Balance in Swimming- Position is Everything by Nort Thornton (1998)


I am going to ask you to keep an open mind here and just consider some of the possibilities that I mention here today.


Let me begin by asking you where you think that great performances come from? I don’t believe that we need to go to outer space to get fabulous swims. I believe that everything we need is right here around us in our everyday settings. Let me elaborate. I believe that everything we have materialized has come from thoughts. If we were to take this room, and on one side we have form (everything that we have or have ever accomplished) and on the other side we have thoughts, dreams, hopes, goals, etc. (everything we think about, but has not yet become reality), we tend to think that what we see is what we get. When we do this, we really limit ourselves from creating any new accomplishments. I believe that it is the other way around. (When we can believe it, then we can see it.) We are probably only what we think. My analogy is that when we eat enough junk (or unhealthy food) our arteries get plugged up with cholesterol and sludge, and we can no longer get a many of the good nutrients into our bodies. Or maybe you have a favorite coffee cup, that you never wash out, and over the years has built up a residue of old coffee and grounds. Now when you dip this cup into the spring of fresh water, it can’t get as much as it should be able to get because of the years of build-up, of the old bad stuff on the inside of your cup.


What I am asking you to do here today is wash out your cups and open your minds so you can take a fresh new look at some of the ideas that I mention here today.


As I get older, and I have been around the sport of swimming for a while, I believe that where we are today is exactly where we need to be for our future development. What I mean by this is that how and what we are thinking (dreaming of) at present probably has landed us where we are. If we continue along this path, we can expect to move further in this direction.


In my case, when I was a senior in high school someone, asked me, “What was I going to do the next year?” This came as quite a surprise, because up until that point, I had just been going to school and swimming. So I did what most “intellectuals” would have done, I went along with all my teammates to San Jose State College. This way we could keep our relay team intact for another four years. This was a great reason to attend college. As it turned out, San Jose was a great teachers training school and had a fine coaching major. I could not have selected a more perfect school for my present profession.


My first years in college were spent studying architecture and commercial art. At the time, I thought that this was wasting my time, and not making progress towards graduation and a degree.


As it turned out this experience was one of the greatest teachers I could have had. It taught me to analyze what I was seeing, even today I catch myself watching a swimmer and not seeing, or superficially seeing the reaction, rather than the action causing a certain effect. Then I look again and things come into focus. So my ability to see stroke technique today was a direct result of my early college experience.


I would like to tell you a story. A year ago last May on a Sunday afternoon, my wife had me out at a local shopping mall shopping for some women’s shoes. My wife, Carla, is an “All World” Shopper. When I go for shoes, I know what I want, I go in and purchase them and get out of there. This is not so with my wife. She has to look in every store that might possibly carry shoes, and try them all on. Then she narrows it down to a couple of stores, and she goes back for another look and some bartering. Then maybe she makes a purchase, unless there is another mall within driving distance. Last summer we had a similar experience looking for jewelry in Lahawa, Maui Hawaii. We went to every store in town at least twice, and it turned out that she made the purchase in the first shop we went in.


Anyway, while she was looking for shoes, I got tired after an hour or so. I was standing out in the mall in front of a Brookstone store next to a shoe store. There in the window was something called a toypedo made by the Swimways Co. This was a pool toy that was guaranteed to travel at least 40 feet with a flick of the wrist. I could tell that it was uniquely balanced, and I found it fascinating. I took the phone number from the label, and the next morning I called Swimways and asked to speak to someone regarding the toypedo. They connected me with the person marketing the toy. I asked how it was balanced, and why it was done in this way? He said that he didn’t know, but he could give me the name and phone number of the inventor of the toypedo. A Mr. John Warner from La Jolla, California, who designs ships and torpedoes for the U.S. Navy, was the actual designer of the toy. So I called him, and he was nice enough to talk with me for a long period of time. He explained that there are buoyancy and gravitational points, or centers, and to adjust the balance, you need to shift the center of gravity to a point slightly above and in front of the center of buoyancy. This way when it stalls out, the balance will change the angle of alignment and increase the speed of the vessel. Mr. Warner told me that if you could perfectly balance the buoyancy and gravitational points, you could take it in the water off the coast of California and push it away from shore and it wouldn’t stop until it hit Japan.


I am thinking that this has great implications for swimming. If we can get our balance right, we can automatically increase distance for stroke and the distance and speed off the walls. Then I began thinking that this is exactly what Matt Biondi and Alexander Popov are doing with their body position when they rotate their bodies when they swim. The major difference between Popov and Biondi being that Popov carries his head a little lower to facilitate his balance and rotational ability.


