Science Matters

I get a lot of comments from coaches who have neither the time nor resources to implement any kind of regular testing program. I understand.  In swimming, as in so many sports, the focus of training has increasingly been on quantity rather than quality. Coupled with limited pool availability, this leaves less and less time to work on technique – or testing to identify needed technique changes. The result has been – and will continue to be – devastating to the large number of swimmers who leave the sport because of failure to improve, burnout and/or chronic pain.

Over the past two decades, I have worked with hundreds of talented swimmers who have left what should be a lifelong sport for those reasons.  This has fueled my passion for applying biomechanics and scientific research. But my commitment to using what we know from scientific testing and measurement is also based on more personal experiences.  There are many, but I’ll spare you and share only three.

As a competitive swimmer (age 7 through college), I swam on a number of teams and for an even larger number of coaches. (BTW, renowned basketball coach Rollie Massimino taught me to swim!) In NJ, that required a huge commitment to being cold and wet for a large part of the year.  I’m fairly certain that technique instruction after learning to swim was pretty minimal.  I didn’t even notice, however, until my college swim career was over, my coaching career begun, and I found myself swimming faster than I did in college. Why? As I focused on assessing the technique of swimmers I coached, I began to adjust my own stroke using the science-based principles I learned in college and was using to coach.  Knowing how to modify my technique was just a little late. (Although I did do pretty well in Master’s swimming!)

As a swimming parent (of a daughter who learned to swim at age 1 and swam competitively from ages 6 through 18), I had many occasions to bite my tongue and walk away from a swim practice or meet. Why?  It was too difficult to watch as my daughter was coached to use technique elements that were disproved decades before.  On one memorable occasion that occurred when she was 8, she was advised to “Swim fast like______ ( the fastest girl in her age group). It would have made such a difference in her times if instead she had been told to remember to focus on a specific technique element.

My last example is more recent but I think it tells us something about the value of scientific measurement.  I was asked recently to consult on the production of an episode of The History Channel’s “Super Humans” series. The “super human” in the episode was pulling a barge while swimming. The producers assumed he was using superior strength to do it. I was asked to measure the force he exerted while pulling a barge from the dock to the open water. Turns out I’ve tested a number of 13-year-olds who exerted more force on each stroke than this “super human.” (I doubt I will be invited back!)

The point of these examples: science shows us a better way and can correct misconceptions. And unless we can first measure – -in one way or another – exactly where we are, it’s difficult to chart a path for improving.

If you are a swimmer, coach, parent, or interested bystander, please take a look at the research/science.  Quantifying technique – measuring key elements and identifying areas for improvement – is the first step toward faster times, fewer injuries, and more swimmers. Isn’t that what we want?