By Dr. G. John Mullen, PT, DPT, CSCS of Swimming Science, Center of Optimal Restoration , and Mullen Physical Therapy, Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review, and Swimming Troubleshooting System, Swimming World correspondent
SANTA CLARA, California, September 16. TROUBLESHOOTING is something every coach performs. Whether it pertains to biomechanical flaws, metabolic deficiencies, or strength compromises, coaches always troubleshoot why an athlete behaves a certain way.
Understanding cause and effect lies at the heart of effective movement correction, both in and out of the water. The more efficiently we master the body’s movement fundamentals, the easier we can interpret stroke “flaws” and correlate them with a swimmer’s physical attributes and limitations. The quotations around “flaws” are intentional, as the flaw that catches our attention on deck may be the body’s default way of compensating for an underlying physical limitation. To achieve lasting results, it is critical to examine the body’s fundamental movements.
Put another way, injury and poor performance often result from unchecked movement dysfunction. While smart training remains paramount, coaches should be heartened that overuse is not the cause of all injuries. Training exposes movement deficiencies. Greater training demands require a higher physical preparedness standard. Nonetheless, the combination of overuse with suboptimal technique remains the worst offender for causing injuries.
Common stroke flaws are like the normal undulation of waves in the ocean: you can hit a few along the way and still reach your destination safely, but steer your ship into a tsunami and it could mean disaster! Fortunately, you need not steer completely clear of waves, lest your journey take forever. But the more robust the ship (body), the less disruptive are routine waves. The more reliable your beacon system, the more effectively you can avoid catastrophes like tsunamis. Tsunamis are injuries, and it’s no secret the shoulder is a main site of injury.
Like a car, a swimmer doesn’t sit idle, as repetition is mandatory for success. Unfortunately, the path to stroke improvement is peppered with waves of different sizes. We know that waves exist and we may encounter some; what’s less clear is how to identify their location, how they are connected, and how to avoid the most dangerous ones.
Often, the body’s signals require interpretation when coaching the stroke. Some apparently weak muscles may actually be inhibited. Overactive muscles might be protecting against weakness elsewhere. Poorly coordinated muscles, may not contract at the appropriate time, oftentimes contracting too frequently.
Traditional approaches are to strengthen what seems weak, stretch what seems tight, and tighten what seems loose. Instead, a more nuanced approach is necessary to interpret what we’re seeing and determine the appropriate intervention.
Each stroke is primarily shaped by several factors. Below are four of the most prominent.
1) Technique- If a swimmer has stroke flaws or areas on which to improve, it could be a matter of directly improving technique. Maybe they don’t understand what they need to do or maybe they simply need more repetitions to ingrain the desired motor pattern.
2) Training – A quality stroke is only as sound as the conditioning behind it. A better conditioned athlete will have a greater buffer to operate within their work capacity. It’s a fine line between putting in the reps to groove motor patterns versus overtraining and allowing faulty habits to creep in.
3) Physical attributes – Quite simply, physical limitations are those movement qualities that can limit the swimmer’s ability to apply stroke specific movement patterns. Attributes may also evolve via training, such as developing poor habits due to insufficient conditioning or overtraining. Not every physical attribute must be changed, and some attributes such as body anatomy cannot be changed. But it is imperative to understand each swimmer’s assets and limitations.
4) Psychology – The mental component cannot be overlooked. Quite simply, an athlete must have the mindset to accept technical changes and the long-term focus to diligently work both in and out of the water to make the requisite changes. Athletes must also accept that stroke changes are a never-ending process. Those who embrace this challenge have a greater chance of reaching their potential in the sport.
If a swimmer can’t perform certain basic movement patterns outside the water, it is unlikely they will coordinate these same movements into their strokes under higher physical and mental pressure. When deficits are present, the brain naturally seeks the path of least resistance to achieve the best result. For short term results, how the swimmer manages their body is valued less than what their times are.
For long term performance, technical precision is paramount. Unfortunately, technique compensations may leave the body vulnerable to injury and may waste energy though inefficient mechanics. Fortunately, the brain and body are highly plastic, meaning they can be changed. We approach the coaching process through a clinical lens in which changes must happen rapidly. If you are finding the right things, you should see changes fast.
