Swimming Isn’t Normal

by SwimSwam 27

August 13th, 2015 Club, Opinion

Courtesy of Bridger Bell

Swimming Will Put You To Sleep

Watching a swim practice will lull you to sleep unless you create interest in it. If you watch passively, the rhythmic stroke cycles and sloshing of water is like the ambient sound generators people use to fall asleep. There’s no talking. Just rhythmic sloshing, splashing and the white noise of consistent kicks. Swimmers even train in hypnotic counterclockwise loops. You have to be a strange breed to be mentally engaged by such a soporific display. You have to create interest in it, make it a puzzle, a problem-solving challenge: how do we get these athletes to get across the pool faster? You must constantly take intellectual initiative, actively wrestling with that challenge.

Our Coaches Are Nerds

Swimming coaches are nerds. And for much of competitive swimming history, most swimmers didn’t really look all that athletic and thus had a reputation for being nerdy themselves. Coaches had all sorts of pseudo-scientific rationalizations about why muscle mass and weightlifting were detrimental to swimming performance. Swim coaches can rationalize anything. They see one swimmer break a record performing a stroke in a certain way, and almost immediately they can give you myriad explanations about why that works so well and should be emulated, as if they’d always known, as if it’s fact…until someone new comes along and breaks that record with different technique and the cycle repeats. Now that Hulk-ish swimmers like Nathan Adrian and Ryan Lochte have shown us that muscle power generates speed, we’ve gotten faster. Fancy that! A sport based on power and speed can be advanced with greater muscular strength! How did it take a century for coaches to figure that out? Sure, swim teams have long done various strength and conditioning programs, but conventional wisdom used to warn against “too much” muscle, “too much” strength training. And the rationalizing power of the intellectualizing coach kept the sport as a whole from discovering what now looks like common sense.

Our Coaches Don’t Have A Clue

We all know somebody who can argue any point, who can take something absurd and rationalize it until it sounds reasonable. This is how coaches clung for decades to arguments against muscle mass in swimming, lauding the ’S’ pull, or justifying gliding off the wall and not “kicking too soon.” This is how they can give you the most professorial, erudite stroke-mechanics explanations that make some particular technique sound like a Newtonian universal law and then turn around a few years later and explain how the old way was so misguided. This is why more experienced coaches are often heard preaching that we don’t have a clue. We just try stuff and see if it works. Most so-called “scientific” studies of swimming performance are anything but scientific: a sample size of 15 swimmers all on the same team does not generate scientific knowledge; it’s an anecdote. But we have to try. Pseudo-science or anecdotes that generate discussion and elicit new ideas are better than nothing.

It’s true. We don’t have a clue. That’s why swimming is so exciting: it’s still in its infancy. Other sports have plateaued. Swimming is just getting started. Every meet, we can boldly go where no one has gone before.

Swimming – The Final Frontier

In terms of the athletic performance of the human body, swimming truly is the final frontier. Think about it: with just our bodies, what is the most unexplored territory we are physically capable of exploring? The water. We can’t explore space without living in a fully enclosed capsule. We’ve already explored all the land on Earth. Our normal means of getting from one place to another with our bodies is walking or running. But swimming isn’t normal. Our bodies aren’t built to swim. Much of the world’s population has never or will never swim. Even fewer ever swim a great distance, and fewer still swim fast. [Being a competitive swimmer puts you in the top 0.1% of the world’s population in terms of swimming skill. That’s a rarified, elite group–far from normal.] In order to improve, we have to invent new movements–novel uses of the human body–to propel ourselves through the water, and we haven’t even come close to inventing the fastest way.

Swimmers Are Naked

Swimming uses the entire body for propulsion, not just the arms or legs, and nothing but the body. Other sports require equipment: sticks, mallets, bats, clubs, balls, helmets, pads, cleats, etc. Other than tiny plastic bubbles over our eyes and a tiny thin cloth for decency, we use no equipment to compete.

Swimmers Push Their Bodies Further Than Any Other Athletes

We can train, compete and push our bodies beyond the level of any other athletes because there’s no high-impact collision of our bodies with the ground or other bodies or flying objects. And because the water continually lowers our body temperature, we don’t overheat. If other athletes pushed their bodies as much as swimmers, they’d experience impact injuries or overheating and related exhaustion; that keeps their performance at a lower level than ours.

We Swim In A Vacuum

In other sports, athletes get pumped up by the excitement of the cheering crowd, the intensity of verbal exchanges, the vocal engagement of the coaches with the action and the constant outside stimulus of other athletes and objects interacting with you during the competition. Swimmers compete alone, nearly blind and in silence. Our competitors–even if we can see them a lane or two over–are separated from us by a silent, blurry gulf. Swimmers must generate their own excitement during the race or carry the excitement from the pool deck with them into the water and mentally nurture it through the race, because when you’re racing, you’re in a vacuum, cut off from the excitement of the arena.

We Still Have Feudal Apprenticeships and Still Value Excellence

For most of the world, the lengthy apprenticeships of the past have been replaced by brief internships: shortcuts and advancement are unfortunately often valued over true excellence. But many young swimming coaches benefit from the ancient practice of following a master of his or her craft over many years. Most coaches love to share their secrets, because we embrace the true excellence of beating the competition when the competition is at its best. In swimming, we care more about excellence than about winning. Beating one of the best swimmers in the world isn’t excellence if that swimmer was having an off race. Beating your competition isn’t personal excellence if it wasn’t a best time. We strive for world records and personal records, not just victory. Coaches want to share secrets, because elevating the competition sets the bar higher for everyone. This spirit fosters open exchange of wisdom, collegiality and mentoring. One of my coaching mentors has shared his own mentor with me, so we now have three generations of coach continuing the tradition.

