Listen to Your Eyes, learning swimming technique

Presentation ASCTA Convention, Broadbeach, Australia, May 2000

Lecturer Ilkka Keskinen
Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, Jyväskylä University

Teaching swimming technique is not an easy task. Nevertheless it seems to be precisely technique which separates a good swimmer from a poor one. So what exactly are these problems which it is so difficult for the coach to solve in training technique?

The most common approach to teaching technique

Technique training usually goes like this: The coach explains the task at hand and possibly demonstrates on land how it should be done. Then the swimmers try to perform the action in the water. Meanwhile the coach evaluates what the swimmers are doing and when they come back the coach gives them feedback. After feedback the swimmers continue by trying again andso on.

Next I will discuss the problems that arise out of this kind of technique training. Why do the swimmers often not make any progress?

In my opinion there exist at least three major problems in this type of coaching style. Firstly, there are usually at least ten swimmers per coach and it is thus a very hard task to evaluate all the swimmers at the same time. You can,of course, solve the problem by getting more coaches, but usually this is not possible. The second problem arises when you try to observe the swimmers´ underwater movements. It is often impossible owing to the reflections of light on the surface of the water. The surface also distorts the view and makes it very hard to judge the movements. And that isnot all. Some of the swimmers´ movements are constantly hidden under their bodies. It is thus very hard to evaluatethe movements of swimmers accurately.
Coaches have tried to overcome this problem in various ways. One solution is underwater videotaping, which has become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades. However, the problem in videotaping is that the coach cannot watch the videotape before the practice is over. If that is the case then the feedback is given too late or at least non-optimally. Naturally, it is useful to remember that there are also video systems in which one can simultaneously obtain the underwater perspective as well as give feedback every time the swimmers approach the pool end where the coach is. Another solutionis the use of underwater windows. Unfortunately these do not exist in all swimming facilities and if they do they may bein the wrong places. In addition we should not forget the method which has already been presented by Doc Counsilman: put your mask on and dive in. Definitely a good method but how often can you see this happening?
If we do not have the above-mentioned possibilities and we do not have reliable information on swimmers´ technique we end up with the third problem. How can the coach give the swimmers feedback if he can not evaluate the swimmers´ movements reliably?

Of course he can´t or at least he can´t do it well. So what can we do to improve feedback? Examination of the swimming literature reveals a number of attempts to solve the problems already presented. The essential point in these attempts is to delegate part of this difficult job to the swimmer. Simply make him more responsible for his own training in technique.

"The Feel"

As far back as 1968 Counsilman spoke about using "feel". Silvia presented the "hand-foot concept" in 1970 to sensitizethe hands and feet and later in 1992, Colwin introduced drills to develop better feel in the water. Also Laughlin supports the idea of feel in the water in his book published in 1996 as well as Berger in her doctoral thesis the same year. It is in fact a revolutionary idea because now the swimmer is also involved in working towards bettering his technique. By doing this the swimmer is doing the evaluation, getting immediate feedback from his own movements and guiding the stroke on the basis of this information. Although this seems to be a good method it is not that simple. In fact the feel method is very complex. Although Counsilman believed in the feel he had to face these problems when he started filming his swimmers underwater. In those days Counsilman tried to make his swimmers swim with straight arms and directly backwards. When the swimmers were asked what they were doing they said that they were doing exactly what they had been asked to do. When Counsilman saw the films he noticed that the best swimmers used bent arm and curvilinear movements. Hence the problem was that nobody knew properly what they were doing before they saw the films. The good thing was that the best swimmers actually swam better than their coaches instruction would be allowed. They intuitively created a new and better technique. It happened as Talbot has stated: "Champion swimmers teach the coach." The biggest problem still remained, since only a few swimmers had that magic feel. It was claimed that in those days Weissmuller or Spitz had that gift: the feel for water. If others did not learn a good technique then they did not have the gift. No one knew how to teach that feel. Even Counsilman said "We do not know how to evaluate feel for water "or "the swimmer either has it or does not have it and no amount of coaching or teaching will give it to him." or" This natural swimming ability is primarily an inherent factor, beyond the influence of a coach or a teacher. I suggest that the problem of teaching feel is still unsolved.

