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.
When starting with SyncSwimming there are a few hints that may help get things rolling more smoothly:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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. 2009Fitness 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.
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