~By Scott Rabalais
The great ones make it look so easy.
Whether it’s a master pianist, dancer or swimmer, the top performers move with an apparent effortlessness that can be astounding. Consider the champion butterfly swimmer, who dolphins fluidly through each stroke, taking less than 20 strokes to reach the end of a 50-meter pool. The arms sail through the recovery; the head rises and dips in rhythmic fashion; the kick pats at the water’s surface and the hips roll above the surface and then disappear, much like a whale out a sea.
And yet, anyone who has ever swum a length of butterfly can attest that the stroke demands far more than appearances suggest.
When all of the numerable components of a swimming stroke are working together in harmony, there exists a state called "stroke flow." Stroke flow is a condition seen most often at elite competitions, such as the national championships or Olympic games. These are meetings of the masters of the sport, those who have usually devoted their lives to developing a stroke of perfection.
It is safe to say that any swimmer would aspire to the "stroke of champions," one which has both the appearance and the feeling of harmony and grace in the water. So how can you transform your stroke to one that others might label "perfect?" What steps can you take realize a swimming stroke nirvana?
When first taking piano lessons, the music student will first learn basic notes and scales. The components of a song are learned one note at a time, then combined to produce a full music piece. Likewise in the pool, the beginning swimmer will first isolate various skills such as breathing, kicking, pulling, and body position. Once the individual components of the stroke have been learned, the pieces of the stroke are assembled to create the full swimming stroke.
While learning swimming skills can be challenging for a beginning adult swimmer, perhaps the most difficult transformation for any swimmer is from one whom has mastered the basics to one who swims with stroke flow. If you are working on that transformation, here are a few suggestions that will help you swim like the best:
Practice Heightened Awareness
Swimming mastery involves developing a high degree of self-awareness in the water. Not only do the champion swimmers possess a strong kinesthetic sense, they are acutely aware of their unique physical traits. Within these swimmers is an enhanced ability to sense even the subtlest bodily movements and how these movements translate to propulsion in the water. While there may be hundreds of muscles working at any one time during the swimming stroke, the master has a strong intuitive sense that communicates how to integrate these movements most effectively.
While there are swimmers who seem to be more naturally aware of the body/water interaction, you can benefit your stroke by focusing on various physical components during swimming. For example, try swimming for five minutes with complete concentration on the hips and their motion trough the stroke. For another five minutes, focus only on the action of the feet. Rather than trying to make changes in your movement, just bring your full attention to that area so that you gain a greater sense of your movements.
Refine the Stroke Components
The majority of swimmers in coached programs use stroke drills to isolate components of the stroke that need refinement. Some stroke drills, when done properly, can "force" the swimmer to execute a facet of stroke technique properly. For example, a swimmer may show congruency in the breaststroke except for the timing of the breath. A drill that focuses on the interaction of the stroke and head position may easily produce a stroke correction, leading to a more refined stroke.
No two swimmers swim exactly alike. What feels natural to one swimmer may not be natural for another. Also, the human body is not designed symmetrically, both in shape and in the generation of power, so a swimmer who gains a sense of stroke flow may not always give the appearance of a "perfect" stroke.
Obtain Coaching Assistance
Swimmers receive stroke feedback both internally and externally. A swimmer who is overreaching in backstroke may feel a resulting lateral movement in the hips and subsequently make a correction. But self-perception can only take you so far, and your coach can serve as another set of eyes to evaluate your performance in the water. The effective coach one who can "wear your shoes" and make suggestions to improve your stroke based on what you are experiencing. It is the role of the coach to understand both your current and potential capabilities and bridge the gap between the two.
A great golfer was asked to describe the perfect golf swing. His answer? "One that is repeatable." In swimming as in golf, the top athletes are able to reproduce an effective stroke (or swing) time after time. Even a slight modification to a golf swing by a quarter-inch can have disastrous consequences. A similar change to a swimmer’s stroke can make a significant difference, given the considerable number of strokes taken by swimmers over most any distance.
Achieve Tranquility of Mind
The body will manifest the state of mind of the swimmer. A swimmers’ frantic mind will produce a physical stroke that is erratic, while a calm mind is one that allows for a harmonious and flowing stroke. In addition to practicing stroke technique drills, practice calming the mind while swimming. Experienced swimmers over time develop a mental calmness that does not interfere with the most natural physical execution of the stroke.
Take Your Time
Elite swimmers who have achieved "stroke flow" have usually earned such ability, often over many years and many, many miles of training. While the suggestions above can contribute to the development of stroke flow, spending hours in the water, day after day, seems to have its merits. All swimmers naturally and subconsciously adapt to the water during the hours of practice. While a fortunate few are born with a flowing stroke and display it at a young age, the vast majority of swimmers are not child prodigies. Hey, give it a couple of decades!
Scott Rabalais, fitness editor for SWIM, is a collegiate and Masters coach in Savannah, Ga. He serves as Vice President of USMS.