swimmers will change their timing and the duration of phases of the stroke cycle to maximize propulsive impulse. Similar changes are seen when swimmers begin to fatigue.

Differences between individuals and within individuals arise because of changes in internal constraints. They happen for a reason, and as coaches, we need to always be asking ourselves, ‘why are they doing that?’. What’s important to consider is that swimmers don’t always select the best solution available to them. That’s were coaches come in to help swimmers learn to find and employ better, and hopefully best solutions.

The differences exhibited by champion are not what makes them great and shouldn’t necessarily be emulated. However, these differences are important in that they are demonstrations of how these swimmers have adapted to their own constraints to figure out how to achieve the critical technical components.

Why Are Differences Important?

As described above, each swimmer comes to the pool with their own set of constraints. They must learn how to best accomplish the key tasks in swimming fast within the context of these constraints. It is naïve to assume that swimmers are actually doing so. As coaches, we must help them discover more effective strategies.

Swimmers who select technical strategies that best align with their constraints will be more effective swimmers. As described above, the differences exhibited by champions swimmers are important because they are demonstrations of how these swimmers adapted their skills to their constraints.

Beyond an understanding of what the critical tasks are for swimming fast, swimmers must learn how to best operate within their constraints to accomplish these tasks. This is where technical models begin to break down and the use of principles has value. We have the important tasks that must be accomplished. There is some rigidity here based upon sound biomechanical principles. However, how swimmers accomplish these tasks and move into these positions is much more fluid, and more importantly, individually appropriate.

The coach who can best identify the appropriate differences for swimmers, and help the swimmers learn these skills, will be much more effective in creating change that impacts competitive performance.

Practical Examples

Consider two swimmers who have very long arms, with one swimmer who is ‘weak’ and the other is strong. Each individual has to figure out how to use the to effectively use the recovery to create momentum and torque. However, due to strength discrepancies, these swimmers will be more or less able to swim with a straight arm recovery. They must determine the APPROPRIATE elbow angle that allows for the use of momentum in torque. The latter is the critical skill that must be executed. The former must be employed to allow the latter to happen.

As another example, take two breaststrokers, one with a very strong kick and the other with a weak kick. Both swimmers must optimize propulsion with the upper and lower body as much as possible while streamline effectively. However, how these two swimmers will choose to accomplish these tasks will differ. In the former case, the swimmer will likely set up the stroke to maximize propulsion from the kick. In the latter case, the swimmer will alter the timing of the stroke to emphasize upper body propulsion. In both cases, the critical components are achieved, yet howthese components are achieved differs.

Both of these examples are relatively intuitive in that the solutions employed are logically derived from the individual constraints each swimmer possesses. The important point is that almost ALL movement differences will arise from some type of constraint, whether physical, environmental, or cognitive. It is only with observation and reflection can we appreciate where these differences arise from and how we can learn to maximize the positive impact these differences have.

In Practice

How can coaches learn to understand the differences that make the difference? Some ideas-

  • Learn to appreciate constraints. Individuals are limited or enabled by their own physical constraints. By learning to consider movement through this framework, coaches can learn to understand why swimmers move in certain ways and how they can work with or around those constraints.

  • Understand cause and effect. Appreciate how a change at any point in the stroke cycle will have systemic effects throughout the remainder of the cycle. What do you want to happen? What is happening? What does the swimmer have to DO to make the change? What CAN they do with the context of their strengths? Where is the point of intervention? What is the symptom and what is the cause?

  • Problem solve and observe your swimmers. What effect does an instruction, a task, or environmental change have on the skills you are trying to improve. The more carefully you can problem solve, explore, and observe the effects of an intervention, the more you will come to anticipate the effect of any given intervention.

  • Watch the best. Look at elite swimmers for OPTIONS that may apply to your swimmers. Champions swimmers will exhibit technical elements that arise from their physical peculiarities. These elements may be useful for some of your swimmers. The more options you have, the more likely you will have the right one when you need it.

  • Add variability and noise to training. Adding noise to swimming tasks will force swimmers to explore how to accomplish tasks. Once the key tasks have been identified, coaches can vary the contexts in which those tasks are achieved, forcing swimmers to explore the differences will retaining the main skill traits. An example could be requiring low stroke counts, while constantly varying the pulling surface area by changing paddles and adding tennis balls. Further ideas are available in the article linked above.

  • Vary speed and fatigue. Swimmers will need to find slightly different solutions at different speeds and when they experiencing different degrees and types of fatigue. They need to be exposed to these situations with regularity so they can figure out how to manage these situations.

Learning to appreciate the importance of the differences take times. As we expect our swimmers to improve, we can also improve our effectiveness in facilitating technical change. When considering the key technical components, as well as the movements that affect them, coaches can improve their ability to identify the individual traits that make certain differences more effective in creating the necessary change. In this way, manipulating the differences becomes less of an experiment.

While the key technical components will determine a swimmer’s success, how these skills are achieved is less clearly defined. However, certain movements will work better for certain individuals. A good coach can effectively problem solve how these differences can work for each individual.

Little differences can make the difference.


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