What swimming coaching can tell you about… well, life actually!

front-crawlIn life, as in almost everything, we depend on models. Not specifically the plastic kits, Meccano sets, or nearly anonymous cat-walk stars. We DO depend on them but they are each just one variety of a much larger phenomenon. Models are ways of making sense of complicated things. We use them when something is too big, or too overwhelming, for us to comprehend its subtleties. We use them when we simply don’t have anything else to go on – when there is no evidence. And when something is really complicated then some of us will use one model (or set of models) to make sense of it, whereas others will use a different set of models.

Some of us settle quite soon on the models that will guide aspects of our lives, others are constantly exploring new ones. Some men wear the same style of clothes that they saw their father wear, and just take the simple advice of a salesperson in a shop that this slightly different style “really suits you”, whereas other men buy magazines that show them trends, read male fashion reports in the newspapers or follow well-known male fashion bloggers.

As a little bit of evidence is discovered, so some people will adjust their models, whereas others may ignore the new information and continue to rely on an interpretation that was vogue in the Middle Ages. For some people, the model they have used has been sufficient for their purposes that they cease to recognise it as a model at all and assume that it is ‘fact’.

In the world of swimming coaching, until the 2000s there was largely only one model of how to swim ‘properly’ – according to the stroke that you used. Teachers were immersed in it; wall charts were made of it; certificates were given for it; competition rules were based on it. The same model had largely been used for teaching since Victorian times, and no-one thought to challenge it. After all, it worked. As some of you know, I teach life-saving and swimming, and I still hear other teachers promote this model. The other month, I was on a beach overseeing some life-saving assessments. One of the teachers had evidently told the rescuers to instruct their ‘victims’ (accompanied by some peculiar up and down arm action) to “hold on to the float and kick your legs; go on, kick harder…” Nothing could be worse, because kicking in a prone position, in the way they were demonstrating, contributes virtually nothing to movement through the water. All this exercise would do is tire them out sooner, hurt their backs (because they are straining to keep their face above the water), and lead to a greater sense of doom.

Then, in the mid-90s, a revolution happened. A US college coach, Terry Laughlin, emerged on the scene – his success with his team was so spectacular that people wanted to know the secret. The secret was that he had been applying a new understanding of science, of mechanics, of physiology, of physics, to recognise that the way we were teaching kids, and coaching adults, was fundamentally flawed. He put forward a compelling argument, back by real scientifically sound evidence. Longer bodies go faster. So adapting the stroke to create more length, reducing the energy used (and the oxygen consumed) by minimizing the number of strokes in a given distance, and ensuring a body position that was highly streamlined (even though that meant swimming lower in the water and rotating more to breathe) made a massive difference to the performance of swimmers of almost every kind – recreational, open-water, and sprinters. Laughlin rightly became the hero of the emerging class of self-competitive, independent, relatively affluent, middle-class, longer-distance swimmers (such as weekend triathletes). Slowly other coaches latched on, and a new model was born.

But this wasn’t the whole picture. Slowly a few people began to question whether one model could adequately explain best performance in swimmers of radically different body types? Did fat swimmers (many of whom are excellent ultra-long distance open-water record holders) really do the same things as the young, lean, muscle machines who were breaking records in 100m or 200m races in quality controlled swimming pools? Of course, logic says not. And so it was that in the mid-2000s, a professional triathlete, a graduate in Sports Science, Paul Newsome, and Olympic swimmer, Bill Kirby, launched their Swim Smooth school, based on their more complex model based on different morphotypes and different swimming contexts.

So, why do I think this is important? Especially to life, business, executive behaviour etc? Well, it seems to me that we have a host of different models to explain management and leadership, and we apply them vaguely in our work, but most are old, based on little more than a tiny and very specific set of subjects (military NCOs and business school students being obvious examples). If anything, we should treat them with far more scepticism than we do, and ideally we should be clamouring for a better set of interpretations drawing on far more scientifically backed evidence.

Above all else, we need to examine our own minds, unearth the models on which we are basing our life, and give it a comprehensive MOT!

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