Breaststroke, Multi-Tasking and Change: A Ramble


From the USA Swimming rule book:  Swimmer should push off the wall into streamline position, face down or on the breast. The swimmer should sweep the hands out to just outside the shoulders and turning fingertips down, moving the arms back simultaneously, pressing hands toward the belly and squeezing elbows in toward the ribcage. The hands shall be pushed forward together from the breast on, under, or over the water. The elbows shall be under water except for the final stroke before the turn, during the turn and for the final stroke at the finish. The hands shall be brought back on or under the surface of the water. The hands shall not be brought back beyond the hip line, except during the first stroke after the start and each turn. As the hands are being brought back toward the chest/belly, the swimmer should bend their knees, drawing their heels up toward their buttocks, with toes turned out toward the sides. As the hands are pressed forward, the swimming should execute the kick, both feet moving in unison, whipping back with a slight outward rotation (similar to a frog kick). Throughout the race the stroke cycle must be one arm stroke and one leg kick in that order. All movements of the arms shall be simultaneous and in the same horizontal plane without alternating movement. During each complete cycle, some part of the swimmer’s head shall break the surface of the water. All wall touches must be two hands touching simultaneously in the same plane.

Breaststroke is the ultimate in “pat your head, rub your tummy”. Coordinating the kick and pull is hard enough, then throw in remembering how to hold your feet, where your hands should be, and making sure your head breaks the surface with each stroke and you have the ultimate in multi-tasking metaphors! It’s no wonder little kids struggle with it so much.

Multi-tasking can be trained into muscles—by virtue of repetition, muscle memory will take over and allow us to execute the movements correctly without having to think about each one. It gives us the illusion that we can do many things simultaneously, which excites the Brain, who then yells, “Awesome! I’m going to help!” And it all falls apart.

You see, the problem is that Brain can’t multi-task. It can do many things quickly so it appears as though it’s all happening at the same time, but it’s not. Every time Brain focuses “here”, whatever is going on “there” suffers. (Think about how many times you’ve arrived at your destination not remembering the drive. Brain was thinking about something else.) We see this regularly in swimming, when a coach will advise a swimmer to work on their kick, or think about their head position, and as soon as Brain starts doing what we’ve asked, the rest of the stroke gets messy.

This is another of the hard lessons of swimming. While a swimmer is working to correct a stroke, they will go through a period of feeling awful and awkward trying to swim it. They will get discouraged. They will wonder why they’re trying to make a change if it is only going to result in being worse. They will want to abandon the change and go back to the way they used to do it, because that was comfortable and familiar, but they can’t. They started to make a new habit and now the old way is lost. Even Brain isn’t sure where to focus.

This is a difficult but absolutely normal step on the path of major change. As you discipline Brain to focus on doing something entirely new, everything else will feel as though it’s falling apart. Getting through this is incredibly hard, but you must press forward. You cannot go back: Brain has forgotten that way. You cannot stay in this awful place, neither here nor there, with Brain completely unfocused. You must move forward, with persistence, reminding yourself that this is temporary, that you chose this way in order to grow and make progress, that repetition and focus will make a “new normal”.

Before you know it, there will be a new place and a better habit, one you won’t have to think so hard about anymore.