Swimming Is A Family…On The Verge of Tragedy

The more you have, the more you have to lose. We in swimming have it all. Swimming is the most salubrious [i.e. “health-promoting”…see what I mean about coaches being nerds?] sport in the world and the one with greater and more frequent pinnacles of human excellence than any other sport.

Yet, our sport is on the verge of becoming a classical tragedy. We have the best things going for us, and yet we are set to repeat the same mistakes we made in the past. History and mythology are replete with examples of heroes and civilizations that recovered from a first mistake but paid the ultimate price when the mistake was repeated.

Our excitement about new technology has always put humanity in precarious positions. Prometheus’ pride about his own clever trickery caused him trouble the first time around, but condemned him to an eternal punishment the second time. Daedalus and his innovations alternately got him through and then into trouble, until he paid the ultimate price losing his son. Moses and his people recovered from many mistakes, but when he struck the stone a second time, he was denied entry into the Promised Land.

If we continue on the path to forgetting and repeating the tech suit fiasco, we may not be able to recover again. Our sport will be lost. The purity of our pursuit of excellence in human athleticism will be corrupted and lost to a technological arms race.

If we forget the criminal negligence that led to the loss of Fran Crippen’s life and fail to protect our athletes in open water–e.g. the failure to cancel or postpone the Coeur d’Alene Iron Man this year and the ongoing threat of contaminated water in Rio–the sublime beauty of open water racing may be lost.

And if we continue to allow athletes to dope, then sit out from competition while continuing training that maintains the benefits acquired through doping, then return to competition, our sport may be lost to the tragic question of “what is he on?” “what is she on?” rather than the pure joy of celebrating excellence.

Tackling the challenges facing our sport is part of tackling the pursuit of excellence, which we swimmers and coaches are practiced at. Like the exceptional personalities of past heroes, the exceptional character of swimming means we may have the most to lose. But we don’t have to follow the normal course of a tragedy. Swimming isn’t normal. There is ample opportunity to avoid further relapses that could be devastating to our swimming family and our sport. Properly nurtured and course-corrected, swimming has the brightest future.

Swimming Is Winning

Our sport isn’t like other sports. It’s not normal. It’s better. If you’ve chosen the sport of swimming, you’ve already won the sport-selection game. You’re on the path to pursuing a level of excellence far beyond normal, far greater.

The title of this article is riff on the title of the book Winning Isn’t Normal™ by Dr. Keith Bell. The idea that being abnormal can be a positive good follows from the content of the book Winning Isn’t Normal™. Winning Isn’t Normal™ is a registered trademark of Dr. Keith Bell.




About Bridger Bell

Bridger BellBridger Bell is the Head Coach of Donner Swim Club and Columbus North High School in Columbus, Indiana. He was previously an assistant at Johns Hopkins University while head-coaching the St. Paul’s Schools in Brooklandville, Maryland. Prior to that, he coached with Pete Higgins at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta when the boys and girls teams each won Georgia High School State Championships. Bell served for six years as the National Director of Collegiate Club Swimming for the American Swimming Association while also representing collegiate club swimming to the CSCAA. A competitive swimmer all his life, Bell was a USMS National Champion and All-American in the 2-mile cable swim. He was featured as a coach in the July ’14, August ’14 and June ’15 issues of Swimming World Magazine and has written articles for SwimSwam, Swimming World Magazine and Swimming Science.

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Steve-O Nolan
5 years ago

This is how coaches clung for decades to arguments against muscle mass in swimming, lauding the ’S’ pull, or justifying gliding off the wall and not ‘kicking too soon.”

Wait, I think most people do start kicking too soon off their walls.

5 years ago

Interesting article. Thoughtful. Shows a bit of naivety regarding what was happening in swimming in the 70’s and 80’s and a bit of naivety about some other sports though. There were many swimmers lifting weights seriously in the 70’s and 80’s – I was, my teammates were, and most of my competitors were; it became the latest fad in a never-ending stream of fads. We probably were not doing it as effectively as swimmers today, but trust me, we were doing it. There were many swimmers streamlining and dolphin kicking during breakouts and off walls in the late 70’s and 80’s; I first was taught this at a national swim camp in 1979 and it was exploding around the country… Read more »

Coach Huggies
5 years ago

I think that is the point Steve-O. Contemporary coaches may still have conflicting or alternate views on somethings mentioned in the article, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Of note, in track and field it was believed that no one over a certain height could transition fast enough to be a world class 100/200 runner until Bolt came along. In a sport much further down the knowledge trail than ours, people are still breaking the mould. We still have much to learn.

Reply to  Coach Huggies
5 years ago

In running, they also thought the skinnier, the better. Now the sprinters at least are lifting weights and getting bulky quads.

I swam in the 70’s and early 80’s and we certainly did weights. Still did that S-curve though. I’m a masters swimmer now and was told recently that I still have an S-curve in my right arm stroke. Bad habits never die.

Reply to  Catherine
5 years ago

I believe body rotation induces a natural “S” curve which was then taught by coaches and became very pronounced.

Steve-O Nolan
Reply to  Catherine
5 years ago

I remember my dad telling me about all the 5 mile runs he used to go on back when he ran track in high school. He was a sprinter.

Cut to the early 2000s, most I ever did at track practice were repeat 200s all-out. But during swim season, I’d be going 30x200s…even though I was a drop-dead sprinter.

Maybe we’re learning!