When some coaches have tried to teach "feel" they have said that the more pressure a swimmer feels on his hands the better and by acting accordingly feel would guide their movements. Unfortunately it is not that simple. Typical example where you can get a wrong impression or feeling is the catch phase. If you try to get too much pressure on your hand you are doing wrong. The same kind of problem often arises in sculling practice . It is also important to remember that sensations are different at different swimming speeds and that is why they are hard to distinguish.

Mirrors make you look at your self

The literature also introduces learning methods which also use other senses than touch. It´s obvious that vision should be used to help swimmers to learn. So let us look how this is done in the swimming literature. In both his first book (1968) and also in his second book (1977) Counsilman introduced the use of mirrors to give feedback to swimmers . Mirrors were used on dry land and in water. The swimmer´s task was to open his eyes and evaluate his strokes with the help of mirrors.
When training on land swimmers usually stood still and mainly used arms. This method has it´s pros and cons. The swimmercan easily see his movements but the body position is wrong and the swimmer has to use completely different muscles to keep the arms in their proper positions than is the case in water.
When the mirror was in the water it was usually placed at the end of pool or on the bottom. Counsilman fixed the mirror to the wall at the end of the pool. The problem was that as a swimmer you could use the mirror only when you approachedthe wall and then only for a very short time. Backstroke swimmers, of course, could not use it at all.
Sometimes the mirrors placed on the bottom of the pool are visible and often give a good view of your stroke. The biggest problem with mirrors is the cost since if you are really serious about mirrors then you need plenty of them. One mirror is of no help at all.

Help your partner

We have to admit that Counsilman had many good ideas for developing swimmers´ technique. No wonder he had so many good swimmers. One of his ideas was "partner teaching" which again he introduced in his first book. Expert in sport pedagogy Muska Mosston called this method "reciprocal style". In swimming the method is based on underwater evaluation and individual feedback and thus seems to solve both of the difficult problems in teaching technique. The swimmers worked inpairs so that while one was swimming the other one was underwater evaluating the movements and afterwards giving feedback.Cousilman said that this method also had an extra benefit: it forced the swimmers to think. This method no doubt is beneficialand it also often brings a welcome break to a monotonous training session. I think that this method deserves to be used more,at least with more mature swimmers.

Listen to your eyes

I have presented here so far a review of the methods which are to be found in swimming literature. By these methods their authors have tried to make our lives by the swimming pool easier. Surprisingly, however one method has not been studied byanyone. I have checked all the major swimming books, see booklist, and did not find any trace of it.

The method of using your eyes to evaluate your stroke, but without mirrors, has somehow been forgotten. There are two possible reasons for this. First, everyone is doing it all the time and hence it is why it is not worth mentioning. Second, although it is very obvious, authors have not understood the idea or the value of this method, which in fact combines the strengths of self evaluation in the "feel method" and evaluating your stroke with your eyes with mirrors and partners. The strengths of this method are that you obtain a clear picture of your underwater stroke and thus you get immediate feedbackas often as you want. You only have to keep your eyes open.

Several paths have led me to this method. One of them is found in Muska Mosston´s book on teaching styles. Let us recall some of these: the command style, the practice style, the reciprocal style, the self check style, the problem solvingstyle etc. The first two are often used in swimming coaching. Counsilman used the reciprocal style help your partner and also the self check style but based on feel. In Mosston´s book evaluation is based on mostly on vision.

According to Mosston, the self check style should be used in the following way. The teacher gives an instruction anddemonstrates the movement and then he gives the pupil one or two criteria which the pupil evaluates with his eyes. Teacher´s task is to teach the pupil to evaluate his own movements. Of course he can assist in evaluating if the taskis too difficult for the student or try to make the task of evaluation easier. Thus the question is no longer: "How can I teach better" but "How can I teach the student to learn better". Emphasis is on learning rather than on teaching andthe learner is more responsible for his own progress.

