What does swimming and swim coaching have to do with a pomegranate?
My family and I are fortunate to have a few pomegranate trees in our yard. Deep red and deeply sweet like this one appears to be. They are a rewarding treat, but a seemingly chaotic bundle of juice bubbles inside.
Today I was shucking the juice-bubble-encapsuled seeds from one in a bowl of water (the way to do it cleanly). I became aware that I was pleasantly absorbed in the art of it. These fruit are not convenient to eat. It takes some patience and a bit of skill to pull the seeds out, without a mess, without crushing most of them.
They are loaded with good stuff my wife claims. I’ve been eating about one a day trying to eat up our bounty before it rots on the trees. So I am getting in some consistent practice and I think I am getting rather good at it.
But I haven’t viewed it as some sort of special ‘practice’ until today.
The seeds grow in irregular formations inside the pomegranate, with soft spongy flesh and skin between the sections. I have to cut the hard shell into 4 sections, then pry apart, then carefully bend or twist the shell back allowing the sections of seeds to expose themselves. If I jam my fingers in there to force them open I will crush the juice bubbles surrounding the seeds – that’s the part I want to protect!
So, literally, the skill of it is to feel the flow of energy through the pomegranate as I manipulate it. I gently apply some twisting force with my palms to feel which way the shell wants to bend, and then add a bit more in that direction (usually a 3D move). With my fingers I feel for where the interior sections want to yield to the tensile force and focus the tension more precisely in those places. This all happens in half a second. The pomegranate opens up to me with minimal damage to seeds this way.
I recognized that I was mapping (if just for a half second) the interior of the pomegranate with my nervous system, through the receptors in my fingers and palms. I was learning to apply just enough force, with precision to open up this fruit with minimal collateral damage. It gave me pleasure to cleanly open up a new section, and a bigger one, if I could.
Now going from that pomegranate to my coaching… I realized how much more sensitive I’ve become in my touch while coaching swimmers in the pool. Part of our core coach training involves what we call ‘Helping Hands’ so that our coaches know how to effectively guide a swimmer’s learning process in a professional way while in the water next to them (being in the water with our swimmers is one of the hallmarks of TI coaching). This training helps a coach learn how to communicate information to the swimmer, guiding their attention in very specific ways, allowing the brain to more easily make the neuro-motor connections the new skills require.
But this touch can also be an important source of bio-feedback from swimmer to coach. I am starting to be aware of how the swimmer is using their energy in that section of the body. The coach learning how to read this information can gain powerful insights into the swimmer’s internal conditions – things that would be very hard to notice on the outside, that are often not even consciously noticed by the swimmer either. I am seeing inside my swimmers with my hands now, and able to point out or guide my students more effectively with this insight, just as certain kinds of therapists do.
It’s a part of my practice to studying cross-disciplinary topics that I sense have powerful perspective to add to our swimming. I’ve also been looking over the shoulder of my OT therapist wife as she studies about myofascial therapy and how the body transmits information and energy through the connective tissues. Skilled therapists, once they understand the interconnection of the body, use their touch in one place to read the information being sent through that section of the body, then trace the injury to its actual source (which could be in a quite unsuspected place, especially unsuspected by medical specialists who do not tend to view the body wholistically) and in respect to these myofascial systems, they can apply techniques which release whole interconnected sections of the body rather than relieve just one irritated spot.
I’ve been aware for some time how intensely sensitive to internal feedback I have become as a deep-practitioner of TI swimming – I have deliberately worked on this form of internal perception that technically known as interospection. I am extremely conscious of energy flow through my body, noting individual muscles working or resting, how force is distributed or being applied by different muscle groups. (This also relates to being aware of my mental and emotional states and causes). With my growing understanding of the nervous system and the myofascial system I am feeling even more capable of managing my internal state and the flow of energy. (This has great implications for more than just swimming).
As I increase intensity in my swims, either in distance or in speed, where I might near my limits I become ultra-focused upon managing how energy is being used in my body. Sprinting has become a task of extremely precision and refined relaxation in extremely minute sections of time. I have to FEEL this internally in order to control it. I train in a way that those minute sections of time slow down- in a sense. Long distance has become a task of holding enduring concentration on balance and distributing the workload (managing what part of the body is generating what forces, in what amount, at what precise time) as evenly as possible to keep exhaustion at bay. I have to stay tuned in to the information flowing (through my myofascial system, for instance) to monitor how well I am holding form and keeping excess drag away.
Exhaustion first attacks the mind (the concentration), and then it easily conquers the body. It would be hard to prove scientifically, I realize, but it is my theory (and personal experience) that swimmers with poor concentration have to train their bodies far harder because they have not trained their brain to resist distraction and keep on task with perfect stroke management under increased stress. Mindless hard sets train an inferior endurance system.
Anyhow… all that from a pomegranate. I could control how energy was being directed and feel which places of the pomegranate would resist or yield to how I applied force. This sensitivity allowed me to use my force more effectively, not excessively. I have learned to do this internally as a swimmer. And now I am so pleased to see how I am learning to do this as a hands-on swim coach, and how much more value I am able to add to my students because of it. And because I’ve now recognized the two-way flow of information with my students via touch, I can much more easily teach them how to develop this sensitivity for themselves, passing on this skill to them, and hopefully they in turn will pass it on to another.