The common language used for all involved with swimming performance enhancement is muscle length, strength, and timing. Limited muscle length is perhaps the most nefarious of deviations, leading to poor positioning of a joint, weakness (pseudoparalysis) of surrounding muscles, and poor movement patterns at, or around, the muscles involved. Muscle strength for swimming is not absolute strength, but instead is relative strength, or whether muscles are capable of performing specific tasks in the pool. Muscle timing is the ability of muscles to tense and relax at the right times in the right sequence.
Surely, troubleshooting does not exist in isolation from conditioning. But if you understand how the body’s assets and limitations are reflected in the pool, you can make changes more rapidly and move one step closer to making them permanent. Even elite swimmers are constantly learning subtle ways to save energy and protect their body’s structures from overuse damage. Troubleshooting, in this context, helps to bridge the gap between what happens on deck and what happens in dry-land. Dry-land does not exist to “sneak in” extra conditioning, but instead is a valuable asset to prepare the body for the technique demands it faces in the water.
Troubleshooting the Shoulder
The shoulder is the most important joint complex in swimming, as it performs around ~16,000 revolutions per workout and is the main contributor in force production. Unfortunately, many flaws exist at the shoulder. One common flaw, which prevents force production during the catch and push phase is the use of a scapular protracted catch. Some may feel identifying this flaw is picky, but force production is crucial for elite performance. Determining if a swimmer uses a protracted catch is first recognized can first be recognized underwater, characterized by an extremely deep catch, wobbly hand during the catch, and/or poor water grab during the catch.
Above water, one may note a scapular protracted catch, if the swimmers is reaching extremely far during the entry (attempting to increase distance per stroke), but doesn’t propel themselves underwater (due to impaired force production. Impaired force production is a likely result of instability. If the scapula is held in protraction during the catch, then it doesn’t have a stable base for propelling the body forward.
Land Length Tests
Performing the catch and push phase with protraction, greatly weakens the force production of the arm. Don’t believe me, watch the video or try this with a friend:
The reason this happens is because the shoulder is the foundation of the arm. If the foundation is unstable or weak (like it is during protraction), then the arm because wobbly and weak, both problems for force production.
If it is determined a swimmer has a protracted catch and push phase during freestyle, it is necessary to determine if they do this because they don’t have the out-of-water tools to implement this movement. To test this, identifying any muscle length discrepancies is paramount.
If the athlete does not have appropriate range of motion, identifying the muscles which perform (agonist) or prevent (antagonist) this movement is mandated. Below are three simple range of motion tests any coach can perform:
Retraction (adduction) Scapulae
The scapula is moved posteriorly and medially along a transverse plane, moving the arm and shoulder joint posteriorly. Retracting both shoulder blades gives a sensation of “squeezing the shoulder blades together”. This movement commonly occurs during a rowing movement and should occur in the catch phase of swimming.
Protraction (abduction) Scapulae
Protraction is the opposite of scapular retraction. The scapula is moved anteriorly and laterally along the back, moving the arm and shoulder joint anteriorly. If both shoulder blades are protracted, the scapulae are separated and the pectoralis major muscles (in the front of the chest) are squeezed together. Protraction occurs if an athlete reaches forward during the entry phase of freestyle.
Internal rotation of the arm is most easily observed when the elbow and shoulder are held at a 90-degree angle of flexion. Internal rotation occurs when the arm is rotated at the shoulder so that the fingers change from pointing straight forward to pointing towards (perpendicular) the ground. This motion occurs during the catch phase of freestyle while the swimmer achieves an early vertical catch.
Connecting the dots
If a swimmer has their scapula protracted catch with limited internal rotation on land, but enough protraction and retraction, then the swimmer may be performing this stroke deviation as a compensation for the lack of shoulder internal rotation. If a swimmer has adequate internal rotation and protraction, but not enough scapular retraction, the athlete may not have the strength or timing to perform retraction during the catch.
These are only two possibilities, as assessing length is just one part of the troubleshooting system. Strength and timing must also be assessed, in combination of motor control (biomechanics) pool training. Troubleshooting is difficult, but the most effective method for solving the puzzle of flawed biomechanics, the largest factor for swimming success!
If you want to learn how to troubleshoot the entire body and each joint, pre-order your copy of the Swimming Troubleshooting System today and receive a $20 discount and a complimentary six month subscription to the Swimming Science Research Review!
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the founder of the Mullen Physical Therapy, the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.