See All Articles on the H2Ouston Swims Site

Leaders and Lemmings

(or Synchronized Swimming for “Real” Swimmers)

Fair Warning: Read the whole article before you go try any of this stuff. You’ll need a Flash player installed to view the video parts. 

During your Summer Olympics channel-surfing you’ve no doubt lingered, for at least a few moments, watching pairs or groups of women in heavy makeup, matching sequined suits and gelatin-glued hair buns, compounding aquatic gyration upon contortion in seeming defiance of gravity, half the time upside-down, all the time sporting arsenic grins and occasionally flipping off those insipid little prom waves and such.

Because of its oddities, synchronized swimming is the least understood and, in many ways the most intense and grueling of the Olympic aquatic sports, both in competition and in the training required for success. Alas, my purpose here is not to further your understanding of this widely misunderstood sport. Instead, I’m going to talk about a different form of synchronized swimming that we often use in the H2Ouston Swims program. We call it SyncSwimming.

What it is?

SyncSwimming is a form of peer coaching between pairs of swimmers of differing stroke length. In each pair, the swimmer with the lowest stroke count is considered the leader. The leaders serve as swimming models and each of the others (we affectionately refer to them as “lemmings”) try to mimic the stroke timing and stroke length of their leader for one or more lengths of the pool.

In SyncSwimming even a difference of two or three strokes per length is enough for lemmings to benefit from this exercise. Yet the wholesale change represented by a large drop in stroke count amounts to a paradigm shift that is, for many, easier to achieve than a small tweak to current habitual style. It is common for lemmings to execute, in a swimming rhythm (as opposed to a drilling rhythm), stroke counts 20% to 40% lower than they are used to going when swimming solo. For this reason we often pair lemmings with leaders who have much lower stroke counts.

Beginning synchro

When starting with SyncSwimming there are a few hints that may help get things rolling more smoothly:

  • For each length, it is usually best for the leader to be on the lemming’s breathing side so that the lemming can easily see the leader.
  • The leader may need to adjust his pushoff and glide (perhaps giving the lemming a head start) such that, as the leader begins his first stroke, the lemming is in position to easily see what the leader is doing.
SyncSwim - Staggered Start - Mirror Sync
  • As he glides from the wall push, the lemming must not begin taking strokes until the leader does, instead deferring to the leader’s choice of when to take the first stroke.
SyncSwim - Same Arm Start - Normal Sync
  • As above, lemmings may choose to stroke with the same arm as the leader, called a normal sync. Alternatively, leader and lemming may choose to sync opposing arms in a mirror-image sync arrangement as you saw in the first video clip.
  • It can sometimes be helpful for the leader can take his first stroke and the lemming to wait and sync his first stroke to the leader’s second stroke. This allows the leader’s first stroke to serve as a signal that the lemming’s work is about to begin.
SyncSwim - Leader Strokes First

More strokes

Moving beyond the first stroke, the lemming must rely on the leader to decide when each subsequent stroke takes place (i.e. on every stroke, the lemming must leave his lead hand out front as long as the leader does).

SyncSwimming is about the lemming learning to do something different (sometimes radically different) than he does when left to his own devices. The first priority for the lemming is to match the timing of the leader’s strokes. The lemming must resist the temptation to let their arm motions get ahead of the leader’s arm motions.


The most common place for a lemming to get out of sync with the leader is when the lemming breathes. A less accomplished swimmer tends to lift his head somewhat to breathe. In order to support that lifted head, the swimmer will likely immediately push down on the water with the extended arm. This amounts to an early beginning of the stroke. Use of a training snorkel removes the distraction and complications of breathing motions. Properly adjusted it can still allow the lemming to see and mimic the leader.

SyncSwim - Using a Snorkel

If the leader gets a bit ahead of the lemming, such that the lemming can no longer see the leader’s hands, it is still possible for the lemming to synchronize to the leader’s hip rotations – one stroke for each rotation.

SyncSwim - Leader Gets A Bit Ahead

Accomodation and Cooperation

In the beginning, the lemming may only be able to match the leader for a few strokes before more habitual timing and motions assert themselves. In some cases it is advantageous for the leader to make some minor accommodation in search of good SyncSwimming:

  • The leader may slow stroke tempo in order to allow the lemming to keep up through as many stroke cycles as possible. But he should never increase stroke tempo to try to match a lemming impatient to take that next stroke.
  • The leader may also shorten his strokes to some extent – enough to be within the lemming’s “reach” but not enough to make things easy for the lemming.

Remember, the goal (and responsibility) is for the lemming to learn to adjust timing and lengthen strokes to match the leader. In well-executed SyncSwimming, observers will see two swimmers moving along in the pool with no hints to discern leader from lemming. However it normally takes a number of lengths of SyncSwimming for leader and lemming to work out the cooperation/coordination necessary to get well synchronized. Repetition and experimentation generally result in lemmings eventually completing whole lengths in sync with their leaders, often at much lower stroke counts than they thought possible.

Beyond beginner

Once a lemming is consistently able to match the leader’s strokes for entire lengths of the pool then some upgraded challenges are in order:

  • Close one’s eyes for a couple of strokes, then reopen them and immediately assess whether synchronicity is still intact. If so, next time close them for a longer period, and so on.
  • Do two uninterrupted lengths (no rest at the wall). The leader may need adjust his time at the wall and his pushoff to allow the lemming to get the next length started in sync. If this works well, extend it to three lengths, and so on.
  • Snorkeled lemmings can doff the breathing tube and breathe normally.
  • Using Tempo Trainer beepers can provide an audible assist to help sync strokes. Both leader and lemming must be well-acquainted with beeper use and must have their beepers synchronized (accomplished by setting both beepers to the same tempo number on the screen, then turning them off and restarting them both simultaneously). This way, once the leader starts swimming to match the beeper, the lemming has an additional method of sync-awareness.
  • If the leader increases stroke tempo, the lemming can try out his newfound skills at a faster pace. If this works well at a slightly faster tempo, try it at an even faster tempo. Sometimes the results can surprise both leader and lemming.
SyncSwim - Slower then Faster
  • Three experienced SyncSwimmers – one leader and two lemmings – can work together. It takes a bit more coordination but also allows more lemmings to benefit from the efforts of a patient leader.
SyncSwim - Three Syncers

Taking it solo

We usually follow SyncSwimming with at least a few minutes of single-focus solo swimming. Using the sensations and timings learned/practiced during SyncSwimming, lemmings attempt to reproduce the same cadence and stroke count, but without leaders to mimic in real time. Less-practiced lemmings are likely to be able to re-create their synchro stroke for only a length or two in solo swimming, but even this is enough to give them confidence that more effective swimming can, eventually, be theirs. If a beeper was used during SyncSwimming it will help greatly in holding onto the synchro timing why trying the new stroke solo. And, of course, further SyncSwimming sessions will improve the ability to extend newfound skills into solo swimming.

Now if we can just get them to do all this with lip-sticked smiles on their faces and finish each length with jaunty hand flourishes, maybe we can wedge another event into the Olympic schedule! v

H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2009

Want notification when new articles are posted?

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, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish 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.

Are you a supporter or a freeloader? (There ain't no middle ground)

This web site is maintained by Sheila Baskett.
Please send web site comments and suggestions to Webmaster.

For more information about:
Masters Swimming, contact United States Masters Swimming
H2Ouston Swims, contact Emmett Hines.
Gulf Masters Swim Committee, see the GMSC web site.

Copyright 1999–2012, H2Ouston Swims. All rights reserved.