Swimming Lessons

As a lifelong competitive swimmer and lover of everything aquatic, I've spent a great deal of time with my head under water, pondering. And in the semi-euphoric, semi-meditative state created by the coupling of oxygen deprivation and bubbly white noise, I've found that there is much more to learn in and around the pool than just how to swim. This is the log of my most treasured Swimming Lessons.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Don't Flip Out!

One of the most important skills a swimmer can learn is to turn effectively. An effective turn is not a rest period or the simple transition between pool lengths. Instead, an effective turn is one that is melded smoothly into the stroke itself and positions the swimmer to take full advantage of a solid-surface push-off.

All turns - flip turns and open turns - progress through four interconnected phases: the approach, the directional change, the push-off, and the glide. The best turns result when each phase blends easily into the next, resulting in little to no stroke interruption or extraneous body movement. As this is easier said than done, some might wish to consider taking lessons from an experienced instructor. To locate an experienced instructor, visit www.swim.com.

The approach occurs as the swimmer nears the wall. This is when the swimmer makes minor stroke adjustments to ensure that s/he reaches the wall in a fully extended position with very little glide time before the touch or flip. For me, the approach can begin as early as mid-pool. How’s that for planning ahead?!

In the open turn, a perfectly timed directional change begins just a split second before the swimmer’s fingertips touch the wall. With sufficient speed and traction, no grab of the wall’s edge or lip should be necessary.*

As the fingertips touch, the knees are drawn toward the chest, and the balls of the feet are planted on the wall with the toes extended for support. The bend in the knees and the separation between the feet should afford a strong “stance” from which to push off.

Simultaneously, the shoulders are “thrown” toward the opposite wall, and one hand (the one that corresponds to the direction of the turn) is extended under water until it is pointing, at the end of a long, straight arm, toward the opposite wall. The other hand, which has until now been providing much-needed support on the wall, is placed behind the ear as the shoulders drop below the water’s surface. At this point, support at the wall is transferred from the upper body to the lower body in preparation for the push-off.

The push-off is very similar to a horizontal squat thrust. It should be set up quickly and performed explosively to keep the swimmer from hanging out on the wall for too long. At this point in the turn, I like to think of the pool wall as if it’s a bumper in a pinball machine. As soon as my fingertips and toes touch, they rebound quickly!

The purpose of the push-off is, of course, to get as far away from the wall as possible, as quickly as possible. This is best done by moving the trunk into a horizontal position under the water with both arms now extended toward the opposite wall and then using the muscles in the upper legs, “glutes,” ankles, and toes to PUSH. A strong push and good body positioning will result in a torpedo-like glide toward the next wall.

The glide is long and streamlined and, briefly, restful. In fact, for as long as the momentum from the PUSH is maintained, there’s really not much else that needs to be done. Once that momentum erodes, however, it is time to kick into action once again. Depending on the stroke you’re swimming, this could mean an underwater pull/kick sequence (breaststroke), some dolphin kicks (butterfly or backstroke), or flutter kicking quickly to the surface to begin swimming (freestyle).

Phew! Who knew the simple act of changing direction could be so complicated?! The truth of the matter is that change is never easy. But, as in swimming, it happens all the time, so it’s important to develop an ability to deal with it. Moreover, we often need to be able to make change happen. Change, like a swimmer’s turns, can bring opportunities for rest, recovery, and self-improvement.

In my own life, one of the most difficult types of change to deal with is the change of mind. I sometimes think that to change my mind is a sign of weakness, of failure. Simply, I want to be able to make accurate decisions and to implement effective changes every step of the way. To say I’m a perfectionist is an understatement!

But, to change my mind is not a sign of weakness or failure. Rather, it is a sign of insightfulness, adaptability, and courage. No one likes to make mistakes, for sure. But to stay the course after a poor decision just to “save face” is nothing less than reckless.

Returning to the metaphor of turns, consider the swimmer who, following the push-off, finds herself gliding diagonally toward the adjacent lane. To avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of surfacing in another swimmer’s lane, she should make an appropriate adjustment during the glide to get herself back on track.

Well, the same advice applies in everyday life. When we do something or decide something but don’t get the anticipated results, we should adjust accordingly.

Swimming Lesson: When the opportunity for or necessity of change presents itself, don’t flip out! In change, see the potential for rest, recovery, and self-improvement. And, if the changes you make don’t work, try again. It’s that simple.

*Some of you might be wondering why I omitted the flip turn from this discussion. Well, don’t flip out! I just couldn’t come up with an adequate written description of the flip turn this time around; so I temporarily deserted the task in hopes of breaking through my writer’s block soon. So, if you’re interested in reading about how to do an effective flip turn, check back regularly!

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Swimmer's Worst Nightmare

In his very first swim competition - an international Master's championship meet in Atlanta - my best friend experienced an emergency from which I feared he might not recover. I witnessed it from the far end of his lane where I was leading a series of cheers, and I will never forget it.

It was my friend's debut event, the 100 yard breaststroke, and his lane was lined with teammates, friends, and other onlookers from around the world. I could sense his anxiety as he climbed the block. The time had finally come for him to stand up in front of all the world wearing nothing but a tiny little blue Speedo.

He had, I'm quite sure, been "swimming" this event over and over in his mind since we awoke that morning, and on the van ride to the pool we reviewed the basics: two-hand touches, strong underwater sequences, an explosive start.... As the starter commanded Swimmers Take Your Mark I could swear his lips were moving as he mouthed Pull, Kick, Glide...Pull, Kick, Glide.

His start was a bit flat, but powerful. It wasn't a belly-flop by any stretch, but it left him shallow enough that I feared he might skip the underwater sequence. Keep It Down, Baby...Work That Start, I thought to myself. And he did! Brilliantly, he used his first pull to go deeper, where he could fully benefit from the drag-free glide. He surfaced even with the rest of his heat mates.

But then, horror: I didn't recognize my friend's face! It seemed...disfigured.

Upon his impact with the water, my friend's goggles had rolled down the front of his face and gotten hooked under his nose, which was now being stretched up toward his forehead, making him look a bit like a pig. With every stroke, his shocked, monstrous expression was revealed to us all, for four seemingly endless lengths.

For my friend, it was every swimmer's second worst nightmare* come true. Funny-looking but still determined, he finished the race to find a throng of fans waiting, some worried, others chuckling. And in his true fashion, he exited the pool and turned to the audience, giving them a victory wave that drew applause.

Watching him, I was amazed at how unaffected he seemed to be by what had just happened! He was neither embarrassed nor defeated. In fact, he seemed to gain a sense of freedom from having survived his first competition swim, equipment malfunction and all!

A very important fact of life dawned on me just then: There is freedom in vulnerability. Those who accept vulnerability gracefully live to acknowledge that survival and contentment are not dependent on perfection. My friend's very public moment of vulnerabilty did not deter him. In fact, it gave him confidence and brought him into communion with a great many empathetic onlookers.

Swimming Lesson: We gain strength and connectedness through vulnerability.

*Every swimmer's worst nightmare is the loss or disintegration of his/her swimsuit, especially if such loss or disintegration occurs on the block.