When it comes to swim coaching, and in particular, triathlon coaches trying to teach adults to swim, we are firmly in the “corrective” phase: 1. Watch me swim 2. Tell me what I am doing wrong. 3. Ok, I'll try to correct it. 4. Now do your workout.
In the absence of an effective process, we have created a false dichotomy between technique and fitness. Swimming doesn’t work that way. Technique and fitness are inseparable, and working on both at the same time is not only preferred, it is unavoidable once the proper mindset is achieved. That mindset is associative in nature. Contrast that with the dis-associative mind, the mind that wanders, thinking about anything except what the body is doing right now.
In swimming, a mind that is aware of and engaged in the activity at hand is a pre-requisite for improvement. It is the bridge between technique and training. Once you possess this mindset, 20 x 200 on short rest becomes as useful and “drill like” as 20 x 25 on long rest, swum slowly, under a corrective coach’s eye. Good swimmers (athletes) consider, evaluate and modify their stroke (stride, bike fit) all the time. Good athletes associate with their activity constantly. Average athletes do not, and therefor require frequent reminders or appropriate activities to focus their wandering attention. Hence, drills. Drills become the vehicle for the dis-associating swimmer to momentarily associate.
How we got here
One of the foundations of what I call “Passive Technique” is the notion that telling a person what they are doing wrong, i.e., identifying "stroke flaws" is ineffective in many cases, and quite often counter-productive. This is also and unfortunately, the classic coaching model of the day.
Instead the swimmer should rely upon a process based approach to building "physical vocabulary". That is, the isolated micro-motions that make up the components of an effective swimming stroke when put together. I believe that humans tend to build upon whatever movement foundation they possess, their existing library of motions, garnered from years in the terrestrial environment. By introducing small isolated movements through the use of drills, we can expand that library, and moreover, by using these simple sets of motions we can provide the aspiring swimmer with something "do-able". In other words, we can build from a "position of strength". I believe our primary job as coaches is to let people know where there strengths lie, and use those strengths as a foundation for their forward progress (both literally and figuratively).
Whether this notion sprang from my own mind as a result of my experiences devising drills or whether it bubbled up from the recesses of my memories of my own awesome coaches growing up, the ultimate source was the same: witnessing the effects of the power of proper activities in developing effective movement patterns, and also witnessing the paralyzing effect that "verbal correction" or "flaw identification" can have on so many athletes.
The converse of the passive approach, what we call the "corrective approach", focuses first on telling the athlete what they are doing wrong, and/or attempts to correct something verbally that is happening amidst a complex set of dynamic motions. But it is so incredibly difficult to achieve this correction within the context of this set of dynamic movements, most individuals fail -- even if the coach has identified the "right flaw".
Whether aware of it or not, you do not learn to swim faster through corrections, tips or mindlessly hammering for thousands of yards. Of course, some swimmers improve by mindfully swimming for thousands of yards.
Let me be clear, for all athletes and to varying degrees, the hammer works: training CAN improve technique, and in some circumstances, it IS just as simple as cranking out some more -- humans are ADAPTATION MACHINES, we do it very, very well. But we CAN optimize our adaptation with proper application of training technique. We can optimize our adaptations in the pool when we use a process instead of the a la carte menu.
What is Proper Technique? Famous coach Brett Sutton sums his view in a sentence: "The more I point out that technique is not the major concern, the more doubters I seem to create". Though his words imply a rejection of technique, hand speed is one thing that I gather from his blogs that he might see as vital, and indeed, this is something that is "drilled out" of athletes who take the classical "long and strong" view of "proper" mechanics. Coach Sutton describes a swimmer who is killing it in workout - "Steve was looking like a whirling devil" - this is a good thing, and he knows it.
Renowned Coach Paulo Sousa once tweeted his view succinctly: "Technique goes a long way in swimming, but it's nothing without fitness. Working on your fitness works on technique. The opposite is not true.". This makes me ask though, what technique improvements is coach Sousa looking for? I must believe that with the level of athletes that he has coached, that like obscenity and the Supreme Court, he "knows it when he sees it". And he probably has a sense of how to cultivate it via a workout. But if it can be quantified, it can become part of the training regimen.
If I were a betting man, I would bet that both coaches Sousa and Sutton would see effective hand-speed as a worthy technique, and one that can and should be trained in the context of a conditioning set. So, what aspects, besides hand speed and endurance can make someone successful in open water, and ALSO be part of a successful conditioning regimen? I would love to hear their thoughts on this, but for me and mine, it's:
2. Free and plentiful air exchange
3. Ability to sight
4. Ability to turn the legs on and off at will
5. Ability to change speeds as the race demands (if swimming in a pack especially)
6. And above all, TIMING: The ability to synchronize the movement of the head, hands, arms, legs and torso (and breath)
What is Proper Training?
In my opinion, both Brett Sutton's and Paolo Sousa's view of what constitutes "technique work" is crucially limited -- at least in terms of giving guidance to the world at large who hang on their tweets and blogs. Instead of separating "drills" from "toys", and "training" from "technique", they seem to force a choice between the two. I maintain that there is NO DIFFERENCE between proper training and technique instruction, even at the far faster than 1:30 per 100-meter level of performance. But when we start calling things "drills", some coaches get very rigid. For myself, rather than throw out the drill, I throw out the term: I prefer to call them "activities". “Proper Training” is providing the appropriate stimulus to the body at the appropriate time. Things that can provide technical stimulus are many, and include the staples that coaches Sutton and Sousa favor, such as paddles, buoys and higher volume sets.
However, if you look past drills that are largely inappropriate such as the chicken wing, head-touch, finger-tip drag, and perhaps catch-up free (I dislike catch-up, many coaches favor it take your pick) -- there are many more that can enhance your abilities. To name but a few:
2. Breathing pattern work
3. Kick sets
4. Complex drills that combine kicking and pulling in various combinations
5. One-arm freestyle
All of these, and others, are potent and useful, and can be used to condition as well as improve technique. Heck, doing a 5,000 straight swim is technique work if you use it properly (don't let yourself fall to pieces, or why not negative split it?). Good coaches contrive stimulating workout activities, often without even having that as their objective. Good coaches use tools and drills like pharmaceuticals, they get the DOSE-RESPONSE relationship right.
Rejecting "technique work" as being synonymous with "do slow 25s while having your coach correct your stroke" is a limited view of training, conditioning, and skill development. It's also pretty darn low in terms of effectiveness. It absolutely, positively time that we got past having a classical, 100 meter freestyle-centric view of "proper technique". But that's not all. It's also time that we stopped looking at "conditioning" and "technique" as two separate entities. They are inextricably linked and the best of us have always acknowledged that on a sub-conscious level. Perhaps it is time that we started to acknowledge it consciously, by associating with our swimming in every moment.