It's not just about power: Swimming finesse and technique are key

Anyone can benefit from increasing their sensitivity and fluency when swimming
In teaching Total Immersion weekend workshops, we have discovered an interesting predictability to one aspect of our instruction. Although women make up only 30 to 40 percent of a typical class, they are chosen nearly 80 percent of the time when our coaches need to select a class member to demonstrate fluent, beautiful execution of one of our skill drills. Women, it turns out, are our "star demonstrators."

It has become eminently clear that when we wish to accelerate the learning process by having the class observe graphic examples of a movement done with precision, beauty, and grace, we're far more likely to find such examples among the women. It's a wonder their male classmates don't develop an inferiority complex.

This raises the question: Is swimming a sport at which women are more naturally equipped for success than men? I think a fair case can be made that it is. Here's why ...

Water is yielding

For years, sports scientists at United States Swimming assiduously studied the stroke mechanics of great swimmers, seeking to understand how they produced their power. Specifically, they measured the power generated at every point of the stroke cycle, and charted their data as "power curves." The idea was that coaches could then teach their swimmers to emulate the power-producing moves of the elites. It was assumed that if you could do this, you would automatically become faster.

But a troublesome quirk kept appearing in the data. The best swimmers in the world, in a wide range of events, usually produced power curves that were far less impressive than those of dozens of less-accomplished swimmers. When someone with a fresh eye finally analyzed the power-curve data, they found that there was actually a negative correlation between power and performance.

There's a simple explanation. Water, being a fluid, does not react well to sheer power. The result of power-oriented moves is often either simple turbulence or increased resistance. Water is also elastic, meaning that the harder you push on it, the harder it pushes back. Power that is applied accurately and sensitively, rather than maximally, is far more useful in swimming. In water, finesse and thoughtful use of technique are rewarded; muscle and mindless application of force are not. Clearly, the rules and framework for swimming are completely different from those of sports performed on solid ground.

Swimming is rhythmic

The role of power is further reduced by the nature of swimming movement. Not only does it not happen on solid ground, but also it involves repeated, rhythmic, and highly skilled movement. Unlike, say, a shot put, or an explosive leap, or a punch or kick, swimming movements are rhythmic and constant. All use momentum to be carried to conclusion. And movements of that sort, once initiated, are guided, rather than powered, through their paths.

Women, therefore, enjoy at least equal opportunity to men in mastering the "art" of swimming. With the need for power and strength minimized, they often excel at flow while their male counterparts struggle. In countless instances I have witnessed superlative swimming performance by women who would not otherwise strike us as "athletes." By employing rhythm, not power, they are able to guide their movements with great accuracy and discrimination.

Swimming is sensual

Two things are unique about swimming. One, again, is that it occurs in water. The other is that you cannot see yourself doing it and therefore must make stroke corrections "blind." Both magnify the value of sensitivity and awareness. Because the skin is the body's largest sensory organ and water is a medium with powerful sensory properties, swimmers literally "swim in a sea of sensory information" -- information about frustrating resistance and tenuous hand-and foot-holds and ever-delicate balance.

Subtle stroke adjustments must be made "blindly" with the aid of proprioception (literally "self-perception") and kinesthetic awareness. Since most male athletes are accustomed to performing with testosterone as their primary fuel, they have an extra obstacle to overcome in their pursuit of aquatic fluency, and are often less attuned to the subtleties that provide the greatest advantages in the water.

When teaching, we repeatedly emphasize economy of movement. Men find it difficult to avoid "trying" too hard to master a new skill. Women, more practiced in using heightened sensitivity and subtlety, usually get it more quickly.

Swimming rewards buoyancy

It's well known that in most land-based sports, a woman's higher proportion of body fat to lean muscle puts her at a certain disadvantage to male counterparts. But balance -- the ability to keep one's body effortlessly horizontal in the water -- is the essential skill of "fishlike" swimming. So it's not surprising that women, with their unique body composition and distribution of more fat near the hips, find it far easier than men to be effortlessly horizontal.

And it's not surprising that women students at TI workshops usually learn balance drills -- the foundation of our whole teaching process -- with greater ease and speed than many of the men. And once we progress to more advanced drills, those for whom balance is a "no-brainer" can devote more attention to integrating fine-motor skills than can those for whom balance is still a delicate proposition.

How to swim more "like a woman"

Regardless of whether you are male or female, anyone can benefit from increasing their sensitivity and fluency when swimming. Here are some simple adjustments that can improve anyone's swimming.

  1. Master swimming as an "art" before you tackle it as a "sport." The world's best swimmers look as graceful, relaxed, and fluent at high speed as they do when swimming slowly. They seldom look as if they are "trying."
  2. Practice flow, not force. The success of Total Immersion's teaching process is based on using simple skill drills that make it easy to replace habits of struggle with practice of fluency. When learning a new stroke or skill, rather than struggling to do something you are not ready to do well, practice the simplest part of it, rather than trying to do the whole skill right away.
  3. Practice economy. Doing something new or difficult usually involves a degree of strain. Difficulty tends to make you try too hard. When you feel this happening, try again more slowly and with greater awareness of when you are straining. With repeated practice you can progress with greater economy.
  4. Swim slowly. One of the simplest rules I give new swimmers is "You have to learn to swim well slowly before you can swim well fast." Racing the clock or other swimmers will only cause you to thrash and splash and practice inefficiency. Swim much slower, on purpose, than you think you're capable of. Swimming slowly is the easiest way to begin developing habits of ease, efficiency, and economy.
  5. Swim gently and silently. When teaching TI workshops, once we have taught the basic mechanics of any new drill, we shift immediately to focus on the qualities of excellent execution. And the qualities we emphasize most often are ease and silence. Think of noise -- sound energy -- as audible evidence of wasted energy in your swimming. Do any drill or stroke as quietly as you can and you will soon find yourself doing it far more efficiently and easily.

Terry Laughlin is the founder of Total Immersion Swimming and author of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy. Read more of his articles at

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