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Swimming Scales

I was talking with my Mom this week about an experience that she had during a recent music lesson. A couple of young boys were playing their musical instruments for her. As she listened, she could tell how hard they were working, but they were simply playing the right notes. They weren’t playing MUSIC.

At first, what my Mom said didn’t make much sense. Isn’t music about playing the right notes? Her background tells us a bit more about the way she sees, and hears, music. Mom is a music teacher who, for the past 24 years, has been singing in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. She’s had the opportunity to sing around the world, and even in Carnegie Hall. My brothers and I were musicians growing up, but, to my Mom’s dismay, we were pretty good athletes, too, and kinda leaned toward that side of things.

When my Mom listens to music, she hears a lot more than most people do. She listens to HOW it’s played, rather than if the notes are correct. She’s aware of things like cadence and phrasing and crescendos, the feel and touch of the soft sections, and the power and majesty of the loud sections. When she listens to music, my Mom even hears what happens BETWEEN the notes — like how the musician breathes and how he attacks and releases each note. When she listens, she can even recognize the musician’s embouchure, a fancy word for how he holds his lips against the mouthpiece. When she hears music being played, my Mom knows whether the musician understands the music, or whether he understands only the notes.
In talking to my Mom about this, I realized that swimmers are a lot like musicians. Do you as a swimmer feel it’s your goal to finish a set, or to learn how to swim BETTER during a set? Is the most important aspect of practice the laps…or how you swim the laps? At the end of a swim set, have you made "music," or have you merely played the notes? Did you use the set to understand how to swim, or did you just swim?

See, our sport isn’t only about how far, it’s also about HOW. There are so many things to think about while you’re swimming, that going back and forth mindlessly is just silly. If you’re going to put in the time (for example, a set of 5 X 100 on 2:00 takes exactly 10 minutes), why not THINK about something during those 10 minutes? I’ve recently started playing around in the water a bit, and have started to observe the little things I do instinctively. It’s actually fun, and makes the sets much more intriguing. I’ve started to focus on things like, when do I close my eyes without thinking about it. I know… sounds stupid, and you’d think it has nothing to do with swimming faster, until you really think about it.
Here’s an awareness test. Take a piece of paper and write down whether you think your eyes are open or closed when you do a flip turn. Then, next time you go to the pool, notice where your eyes are looking as you approach the wall for a flip turn. Then, as you start your flip, notice whether you keep your eyes open, or whether you close them. I realized that as soon as I start to flip, I close my eyes. I figure I do this so that I don’t get dizzy, cause if I was dizzy, I’d probably get sick, and wouldn’t swim so fast… so… it actually does come in to play. There’s no right or wrong answer to eyes open or closed. My point is…are you aware of what you do during your flips?

What about the things that happen in between strokes? I’ve been thinking more and more about what I do with my hand right after it enters the water in freestyle. My natural tendency is to let my fingers rise up a bit toward the surface. This feels good, and feels like I’m in touch with the water… to have that pressure on the palm of my hand as I stretch forward. The problem is, if I have pressure on my palm as I reach forward, then I’m actually slowing myself down. If I lower my hand a bit, and aim for just a little lower target as I reach forward, it ALSO feels good and I’m creating less drag. I still get a good pull, but I’m not plowing my hand through the water.

What about my feet? We’ve had recent discussions about whether you should kick with your feet, or your thighs. There was actually some discussion about not bending your legs at all. I’ve realized that I don’t kick much at all when I’m swimming freestyle. When I DO kick, I use the downward thrust of the thigh to help initiate the rotation of my body. The big downward move of the thigh causes my foot to WHIP down with enough force to direct me forward and into the next rotation of my body. My flutter kick is without a doubt tied to my body rotation, and I do whip the foot pretty good, and it feels good. I don’t think I’m leading with the foot, I feel the power generating from the thigh, but I’ll keep watching this one.

My Mom will tell you that her listening skills and musical skills are partly a gift, but that, mostly, she developed them through a lot of conscious effort. She really LISTENS to herself when she sings. She doesn’t just sing the notes. She tries to make MUSIC — by paying attention to dozens of little things that she does. After 24+ years, she is able to pay attention to many details at once. But at first, she had to focus on the fine points one by one.

You can take the same approach when you swim. The more you tune in during practice, the more you’ll be able to "hear" and the better listener you’ll become. At first, you might be able to tune in to just one or two things, such as your head position or hand position. The more you start to tune in, the easier it gets to pay attention. That’s when something good starts to happen — you may start to do things instinctively. You may start to get a subtle feeling from one stroke to the next for what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.

When you first start to tune in, try not to focus on the bad things you might be doing. Instead, take a positive approach and focus on something small that you do really well…or that you WANT to do well… and feel good about what you’ve accomplished. Take pride in knowing that there is some aspect of your stroke that you’ve mastered…. then expand on that.

My Mom practices scales a lot, and has her students practice them. Once you master all the scales, then you can start to improvise around them. Music is born out of a basic understanding of scales — those simple notes that follow a staged progression. The better you get at your instrument, the more feeling, emotion, and improvisation you can inject into your playing. Once you do this, you’ll discover how little you really know, and how much farther you can go.

Swimming is the same way. The more things you master, the more you realize there are ENDLESS things to master. There is never an end, only stages in development and awareness. Have fun exploring, and go LISTEN when you swim!