Principles Before Philosophy Part I
Coaches are often asked about their coaching philosophy. In essence, they’re asked what they believe about training and getting faster. While it’s certainly critical to have belief in what you’re doing as little will be accomplished without conviction, I suppose I’d rather base my coaching on what must be true, and then building my decisions upon those ideas.
The concept of first principles, or basic foundational assumptions, is useful for working towards and understanding what is required for fast swimming, and what is required in training to improve performance. These first principles can help expand our understanding, guide our decisions, and help coaches stay focused on what REALLY matters, as opposed to getting distracted by irrelevant arguments.
From these principles, we can start to develop strategies to improve performance. An understanding of these principles can help coaches appreciate how different training styles can result in similar results, providing they are addressing the foundational principles of fast swimming. As importantly, applying first principles can allow coaches the flexibility to develop alternate strategies as the situation requires. When coaches are wed to specific strategies, it can limit their effectiveness across a broad spectrum of swimmers.
Before we get into arguments about volume and intensity, quality and quantity, or specificity, it’s worth examining what is foundational to fast swimming. With these principles in mind, we can begin to determine not which approaches are 'right', but rather which approaches are appropriate for which context.
Coaching swimming is so challenging because there are so many factors that affect performance, and thus so many different contexts that we will face on a daily basis, with each of these contexts requiring slightly different performance solutions.
Technique limits performance.
Fast swimmers are better swimmers. There are many swimmers with significantly physical shortcomings that still swim fast. Any swimmer (or human being!) should be able to do a legitimate pull-up. I’ve coached Olympic Trials qualifiers and NCAA qualifiers that could not. I’ve also coached individuals that were able to do 20+ pull-ups and were nowhere near these performance levels. Clearly, fast swimming is possible without incredible physical fitness.
It is a skill sport supported by physical abilities. The physical abilities are critical, especially as performances rise. Those same individuals would could not perform a pull-up would have been faster if they possessed basic strength. However, at a fundamental level, differences in technical skill separate different performance levels. It is only WITHIN those performance levels that physical capacities matter, and at that point, they matter a lot.
There is a close relationship between physical capacities and the ability execute technical skills.
Technical possibilities are determined by the ability to position joints in a manner that minimizes drag, optimize force production capabilities, and increase the available range of motion through which force can be created. If the required range of motion is not possible, specific skills cannot be performed. If the required strength and power cannot be created, specific skills cannot be executed. This is foundational.
The range of motion, and the strength required to maintain that range of motion, must be in place if swimmers are going to achieve effective swimming positions. To move through those positions with the required power, swimmers must possess the necessary force attributes to create that power. To achieve body positions and alignments that minimize drag, swimmers must have the required range of motion and the ability to maintain those ranges of motion under duress.
If the desired skills cannot be executed at the desired level, there must be a concerted to develop the physical abilities to the required level. Failure to do so will prevent the expression of the desired technique. You must be able to do something once, before you can do something twice. This requires a directed approach to physical training.
Once a swimmer can demonstrate the desired skills, they must develop the physical capacities to sustain those skills at the appropriate intensity for the duration of the desired race. Training is about developing the physical ability to execute skills, while also developing the physical ability to sustain those skills at the desired speed for the duration of a race.
Fundamentally, this is what training should be centered around. We should be striving to accomplish this goal as effectively and efficiently as possible. All discussions about volume, intensity, etc., come back to need to develop the ability to execute and sustain skills. It is then about which strategies are most effective. All decisions should be made with this end goal in mind.
Swimming fast is about the optimizing the relationship between propulsion and drag.
Going fast is a simple equation. The more propulsion you can create, and the less drag you can create, the faster you will go. We can tackle speed through either side of this equation. Increases in propulsion are facilitated by improving the surface area that interacts with the water, prolonging the duration of force application, increasing the magnitude of the force application, and improving the direction of the force application.
Reducing drag is about shape, not strength and power, and it is the most effective way to swim faster. Importantly, the ability to reduce drag does NOT require large physical resources, which is why ‘unfit’ swimmers can swim quite fast. While reducing drag does require the physical ability to orient the body in particular positions, and this ability can be trained, it is a process distinct from what it traditionally considered fitness development.
