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The MOST Important Aspect of Swimming

In the process of making swim videos, I spend a lot of time thinking about what is THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of swimming. My conclusion? That the most important aspect of swimming CHANGES, based on what level of swimmer you are, and what your goals are.

For the beginner or novice swimmer I believe, without a doubt, that TECHNIQUE is the most important aspect. This is simply common sense. Who would think that strength training or building an aerobic base or working on speed would have ANY lasting effect on someone with limited knowledge of how to swim? No mater what your physical condition, if you haven’t mastered the basic motions and body positions and timing of each of the strokes, you’ll still struggle in the water.

Coaches, parents, and swimmers are too often in a rush to begin training. They see the first meet coming up – and the next and the next – and worry that they’ll have no endurance if they don’t start to train. What they don’t realize is that swimmers are building strength and conditioning even when they are working on technique. More important, they are imprinting perfect strokes. Too much training, too early, leads to the breakdown of the stroke too early in the imprinting process. At the end of a race, your stroke tends to revert to the worst form that your body knows. If your body has learned only perfect form, guess what happens at the end of a race. Perfect form. If your body has learned how to struggle when it gets tired (take a look at almost any age-group practice and you’ll see what this looks like), then you know what to expect at the end of a race.

Once a swimmer starts to understand the basics of the sport, then (and only then) does the focus start to change. And the next important stage isn’t necessarily what you think it is, i.e., training. Yes, you can begin to train swimmers how to maintain proper technique for longer periods of time, but it’s still too soon for 6000-yard days. Training at a young age should be filled with fun sets that challenge the athlete physically and mentally. Sets should be designed to make each swimmer use his body AND his mind. At this stage, the most important part of swimming becomes the MENTAL aspect.

There is SO much to think about while swimming…and most people don’t understand this. When they watch the Olympics, they think about how cool it is that these men and women can go so fast. What they don’t think about is the mental anguish that accompanies the physical toil. They think these athletes get to the podium by doing countless laps and by staring year after boring year at the black line on the bottom of the pool. What they don’t realize is that elite athletes don’t talk about how boring their training is…but how interesting. They look for ways not to tune out, but to TUNE IN to how they move and use their bodies. They look for ways to keep themselves mentally involved in every stroke and turn. What are some of the things you can do to engage your mind?

* I used to play a game in practice that involved breaking the world record on every 200 breast that I swam. Of course, I was going YARDS, and the WR is in METERS. Think this is easy? Give it a shot during your next practice and see how it can add challenge to your workout. Good luck.
* Swim sets in which you descend your times AND the number of strokes you take per lap.
* Swim sets in which you work your pushoffs for just a little longer off each wall.
* Swim sets in which you work a fast kick to increase your breakout speed.
* Watch the swimmer in the next lane, and DESTROY him or her on each turn, but do it LEGALLY.
* Keep a watchful eye on your closest competitor, and always beat him or her. Do whatever it takes in practice to get inside the heads of your teammates, all the while supporting them and telling them to go faster. Use your teammates to make you better, and make them better so that you have faster swimmers to race.
* For young swimmers, learning how to read the pace clock, count strokes, figure splits, and understand goal times and race strategy can provide PLENTY of mental challenge in every practice.

The mental aspect of the sport isn’t about being tough just on the day of the meet. It’s about being tough EVERY DAY. We all have our bad days, but it’s the champion who understands that he or she MUST perform even on their worst days. Use the bad days as a challenge to overcome, rather than use them as an excuse. Keep your goals in mind so that you understand that championships may fall on a “bad day.” If you’re not ready for it…if you’ve never practiced how to mentally and physically rise above the low spots, then chances are you won’t be able to do it on race day. Teaching and understanding the mental aspects of the sport at any early age builds swimmers who are involved, intrigued, and destined to enjoy the sport more.

As a swimmer starts to build the technique side and the mental side enough to advance to the elite levels of the sport, still another shift occurs. It’s now that PHYSIOLOGY becomes the most important aspect of the sport.

If everything has been done correctly, what you’re working with at this stage is an athlete who understands how – and why – the body works the way it does. The athlete knows how to stay involved in each practice, meet, or event. In order for an athlete to reach full potential, he or she must now focus on FITNESS. He must have the best possible strength-to-weight ratio. She must be turned into a lean, mean swimming machine and, yes, this takes WORK. And lots of it.

The training aspect of swimming is an exacting process. Some athletes believe in, and thrive on, 20,000 yards a day. Others can excel on 3,500 QUALITY yards a day. Each athlete must find what he or she needs to perform to potential. This means that different athletes require different types of training. Some swimmers perform better when they’ve got miles and miles of yards under their belts, while others require only a little swimming, but enough done at race pace to imprint the speed on their bodies and minds. If you go the mega-yardage route, you need to focus on pacing. If you go the low-yardage route, you need to be ready, mentally and physically, to put it on the line every day. You need adequate rest between repeats, and a super-charged practice atmosphere that fools the body into building enough adrenaline to perform at the levels that will be set when the race is on the line, the crowd is screaming, and your fiercest competitor is in the next lane. Although this last aspect is absolutely mental, it’s the rest intervals in practice that allow this type of athlete to perform to the level required for this type of training.

During the physiology/fitness stage, dryland training becomes increasingly important, based on how much swimming is done. The raw strength that can be gained through weight training, sit-ups, pull-ups, dips, rope climbing, push-ups, medicine balls, stretch cords (shall I continue?) is required at the higher levels of the sport. Elite athletes find it difficult to get the strength gains needed through swimming alone.

What’s the most important aspect at the highest level of the sport? FEEL. The ability to HOLD ON to the water rather than muscle through it. The ability to apply optimal force rather than maximum force. We have all seen swimmers with what “experts” describe as poor technique break world records while thrashing through the water with poor head positions and huge kicks. Yet when you watch these swimmers under water, you can see that their hands grab hold of a spot in the water and hold on to it. Rather than PULL their hands back, they hold on and move their bodies PAST their anchored hands. It’s as if they see an invisible ladder stretched along the bottom of their lane, and each time they put in a hand, they grab a rung and pull their body past it.

An elite swimmer can have fantastic technique, and possess incredible mental toughness, strength, and endurance, but without FEEL he or she will be simply fast…not the best. Without FEEL, even the strongest, most fit athlete will be humiliated by young swimmers who DO have it and understand how to use it. Are the best athletes born with it? Some are and some are not. Most acquire it over time. It may come from swimming 20,000 yards a day, and they’ve learned it through survival. For others, it comes from practicing over and over again what the last 10 meters of their race feels like.

It’s the combination of all these aspects that makes for a great swimmer. Each aspect is a building block toward the next. But is that all there is? Does greatness come just from mastering the four aspects? For true champions, these are only the beginning. The true champion is always searching for something new and something more.