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What stroke is right for me?

Since launching this is the question I get asked about more than any other. While I appreciate all the support and inquiries through social media, often a simple answer to this question is difficult when dealing with an individual coaching concept.

I’m not a natural salesman for my coaching, so I find it awkward saying ‘I can’t really tell you unless I see you actually swimming.’ But this would be the most honest answer to many of the inquiries.

What can be frustrating for athletes, as many in my own squad will attest, is that even when I do see a stroke in need of improvement, the process of getting it right can involve a long process of trying different things, abandoning them, trying something else, before coming back to the things we attempted in the beginning. It is a process of elimination that can take days, weeks or even months to get right. But it’s important that we do.

Now what really annoys these athletes is when others come into the squad and within 2 minutes I can say – ‘change this, adjust that, use these paddles. Perfect. You’re done. Get on with it.’ As there are strokes where there is an obvious fix. However not all, and maybe the easy-to-correct swimmer will need a lot more work on the bike or run.

So how do we make a determination on what is the right stroke for you? There are many factors to take into account. These include the obvious ones such as physique, height, weight, gender, fitness, strengths and weaknesses. All important. Along with less obvious ones like nerve patterns. Do you naturally run with a high cadence or a long loping technique? This can correlate with what is best for you in the pool, and I’ve been able to help many a poor swimmer find their natural stroke after an impromptu run session.

One of the most important areas of help, and you won’t find it written in the training manuals, is in the importance of matching the stroke technique to the mentality of the the athlete. It will be dismissed as voodoo by some, but acknowledging the connection between personality and technique has served the squad well for many years. Here’s why:

When teaching swimming technique experience proves it is very hard, if not impossible, to teach a relaxed stroke to a hyperactive person who is insecure about most things in life. Just as the slow stroke technique won’t work for a person whose natural inclination is just to let rip in everything they do.

It is the very antipathy of their natural thinking pattern.

To use some recent examples from my squad; In the past 9 months Daniela Ryf has been hitting swim splits not usually acquainted to her. Instead of towing everyone up to the front girls on the bike, she now gets out of the water right with them. True, she is in long course now, but if she went back into ITU racing tomorrow I promise you the Angry Bird would no longer be doing all the dirty work for the third pack.

Similarly, this year we will see improvements with the new stroke of Nicola Spirig. It will take her a bit of time to adjust to, but it is highly unlikely we will see her resuming her previous duties of shutting down the first pack. She’ll be in it.

I’m not underplaying the physical improvements that have taken place with their training, but it has been the mental ones that have made the difference. Both athletes used to six beat kick and swim the classical stroke – trying to feel the water. The problem for both was their mindsets didn’t suit the stroke.

I’ll add here that changing the strokes of age group athletes is actually much easier than for pros, who at the top level often have too much to lose by tinkering with something that has worked well enough to get them to the highest levels already. Only Daniela’s loss of form prior to coming on board allowed me the opportunity change her stroke completely, and in Nicola’s case having already achieved her career goal of an Olympic gold she has the freedom to experiment with something that may be better.

Both athletes now use a two-beat only action, but because they are wired so differently their actual swim strokes are completely different. Daniela with the slower, more deliberate bent arm action, while Nicola looks like a straight arm threshing machine with a broken fuse.

So why does it work? Both are over achievers and both like to work hard. In Nicola’s case everything in her head is going a million miles an hour. To slow down and take her time with the traditional swim stroke brings on the anxiety of ‘I’m not going hard enough! I can’t wait to feel the water! I can’t a#ord to miss the pack! ‘ Of course with this attitude she often did. Her previous stroke, which looked terri"c at warm up pace, would su#er race time as she didn’t feel it gave her enough revs and she’d overdo it. So not a physical problem, but a mental one. Daniela on the other hand gets bored very quickly and needs something to concentrate on. As many observed at Kona (and the commentators mistook as sign of distress) she gets fidgety. Adjusting the run singlet, fixing the hair, putting on sunglasses, having a drink, taking off the sunglasses... Fixing the hair again.

I’m not criticising or making fun of the Angry Bird as she is going to be even more a Champ than she already is. Just pointing out the need she has to keep occupied. Rinnie running past her certainly got her attention and you won’t find that happening again.

Dani on debut at Kona 2014.

But from a coaching perspective do I try to change her natural traits? No way. I’ve learned to work with them. Confidence is not Dani’s problem and neither is self doubt. Just ask those that raced her in Dubai where after they dropped her on the bike, she dug in, kept to the race plan and ended up with the fastest bike and run splits.

So I know I can give her a stroke where she can just concentrate on getting a good rhythm. Her mentality allows me to set her up with the more classical, slower arm stroke as I know it will not be rushed trying to catch everyone.

Could Nicola swim well with this stroke? Probably not, as waiting for the next stroke would drive her crazy. So instead we have armed her with a model that suits the ‘just let me go for it’ mentality. Is it working? Like a charm.

So in conclusion, thank you again for all your questions about swim technique. Please keep them coming and I’ll do my best to address them on the blog in due course. In the meantime I hope I have provided a little insight into why it can be difficult to provide an answer in 140 characters, and how you can go about analysing the best swim technique for yourself.

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