A Personal Appreciation: DOC COUNSILMAN: Educator, Scholar, Coach, and Friend

By Joel Stager

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana, January 6. PERHAPS the most applicable phrase to describe Doc Counsilman’s accomplishments and scholarly contributions is a simple one: "By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn."

In 1957, Dr. James Counsilman accepted the position as Indiana’s tenth swim coach. In so doing, however, not only did IU obtain the services of perhaps the best coach in any sport in the world, but as an added benefit, Indiana obtained the talents and skills of an outstanding educator, and an insightful learner.

In the best of all possible worlds, at the best of all possible universities, a perfect harmony exists between athletics and academics and between the seemingly different philosophies of coaching and teaching. This commonalty of purpose resides on the framework of “learning… in order to teach” and “teaching… in order to learn.” Indiana University had the foresight to recruit and retain a young individual whose life philosophies purposefully blurred the distinction between athletics and academics. Doc Counsilman’s 30 some year career at IU exemplified this philosophy in an extraordinary way.

If one were to review Doc’s scholarly contributions, not to the sport of swimming per se, nor to the performance achievements of countless young athletes he coached through out the years, but to three diverse scholarly fields — the physiology of sport, the psychology of sport and human biomechanics — these fields would be tied by a common thread, that of competitive swimming. Also clear is that the singular goal at the center of Doc’s life was to help swimmers swim faster by the application of scientific principles. “To learn is to teach” and a simple goal… “to swim faster through science” led Doc to initiate concepts applicable to widely diverse fields. Our efforts to emulate him must be seen as only a superficial testament to the depth and breadth of Doc’s ever soaring intellect. It is difficult if not impossible to condense the inspiration of nearly 40 years of “learning and teaching, of teaching and learning” into several paragraphs. What follows then, is a only a brief outline of Doc’s innovations in competitive swimming.

From the physiologist’s perspective, the origin of much of Doc’s important writings can be traced back as far as his doctoral dissertation. Completed in 1952 and published in 1955, it focused upon the application of force a swimmer develops while swimming. In addition to initiating his theories in biomechanics however, Doc recognized that one of the limiting factors to the application of force was muscular strength. Thus, in 1954 an article entitled “Does weight training belong in the physical education program?” and derived from a symposium he organized, Doc illustrated his early interest in the importance of improving muscular strength of swimmers.

In 1960 Doc detailed dry land exercises appropriate for swimmers. In 1961, he described isometric and isotonic exercises that would optimize the ability to produce force in the water.

These lines of inquiry were developed further by a series of articles leading to the highly important description of Bernoulli’s principles in swimming. This work generated today’s continued debate about the importance of lift and drag in swimming.

Early on Doc recognized that force per se is only one component of what the physicist refers to as “work”: Work being equal to a “force multiplied by the displacement.” The problem, Doc recognized, was in the identification of hand displacement. Through hours of underwater photography and careful observation, he realized that rather than how much work was done, it was actually how much work could be done in a limited amount of time that was crucial. In the physicists’ world this is defined as “POWER”.

Beginning in 1976, Doc published a series of landmark articles entitled “Power: what is it and how to use it” and “Fast exercises for fast muscles and faster athletes.” In 1977 he authored “Speed: the third dimension in exercise?” and again in 1977 he published “Swimming Power.”

In the early 80s, Doc raised the level of sophistication another notch. He proposed that although speed and power were important, it was actually an increase in the two throughout the length of hand displacement that was critical. In 1981 he authored, “The importance of hand speed and acceleration in swimming the crawl stroke” and in 1983, “Hand speed and acceleration. A scientific approach to the sport of swimming.”

It has been said that “the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” (R. Davies). Thus, in parallel with his recognition of the importance of hand force, power and acceleration, Doc developed a number of training devices to optimize the development of these attributes in swimmers. In the mid sixties he wrote about, developed and patented several isometric exercise devices. As the factors involved in limiting force through out the hand displacement became obvious, he developed several pieces of equipment which provided isokinetic, or “accommodating resistance.” He wrote articles upon the physiological factors associated with speed. He communicated and exchanged ideas with top sport scientists in the world. This work culminated in 1979 with the development and patenting of the “Biokinetic swim bench”. This device allowed both acceleration and accommodating resistance throughout the range of hand motion. A true example of “learning and by so doing … teaching.”

“In the mean time …” as Marge says… “Doc and I somehow found the time to conceive four children…” in truth perhaps this was the actual inspiration for Doc’s theories on the importance of speed.

In another area of interest (and in anticipation of the Olympics in Mexico City), Doc authored a paper entitled “Effect of altitude upon swim performance.” This was followed in 1975 by a paper which continues to stimulate scientific inquiry and debate “Hypoxic and other methods of training evaluated.” While for the better part of the last decade Doc’s theories about hypoxic training were criticized, the latest articles on this subject vindicate his hypothesis as essentially correct. It would appear that it has taken fifteen years for the technology to become available to completely test Doc’s proposal.

Returning for a moment to 1948, it appears that Doc was one of the first swim coaches to apply interval training to competitive swimming. He defined interval training as periods of intense exercise with regulated but insufficient periods of rest. The key to Doc was that the rest intervals be too short to allow complete recovery. Prior to this time, swim training frequently consisted of little more than swimming long distances without stopping. Coaches would vary the speed at which the swimmers trained but that’s about all.

Doc presented to the swimming world how optimally to employ interval training, he hypothesized about the physiological benefits of interval training and explained why interval training was effective in improving swim performance. Like the proverbial pebble dropped into the still waters of IU’s Royer pool, the implications and debate concerning Doc’s “hows and whys” continue to spread ever outward. Researchers to this day continue to test and debate the details and fine points of his many theories. In the meantime, nearly all of his novel training practices have been universally adopted by the competitive swim community as well as by coaches and by athletes from a wide variety of sports. The singular goal for Doc, however, was “to swim faster.” To learn and then to teach.

A long time friend (and one of Doc’s former swimmers), Dave Tanner recently observed that in 1968, Doc started a new career. Although he had coached IU for some time, and coached the US Olympic swim team to unprecedented victory in 1964, it was in 1968 that Doc began to learn from and teach to the entire world. Despite nearly 60 prior publications, in 1968, with the completion of “The Science of Swimming”, Doc began to teach and coach nearly every age group, every high school and college team in the world. From this time forth Doc’s coaching was no longer limited to his athletes at Indiana. Swimmers, coaches and students from China, Russia, Germany, Poland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ireland, Sweden, Chile, Brazil, England, Argentina, Thailand, India, Israel, Greece, Spain, Nigeria, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, and Austria were welcomed to Bloomington to learn from Doc. Doc was never threatened by what others knew, and he never hesitated to share what he had learned. The IU door was always open wide.

Doc frequently said that his writing was the easy part,… that the proposing of a theory was much easier than confirming or denying it. He admitted that “sometimes I propose things that I don’t always agree with… but I think it is a good way to stimulate the debate… a great way to eventually get the answers we need. Controversy! Perhaps that is my legacy.”

If it is true, that as Albert Szent Gyorgi has said, “research is to see what everybody has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” Then the common images we all see have been interpreted by Doc with clarity of thought few of us possess. In ending, modifying a phrase from a fellow Doc would have enjoyed meeting, Sir Isaac Newton, might be appropriate,

"If we have seen farther, (swam faster, jumped higher, or tried
harder), it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The swimming world lost a giant in Doc’s passing. Doc, by learning, you have taught us, and by teaching you have learned for us.

Joel Stager, Ph.D., is Director of the Counsilman Center, Dept. of Kinesiology at Indiana University, in Bloomington.