The Body Paradox in Sports
American physical education literature is abundant on this subject from the 1950s through the 1970s. Interestingly as far back as 1976, Scott wrote on “aesthetics, education, and the aims of age group swimming” (pp. 17-19). So whatever happened over the past 30 years as modern sport science started to encroach and began to smother people’s thoughts on the meaning or ‘essence’ of activity?’ Having put forward body-related questions to elite swimmers their reaction is often baffling, to say the least. Some get annoyed; some get silly; some think that’s crazy – not surprising because most people struggle with the explanation of ‘aesthetics in sports.’ Nevertheless, how are athletes ever going to know, understand, or even figure out certain concepts when the teaching of body awareness is lacking at introductory levels? On the other hand, how are coaches supposed to teach these concepts when they are deficient in understanding these concepts?
The ‘Soul-making’ of Swimming – not ‘just doing it’
Flow in sports resembles ‘poetry in motion’ but one has to really believe in this and then also experience it! “When I am happiest with my performance I’ve sort of felt one with the water and my stroke and everything…. I was going, oh this is cool!“ (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p. 4). “Sport becomes akin to the arts which create beauty and style… occurs in both sport and art at the highest pitch of perfection” (James, 1963, cited in Carlisle, 1969, pp. 5-22). It’s like building beautiful castles in the sandbox. Didn’t you ever do that? Movement aesthetics foremost depends upon some philosophical reflection by the swimmer and the coach because the ‘soul-making’ of swimming is the ‘art’ of swimming – not simply racing or ‘muscle up and down’ the lanes. The late Bruce Lee, well known for his martial arts, talked about the unique relationship between body and movement:
…Learn to use the joints of the body – you must become aware of their actions because they provide energy when working together and they put energy back into the action. The art of expressing movement demands control over movement. Be like water – take on its shape – become one with the water… Bruce Lee, 1975
Creating the ‘Feel’ in Sports is essential for Success
“Grace and beauty flow from actions not appearance”, according to Canadian poet David Bly (1997, p. 12). Just how important is the ‘feel’ for water or limb speed? This is quite an abstract notion for most but indeed is critical not only for beginner but also elite level athletes. According to Johnson (1998), “to be able to change the direction of one’s hand or arm to feel the water at just the right moment, at just the right angle and at exactly the right rhythm make this sport an aesthetic experience” (pp. 27-29). Chinese coaches actually use this kinesthetic attribute to identify swimmer talent. Jianyu (1994) elaborates on the complexity and the exact meaning of the word itself; ongoing debate among sport psychologists, exercise physiologists, and coaches continues since the interpretation of the word is subjective in many instances. The ‘feel’ for the water is related to the sensation of touch, weight, movement, direction, temperature, pressure and other factors in the water (pp. 16-17). It is an overall kinesthetic awareness, and this has to be taught and learned. It does not ‘happen by just being a swimmer.’ Jianyu (1994) wants coaches and swimmers to answer the following questions:
- What is ‘feel’ for the water?
- What are the effects on swimmers?
- How can we measure the ‘feel’ for the water?
Playing or ‘doing’ Sports versus educating through the Body
Why is the teaching of body awareness under-rated and generally minimized in most North American sports programs? Being in ‘tune with one’s body’ is so essential for athletes in order to improve their performances, to avoid injuries, physical breakdown, and/or burnout (Schloder 1994). The sport dilemma is that ‘we play or do’ sports, which is not the same as being educated in the physical (knowledge of the body) and through the physical (physical activities). The aim of education nonetheless is to discover not merely imitate” (Bruce Lee, cited in Little, 2000, p. 89). Whitten (2000) poses an amusing although serious question: “are breaststrokers smarter than other swimmers?” He suggests that like the song “there must be fifty ways to leave your lover there must be a hundred ways to swim the breaststroke.” Creative and playful experimentation in this stroke has led to more new ideas than in any other stroke (p. 5). Creative type of learning has to take place outside and in the pool the pool through a multitude of physical activities.
Therefore, most athletes are at a disadvantage because they seldom get exposed to ‘experiential’ learning or teaching during their early years. We should remind ourselves “learning techniques without inward experiencing can only lead to superficiality” (Bruce Lee, cited in Little, 2000, p. 89).
Who’s got Rhythm?
