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by Terry Heggy

August 21, 2018

Don’t take anything for granted when welcoming a newbie to your practice

People who have never swum on a team are understandably nervous about joining Masters workouts. Your first responsibility is to make them feel comfortable, welcome, and appreciated. Smile, call them by name, and answer any questions they might have. Then ask about their swimming experience. If they’ve never had a coach or been on a team, they’ll need to learn the basics.

Here are five critical concepts that experienced swimmers take for granted but that can be utterly foreign to new Masters swimmers.

Safety and Etiquette

Make sure new swimmers understand your club’s rules and expectations, including the following:

  • No swimming without lifeguards, diving in shallow areas, running on deck, etc.
  • Rules for circle swimming, passing, and courteous lane behavior.

Swimming Energy

Many dry-land athletes misunderstand the requirements of moving through liquid. They often approach training with the intent to overpower the water. Help them understand how to best use energy in the water.

  • Muscles need oxygen for sustained effort. Processing air with regular breathing is essential for swimming longer distances. And rather than going as hard as possible until depleted, help swimmers develop a sustainable pace. (Compare it to walking versus running on dry land. If you swim at a “walking” pace, you should be able to swim for hours.)
  • Lungs filled with air are almost always buoyant enough to support the body. Teach swimmers to trust that their lungs will support them, so they can use energy for moving forward.
  • Leg muscles are larger than arm muscles, so it’s tempting to think that most effort should be allocated below the waist, encouraging inexperienced swimmers to kick so hard they exhaust themselves. But arms provide most of the propulsion (especially in freestyle), so encourage them to focus energy there.

Alignment and Balance

Drag is the resistance created by the body moving through the water. Tiny decreases in drag provide larger speed improvements than applying large increases in power. Therefore, it’s critical to focus on improving technique, including these concepts:

  • The lungs act as a floating fulcrum for the body, so extending the arms provides a counterweight to the legs, helping the body stay level in the water and reducing resistance.
  • Overkicking, reaching sideways to breathe, and strokes that go wide or cross over center cause extra drag. Emphasize keeping the body profile nice and narrow.

When you offer stroke correction, be sure to explain how the desired technique reduces resistance or increases thrust. Help new swimmers think in terms of swimming straight in both vertical and horizontal planes.

Workout Terminology

Though runners and cyclists know all about interval training, heart-rate zones, and rest and recovery, they often come to the pool expecting to swim continuously until they achieve their target yardage. Help them understand that although technique is paramount, swimming well also requires training that targets multiple metabolic systems. Cover these concepts:

  • Workout distances are given in yards or meters, not length, laps, or miles. Help swimmers learn to think in terms of 50s and 100s.
  • Swimming has its own jargon. Explain sendoffs, intervals, rest, and other terms you use to describe sets and drills.
  • Pace clocks are the best invention ever (after goggles and lane ropes). Teach your newbies how to calculate pace and the meaning of timing terms you use (e.g., top, bottom).

The Swimmer Mentality

Perhaps the best thing you can do for new members is to get them to develop an aquatic mindset.

  • Kinesthetic awareness is essential. Swimmers always monitor how their hands, heads, and bodies relate to the water.
  • Open water swimmers and triathletes who never plan to compete indoors benefit from incorporating good pool techniques. Consistent two-hand touches on breaststroke and butterfly turns, flipping on freestyle and backstroke turns, streamlining off walls, and regularly attending practice develop a multitude of skills and the confidence to proudly identify as a swimmer.

Safety and etiquette need to be covered immediately, but the other concepts can be communicated incrementally. Some people thirst for huge gulps of new data, others need time to process each idea until it has been fully absorbed. So work with swimmers at a rate that works for them. Once your new swimmers understand these topics, they’ll have the base knowledge and comfort level they need to focus on the fine points of stroke technique and fitness training.


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