(Show video tape of toypedo) That shows the importance of body line with the water’s surface. Now we have been talking about rotation of the body in crawl and backstroke for years, but no one seems to ever explain exactly how you need to rotate the body. I think that it is necessary to make a distinction before we go any further. To be certain that we are all on the same page, you either describe what you are doing from: 1) The location in comparison with the pool bottom, surface and surrounding water area, or 2) Your sight line. The direction you are looking and what you are seeing from the position of your eyes as the hands sweep out, in, and out again. For some of you, this will be difficult to understand because of the beliefs you hold, or how you have always looked at the arm stroke. (Old problems cannot be solved with old mind sets.) So please wash out your cups and keep an open mind so you can hear what I have to say.


I believe that we occupy a space in the water which is determined by our buoyancy and gravitational pull relative to the position in the water and relationship to the bottom, surface and sides of the pool. To me it makes more sense to explain stroke in relation to this space because it is consistent. What I believe we are trying to do is propel our body through the space we currently occupy into the space directly ahead of us. To do this we need to occupy our neutral space (where buoyancy and gravity balance out), produce as little resistance as possible (body shaping) and generate as much power as we can (from the core of our bodies). Anything that deviates from this balanced position slows us down and/or tires us out, which will eventually slow us down. I am going to say something that may surprise some of you, but I do not believe in the concept of outward and inward sweeping of the arms. Only rotation of the body until we reach a speed where we can no longer hold our catch, then we look for new solid water creating a sculling motion late in the stroke. I am not saying that you can’t lay flat in the water and sweep your arms out and in and swim. What I am saying is that you can’t do that and be as fast and relaxed as the swimmer that rotates their body with proper balance and tension. There are a number of ways to rotate the body, a couple of which aren’t too productive. Many swimmers use their shoulders, or arm recovery swing to rotate, and others use a kicking motion to get over. Both of these tend to pull or push you out of line. What I believe to be the best way to rotate your body through into the space directly in front of you is to use your catch to anchor your hand and then create a band or tension from that hand through your core (power source) to the opposite hip to rotate it forward and down. This creates a propulsive force which catapults your body straight ahead onto your side (which happens to be the path of least resistance).


In the words of Greg Connell (probably the greatest unknown coach in the world), we need to: 1) Rotate (the body), 2) Circulate (the shoulders and hips), 3) Pendulate (the arm while leading with the elbow to create front quadrant balance) and 4) Shift (the lead hand and arm down into a catch position) 1) Rotate your  hips and body together on to your side, 2)Circulate your shoulder and hips much the way a piston driven steam engine operates, 3) Pendulate your elbows ahead of your hand swinging your hand forward in a relaxed manner, 4) Shift from your reach and arm extension down to a catch position with your fingertips racing downward.


We need to be willing to look for new ways to do things. We get some thoughts from the non-form side of the room, then we start dreaming about how we can make these things work for us, and come to reality. It has been said that we become what we think about most of the time. It shouldn’t be a pressure and stressful situation, just a solid belief that things will happen eventually if we keep dreaming up new ways to get it done.


I have been coaching long enough to have seen a great deal of water pass under the bridge. I would like to look back more than a few years to the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. The USA’s Men’s Swimming Team won every event but one (the 200 meter breaststroke which was won by David Wilkie on Great Britain), and we got a silver medal in that event. Our Women’s Team probably would have been nearly as successful in the medal count except for the East German’s better performance through better chemistry. These swimming accomplishments have never been even close to being recreated. What was going on in coaching in our country back in the early seventies and before? Back in those days the amateur spirit of swimming came under the control of the A.A.U. (Amateur Athletic Union.) We were just one of a number of sports that the A.A.U. had responsibility for in the international competition. They really didn’t have the time, the inclination, the man power or the interest to spend too much time worrying about controlling our sport on a day-to-day operational basis. There was very little central control, which meant that everyone was pretty much free to do their own thing. So what was going on that produced that great Olympic Swimming Team in Montreal in 1976?


Back in New Jersey, you had Frank Elm doing his thing at the Summit YMCA. Down in Fort Lauderdale, Jack Nelson was just getting started. In Philadelphia, you had Mary Kelly at Vesper Boat Club and Frank Keefe at Foxcatcher. In Indianapolis, you had Doc Counsilman. Out west, you had Walt Schuter in Arizona, Peter Daland in the Los Angeles area, George Haines at Santa Clara, Sherm Chanoor up at Arden Hills and a number of other coaches all living their dreams, doing things that made them successful in their own area of the country. Another example of this was a young coach in San Leandro, California, who arranged to have every school child in the city bused to his club for swim lessons as part of the school’s P.E. requirement and program.


What we had in those days was a number of great coaches going out and building their dreams. Doing what would work in their own particular area to build a program that provided outstanding swimmers. Now when you have one or two great swimmers from each of these programs, and you put them altogether on an Olympic Team, you get a Montreal type performance. Unfortunately, the USA wasn’t able to go to Moscow in 1980, and by that time, the Amateur Sports Act was passed in 1978 and U.S. Swimming took charge in 1980. Now we have central control with U.S. Swimming and our system of L.S.C.’s. Many coaches don’t think it is okay to coach unless I.C.A.R. gives its scientific stamp of approval. We are losing the art of coaching. I place the blame on the coaches.


