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Focus During Training

Swim training has a reputation for being boring, tedious, and monotonous. Think about it: While your friends are out for a chatty group run or bike ride, looking at trees, the sky, the new house on the block, or the oncoming cars, you get the pleasure of staring at a black line on the bottom of a pool and talking to yourself. If you’re lucky, you get to swim next to someone about the same speed, and every five laps or so your eyes meet and you both, in that swimmer way, smirk and acknowledge what you’re both going through. A recipe for boring? Yes. Or an opportunity for greatness.

Dave just before some hard 75’s, planning his swims.
When you think about elite swimmers and the countless HOURS they put into their training, you have to wonder what they think about to keep from going loopy. It’s simple to say that they think about their technique, and be done with it. But what does that really mean?

What IS technique? It’s a word that you hear as often as “crab cakes” here in Maryland. People talk about working on technique when they’re doing specific drills, but the question is, do they really know what they’re working on?

Technique is EVERYTHING about your stroke – from the fine points of hand entry to the big stuff like body position. Technique is the way you interact with the water as you swim – are you gentle and flowing or do you muscle and thrash? Working on technique usually requires that you swim slower than normal, so that you can focus on the specific aspect you’re trying to master. You do drills slowly so that you can think about how your body lies in the water, or how you draw your hand up your side on the recovery. You think about pressing your chest into the water to bring up your hips. You think about haw far you rotate to get air.

Dave explaining FOCUS to a group of kids
Drills are fine and good and valuable if you’re a learner, but when it’s time to go fast, you need to go swim – but swim with focus. Elite athletes do drills to remind them about important aspects of their stroke, but it’s rare for them to spend an entire practice going back and forth doing drills. That’s because technique is also making your body aware of things that happen at varying speeds, including world-record speed for the elites. If you never let your body experience the varying speeds, then your body won’t learn how to handle them.

Working on technique is a constant practice. It’s constant awareness about how you feel going through the water, and constant thought about how to hang on to the water for the most powerful pull possible. It’s grabbing an armful of water and pulling your body past the point where you started. It’s focusing on the body parts that are causing drag. It’s trying to picture body parts that you can’t even SEE when you swim, and adjust their angles and movement for minimal drag. Where are your thighs as they recover and get ready for the next kick? Do they create so much resistance that your powerful kick is wasted? Would a smaller kick, with less resistance, pay better dividends? Which should you focus on – minimizing the resistance or maximizing the propulsion. Confusing? You bet. But it’s a more interesting puzzle than counting tiles.

Let’s take one stroke of breaststroke and think about what could potentially be on a swimmer’s mind. We’ll start this imaginary swimmer in the streamlined position in between strokes. We join the swimmer in the glide…

Pause every once in a while to analyze what you’re doing.
“OK. I’m feeling myself losing a little momentum, so I’m going to start the pull. Have I matched the speed of the water to allow my hands to slide out, or am I pressing too much? Don’t cup the hands, or break the line of the wrist and hands too much. That’ll cause me to curl my hands under rather than sculling them through the water. The hands are sweeping around the corners and coming in, and I have to start up to air. Keep the eyes down. Don’t lift the head ‘cause my hips could drop too deep. Keep the neck in line and don’t look up. Make sure the hands come together on the insweep QUICKLY, not slowly. Feel the hips being DRAWN forward by the insweep of the arms. Eyes down, eyes down. Don’t swallow water when I go for air. Watch the hands shoot forward. I want to go fast so I want a big kick but not too big. Don’t bring the knees up too high because that STOPS you dead in the water. Keep the legs hidden. OOOOHHH, I’m shooting my hands forward and I have to dive my head right behind them as I reach FORWARD, not down. Make sure the kick snaps back as I’m shooting forward. Keep the hips high as I press my chest a little into the water but not too much. Send everything forward. Keep the hips up and FINISH my kick all the way with feet slamming together. Place my head between my arms and stretch forward still holding my hips high so I can take advantage of them when it’s time for the next stroke. Oh my gosh it’s time to take the next stroke.”

Exact movements return many benefits
It’s tough to imagine ANYone thinking of all these things during every stroke. And it’s not productive to swim with your mind in a frantic jumble. How do the elites do it? They swim the way smart swimmers drill – they focus on just one thing each day. Instead of swimming with a dozen commands and cautions in your head, think of how your hands work one day, then your hips the next. Focus on what your head is doing above water one day, and what it’s doing BELOW water the next. Feel the resistance of the water on varying parts of your body, and experiment with shifting that resistance. For example, if you’re used to looking forward on freestyle, looking DOWN is going to feel awkward and maybe even bad. This is because you’re used to “seeing” the pool – and getting your bearings – from one angle. If you look down, your visual cues will be different and this can be disorienting. It’s also because your head is sensitive and you’re presenting much more of it to the water. By looking down, you’re also bringing up your hips and holding your body in a better position, but you usually don’t think about how the hips drag through the water. I’m saying FOCUS on the parts you don’t usually focus on.

Elite swimmers can spend entire practices thinking about nothing but the way they point their toes…or how wide they spread their fingers…or how high their feet land on the wall during their turns. There’s SO MUCH to think about! Little by little, the more you key in on one part of your stroke, the more you begin to understand that part. You begin to understand what makes you faster and what slows you down. After a few years of this focus, you start to understand what the elite athlete means when she says she’s working on her “technique.” It’s everything. It’s the flow of the stroke. It’s fitting all the tiny parts into one fluent, FAST whole. It takes years of work and concentration to get all this down, so don’t chalk up elite swimmers as being lucky or “gifted.” Chances are they simply focused more on the little things earlier in their career, awakening their bodies to what’s good and what’s bad. This way, when their bodies were physically mature enough to train hard, they knew what felt right, and were able to train themselves to do those correct movements harder, faster, and with more payback for the effort.

Sometimes a LACK of focus is good too!
Anyone who says swim training is boring is just not focusing on improvement. Once you become an elite swimmer, discoveries are harder and harder to come by, and thus take MUCH more searching. There’s SO MUCH to learn that the black line – and boredom – should never be your main focus.

Go Swim!