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Swim expert explains how to manipulate the flow of the water

By Cecil Colwin

The feel of the water refers to a swimmer’s intuitive ability to feel and effectively handle the water. It is generally believed that feel of the water is an elusive quality unique to the talented athlete; swimmers of only average ability cannot hope to emulate the acute sensory perception of the talented motor genius. Nevertheless, I intend to show that by heightening the sense of touch and learning how to interpret sensations of moving pressure, swimmers of average ability can acquire the subtleties of advanced stroke technique. Talented swimmers coached in this method will likewise achieve greater expertise.

A more apt title to this chapter may well be "Coaching the Feel of the Flow." Water flows when a force acts on it; a swimmer’s hand always propels against the pressure of moving water. The force exerted by a skilled swimming stroke causes the water to flow in a distinct pattern (Colwin 1984a). The method in this chapter shows swimmers how to feel for the ideal flow reaction to their stroke mechanics and thus receive instant feedback on their efficiency.

This new approach teaches swimmers to anticipate, control, and manipulate the flow of the water. They learn that the arm functions not only as a propelling instrument but also as a skilled and sensitive shaper of the flow.

Ideal Flow Reactions
The first step is to explain how the flow behaves during each phase of an efficient swimming stroke. The flow directions that can be anticipated in the different swimming strokes can be described simply. The oncoming flow - which in the crawl-stroke hand entry moves from the fingertips to the wrist and along the arm - is known as distal in its direction. A flow that moves toward the radial bone (or from thumb to little finger) is termed radial, for example, the flow produced when the elbows bend to bring the hands under the body in the crawl, butterfly, and breaststroke. An ulnar flow moves toward the ulnar bone or from little finger to thumb, for example, the flow produced as the arms extend and the stroke rounds out to the hips in the crawl and butterfly. A flow is proximal when it moves from the wrist toward the fingertips, as happens in the backstroke as the arm straightens at the end of the stroke (Schleihauf 1979).

The Importance of Hand-Forearm Rotation
Swimmers are shown how flow behavior is related to an important aspect of stroke mechanics: emphasizing hand-forearm rotation within comfortable limits for each individual swimmer. This is the mechanism that sets up the ideal flow around the hand and forearm in all the strokes. The practical application of this mechanism for swimmers of all strokes is simple: Start the stroke with the palm(s) facing outward and gradually rotate your hand-forearm unit throughout the stroke, with particular emphasis on achieving the maximum amount of elbow bend in midstroke that is comfortable. Find the amount of hand-forearm rotation and elbow bend that develops the strongest pressure on the moving flow but still feels comfortable.

New Terminology Related to Feedback on Flow Reactions
Introduce a new terminology. Short descriptive phrases such as "trap, wrap, unwrap" tell a swimmer how to handle the flow correctly during the split-second action of a swimming stroke. This differs from previous methods that describe only the mechanics of the stroke. In addition, the new terminology relates to obtaining feedback by feeling the flow on the hand and forearm. These verbal cues are important to the effectiveness of the method and are valuable as rehearsal techniques to enhance subsequent performance. Later in this chapter, I will discuss appropriate descriptions of what pressure sensations a swimmer should feel.

Flow-Shaping Skills
The swimmers are taught flow-shaping skills by which they create and detect specific flows in the water. These flow shapers, as they are called, have a beneficial two-way effect, in that a swimmer’s efforts to shape the flow cause a reciprocal shaping effect on the limb itself. The feedback received from the flow reaction causes the proprioceptors in the muscles to respond by adjusting the posture and attitude of the propelling arm. Flow shapers produce positive and even exciting results because they instantly groove the hand and arm in accurate stroke patterns. Even the skeptics become convinced that this is a unique and effective way to teach efficient stroke mechanics. The essence of the method is: the feel of the flow shows a swimmer exactly where to place each moving sequence of the swimming stroke.

Sensitizing Procedures
Special sensitizing procedures are introduced to sensitize the sensory nerve endings to the moving pressure of the water (or, more precisely, transient pressure induced by motion). The propelling surfaces of the hands and forearms are also sensitized to simulate specific flow reactions. The method is simple. Sensitivity to the flow increases at once. Swimmers of average ability learn to regulate a smooth and efficient stroke.

Although these techniques quickly stimulate the sensory nerve endings, this is of little value unless the swimmer makes an association between the feel of the moving water and the particular phase of the swimming stroke. Only then can meaning be given to the sense of touch and an intelligent concept formed of the desired stroke mechanics.

Connecting Sensory Information With Stroke Effectiveness
The method short circuits the motor-learning process and renders the complex more simple. The deliberate intention is to cause an immediate connection between sensory information and stroke effectiveness. By giving instant meaning to the sense of touch, the procedure adds a new perspective to traditional methods, so it is used even in the early stages of learning. Young swimmers rapidly improve their ability to seek out and recognize ideal flow reactions.

It is unnecessary to burden a swimmer with academic considerations - valid though they may be - such as lift, drag, ideal angles of attack, and which movement planes to emphasize. Talented swimmers, when exposed to the method, develop unusual dexterity in directing and channeling the flow efficiently. Even accomplished swimmers improve their techniques when made aware of the exact flow reactions they can anticipate; in fact, they become enthusiastic and keen to learn more about the process.

The Goal of the Method
The goal of this method is to coach the feel of the water by showing swimmers how to use their sense of touch to interpret and improve stroke effectiveness. The method encompasses the following tasks:

  1. Describe and explain the flow reactions that can be anticipated during each phase of a skilled swimming stroke.
  2. Demonstrate and explain hand-forearm rotation and elbow bending and how these mechanisms set up the ideal flow around the hand and forearm in all the swimming strokes.
  3. Demonstrate flow-shaper skills and explain how they shape ideal stroke patterns for the individual swimmer.
  4. Demonstrate sensitizing procedures and explain how they can be used to simulate specific flow reactions.
  5. Emphasize the importance of regular practice. Ensure constant repetition by swimmers of all the procedures outlined in the preceding tasks.

This is an excerpt from Breakthrough Swimming.

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