Another source to this "Listen to Your Eyes Method" is Masters swimming. When I train my own technique I hardly ever have a coach by the pool watching me. Which is why I have to do both the evaluation and the feedback myself. Because I am an expert I do not have any problems finding the criteria. I just have to keep my eyes open. I have realised two things. Goggles are not only good for protecting my eyes from chlorine irritation. I can also see my own arms and hands through them and I can move them at will. I do not have to have mirrors. I can also evaluate my arms and hands without them. It is interesting to remember that in the Munich Olympics of 1972 no one used goggles and in Counsilman´s book whichwas published in 1977, none of the swimmers in the pictures wore goggles. To my understanding goggles did not start to spread in the swimming community until after 1975. Could it be that the most distinguished authors in the field of swimming were swimmers during the nineteen fifties and sixties when goggles were not commonly used and that this explains why they do not teach the use of vision underwater.

Third reason for using our eyes instead of the sense of touch comes out of the research on learning. Motor learning expert Schmidt says in his book: "Chief among exteroceptive information sources, of course is vision." It is very efficient in evaluating and guiding movements and in memorizing movements. Our senses are there to be used. We onlyhave to decide which one to choose so why should we not choose vision only.

How does it actually happen?

Generally swimming technique is taught by drills. When we use the self check style and our vision we need to modify the drills used so that the swimmers can see their working limbs. Then we have to teach the swimmers to monitor their own movements. This does not happen naturally if they are new to this method. The role of the coach is to give the swimmer a criterion which he tries to observe and at the same time correct the movement if necessary . In swimming the criterion could be for example keeping a high wrist or high elbow. Actually the crucial point in this method is choosing the best criteria. They must be observable and easy to understand. The coach should have criteria for different age levels and different strokes. He should also evaluate how the swimmers are performing. Can they observe a single criterion oreven several criteria or should the coach give them an easier criterion to observe? It is always easier to start swimming at a slow pace and not increase it before the swimmers can manage at the slow speed.
The purpose of this method, of course, is to get the correct movements performed automatically so that the swimmer does not have to observe them anymore or at least not all the time.

When the swimmer learns to evaluate his movements he hopefully also learns to concentrate better on the entire training technique. Using this method the swimmer can also learn many of the cognitive elements of swimming. Counsilman found that when he used the partner evaluation method it made the swimmers think. Let us hope that the same result can be achieved with the self check style. However it is good to remember that only the swimmer can change his technique. The coach cannotdo it for the swimmer.

When a swimmer is evaluating his strokes it is also helpful to use other evaluation systems where the swimmer can see theresults of his work. An excellent method is counting the strokes per pool length or using the "Stroke Count And Time" system. With these tools the swimmer can easily compare the efficiency of his strokes. So when he changes the techniquein a better or worse direction he can see the results in a decreasing or increasing stroke amount or SCAT.

We still need the coach

Of course this method cannot solve all the problems encountered in teaching swimming technique. In the method described here of using your eyes the coach is needed especially for the motivation of swimmers. This is because it is often easier just to swim than swim, evaluate and think. There are also many aspects of performance which the swimmer cannot evaluate. Good example is swimming at fast speeds. Another is obtaining a view of the whole stroke. Self check style is suited best to part exercises and slow speeds. I am nonetheless sure that if swimmers can increase their efficiency in slow speeds there must also be some transfer to fast speeds.

But let us not try to change everything. Let´s also keep in mind all the "old" methods: lecturing, self checking with the feel of water, partner teaching, dry land exercises, mirror exercises and not forgetting "the listen to your eyes method", because it exists and it works.

In the end of this lecture a videotape is shown introducing the kind of drills which best suit self checking using the eyes. You may already be familiar with some of the drills but here the emphasis is on seeing your limbs.


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Counsilman J. (1977) Competitive swimming manual for coaches and swimmers
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Laughlin T. (1996) Total immersion
Berger M. (1996) Force generation and efficiency in front crawl swimming
Schmidt R. (1991) Motor learning and performance: from principles to practice
Mosston M. (1994) Teaching physical education

Page updated 20.03.2018