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Free Fish and Struggling Butterflies

This started as part of a conversation with one of my long-time swimmers about different coaching styles and how people learn.

Most people come to me with habits built on months, years or even decades spent slogging out yardage modeled perhaps 80% on what I refer to as “human instinctive swimming” and maybe 20% on valid swimming information (not a great ratio when you consider that what’s instinctive to humans in water is scrambling to “get blowhole above water”, “get vertical” and “get out”).

While the typical new student has availed himself of lots of information (books, articles, Youtube videos, workout group, etc.) he generally lacks personal experiences designed to help him discover information for himself and to properly put that information to work.
Many people, when trying to improve their physical skills, are not prepared to effectively assimilate technique information that is simply handed to them directly (as in, “Do this” or, “Don’t do that”). Retention for such direct information is often very low, requiring many repetitions of the same instructional input – not necessarily a bad thing, but not very efficient either. When taught predominantly in this manner, students tend not to practice well between lessons, often simply reverting to old habits for much or all of their practices.

Free fish

Consider the old saw, “give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll be able to feed himself (and maybe quit hitting you up for free fish)”. When I simply tell a swimmer some new bit of information, it is much like tossing him a free fish. The swimmer may be able to use that bit of information for the moment (like wolfing down the free fish on the spot), but if I can help the swimmer to discover that same information for himself he gets a bonus – he experiences the process by which further useful information might be captured.

Learning to fish

That latter part – experiencing the process by which further information is captured – is, like learning to fish, far more valuable in the long run. Instead of simply telling a student to do something, I will often ask him to experiment with different positions and motions and report on the effects (we refer to this as “doing research”). Then we judge how the results fit our core concepts of effective aquatic motion (posture, line, balance, minimum resistance, fluid motion, etc.) and make skill decisions accordingly. Through these kinds of experiences – experiences that require active involvement in the information gathering process – the student swimmer learns to be a problem solver rather than just a floating bag of problems.

Acquisition of such experiences is a very personal, and potentially emotion-filled, process. It requires much introspection on the part of the student – he must be willing to slow down and open his awareness to everything about his relationship with the water. He must be willing to try new, seemingly risky, things. He must also be willing to give up old habits. Habits are comfortable – attempting to change them is uncomfortable. But it is precisely this experience of working outside of one’s comfort zone that sparks the neuromuscular learning system.

Effective learning involves trial, assessment, tweaking, retrial, more assessment and tweaking, all in a never-ending cycle of focused effort. This process can be a frustrating struggle at times. But the process of working through such a struggle to the point of breakthrough typically results in both a lesson well-learned and an excitement that can carry the swimmer confidently into the next set of challenges.

Struggling butterflies

 I’m reminded of the story about the little girl who chances upon a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. Taking pity on it, she carefully pulls open the cocoon to release the butterfly. But instead of watching as the soft shriveled wings expand, flutter and carry the butterfly away on the wind, as nature intended, she is horrified as the weak, shriveled thing soon falls to the ground only to be snarfed up by a waiting raven. The struggle of extracting itself from the chrysalis is what would have given the butterfly the needed time and preparation to be able to pump fluid into the wings and open them. No struggle? Bad end.

One of my best students always balks when I put her in frustrating learning situations that require her to search, and sometimes struggle, for answers. But, without fail, she eventually rises to the challenge. I have pointed out to her that the overwhelming majority of the progress she has made has been a direct result of just this kind of learning. She now accepts that she experiences precious little progress without going through what I refer to as “change stress”. She has, reluctantly at first, embraced the idea that while her instinct is to avoid stress/frustration, her reaction when confronted with it is to rise to the challenge and do what it takes to succeed.

Seasoned learners

Not everyone is like the butterfly. A small percentage of my clients appear to learn effectively by direct feedback – I can tell them something and, if they understand it, they are able to assimilate it and put it to use both in the current situation and in the process of gaining further knowledge. It is no surprise to me that a high percentage of these clients are coaches/teachers themselves, or athletes with a wide variety of other technique-intensive sports in their background, or performance artists (dancers, musicians, acrobats, etc.) – people already familiar with how humans learn physical skills. But I don’t think these people are inherently different from my other students. Rather, I think they’ve already come to terms with the challenge of learning new skills, have long since adapted their behavior and demeanor accordingly and thus simply make the process look easier.

Become your own coach

By immersing oneself in the learning process, embracing change and the struggle of precisely negotiating the complex interaction of gravity, buoyancy and the human body in motion, nearly any swimmer can harness the combination of information, experience and personal research methodology to produce far better results than might be attained by simply slogging out more yardage.

The net effect of working in this way is to make it possible for the swimmer to become a self-regulated learner and thus to make my involvement as instructor gradually less essential to the swimmer’s progress. My ultimate goal is to help each of my swimmers become his/her own best coach (a phrase shamelessly stolen from my good friend Terry Laughlin).

Copyright H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2012

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, published by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, published by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong) and, soon, in Turkish, Portugese and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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