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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reflection Upon Open Water Swimming Competitions

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Athletes of every sport spend hours of time preparing for a race, match, game, or event. Preparation includes practice, workouts, drills, scrimmages, weight-training, dryland work, rehabilitation, and mental preparation.

While majority of athletes accept that it is the work they put in beforehand that has the greatest impact on the big day’s outcome, there is also a lot to be said for the work done right after.

Since every open water race is very different due to the conditions and competition, each race also presents a learning experience for the athlete - if they choose for it to be. While there are those rare perfect races where everything seems to go right for the swimmer, it is much more common for athletes to make mistakes along the way.

Should I have swum left or veered right? Should I have started my sprint earlier? Should I have taken more food or stayed in the pack a little longer? Should I put more lanolin under my arms or put more tape on my transponder?

These are only a few questions that go through swimmers' minds after a competitive event where they know they could have swum faster or performed better.

While these mistakes are frustrating for the swimmer, and can even sometimes cost the athlete the race or a podium spot, they can also act as invaluable learning experience.

If you are alone without a coach, it is good if you sit down and immediately reflect on the race while everything is still fresh in your mind. The simplest way to go about doing this is to write down what went well and what did not on a piece of paper. Because the swim is now documented from your perspective, you can then self-analyze this information then and long after whenever necessary. Sometimes, a mistake made may be specific to that certain race; however, more often than not, the swimmer will be likely be facing a similar experience sometime in the future in another race. With the reflection adding to your experience, it is highly likely that the same mistake will not be made twice and you will be able to act in a more advantageous way.

Open water swimming, particularly at the elite level, requires not only talent and hard work, but also intelligence. Therefore, the veterans of the sport often have an advantage over the rookies in terms of strategy and tactics. That being said, an athlete who is relatively new to open water has the ability and opportunity to improve immensely with each race. If you are with a coach, your coach can use the Socratic Open Water Method. Named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, you can effectively learn and be taught based on asking and answering questions from your coach. A wise coach can stimulate a clear pathway to objectively reflect upon your performance and help illuminate important concepts for you.

An open water swimming coach should be inquisitive after a race or solo swim. Through intelligent inquisition, experienced coaches can be instructive. By asking you a series of questions, coaches can enable you to internalize and understand what you did in a race or a swim - both good and bad, right and wrong. By encouraging you to visualize who you were swimming with, understand what your pace was, reflect how you felt at different points during the swim, analyze the shape of the pack during key points during the race and your positioning throughout the race, you will eventually become a more seasoned performer.

Open water coaches who question you before and after a race help you profoundly understand what can and should be done because you are out in the open water by yourself. Every decision you make in competitive situations – at the start, at the turn buoys, in rough water, in a pack, nearing the finish and during the final sprint – has a direct impact on your placing. And your decisions must often be made on the spur of the moment, but each decision has long-term impact on the performance. Therefore, coaches can assist you by constantly questioning and pushing you to come up with the optimal answers quickly for yourself in innumerable situations.

Before the race, coaches can ask:

1. Will you use Vaseline® or lanolin?
2. How many pairs of goggles are you taking to the race?
3. Who is your competition?
4. What is the shape of the course? How many buoys?
5. What is your goal?
6. What drinks or foods are you using?
7. How did you do last year? Where you satisfied?

After the race, coaches can ask about the start:

1. Where were you at the start?
2. Who was next to you?
3. Did you choose that position?
4. What was the pace at the start?
5. How did you feel until the first turn buoy?

Regarding the middle of the race, coaches can ask:

1. Where were you in the middle of the race?
2. Did you purposefully go to this position?
3. Where you boxed-in at any point?
4. When did the pace pick up?
5. Who was swimming in front of you?
6. Who was swimming behind you and to your left and right?
7. Are these swimmers faster than you?
8. What was your stroke tempo?

Regarding the turns, coaches can ask:

1. Did you speed up before or after the turn buoys?
2. Did you have the inside position around the turn buoys?
3. Did you get hit? If so, what did you do?
4. How can you avoid getting hit around the turns?
5. What was your position going into the turns?
6. How did you actually make the turn?

Regarding navigation, coaches can ask:

1. Did you know where you were going at all times?
2. Was it hard to see anything?
3. Did you take a good line to the finish?
4. Did you feel any ocean swells out there? How were the currents running?
5. How often were you lifting your head to sight?
6. Did you see the lead kayak?
7. What sides were you breathing on?

Regarding the finish, coaches can ask:

1. When did the sprint begin?
2. Did you catch up to anyone once the sprint began?
3. Were you using your legs the whole time?
4. Was there any physical contact coming into the finish?
5. Were you satisfied with your finish?
6. How can we train better for a better finish?

Regarding future improvement, coaches can ask:

1. Do you need more dryland training?
2. Do you need to work on more efficiency in the water?
3. Do you need to build up your legs?
4. Do you need more open water practices?
5. Do you need different training partners?
6. Do you need different support crew members?

While it is not exactly the Socratic method as established in the classroom or in ancient Greece, the idea of the Socratic Open Water Method is to help you reflect upon to improve and understand the myriad situations that happen in the open water.

Photos from the FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix race in Isla Cozumel.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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