When you arrive at a new pool, one of the first things you need to do is sight the walls. This kind of preparation is standard operating procedure for triathletes and open-water swimmers, who know how important it is to learn the course, and map out a sighting strategy before the gun goes off. Competitive swimmers, for some reason, often assume that every pool has the same black line and the same markings on the walls. This simply isn’t the case.
Every pool is different, and presents its own challenges when the desire is very fast turns or a proper finish. Everything plays a role: the lighting, the way the walls meet the bottom of the pool, the presence of a bulkhead or circulation jets, the color of the lines, the placement of the "T" or "X." How do you deal with all the differences? The trick is not to look at the end, at the wall. In fact, you should NEVER see the wall, or the end. Instead, you should pick the visual reference points that let you know where the end is without having to lift your head or eyes. While you’ll still want to use your eyes, it’s where you look that’s important. You need to find a visual cue that tells you exactly when to initiate your turn.
In the following series of photos, compare the images on the left with the images on the right. It’s the same swimmer, at the same point in her stroke cycle, approaching the same wall. The difference is the eyes. In the images on the left, the swimmer is looking at the wall to get her bearings. In the images on the right, she’s using a reference point on or near the bottom of the pool.
Ask yourself which series allows for a shorter path to a quicker turn. Because the head has to go down during the actual turn, eyes up is going to cost you some time as well as energy. If the eyes are up, you’re going to have farther to go with your head, which means you’ll need a more forceful contraction of your abdominal muscles to help you snap over. If you keep the eyes down, you can take advantage of your momentum and flip faster with less effort. When swimmers look up and "heave up" with their shoulders to get ready for a big powerful flip turn, the effort feels right, but is often counterproductive. Very often, the big effort does nothing more than overcome the resistance created by a high head and shoulders. Refer to an old drill written a few years ago, Waterfall Flips.
In the next series of photos, you should again compare the left column to the right column. Same swimmer, same part of the stroke cycle, same wall. The only difference is the head and eye position. While there is usually more of a reason to look at the wall in breast and fly, lifting the eyes tends to shorten the length of the body, and creates tremendous resistance. Lifting the head so that you can see the wall is like throwing out a parachute and is totally non productive. It zaps your momentum and will cause you to decelerate into the wall. Try, instead, to find a sighting point on the bottom or where the wall meets the bottom of the pool.
Even on backstroke, the observant swimmer can find ways to use the wall rather than rely totally on the flags. When it’s time to flip, instead of stroking all the way over to your stomach, bring your arm over your head to get ready for the flip, but look toward the lanes next to you. This will take some practice, and you have to learn to trust that the wall doesn’t bend between a couple lanes away, and where your feet are going to land. But if you can learn this skill, your backstroke flips will be faster and smoother.
Learning how to turn without looking at the wall not only makes your turns faster, but also prepares you to swim well in any pool.