Swimming - Embracing Individuality
1 the quality or character of a particular person or thing that distinguishes them from others of the same kind.
One of the areas of sport that has always fascinated me as a coach is the subject of athlete individuality. When harnessed and embraced in the right way this can be a powerful tool in helping athletes grow and succeed. The danger for many athletes who are not coached is that they follow a path that is not entirely suitable for them. This can lead to a plateau in their training, a loss of self-confidence and in a worst-case scenario this can lead to injuries. Not only can this be a problem for self-coached athletes but this is also a problem when athlete individuality is not recognized and nurtured by their coaches.
Over the past 20 years we have been presented with the latest fitness crazes or "methods" that are guaranteed to make you fitter, faster and stronger in half the time, what they all promise is one way of doing something that will appeal to the masses. These methods can work for a lot of people but what they donÕt account for is individuality. This individuality in relation to sport can be expressed in terms such as gender, personality type, body type, exercise history, lifestyle factors, injury history and so on. When you factor in these characteristics for two athletes you can come out with two very different training plans or approaches. Quite simply what works for one doesnÕt mean it will work for another, you can take two very similar athletes and give them the same training plan and get two very different outcomes. One might be successful the other might have the opposite affect, this has been proven time and time again. If everyone were the same and had the same response to training then self coaching or being coached would be a much more simpler art form.
When we look at the world of sport there are many great examples of athletes who donÕt fit the mold, they have a unique style of their own and it often flies in the face of what is seen as the "conventional" way of doing something. I have highlighted some of these below:
- Former 200 & 400m world record holder Michael Johnson was constantly questioned about his unique upright running style throughout his career. Many thought that he would need to change his style if he really wanted to get to the very top.
- In athletics it has always been suggested that for an athlete to do well at the 100m they needed to be short, stocky and compact so that they have the explosive power to get out of the blocks quickly. Current Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt stands at a whopping 6ft 5 inches tall.
- Janet Evans - 3 time swimming Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder over 400,800,1500m freestyle. Nicknamed "Miss Perpetual motion" because of her incredibly unique " windmill" style of swimming. She was considered to be very petit standing at 5ft 5inches, whereas many of the top female swimmers of her time were tall and a very powerfully built athletes ( these athletes from Eastern block countries were subsequently found to have been using performance-enhancing drugs). Janet beat them all with her highly unorthodox style. If you have never seen Janet swim then I would highly recommend you watching her breaking the 800m freestyle world record at the 1988 Olympics on You tube.
The common factor with all these athletes is that they were different and had a unique style or physical make up all of their own. If you go by what they textbook says they should not be able to do what they do.....but they do. Through working with great coaches who worked with their individuality rather than against it they were allowed to flourish. But it also poses this question - How many athletes have been taken down the wrong path because of either poor training choices or worse still because a coach or trainer tried to fit them into the tried and tested mold without making the best use of their unique individuality? In my opinion the number is high and never more so than in a highly technique based sport like swimming.
Swimming is without question one of the sports where you see the largest variation in swim styles and technique, both in the pool and in the open water. It never ceases to amaze me how you can have 2 great athletes who can swim the same time for a certain distance but their stroke style and technique can be worlds apart. In this scenario you might have a conventional swimmer and a non conventional swimmer, the conventional usually being considered the "prettiest" most graceful style of stroke and the unconventional swimmer being considered the ÒmessyÓ less refined style of stroke. Yes there are huge differences within their style of swimming but both are equally effective in getting from point A to B. Does this make one style better than the other? or should common sense prevail and say that each style is suited to a certain type of athlete with certain characteristics that allows him/her to perform at their best.
