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How We Learn

whether you're a novice, intermediate or advanced swimmer, it's good to have some knowledge of how we learn - it really can help


This article contains a bit of theory about how people learn physical skills - it makes for an interesting background read. Did you know for instance that it takes ten thousand repetitions to properly learn an action?

In this article we're going to think about our brain in two parts, our conscious and our subconscious. If you are a no-nonsense kind of person then bear with us, splitting things out like this leads to some real insight into improving your swimming.

Conscious vs. Subconscious

When we perform a familiar movement pattern such as walking or riding a bike we perform the movements on auto-pilot. The same goes for your swimming stroke. Freestyle is such a complex set of movements that nearly every action is controlled by our subconscious. You may think you are concentrating very hard on your stroke but in reality you can only make small changes through pure ‘conscious thought power' or concentration.

Basket and golf ball
Basketball = Subconscious
Golf ball = Conscious
!!Warning: Quiet Sound!

Think of it like this. Your subconscious is like a giant computer programmed with everything you know, everything you have learnt, every skill you have; it contains your personality and emotions too. You can't quickly change any of these things – they are programmed in to your subconscious computer.

Your subconscious mind is very fast, it can do complicated things in a fraction of a second, and can react before you have time to think. You instinctively put out your hands to save you when you fall and you tie your shoe laces in 3 seconds.

Your conscious mind on the other hand is very much slower and could never react or co-ordinate things this quickly. It can only co-ordinate one thing at a time and often very clumsily.

Golf Ball vs. Basketball

Your subconscious 'computer' is so big and powerful we might think of it as the size of a basketball.

Next to your subconscious, your conscious mind is very weak. We'll consider it to be the size of a golf ball in comparison.

Your conscious mind is too weak and slow to have much influence over your subconscious second by second but it does have a special power. Your conscious mind (the golf ball) is a bit like a computer programmer. Over time the golf ball can gradually re-program the basketball. You can actually do this with any part of your subconscious - not just your physical co-ordination. For instance Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is used to re-program your emotional attachments to thoughts.

Focus on one skill at a time, and give yourself about six sessions to pick it up.

Of course we're interested here in how to program new swimming skills and technique - let's find out how to do that.

What Do We Know About Programming Your Conscious?

One Thing At Once

When you are learning a new skill, initially your conscious mind is in control as it leads you through and starts to program the new movement pattern.

Since your conscious mind can only do one thing at a time, you should only focus on one part of your swimming technique at a time.

Learn By Doing And Feeling

Your subconscious gets a feel for things most quickly by doing. OK, that sounds like common sense, but here are some specifics you might not have considered:

- If you only ever swim slowly you never get a feel for swimming fast. So, keep a range of paces in nearly every session.

- If you never practise in open water, it's going to be a shock when you race in it. So, practise open water swimming whenever you can.

- If your swimming sessions consist of slow and steady work and short sprints then you will find it hard to judge the right pace in the middle - race pace. So, make sure you have race-pace sets in your swimming sessions and give more and more focus to these as you near the race season.

Learning An Action Takes About 6 Swimming Sessions

When you learn a new skill or change a body movement, you do it slowly, awkwardly and mechanically at first. This is the conscious mind controlling the movements – it's difficult and requires a lot of concentration.

Kicking On Your Front
Use fins (flippers) to help support you while you learn.

As your conscious mind controls the new action, gradually your subconscious learns the new movement. Progressively the subconscious does more and more until it feels normal. How long does this take? Studies have shown a movement takes about 10,000 repetitions (in swimming this normally means 10,000 strokes) to become ingrained. To swim that many strokes takes about six swimming sessions. After about six sessions, the change you have made to your stroke technique should start to feel 'normal'.

Learning a Change Shouldn't Take Much Longer Than Six Sessions

The flip side to the 10,000 repetitions rule of thumb also says something interesting. If you haven't learnt a new movement pattern after six swimming sessions, you probably need to rethink what you're doing because if it's taking longer than that, it isn't working.

