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Teaching Humans To Swim Like Fish

By Terry Laughlin

How can I get more out of my swimmers? What can I do to make sure they always reach more of their potential? How can I take them along the most direct path to excellence with more certainty, fewer mistakes and missteps? Even after coaching for over 25 years, I still puzzle over those questions. For me, the most satisfying aspect of coaching has always been the opportunity to daily explore the limits of human potential and see the results of my work reflected so concretely, so unlike the 9-5 routine that most of us shrink from. When my swimmers go faster than they ever have before, when my teams outperform other teams in similar circumstances and/or perform better than they did before I coached them, I’m a happy coach. When they fail to reach the potential that I envision for them or when their progress is so inconsistent that I question my direction, I’m less pleased.

So I’ve always been curious about how to feel more assurance that I’m doing the best job possible. Never having had the chance to learn from a mentor as an assistant, most of my learning was by the less dependable trial-and-error route. I was always certain that if I could just observe closely those fortunate few coaches who always seem to produce great swimmers, I could learn the “secrets” I was sure they must have and eliminate a lot of inconsistency and missteps.

Fortunately, in 1988 two things happened that hugely increased the effectiveness of my coaching. One, I heard Bill Boomer speak at a clinic and subsequently became a disciple and friend. Two, I dropped out of conventional coaching for eight years to devote myself to teaching swimming technique in camps and workshops and through books and videos. Bill caused me to question many of the bedrock assumptions I had operated under for 16 years;he also gave me priceless direction on developing a new set of organizing principles.

And the opportunity Total Immersion provided to experiment on thousands of human “guinea pigs” with stroke technique and how people learn it gave me an unparalleled laboratory to refine these new insights about how fast swimming happens and what are its unfailing, non-negotiable terms. The most precious insight I’ve gotten is one that is little known and understood among coaches, yet is so common-sensical that I’ve wondered why it had not become clear to me earlier. And every coach who has begun to make use of it in their programs has reported that it will reliably produce better results faster, with more consistency and with greater numbers of swimmers. Sounds to me like a coach’s dream come true!

The insight I’m talking about is capsulized in this formula: V = SL x SR or Velocity equals Stroke Length times Stroke Rate. Speaking plainly, how fast you swim is a product of how far your body travels on each stroke multiplied by how fast you take them. All of the complex interactions that take place between coach and swimmer ultimately boil down into wrestling with that formula on a daily basis. Most of us miss the simple clarity this provides because we’re distracted by our focus on other, far less influential aspects of training.

All the training we give swimmers, in the final analysis, provides them with the skill and power to move a certain distance through the water with each stroke (SL) and the fitness to repeat those strokes with a certain frequency (SR). Because the formula is so simple, it is often overlooked or misunderstood, but if we remove starts and turns and restrict ourselves to how a swimmer moves between the flags (making an understanding of these facts even more critical for success in long course swimming) all coaching input can be reduced to the following: If a swimmer increases stroke length and can maintain stroke rate, they will swim faster. If they maintain stroke length while increasing stroke rate, they will swim faster;if they can increase both stroke length and stroke rate by a little bit (an act of genius – but one that can be taught and learned), they will swim much faster.

To go a bit deeper, we should ask which factor – SL or SR – is more influential. There’s a clear answer for that. Every study ever conducted of what distinguishes faster from slower swimmers has reached an unambiguous conclusion: SL is the key. When a Penn State biomechanist analyzed all swimming events at the 1988 Olympics, he reported that the fastest swimmers had the longest strokes. When ICAR analyzed SL and SR data from every US Olympic Trials dating back to 1976 it showed that 70% to 90% of the time the fastest swimmers had the longest strokes. A study released last summer analyzing the results of the 1997 Iowa State High School Championships reported that the fastest swimmers had the longest strokes. Does anyone see a trend? If someone bothered to analyze the City Summer League championships, I’m sure it would show the same – the fastest swimmers in that league would have greater SL than the slower ones.

Whatever slice of the swimming pyramid you examine, from the wide base of developing swimmers to the narrow apex of elite swimmers, the faster swimmers in that slice will have longer strokes than those who are slower. Clearly the SL of the top swimmers in the Olympic slice will be greater than those of the top swimmers in the State HS meet slice, which in turn will be greater than those of the top swimmers in the city summer league slice. But here’s the rub: What we do instinctively to swim faster is just the opposite. The way the human mind works while swimming is simple. Stroking my arms moves me down the pool;therefore to swim faster, I stroke my arms faster.

The single most valuable insight of my Total Immersion teaching experience has been an understanding that:

  • The best swimmers in the world produce their speed in a way that’s fundamentally different from the way everyone else does. I call their style “Fishlike Swimming.”
  • They usually master Fishlike Swimming, not because they’ve been coached to do it, but because one aspect of their genius for fast swimming was the intuitive ability to find the most effective way – often in spite of being coached to do something different – i.e. coaches who say things like: “You have to turn over faster if you want to swim faster!”
  • The things that the other 98% of the population do naturally and instinctively often make it harder to swim fast. I call this “Human Swimming.”
  • The aspects of stroke technique that make humans more fishlike, though non-instinctive and often counter-intuitive, are simple to understand and easy to learn. When coaches teach them and swimmers learn them, they unfailingly swim faster, often much faster. The converse is that when coaches fail to teach them, most swimmers won’t do them.In a series of articles for this publication, I will lay out and explain the principles of Fishlike Swimming and illustrate simple ways to teach and reinforce stroke efficiency that will produce much greater swimming speed with much more reliability.

Happy laps!