This talk is about balance and tension, well more recently we had a system of checks and balances with U.S.S. and the American Swimming Coaches Association. This used to be balance through tension. U.S.S. ran swimming competition, and A.S.C.A. took care of coaching needs. In more recent years U.S.S. has been duplicating the educational efforts of A.S.C.A., which is getting into the coaching area. U.S.S. seem bent on taking over total control of the sport. There is an old saying that “the bottleneck is always at the top.”


We are in a sales and service profession, and if we cannot provide more and better services for families than soccer, gymnastics, Little League, etc., then we will perish. When I see the direction things are headed, quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me. I love this sport of swimming, and I do not want to lose it.


Way back in the beginning, when age group swimming was first started, the American divorce rate was well under 50%. We had one parent staying at home to take care of the children and the home. Age group swimming was established and set up to take advantage of all the free time that family members had. Clubs were set up to use volunteer help from all the parents that had time on their hands: Swim meets were usually used as fund raising/ money makers and they required large numbers of parents to run them. Age group meets took all weekend, and if you had an active age grouper, you were going to a couple of meets a month. These meets took up the whole weekend, and if they were out of town, this meant travel expenses, hotel, meals and entry fees.


Well times have changed, and U.S. Swimming has not. The divorce rate is at 50%, which means a great number of single parent families. Even when you have both parents at home, they both need to work to make enough money to meet the needs of running a family besides swimming dues and various expenses. We now have soccer which you can participate in for only a few hours a week and very few weekend hours a month. We also have Little League, gymnastics, etc. that are all marketing their activities in a much more appealing way.


What is U.S. Swimming doing? They seem to be pushing the same old package, which is causing a decline in the talent level at the entry level in our sport. A good example of this loss of interest was last spring’s National Championships in Minnesota. I looked around the stands, which were almost empty, and I saw almost all parents and no one else. This is not the mark of a thriving sport. I know that U.S. Swimming can show statistics that say that we have more swimmers now than ever before, but we all know that you can prove anything you want with statistics.


When is the last time you saw a good telecast of a swimming competition? Recently, I was trying to watch the Goodwill Games, and I saw more ice skating and gymnastics than I care to mention, just so that I did not miss a swimming race or two when they were inserted into the program. We are not getting the exposure that we need on television. I can recall clear back in 1972, after Mark Spitz had won his seven gold medals, the following Monday, we had 300 new members try out for our swim club.


We need this kind of publicity, but I have heard coaches say that we should run our sport the way we have always run it, and screw the TV people and the changes they insist on making. We don’t seem to want to change to try something new that might attract a little interest to our sport. I am certain that this was the kind of thinking that the dinosaurs had right before their extinction.


In the U.S.A., the sport of swimming is not totally healthy. Job #1 for all of us is talent renewal. In college swimming, as Peter Daland has often said, “99% of success is recruiting the right talent.” In club coaching, it is getting those 300 new members every year to build a giant base for your program. Are we providing the services to attract talent in large numbers? I doubt it. Remember the bottleneck is always at the top. U.S. S. needs to stop trying to tell us how to coach and get out and market our sport to the public in a major way. They need to educate the public to what we all know that swimming is a great sport. We need to reorganize our club time and practice structures to be competitive with our competition. This means the toughest thing of all, changing our thinking about what we need to do to be successful in our local areas. Cut the number of practice session each week for the younger age groups. Cut the number of meets each month, and more than that, the down time spent at those meets. Do not think of meets as fund raisers. Maybe dual meets that only take a couple of hours would be popular? What about this for a service? Either buy, rent or contract with the Local School District to get a school bus. Pick the kids up at school, take them to swim practice and then deliver them home for dinner. Do you think you could sell that service to busy parents?


My point is that we need to think differently. We are sales people whether we like it or not. We need to begin thinking that way. Take a look around and see what you think will work for you and your program, even your set of circumstances. Then get out and sell it to anyone that will listen.


I checked out U.S. Swimming on my computer, and I could not find a mention of being in sales, or marketing the sport of swimming. In all fairness to U.S.S., I did receive something in the mail a couple of days ago called the Committee Mission Statements, which included 43 different committees. The marketing committee is charged with selling the sport in the U.S.A. Period Stop! In my opinion, that is not nearly enough, so don’t wait for someone from U.S.S. or your local L.S.C. to tell you what will work. You are in sales on your own so accept it and start selling .



At a level a little closer to home, how do you sell your swimmers on your ideas, if you haven’t taken the time to sell their parents? After all the parents have just a little contact with their children. If they understand and agree with what you are selling, then parents will make your job that much easier. Carry this a little farther to your local L.S.C.’s-If you can sell them; or better yet get involved at that level, all of a sudden your local programs are much improved with coaches input.


I would like to close with the words of Mario Andretti, the great race car driver.  “I everything seems to be going okay, you  just aren’t going fast enough.”

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