As much as we’d all love to have a coach with us every time we go to the pool, that’s just not going to happen. So how can you improve your stroke on your own? One way is to watch your reflection on the bottom of the pool. This is a great way to check things like head and eye position, rotation, and even timing — all the things a coach would be looking at. The best time for watching your reflection is usually early morning or late in the evening, when the pool is quiet and there aren’t any ripples created by OTHER swimmers. The very best opportunity is a quiet outdoor pool when the sun is high in the sky.
As you approach the shallow end of the pool, look for your silhouette on the bottom of the pool. Check to see if your hand is in line with your arm. Some of us tend to skew our hands off to the side, whether it is to the inside or outside. Using the image of your hand on the bottom, make the needed adjustments so that your hand is in perfect alignment with your arm, and your fingertips are pointed toward the end of the pool. Remember to repeat this process on both sides.
Now that your hand is in alignment with your arm, check your fingers. Are they closed or are they spread apart like handprints on the sidewalk in front of Grumman’s Chinese Theatre? If your fingers are spread too wide, it reduces your ability to hold on to the water. Now that doesn’t mean they have to be tightly closed, just not spread apart. Sometimes our thumbs like to march to the beat of a different drummer, so make sure your thumbs are in formation with your fingers.
If you’re vertically challenged, as I am, it’s a big hurdle to make your body TALLER in the water. You have to do it by using your arms. Your reflection offers the perfect opportunity to see if you are extending your arm on every stroke — and whether you’re "crossing over" (sending each hand across the midline of your body). If your shadow reveals a slight bend at your elbows, you’re not reaching full extension. Think about reaching for the wall with every stroke — until the bend disappears.
Your shadow can be an ally in the on-going battle to keep your head in line with your spine. People are naturally curious and we have to know what’s going on around us. Who is making all that splash three lanes over? Where in the world did they find that bathing suit? I’ve never seen a refrigerator wearing a Speedo before! Obviously they don’t have any mirrors at home. I like to swim late in the evening so no one is thinking those very same things about ME. Anyway, I’m proud of the fact that my head remains in line with my spine when I’m swimming. Even though my head is under water, I only have to roll a minimal amount to breathe. (My fellow swimmers accuse me of having gills, but I take that as a compliment.) I have worked really hard to imprint this alignment on my nervous system, and I use my silhouette to help reinforce proper head position while swimming. For one thing, I know that if I am aware of my shadow, I am already doing something good for my alignment — because to see my shadow I must look directly down at the bottom of the pool. This means I’m not lifting my chin or my eyes to look down the lane.
To help maintain good alignment in my head and neck, I pay particular attention to the waves created by my head as it moves through the water. I watch the waves, tiny as they are, to make certain that they are symmetrical when they come off my head. If the waves favor one side, then I have to make an adjustment in my head position to re-align it with my spine. I’ll take several strokes in a row without breathing, watching the waves to make sure that my head position is correct.
Another thing your shadow knows is how streamlined you are off the walls. What does your shadow reveal about YOU? Are your hands pressed together, one on top of the other, or are they just touching at the index fingers? Worse yet, are your hands so far apart that water becomes trapped in the gap between your head and your arms? Are your arms fully extended, with no bend at the elbows? Is your head in line with your spine? And are you looking down at the bottom or have you lifted your chin to look forward? Your shadow reveals all this information instantly. It gives invaluable feedback WHILE YOU’RE SWIMMING, which is something a coach can’t easily do, especially when you’re in the middle of a pushoff. Pushoffs are your prime time to gain momentum when you swim, but if you don’t hold a tight streamline, you can lose that momentum in an instant. And then it’s SO HARD to get it back. By watching your shadow, you can see how well you’re maintaining your speed, and can make adjustments in body position to help you maximize your momentum off the wall.
Watching your reflection is one more way to increase your awareness and focus when you swim. Watching your shadow below you is almost as good as listening to a coach who’s above you on deck. Remember, reflections never lie. The shadow KNOWS. Now GO SWIM!