The reason we canÕt all swim the same is because as human beings we all have different characteristics that make us unique. Some people can be very similar whereas others couldnÕt be further apart. The factors that determine how you swim and develop are listed below:
1- Personality (passive. aggressive, analytical, nervous, confident)
2 - Build/Height- (tall, short, large, small, athletic, powerful)
3 - Age
4 - Experience
5 - Injury history
6 - Genetic make up (muscle fiber type)
7 – Flexibility
8 – Gender
Failure to account for these with any swimmer a coach works with could have disastrous consequences somewhere further down the line. All of the above will have an impact on the way a swimmer moves through the water, how they will respond to coaching and ultimately what style is suitable for them. Many swimmers have taken the wrong path and become incredibly frustrated with their swimming because they have followed a path that was not suitable for them in the first place. This leads to a plateau in their swimming and a belief that they simply cannot get any better, this is definitely not true because everyone can improve with the right guidance.
There is however a hugely successful method of coaching developed by stroke correction experts - Swim Smooth called "swim typing". Never before has such a sophisticated style of coaching been developed that actually takes into account an individual swimmers unique characteristics. Instead of just one type of swim stroke being identified Swimsmooth have identified 6, each one with a method of coaching that varies from type to type. This is based on early identification of the athleteÕs strengths and weaknesses by a thorough consultation and video analysis assessment if you are working with a Swimsmooth coach, or if you are self-coached you can fill out the questionnaire on the swim typing website - www.swimtype.com. From this you will be able to identify which type of swimmer you are and what areas you need to work on.
These 6 swim types have been listed below, just from the names you can start to take a guess on how each one of these swimmers will swim.
Within each one of these types you will find a stroke correction process to follow. This is where the typing system takes into account athlete individuality because it identifies the areas you most need to work on for your style of stroke. Its an incredibly clever system that recognizes the needs of the individual athlete, it then offers a stroke correction plan for you to follow to improve your swimming.
Most importantly for triathletes and open water swimmers is that the Swimsmooth method also includes specific advice on how to adapt your stroke for open water swimming. This is crucial because conditions vary greatly from the pool to the open water, some truly great pool swimmers have failed to transfer this into the open water for this very reason.
As swim coaches we see certain faults that are commonly present in each swimmers stroke, these are associated with:
- Body Position
- Leg Kick
- Stroke timing
- Hand entry
Depending on your individual characteristics or "swim type" you will need to work on a combination of these elements in an order that is specific to you. ThereÕs no point you doing "catch" work until you can breath properly so the order in which you do these drills is important. Never more so than the type of drill you do to improve a particular area, time and time again I see swimmers doing drills that are in no way helpful to them. Usually they are being done incorrectly because the swimmer has no idea why they are doing it in the first place - sound familiar?
The reason I believe the swim smooth style of coaching works is because it treats every swimmer as an individual, its aim is to develop what you have to make you a more efficient swimmer. Typically IÕve coached athletes who have been told that there is only one way to do something, IÕve listed below some classic statements that are continually made by some swim coaches even today:
"Hold the glide the front end of the stroke"
ÒThe recovery phase isnÕt important at all so donÕt worry about itÓ
"Maintain a catch up style stroke"
"Thumb first entry into water"
"Reduce your stroke count at all costs"
"Look down at the bottom of the pool never forwards"
ÒPull through in an s-shaped patternÓ
ÒI donÕt believe in video analysisÓ – (one of my swimmers was told this by a previous coach!)
" Using swim kit like fins, paddles, pull buoy is a waste of time and cheatingÓ (I donÕt think IÕve ever seen an elite swim squad that doesnÕt use all of this kit to help reinforce good technique).
I can assure you there are many variables on what you read above if you start to take into account the athlete characteristics IÕve listed here. Swimming has come a long long way in the past 20 years but unfortunately a lot of what is being taught is still stuck in the past. It is hugely important that as swim coaches we continue to drive swimming forwards by embracing new ideas and technology. This is what the Swimsmooth method does so well, it tries to understand who you are as an individual. Once this has been identified the path forward is much clearer for you.
Good coaching is all about treating each athlete you work with as an individual, this doesnÕt mean you have to reinvent the wheel each time but its important we understand what makes our athletes tick. If we understand our athletes better and athletes understand themselves better then the path to success is a much smoother one.
BTF level triathlon 3 Coach
ASA swim Coach
Official British Gas Swim Coach