Capturing The Awesome Stroke

When was the last time, after taking a breather (at the wall, or a pause in an ow swim to recover) and then when you resumed swimming, your first few strokes felt AWESOME before everything gradually faded back into ‘normal’ ?

For some swimmers this may happen rarely, and for others quite often.

Wouldn’t you want to capture those awesome strokes and duplicate them for the rest of the swim, and use them for every swim?

shinji-terry ow

Well, if you feel it even once in a while, that gives you assurance that it is in fact possible for you to have an awesome stroke. That awesome (read ‘pleasurable’) feeling you got is the brain’s way of getting you to recognize excellence – excellence in finding the path of less resistance through the water, and excellence in transferring energy through the body more fluidly. If felt good because it was good.

The trick is figuring out what exactly made those awesome strokes happen, what aspects of it you can consciously control and repeat so that we can make more of them by intention and not just by accident.

[Check our these awesome strokes by TI Coach Ricardo in Tenerife, Canary Islands. He’s completed 17km island crossings and can jump in and do a sub-60 100m without training for it. Not a bad for a guy who loves to swim 3km every day at 1.70 tempo for the shear pleasure of it!]

This requires an exploration, or rather, an investigation into how swimming works, and how your brain and body work while swimming. There is a reason we call TI Swimmers students. Even our TI Instructors are students themselves. (Master Coaches are, in fact, Master Learners who set the example for others.)

Asking good questions and setting up a suitable test scenario compose a great first step for  discovering the unique features in those awesome strokes that mysteriously disappear after too few are taken.

Here are a few questions to get you started, to compare those first few awesome strokes to your normal ones occurring somewhere later in the swim:

  • What was happening in my mind?
  • Where was my heart rate and breathing?
  • Scanning body parts, piece by piece, head to toe, how were things positioned in relation to other body parts?
  • Where was my body (and also, individual body parts) positioned in relation to the surface of the water?
  • How was I applying power differently? Was I applying more power than usual because I felt rested, or was I applying the same power but something was making it easier to move forward?
  • At what point in the stroke cycle did it feel the most remarkable?
  • How did the water feel as it was flowing past my head? Up my lead arm? Under my torso? Past my legs?
  • What sounds did I hear at different points in the stroke cycle?

Where is the break down point? This is critical to identify – the first moment when something starts to feel slightly less than awesome.

For some that may happen within 4 strokes, right about the time you have to make some attempt to breathe!

For some that may happen in 20 strokes (the first length of the pool), then it disappears on the second length.

For some that may happen after a few minutes or longer. But at some point you suddenly realize that those wonderful strokes at the beginning have disappeared and you are back into the normal unremarkable grind.

Now the precision of memory fades too quickly to get much of this self-analysis done in the imagination right after that single accidental magic moment. So the next part of this step is to set up a repeatable situation where you recreate the conditions that made those awesome strokes possible.

Do ‘short’ segments (relative to where your ‘fade point’ is) with a suitable amount of rest between to allow your heart rate, and your mental focus to recover. It will be much easier if you leave enough head room in the heart rate so that your brain is not constricted too much for blood making it easier to proprioceptively scan your own body from the inside for those fine differences.  (Did you know that 20% of your blood supply and oxygen is devoted solely to brain function! Nice little neuro-fact for you.) You can ramp up the HR later.

You could do this repeatedly, in attempt to recall and repeat those amazing strokes right up to the point where you notice they start to fade away.

Then you can pick a specific question (see list above, and expand it on your own) and use that as the basis of your self-examination. Go into your set of short repeats with this question in mind, make mental notes (and written ones afterward) on what you discover – either to prove or disprove some hypothesis you may have on what detail in your stroke (or in your mind) was changing between  ‘awesome’ and ‘normal’.

The point is: don’t just swim past those awesome strokes wishing they would come back and stick around of their own accord. If your million strokes taken to-date have not made them show up more frequently, it is a form of insanity to keep following the same training plan expecting things spontaneously produce better results. Get tenacious! Stop right when you feel those awesome strokes fade, go back and search after the features that make them happen with a fine tooth comb.

When you finally identify one of those features of the awesome stroke that is not present in your normal one, then you take that as a Focal Point back into your longer distance (or higher intensity) practice sets and work at it right up to the threshold of failure. Take some rest in between to go back to slower drill work, refresh your heart rate, your focus, your neuro-muscular control, and more deeply imprint that feature into your muscle memory. In due time, that feature present in the awesome stroke will become a feature of your normal stroke. After you go through this process several times, being patient and persistent to imprint several of those awesome features, awesome will become your new normal.

Keep this neurological training concept in mind: Lower intensity work – allowing easier concentration and higher precision – is what deepens your imprinting of a skill. Higher intensity work – taking you around your failure point – is what expands it.

I repost a quote Terry has recently tacked onto the bottom of his emails:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

He'd make a great coach, don't you think?

He’d make a great coach, don’t you think?


One warning: the more you believe that those awesome strokes are possible for you to achieve, the more some special approach to learning (like TI) gives you hope and tools of achieving it, the less content you will be for anything less than awesome in your swimming.

I completely admit that is it my passion to sow the seeds of your discontent. But it is also my passion to give you the tools and understand and guidance that will get you into those awesome strokes you lust for.  And that is why I am devoted to TI’s way of coaching.


3 responses to “Capturing The Awesome Stroke

  1. Thank you for this post. I am about to take my first TI lesson in a couple of days. You have given me a clear focus for my lesson. I have been attempting to work on the drills from reading the book and I know that my learning curve is getting ready to explode.

    I have often told my executive coaching clients that practice does not make perfect but instead practice makes permanent. You have beneficially impacted the lens by which I will view my practice from now on. Thanks so much

  2. Mat
    First read this blog couple months ago, and while it rang a bell, I put it down a ways on my list of things to investigate.
    I experienced this phenomenon again on my last few swims and remembering this blog, I think I know why my awesome 4 or 5 first strokes disappear. It is at this point I start critiquing my technique. “Lead hand not relaxed enough pointing to bottom of pool, or need to extend spearing arm a little more, or recovering arm not sufficiently elbow led, or when breathing, look back slightly and keep head down in bow wave, etc.,etc, etc.” For the life of me I cannot figure out how those first strokes feel so good, seeing as I can always find an egregious error or two or three needing correction.
    Am saving this blog and will be referring back to it to see how long I can keep those awesome strokes going.
    Keep up the great work Mat

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