Every human motion denotes some sort of movement quality – ‘effort’ – which embodies time (timing) and force of motion. This quality is the essence to successful athletic performance. It is the one that separates the average from the one that is amazing or awesome: “How did he/she do that? How do they make it look so easy?” Rhythm is a component that is often neglected in teaching. Many assume that it ‘happens’ by ‘just doing a skill through repetition.’ Rhythm as a dimension of time includes speed, acceleration (hand speed), deceleration, duration, pace, and tempo – and these have to be taught. Novice swimmers understand speeding up and slowing down but they certainly have difficulties with the term ‘pacing’ because of lack of experience and ‘feel.’ Have you watched these swimmers during warm-up before competition as they move ‘full-steam ahead till they run out of gas.’ They have to learn through trial and error about their ‘internal clock’ for steady-pace, fast pace, or slower pace work. This takes time, patience, and experience.
Tempo as a movement quality is somewhat an individual characteristic (the way one moves, the way one talks, etc). It is always relative to the rhythm of speed, in essence speed of doing, whether one moves slowly or fast. Consistent ‘windmill’-like tempo for example is a key factor in the back crawl arm action. Force on the other hand can be thought of as a ‘push-pull’ action, something that causes or tends to cause a change in motion or shape of an object or body (swimmer). Force has four unique properties: a) magnitude, how much force is applied; b) direction, the way the force is applied (forward, backward, perpendicular to the surface, at certain angle, etc.); c) point of application (where it is applied on the body or object receiving it, in this case the water); and d) line of action (the straight line extending through the point application).
Mechanically, force can be defined from the dimensions of length, time, and mass. Force quality however is expressed as light, soft, smooth, and explosive, etc. As a coordinated interplay force and time produce rhythm, which is interpreted as the cadence, pace, pulse, or swiftness of a given movement. Stroke rhythm and timing is of utmost importance for all competitive strokes as well as underwater action in starts and turns. Swimmers need to remember that breathing is also part of stroke rhythm and timing. In fact, one can actually break down most sport actions to rhythmic counts of 4s-8s-16s, etc. although the front and back crawl both require 6-beat kick rhythm per arm cycle.
What makes a ‘good’ Teacher or Coach?
I can’t believe the way most U.S. swimmers are coached. They’re put through boring mega yardage workout from age six which takes all the fun out of swimming. Some day I’d like to start a swim camp that doesn’t even have lane lines or blocks and just teach kids to feel the water and use proper technique… –Matt Biondi, Winner of Seven Gold Medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, cited in Sports Illustrated.
Most of us have a work toolbox at home for building, renovating or repairing things.’ New tools are added or old ones are replaced as needed. Exactly the same applies to teaching or coaching sports since coaching these days is a multi-dimensional task. The task on hand requires more than just the teaching of technical swimming skills, especially given the fact that young athletes are less fit than in the past. Knowledge of theories and principles involved in physiology are essential for proper physical preparation and program planning. Designing and implementing training programs has to be a progressive, sequential, and resourceful undertaking. The process is requires careful planning with a long-term vision for a desired program aim. There are several questions that need to be addressed: a) what are the desired final outcomes of the program? b) What is the coach’s responsibility to make sure these outcomes are achieved? c) What is the coach’s overall accountability for the program? The latter includes not only the ‘swimming part’ but also lifetime skills for swimmers. Are you in this mind-set?
Teaching and Coaching – The Progressive and Sequential Process
Teaching and learning is a creative process, which calls for expanding the ‘toolbox’ so we are able to use our tools more effectively. This means that we want notoriety, creative hints, cues, innovative or unusual land or pool ‘toys to fix things.’ After all, “ideas are the beginning of all achievement” (Bruce Lee, cited in Little, 2000, p. 47). Such an approach is essential because swimmers as learners have to be challenged, stay motivated to remain in the program for a long (longer) time. For example, Wagner and Rush (1988) propose in “giving kids their wings” that entertaining teaching progressions can help swimmers learn the butterfly stroke more quickly (p. 25). According to them, such an involvement creates a positive base with athletes, contributes to an extra positive team environment, and builds a strong team culture.
Teaching/coaching as a science (pedagogy) not only entails knowledge of methodology but also long-term objectives beyond swimming. Overall fitness, i.e. developing physical and motor attributes, and the teaching of general movement patterns have to be integrated in order to enhance sport specific technical skills. The inherent process becomes a horizontal and vertical sequence carried out on land and in the water. How does this take place successfully?
