Blind Swimming

A couple days ago I went on a swim along the cliffs of Antalya in a place I can usually have all to myself. The water was warm and calm, no waves or chop. As it gets hotter this summer the clarity is lowering- I can still see maybe 5 meters down, but it has a cloudy look to it in the sunlight.

I stayed parallel to the cliffs about 100m off where I would see nothing below me but an occasional school of fish until I returned to my starting point. While cruising along, cycling through various focus points it occurred to me that my eyes did not seem to have much to do, other than check my position against the cliffs at each breath on that side. I was aware that when the water is deep like this, or obscured so that I cannot see any features below, my brain moves its attention to other sensory input to control stroke quality.

So I decided I would experiment with closing my eyes. The point?

1) In theory a swimmer with a straight stroke should be able to keep swimming straight, eyes or none.

2) I have an irrationally strong fear about colliding with (big) things under the water, stemming (I believe) from a terrifying near-collision while snorkeling as a boy.

I have tried this a few times in the pool but unless the lane is empty it my fear is quite rational. Staying away from collision is already a lot of work in my accessible pools just with eyes open!

Blind Swimming- or simply closing the eyes- challenged a swimmer’s proprioception to a whole new degree!

In order to really concentrate on piloting my body ‘by instruments’ (to use the aircraft pilots terms for flying by the gauges on the dashboard, without visual cues) I had to deal with this fear of collision that would complicate and distract. So I took it in small pieces. I checked my course and body alignment, stopped and rechecked for boats or lone swimmers anywhere around me. Assured (for that moment) I was totally clear I fell into my rhythm and then close my eyes.

Oh! Immediately my instincts were screaming to open the eyes! But I asked myself, “Why? What do you need those for right now?”

I counted off ten strokes and would open them as I turned to breathe and took some notes. Then I closed my eyes and counted off ten more, then opened the eyes for a breath (to look sideways, face split in half by the water line- one goggle above the water line, one below) and reassurance I wasn’t spinning in circles, and closed my eyes for another 10 strokes. I made a plan to close my eyes for the first 10 or each 100-stroke cycle.

Then I tried 20 strokes with eyes closed. Then I stopped this for the day.

Ok. If you have no problems closing your eyes it may be simple for you to swim along and concentrate on controlling your body through the other senses. This anxiety I feel is simply what I have to deal with, and I am enjoying the opportunity to work on it. I am using the same TI teaching approach: break the challenge down into small pieces, work on them, one at a time. And do it on my own terms during practice so that motivation stays positive and strong.

Fears aside, the blind stroking itself was so interesting. I immediately felt some directional virtigo, not trusting my deeply imprinted ‘straight’ stroke to keep me on a straight course. I could lay still on the water all day with eyes closed, but when in the middle of a swim, the moment the eyes shut off, my brain lost something it was relying on to keep itself assured of its path. In that deep bottomless water I can’t say directly how my eyes might have been helping me navigate while looking down- though I suspect I was still relying subconsciously on the input of shadows and patterns of sunlight piercing the deep beneath me. Also, I can see my arms from the peripheral vision of my goggles, so there may be some aspects of feedback there.

I didn’t feel my balance was challenged by closing my eyes. I am clearly using the sense of water pressure and flow to monitor that. This is one of the reasons why I don’t like to wear a wetsuit- it blocks large sections of skin from being able to feel the water.

Last week, at our OW swim camp I noted that my two swimmers, when they got concentrating on some focus point, would start to veer left dramatically. So when we planned out our 7km swim from the island together I placed myself on their left to act as the fence on that side. But even in my own stroke I notice a slight pull to the left that I need to calibrate for when I swim longer stretches without sighting. I think just about everyone may have a lean to one side or the other (often connected to lopsided breathing)- but it is something you may not discover until you get to do some longer, uninterrupted OW swimming.

Through in rough water and even the best swimmers can get all mixed up!

If we veer to a certain side that means that during the stroke cycle there is some part of my movement that is sending or re-directing some force sideways. In order to swim perfectly straight a swimmer needs to direct all forces FORWARD, never in any sideways or angled pattern (one of the reasons we keep the arms on their Wide Track, and do not let them cross in front of the body). A basic physics law- for every action there is a reaction- if you send a force vector sideways, something has to counter that force or else you go in that direction. In TI we solve this by refusing to send force vectors sideways! These Wide Tracks, especially the way the Recovery Hand enters the water and spears directly forward on that Track, down to its Target is one of the critical pieces of swimming straight.

I am just opening up the topic on this Blind Swimming. Now that I’ve begun the challenge my fear of collision my next step will be to set some practice conditions for myself to keep lowering my sensitivity to the triggers for this fear. If you’ve got none, then you are blessed, and by all means, enjoy that advantage. Overcoming fear in OW is simply part of the adventure that draws many of us to keep at it and go farther in our skills and exploration. I will set the example and declare that the presence of fear is nothing to be ashamed of- overcoming fears begins with acknowledging their presence factually, then setting an intelligent plan for undermining and removing their power. Some fears are healthy (like colliding with boats!) but the goal is to not let them control us and restrict our life.

I could not help but wonder what I would do as a swimmer if I found myself blind. I do this about a lot of things- playing out in my imagination what I would do in various extreme life-changing situations. Perhaps, because I practice this exercise so much and work consciously on the attitude of adaptation, on learning to accept change that has been imposed upon me, rather than agonize over the loss, my first thoughts were how I could engineer it so that I could keep swimming open-water. I could see it would be quite a challenge, but not impossible. I am sure there is someone out there who is doing it.

I would invite you to join this experiment with me- in pool or open-water. Close those eyes and see what happens! I think we have a lot of things to learn, and new skills to discover from this challenge.

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One response to “Blind Swimming

  1. This is exactly why I love OW. The water in most lakes in the Nordic countries is often quite dark. Visibility of more than 2-3 meters is rare (ask any diver!). This, however, I consider as a positive thing when it comes to practising TI. I LOVE taking out the visual input, it gives my brain so much more opportunity to focus on other channels of perception, those that are more important for practising TI (how the body is moving in the water, in what position my limbs are and how they’re moving, etc).
    I, too, have an “irrational” fear of colliding with under-water objects. Being a psychologist, and with a strong liking to evolutionary psychology (explaining human behaviour from evolutionary point of view), I suspect that this fear belongs in the same category as fear of snakes and spiders, ie. it enhances our chance of survival. I mean, water is an unfamiliar environment for us humans, and eventual attacks on our lives in the water would make defending ourselves difficult compared to on dry land (decrease our chances of survival), which is more our element . This is why my dream scenario is a deep lake (no dangerous animals in Nordic lakes), I’m in the middle of it (no rocks, bottom, seaweed, etc.), and someone is following me on a boat (help near by should I need it). That’s when I have FULL concentration on my body in the water. I don’t have to close my eyes, the water is dark enough, so I’m, in effect, blind anyway.
    It’s not often that I have the opportunity to have someone follow me on a boat, so I usually swim along the beach, and then have to handle my fears of hitting something under the water. But I have a few spots that I frequent and know thoroughly, so I don’t worry about that too much.

    About veering to one side, breathing and balance issues can absolutely be the cause, but there are even studies that show that people who’ve been lost in woods, usually veer to (I think) left when trying to walk straight. So, there’s something physiological/genetic factor in play in that, as well. And, btw, that’s why it’s important to take aiming points in the woods should one get lost! 🙂

    Enjoying your blog, keep at it!

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