By Zack Bridger
Good technique is vital to the swimmer if they are going to realise their full potential and achieve the pinnacle of their intrinsic physical ability. Intrinsic physical ability relates specifically to the individual swimmer and takes into account all of their physical characteristics. These characteristics may vary greatly from the most supple and co-ordinated to someone who has severe physical disabilities.
Many coaches base their instruction of swimmers on various coaching manuals and the techniques used by the top performers in the sport, that is to say the best around nationally and internationally. The idea is that young age-group swimmers should develop their all round skills so that as their weekly training distances rise, the correct form is ingrained in their strokes. During these formative years the young swimmer will consciously learn various actions which will steadily be transferred to the part of the brain which deals with the ‘unconscious’ control of those learned and conditioned actions. Once this transfer has taken place the movements become ‘natural’ to the swimmer and can therefore be performed far more quickly. This transfer is important to us throughout our lives. It allows us to acquire and retain a skill whilst being able to focus on new and unfamiliar tasks. Most people will have memories on how difficult and tiring they found taking on a new task only to later look back and wonder why they found it so hard; some may feel they can practically perform the skill in their sleep!!
The problems associated with achieving perfection in competitive swimming is the shortfall percentage-wise in achieving perfect technique consciously in the first place and the changes that occur to technique when the transfer has taken place from conscious to unconscious actions. The best swimmers are those who achieve good technique the most easily and naturally and thus speed up this process of transfer. Their stroke form is generally retained subconsciously and not corrupted by genetic factors which lead to a deterioration of those skills. The rest to varying degrees will have ‘faults’ when compared to the best exponents of stroke form and may be either unable to perform the best technique even consciously, or if they can, sustain it for any period of time.
It is at this point where the contentious issues begin. Who is to blame for the shortfall in consciously performed technique? The vast majority of swimmers fall short of ‘perfect technique’ including a substantial number competing at world level. Coaches tend to blame the swimmers themselves or other coaches before them for this lack of perfection. To some extent this criticism may be justified, particularly in the case of areas like starts, turns, body/head position and breathe control and so on. However, all areas of skills are greatly affected by the swimmer’s intrinsic levels of co-ordination, flexibility and genetic makeup. An example of this genetic tie-up is where two swimmers in a squad, a brother and sister born two years apart, had unbelievably similar strokes and faults. These faults weren’t present in the rest of the large squad in which they trained. It has been suggested in swimming circles that each individual has a ‘blueprint’ which will dictate the shape their optimum stroke form will take. This ‘blueprint’ takes into consideration skeletal shape, muscle insertion/origin points, optimum muscle fibre recruitment patterns and so on. As coaches, the compelling evidence suggests that we are unable to over-ride these natural designs of body to any extent which results in race time improvements. This genetic ‘blueprint’ is also responsible for the changes to a swimmer’s stroke when the transfer from conscious to unconscious actions takes place. It would appear there is an overpowering default stroke form which is dictated by the genetic makeup of the swimmer which in consequence leads to their technique changing from that originally taught to them. Attempting to over-ride certain natural traits in swimmers will lead to a loss in performance and possibly poorer technique than before. ‘Technique’ coaches are most prone to this problem as they are forever searching for dramatic improvements in performance from this area alone. In reality, it is always a combination of many factors which lead to significant improvements to the seasoned competitive swimmer and even then their genetic makeup will have the majority decision in how much this improvement is by.
‘Paralysis through analysis’ in swimmers is caused in two situations, one where unconscious actions are put under the spotlight for ‘improvement’, thus making the actions conscious and therefore slower, and two where a consciously learned action is ingrained in a stroke that is at variance with the swimmer’s genetic makeup. Either way, the swimmer ends up performing less well during competition and looking stiff and un-natural in their movements. In the first of these areas, where ‘improvement’ is sought, a period of time is required for the ‘new format’ to become ingrained in the stroke and thus returning to an unconscious and natural action. Care has to be taken that this type of work is not undertaken too closely to important competitions as a substantial period may be required. The coach will also need to decide if the ‘correction’ is going to bear fruit or fall into the second category where the change is at variance with the swimmer’s genetic makeup. Distinguishing which can only be achieved by making the attempt at change. The skill of the coach is shown by knowing when to abort the idea and pursue the optimum for that swimmer. Coaches of disabled swimmers have to deal with those challenges where the physical characteristics are more obvious, coaches of able bodied swimmers require the same approach albeit with swimmers who display their physical characteristics in a less pronounced way.