Sport movement patterns consist of the following themes:
- Balance (static – starting platform; dynamic – any swimming movement)
- Spring (starts and turns)
- Landing (starts into water) combined with height and flight (airborne position after Starts)
- Locomotion (technical skills in the water and off the start platform)
- Rotation (turns)
- Swing (arm movement in starts; arm recovery)
On the other hand, movement themes contain the following concepts:
- What moves the Body?
Body Parts (arms, legs, head, body, body roll, hands fingers, feet)
Body Actions (bend or contract, stretch or extend, twist or rotate such as bending hips, knees, trunk, joints)
- Where Movement takes place?
Areas of Space (spatial awareness and orientation)
General space (pool)
Personal space (lane, wall space for turning, circle swimming, starting platform)
Equipment space (starting platform, lane rope, kickboard)
Dimensions of Space
Quality of Movement (to improve effort and flow)
- Relationship between Body Parts (‘feeling’ body parts – proprioception)
Body Action Effort (arms – legs; head – body; stroke timing)
- Movement Aesthetics (“flow and beauty of movement; efficiency and effortless)
Are Athletes less valuable than our most valuable ‘Things?’
Baking a cake or putting together a car requires specialists, specific ingredients, particular or unique parts which are brought together in a certain order. One may do without some or mix them at will but the result is not the same. Can you imagine a Mercedes or Jaguar factory assembly line operating in a ‘helter-skelter’ manner? Ah, but that’s an expensive car! Thus, it is somewhat baffling that an ongoing hesitancy exists to accept coaching methods from other sports. Why do skiers engage for example in dryland ski gymnastics if all action after all takes place on the ski hill? Swimming in contrast continues to be ‘stuck’ in a traditional mode of thinking. The issue is never “what have we achieved but what can we do better to maintain a stronger swimmer base.” The teaching/learning process in swimming takes place not only in the water alone (Klatt and Bingham, 1994, pp. 18-20).
All-round Development versus Early Specialization
The fitness level of children throughout North America has reached more or less a crisis point, according to medical experts. Even the United States Congress addressed this issue with great concern in 2001 and again in 2002. Subsequently, it is not offbeat to assume that many children who join sports programs are not necessarily in the best of physical state. Given these facts, coaches have to decide on a suitable fitness model, which becomes the base to their training program, or whether the emphasis is to be solely on sport specific skills. Let’s keep in mind that Klatt stated in 1994 “perhaps, the better all-round athletes they are the better they’re potential in swimming” (cited in Bingham, 1994, p. 19). The typical coaching argument however is that this takes too much planning time (especially for the volunteer coach) and/or detracts from ‘costly’ pool time. Alternatively, one can make a case that it is most likely a ‘dead end street’ if these athletes lack physical and motor attributes and development is ‘left to chance.’
This is thought-provoking because the sporting experience is either going to be enjoyable for swimmers or numerous frustrations eventually will lead to program drop out. “My skills no longer improved” is one of four top reasons cited by athletes leaving organized sports (Schloder and McGuire, 1998). All-round development or general athleticism should be the ultimate program outcome if a wide range of physical fitness components and sport specific exercises for skills are incorporated. This means proper planning, proper opportunities, the best place and best time to integrate these during daily training sessions (Schloder and McGuire, 1998).
Program Design for Age group Swimmers
It is recommended that the training for younger swimmers consist of 70-80 percent aerobic-type swimming (drills and slow swimming) in daily sessions. This means the focus is on
All-round stroke development (technique) and patience. Foremost, younger swimmers have to develop a solid aerobic base for several reasons:
- Pre-puberty swimmers lack the ability to rid the body of lactic acid; the build-up occurs when training is too extensive (high volume) or too intense (high-speed). Muscles become sore, swimmers complain, and training performance deteriorates, so does motivation.
- Swimmers, who generally lack fitness, also tire more easily. Focus and concentration decline, making it more frustrating for everybody involved. Fatigue not only leads to stroke breakdown but injuries as well. In many cases, the immune system breaks down and sport psychologists identify symptoms such as recurring colds, flu, fever blisters, and mononucleosis as indicators for sport burnout.
Since children undergo many pre-puberty changes (physical and emotional) strokes may change and performances may vary during these years. Therefore, both the swimmer and the coach have to be aware of these developments and learn to be ‘patient’ with each other. The major goals should be on personal improvement and ‘striving’ to achieve excellence. Competition should be directed toward participation in all four swimming strokes as well as the individual medley events. Speed swimming, and refining starting techniques take up the remaining percentage; turns always require full-out effort and proper technique because there is
‘no such thing as a slow turn’ – even during training. However, executing each turn with proper speed and technique demands a high degree of ‘wall fitness’ (muscular and cardio-respiratory endurance) because fatigued swimmers tend to ‘cheat’ on turns.