Many swimmers keep focusing on the same things for months or even years, trying to do and feel the same things. If you haven't seen an improvement in your technique in six swimming sessions of focus then you need to try another approach.

Maybe you're trying to do too much at once -- if so, breaking things down into smaller chunks would help. Or you could look at using another drill or another visualisation. If this applies to you, have a read of the appropriate section on this website for suggestions on how to make a change. Or use our ultimate resource - The DVD Boxset - packed with all the drills, techniques, visualisations and training sessions you need.

Why Drills Work

Kicking On Your Front
Advanced swimmers should work on fringe skills too, like starts and turns.

Another interesting thing about your subconscious is that it's easier to program the movements into a new area of it than reprogram an existing part.

In swimming we often program a new area with technique drills. Drills don't fool your conscious - you're aware that you're still swimming but they do fool your subconscious. To your subconscious a drill is not swimming – because the movement pattern and the timing of it is different.

So, when you perform a drill your subconscious has nothing pre-programmed that you need to change, there are no habits to break. It's like starting with a blank sheet of paper.

When you have performed a drill and learnt the movement, you can introduce it as a new chunk of your stroke technique, replacing the old movement. This is why we use a lot of drills to make stroke improvements – they are the most effective way for your golf ball to program the basketball, particularly if you have been swimming for a little while.

If Bad Habits Stick, Good Ones Do Too

Kicking On Your Front
Use drills to break habits and learn new movements.

Here's an important point.

Many swimmers believe they have to concentrate very hard when they swim or their stroke technique will 'fall apart'. They're vastly over-estimating the influence of their conscious mind as they're swimming! If they mentally switched off they would swim almost identically – sometimes better because they'd be more relaxed.

Some swimmers endlessly perform technique drills and only swim very slowly, believing that if they tried some faster swimming or lose their focus for a second that their stroke will deteriorate. This is very rarely the case. If you change your pace or think about something else your stroke will usually be just fine.

Conclusion: When you swim have faith in your innate ability. It's not just bad things about your stroke that hang about, the good things do as well. At Swim Smooth we often say "Good Habits Stick Too!".

You'll see this principle in action in one of our keys to swimming faster: Rhythm and Timing.

The Power Of Visualisation

If a picture paints a thousand words then perhaps a video renders ten thousand? We recommend you take a good look at the Mr Smooth swimming visualisation we use throughout this site.

75 strokes per minute
75 strokes per minute - Ian Thorpe's racing stroke rate. Have you met Mr Smooth yet?

By watching our video of world class swimmers and our Mr Smooth animation of an ideal stroke, you will pick up subconscious cues about the stroke. This can take a little while to come through into your own stroke so we recommend you watch Mr Smooth and our other stroke visualisations from the DVD Boxset as often as possible. Doing this before going for a swim session or before going to bed at night is ideal.

As you watch a visualisation, feel yourself performing the movements. Actually play it through in your mind, think about your muscles moving and say to yourself 'this is how I want to feel when I swim'. Do this as often as possible and changes will gradually appear in your stroke technique.

Swimming Toys

Swimming 'toys' such as kick boards, pull buoys, fins (flippers) and paddles can help you feel and do things you otherwise could not. For instance, fins make rotation drills much easier and allow you to feel what it is like to swim quicker.

Swim Smooth encourage the use of swim toys to achieve specific things – they can help you a great deal. They can also break the monotony of swimming sessions, giving you another feeling and focus to break things up.

However, you must be careful not to become reliant on swim toys. The classic example of this is to become reliant on using a pull buoy – which happens with many triathletes.

Our Training Programs

We sell highly detailed 35 Session Training Plans for you to use to develop your swimming. These contain the right mix of training intensities and technique work to improve your stroke and develop your fitness. Check them out: swimming training plans.

Return to the Swimming Know-How section of this site

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