Why You're Really Stuck at Swimming

Despite what you have been told, you probably aren’t stuck at swimming because you don’t do it long enough or hard enough or frequently enough. You're probably stuck because you (and your coach) don’t understand how your body learns complicated things. You understand how to be a lawyer or a nurse or firefighter: you memorize, mimic, and use reason. You understand how to run or throw a ball, as these are simple activities performed in your natural terrestrial environment.

Swimming is different from all those things (and most of the other things you will learn in your lifetime). Learning to swim is like learning how to speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument. Most adults are trying to learn swimming like the person who wants to play Brown Eyed Girl on the guitar at their wedding reception. Or the tourist who wants to know how to ask for the bathroom or how much an item costs, but doesn’t really want to learn French.

Knowing how to play the guitar isn’t memorizing the chords to Brown Eyed Girl. Learning to play the guitar involves learning notes, chords, scales, rhythm & timing, and how to read music. Fundamentals. The fundamentals are not the music, but when you learn the fundamentals, you can play any song you want.

You don’t learn a foreign language by memorizing key sentences such as “Where’s the bathroom?” or “How much does this cost?”. That’s how tourists fake it. You learn by building your vocabulary, learning grammatical structure, and recognizing written letters and words. Again, fundamentals. The fundamentals are not the language, but when you learn them, you can speak any sentence you wish.

Linguistic and musical aptitudes highlight another frustrating point for adult onset swimmers – children pick things up more easily. Whether swimming, language, or musical instruments, children often do not require as many classes and lessons, or even an obvious process. Minimal instruction combined with adequate “play time” will often result in children far outpacing their adult counterparts.

The stuff that works for kids falls short for adults, yet we have youth swim coaches attempting to teach adults with the same methods. There’s a mental plasticity gap, and it is seen clearly in the “Backwards Brain Bicycle” video.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle

Most adult onset swimmers need more than minimal instruction and play time. They need to know what fundamentals are, and they need a carefully orchestrated process to teach them. First come the parts, and later the integration of those parts into a stroke that works for the individual. Adult onset swimmers get stuck because they don’t know what they should fundamentally be learning, and they don’t have a process to teach them.

Things commonly taught as swimming fundamentals such as good body position, a specific beat of kicking, a specific breathing pattern, and yes, even early vertical forearm, are not fundamental at all. We have our cause and effect reversed. Those, and other things, are effects of fundamentals.

True swimming fundamentals are loosely aligned with those required in musical and linguistic pursuits:

  1. Development of Vocabulary – In this case “Physical Vocabulary”

  2. Rhythm and Timing – Synchronized motion of the hands, feet, torso, and head

  3. Awareness – You need to hear your chords ‘underwater’

  4. Suppleness of form – Not being overly stiff or excessively floppy

Nailing those four will lead to:

5. The Goal of Propulsion

And that is the difference between a traditional, actively corrective… “Tell me what I am doing wrong” approach, and Finding Freestyle’s Passive Technique approach.

Our approach relies on mostly non-verbal stimulus to achieve changes in your swimming. The notion is that "conceptual ignorance" does not limit us so much as "physical ignorance". If your body possessed the physical vocabulary needed for an optimal stroke, it would find that stroke simply through the pursuit of speed in workouts combined with a few basic drilling routines.

The fact that most approaches to swimming instruction rely on a "corrective approach" means that they fail to engage the swimmers’ ability to adapt as a result of physical stimulus - a far more potent agent of change than verbal stimulus.

And that's how you can get unstuck.