The Thirty-minute Difference
The database of the 10-year longitudinal study on Calgary based age group swimmers indicates the importance of fitness for young swimmers. Undertaken in 1996, the current results point out that a 30-minute program, three-times per week is effective. Other combinations were tried but no significant changes occurred from the period 1996-1999 (Schloder, 2002) in programming of less time. These young swimmers also engaged once per week in a variety of activities, organized in 6 to 8-week units like fencing, dancing, tap dancing, modern dance, gymnastics, self-defense, yoga, soccer, or athletics. The ‘smorgasbord’ or ‘industriousness’ approach is in line with the nature and ‘mind-set’ of younger athletes, according to learning specialists and sport psychologists.
Dryland Training is a Supplement not a Replacement
Year-round and many summer coaches often complain that not enough time in a single daily training session is available ‘to do all that extra stuff.’ One may counter such reasoning with the overwhelming facts that an increased level of fitness not only enhances swimming but also other sports skills, and contributes to the lifetime health of the athletes. Are these goals not
shared by all coaches? Some in the swimming circles are making a case that all training should be ‘swim specific,’ a belief based on traditional notions and certain convictions that dryland replaces training in the water. It is supplementary – at least in the viewpoint of coaches abroad.
Fitness must be Fun
Fitness has to be associated closely with fun. Many statistics point to the fact that young athletes become sport ‘dropouts’ because a) the activity is no longer fun; b) they no longer learn new skills, and c) they are no longer motivated (Schloder and McGuire, 1998, pp. 46-50). According to Klatt (1994), “Every year we lose 50 percent of our registered athletes. The number one reason is that they aren’t having fun. I think it’s time we learn how to better retain swimmers” (cited in Bingham, p. 18). How many statistics does it take to convince us before coaches endorse the fun – fitness – and fundamentals sport model. Some type of fitness and posture assessment has to undertaken in order to create a general exercise complex and a specific one for the need of individual swimmers (basic testing items are usually featured in selected physical education books of “Tests and Measurements). Coaches have to remember that athletes are neither alike nor do they progress alike. Pre-mid-and post testing should be carried to monitor progress or make the necessary changes.
Some ‘old Stuff’ works – modern ‘Buzz’ words re-invent the Wheel
I grew up with medicine balls, Swiss balls (today’s ‘Physio’ balls), jump ropes, and gym benches because there were no weight-training facilities during the Post War II years. I could write volumes about gym bench exercises and basic plyometrics for speed, strength, and explosive power) – all fun and never boring! Core strength is the big ‘buzz’ word nowadays whereas it was simply called upper-lower body strength and explosive power during my athletic days. I don’t think that I could have ever done the shot put, thrown the discus or javelin without proper core strength or hip movement, the ‘serape effect’ as Colwin (1995) calls it in swimming (pp. 26-27). Explosive power from jumps and sprint events, rhythm and timing from hurdles were a real blessing to my swimming. I lived up to my nickname ‘Blitz’ since I had a very fast start off the block. The Jump and Sprint School exercises (bounding) aided made all the difference for my swim starts. We ran uphill and downhill for speed training and to increase lower body strength whereas North American kids get ‘taxied’ to the next corner. Go figure!
Think about the way you teach or coach! Do you ever notice or do you even know how you affect your athletes, especially when changes occur during growth and development? Every aspect of athletes’ lives is affected and that also includes their sport activities. A wide range in the rate of individual differences is apparent, which increases even more as athletes approach adolescence (15 years upward). The developmental age can fluctuate by as much as two years of the chronological age in either direction. This means a 10 year old can be in a range from 8 to 12 years in his/her developmental age. Coaches have to be mindful of such issues and identify potential impacts and demands of required performance levels. This also pertains to the planning of day-to-day coaching. Emotional maturity may indeed become a factor when deciding on the kind of competition swimmers should partake at this stage. The question is: are these swimmers truly ready – not do you think they are ready? In the end it is their ‘mind game,’ their perception of efficacy (perceived competence), which builds self-confidence and then leads to self-esteem!
“How we see our children determines how they see themselves.”
David Bly from “Journeys Worth Taking” (1997)