There is more opportunity to decrease drag than increase propulsion, yet it is easier to learn how to increase propulsion than reduce drag. For optimal performance, both aspects of improving speed must be addressed over time. Some individuals may need to spend more time in one area as opposed to the other. Big, strong swimmers may need to focus on optimizing drag reduction whereas weaker swimmers may need to spend more time improving propulsion.
A swimmer’s relative strengths can be examined by comparing performances in resisted swimming to performance in regular swimming. Relative to their own abilities, the worse a swimmer performs during increasing resistive loads, the more propulsion is an issue. The opposite implies limitations in the creation of drag.
Importantly, the more propulsion you create, the more drag you must overcome. As you get faster, the elimination of drag becomes more and more of an obstacle to improving performance. The process of improving propulsion is more about ‘training’, and the process of drag reduction is more about ‘learning’.
When teaching and observing skills, these are the fundamental goals. All movement must be judged against the capacity to reduce drag or improve propulsion. This is what defines effective swimming, nothing else.
Rhythm and timing are as important as creating propulsion and minimizing drag.
Great swimming looks EASY. This is the result of great rhythm. Rhythm is about the correct timing and coordination of all the separate actions during a stroke. Performing the correct movements at the wrong time will not result in fast swimming. In contrast, there are some really fast swimmers with major technical issues that swim fast because of their rhythm.
Rhythm comes from effective timing and the use of the momentum of the limbs to easily transition between stroke phases. It’s about doing the right thing at the RIGHT TIME. Whenever technical changes are being implemented, they must be made while considering the impact on rhythm. It’s that important. Any technical change that negatively impacts rhythm, even if it’s ‘right’, should be implemented with significant caution.
Most technical work is focused on specific movements as opposed to the timing of those movements. This is a mistake. Rhythm is foundational and opportunities for learning must be provided if swimmers are going to continue to improve.
If we expect skills to show up in races, they must be challenged by physical and psychological stress.
Technical skills must be trained under psychological and physical pressure if they’re going to show up in competition. In many cases, these skills are better LEARNED under pressure. Working on skills in contexts that are distinct from stressful situations can be useful at certain times. However, due to the intricate relationship between technique and physical capacities, these attributes must be developed in together. In many respects, they are best developed in conjunction because they are really two side of the same coin.
If skills are not trained with competition demands in mind, they will be unable to withstand the pressure of competition. If skills cannot withstand the pressure of competition, they are effectively useless. A targeted approach must be implemented to ensure that not only physical capacities are developed, but that technical skills become hardened with a variety of stressors.
Confidence and focus are the foundational psychological skills required.
If the physical abilities are in place, and the required technical skills have been developed, competition performances can still be lacking. Potential does not equal performance. Performances must be executed under pressure and the ability to do so is dependent on psychological skill. Once the performance potential has been developed, swimmers must learn to express that potential.
The foundational psychological skills are confidence and focus. When swimmers are confident, they are free from worry and immune from distractions. They are free to execute their skills. Confidence also enhances focus, which is the second foundational psychological trait. Swimmers must be able to focus on what they need to do, and nothing else. There are many distractions in competition. Those individuals that can ignore these distractions and focus on the task at hand are best able to execute that task.
Therefore, developing confidence and the ability to focus are foundational requirements of the training process. There must be an active intent to develop these qualities. Doing so will ensure that swimmers consistently achieve a higher percentage of their current potential in competition.
Swimming fast is simple.
Swimming fast is all about great technique.
Great technique only becomes possible when the required physical attributes have been developed.
Great technique must reduce drag and increase propulsion, while optimizing the trade-offs between the two.
These movements must be organized in a way that optimizes rhythm, which will further enhance propulsion and reduce drag.
These skills must be challenged in a way that makes them robust to the stressors of competition.
The entire process must develop confidence and the ability to focus.
If the training process, regardless of content, accomplishes these objectives, swimmers will swim fast more often than not.
As coaches, we’re focused on improving performance. We want results. With an appreciation of the foundational principles of swimming, what are the implications?
In part II, we explore this question.