Monday, 3 March 2014

Never too old to learn...

6 weeks ago, I had a coaching session with Lancaster-based Swim Smooth coach, Emma Brunning from Active Blu. My goals were, most importantly, to eliminate whatever stroke flaw was causing my shoulder problem, and secondarily, to pick up a bit of speed. All of my stroke correction coaching to date has been with coaches working through Total Immersion, and in particular, I benefited enormously in the past from the expert advice of Ian Smith, who sadly died in 2011, but who was absolutely instrumental in laying down the foundations of my long-distance swimming in terms of body position and timing. A great deal is made within the swimming community about these two commercial training systems and the differences between them, with people tending to align themselves with one to the disparagement of the other. For me, they are two roads that lead in a very similar direction, and at the end of the day, it is the quality of the coaching that is the thing. And this is certainly what I got.

Like all experiences of being filmed, what swimming feels like and what it looks like are two very different things, and it's always a bit sobering to witness your own swimming reality. But that's the point of being filmed. We identified a couple of key problems that obviously connected to my shoulder injury. Firstly, there is the dropping of the elbow and the subsequent upwards swoop of the hand:

Walk like an Egyptian....

I sometimes add a further flourish by dipping my hand back down, then floating it back up again; my mysterious dancing hands. But dancing aside, it puts the brakes on forward movement, wastes quite a bit of time at the front end of the stroke and sets me up for problem number 2: the straight lowering of the arm followed by a late catch:

And just in case my flaws are not entirely clear, here's me next to Shelley Taylor Smith, showing us how it's done properly. Significantly, this shot is of my right arm, which isn't even injured...although more by luck than judgement if this is anything to go by.

This felt like great progress - we had identified a clear target for our corrective efforts, and Emma assigned a small number of drills, each with a clear learning point, to work on later.

This, of course, is all massively useful and I've been working away at my drills and enjoying lots of (painfree) swimming as a result. It's still a bit hit and miss, and the dancing hands still make the occasional appearance, but I'm already seeing distinct improvements.

But the most important thing that I've taken away from the whole experience is about how to drill, and this is what I mean by saying I'm never too old to learn. I'm not new to drilling (in this, and also while learning musical instruments, for example), but I realise now that I've been doing it wrong all these years. My approach has always been to do multiple laps / repetitions of drills, over and over, in order to get the 'feel' of it into the body. But in doing so, I've somehow been disconnecting drilling from swimming. Emma's advice was to do half a length of, say, a sculling drill, or dog paddle, and then swim the remainder to locate it within the stroke. Drill, swim, drill, swim. And I'll tell you, my stroke is never better than the first few strokes after switching from drill to swim; it is in those (sometimes fleeting) moments that you really learn what it's supposed to 'feel' like.

I'm sure many people reading this are banging their heads on the table in despair at my late arrival at what is probably an obvious point, and I honestly don't know why I never got this before now - I work in education and use many of the same principles of learning / implementing in my teaching, but had somehow failed to transfer this knowledge to my own practice.

Never too old to learn....


  1. Hi Karen, Really surprised to hear about your shoulder pain as I always envisioned that you had the stroke sorted after all your swimming adventures. Without seeing Ray Gibbs with all the cameras at Swim Canarywharf I would have had to knock swimming on the head in 2011 after Windermere. He knew enough about his own shoulder pain years ago to swim with a really good catch and then identify that problem in distance swimmers. Some people get away with it as they just have the chance to put more miles in or came from a terrific swimming background. Stroke can be really unforgiving.... Recently I started to put the 'beans on too early' as he puts it and any tightness in the shoulder has gone again - my first lesson for a year. As you say - never too old to keep learning. Hope you get to where your shoulders need to be.

  2. Hi Mark, I think I've been lucky, plus I had a long background in swimming so although my stroke was flawed, I think I had incorporated those flaws pretty well and the shoulders had been fine. But then suddenly, it went...I don't know why - age? Bad luck? A very long summer of swimming? Anyway, it's a great learning opportunity and I've gained a lot of knowledge about how to take care of my shoulders and what I need to do with my stroke. So it's all for the good. I'm doing well at the moment, so fingers crossed. Kx


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