Have you ever wondered why swimming is so hard to learn for some people? Even the fittest people out there can find themselves struggling while watching their less-than-disciplined peers swim like fish. Maybe you are the ultra fit athlete who gets beat every day in master’s swim practice. Or maybe you are the weekend warrior that gets a kick out of being a little flabby but still able to swim past that guy with washboard abs. The focus on this article is for people who find swimming difficult.
People who pick up swimming quickly have an instinct for it. Most have previous swimming experience, often from childhood. Other good swimmers participated in swim-compatible sports like skiing or rowing. Still others swim easily because they did a vast array of sports so that their minds aren’t pre-conditioned to do anything very repetitively. Those who have lots of experience in running sports tend to struggle because the instincts to run well are so different from anything in the water other than breast stroke.
How do you classify your swimming instinct and abilities? Most people can say right away if learning swimming comes easy or not. But if you don’t know for certain, your swimming instincts drop for each question below that you answer “No”:
- Can you get faster in swimming with just a little bit of training and no formal instruction?
- Are you used to beating people in swimming that are much more physically fit than you?
- Do your swimming times come back quickly after a significant illness or absence from the pool?
- Do you have difficulty in explaining to others why you swim as fast as you do?
The people without instinct must think on a microscopic level to improve. They don’t have the pieces of the movements pre-programmed into their brain, and so they have to think at the smallest detail to get them. Memorizing a series of books or doing lots of drills accomplishes little when don’t know how it is supposed to feel. It is like trying to put a puzzle together when you don’t have the pieces. Without instinct, most people can’t just rotate the shoulder more with a simple thought (a common issue with beginners is that they swim flat, or don’t rotate the shoulders enough). They might think they can. They might even feel it when they try.
I may tell someone to rotate the shoulders more. Then they swim, thinking for sure they have done it. But their stroke looks the exact same. If I tell them to rotate more, then they think they’re doing it more. Their brain actually tells them they are doing it more. But they aren’t. I have even seen some clients feel like they’ve pulled a shoulder muscle because they’ve rotated their shoulders too far. They may feel all cramped up, but they continued to swim as flat as a board.
When you don’t have any subroutines dedicated to swimming, your brain substitutes with routines that were designed for something else (usually walking or running). When you hear your coach tell you to rotate the shoulders more, it contradicts the runner’s instinct to keep the shoulders level. Your brain gets confused as the only rotation it knows is no rotation. You don’t consciously realize what’s happening because your running subroutine gives you the message that you rotated properly. In other words, you think you rotated the shoulders, but you didn’t. It just gets annoying to hear coach say to rotate more over and over again.
As a coach, I have used various techniques to force my clients to move their arms and legs in a particular way. I have grabbed and rotated shoulders. I can prove a technique works for them by timing their laps and showing they are faster when they swim a certain way. But I can do nothing to stop the fact that it feels odd and awkward. If you have no water instincts, fast swimming doesn’t feel right, it actually feels wrong. Your mind will tell you that fast swimming is slow, silly, stupid, even embarrasing.
It doesn’t matter that you turn in faster times with a new technique. When you feel awkward, it eats away at you every time you get in the pool. If you do nothing about it, the old habits slowly return. Memorizing doesn’t help because your past experience is continually altered towards what feels right. Don’t trust your memory. There are three data sources you can trust:
- What your coach is telling you – a good triathlon swim coach is well aware of how difficult it will be for you to learn something new, and they should be on constant lookout.
- What you can see with your eyes – sight is the one perception that the mind has trouble fooling. If you see it, chances are you are doing it.
- Your swim times – if the times are getting slower, chances are that old habits are coming back.
Learning the swimming motion from scratch is not a test in memory. It is about what you cannot forget. Swim routines are best learned by constant repetition over a range of effort levels. Pick one thing that you want to learn (like rotating the shoulders more), and remember what it feels like (the baseline). It is going to feel weird. Your job is to remember the particulars of weirdness. And work on it, every single stroke of every single workout. A single moment where you think of something else is enough for you to forget the skill for good. Assume that if it feels right, it is probably wrong.
It will feel wrong for a long time. If you are inventing a new movement routine from scratch, the time to learn it is 2-4 months at minimum. People acquire instincts very slowly. It feels like you aren’t improving at all for a long time. Even when it does improve it isn’t a clear victory. Only a few people experience a eureka moment where everything suddenly feels right. Most just get super efficient at calibrating their stroke to the right feeling of weirdness.
I hope this article has enhanced your understanding of what it takes to learn swimming when you struggle with it. It is a very long road, but the rewards are great. Conquering your instincts stirs up emotions that are simply incredible. It will be one of the most personally rewarding experiences you ever have. It is a very different victory from winning something that you excel. When you win something you are good at, it makes you feel like you are the best. When you conquer something you suck at, it makes you believe you can do anything.