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Swimming Psychology: Counting strokes to improve your distance

counting strokes to improve your distance

The 2020 Summer of lockdown saw many parents taking the opportunity to teach their children how to ride a bike. In fact, most bike shops had completely sold out of stock during this time! Even though swimming pools were closed, it turns out that a strategy used in swim teaching made all the difference to a little girl on two-wheels…

One of our customers got in touch to share her experience of helping her six-year old learn how to ride a bike. Her daughter was eager to learn but was finding it difficult. Often, a sign that children are struggling with a skill is that they procrastinate.

What happens when a skill is difficult:

In the swimming pool we notice children talking too much or waving at their parents in the spectator gallery. This is to avoid or put off having to practice the skill. When they do have a go, they often overthink it, panic and put their feet down before they’ve given themselves a proper chance.

Why swimming a distance is hard:

A whole width or length of a pool can seem such a long distance when you are just starting out. Every time you attempt it and you don’t make it all the way to the end, it feels like a failure, even if you had actually swum further than your previous personal best. Too many failures and you lose the motivation to keep trying. It’s important to break that distance down into small increments so that you recognise your improvement within that width or length.

Count your strokes…

One method that we often recommend in swimming is to count strokes. When you are just starting out, a width of the pool may be your first milestone but it might take you weeks before you manage it. Breaking that short distance down into individual strokes can help you see the small, incremental progress you are making. At the beginning, it is likely that you can manage two or three strokes. That’s not very far at all but it’s a good starting point. Adding one more stroke to that is progress! Now you can do four strokes, it won’t be long before you can add another and make it five. It’s a simple method but can be very motivating.

Counting is used in many sports for motivation. Paula Radcliffe famously counts to 100 repeatedly for the duration of her marathons to maintain rhythm and focus. Long distance open water swimmers count strokes because they have no laps/lengths to measure. People training to improve their underwater distance count their strokes to push a little further when they are running out of air*.

One to ten – and then…

Our customer used that method when helping her daughter ride a bike. Her daughter had been putting her feet down, talking too much to avoid concentrating on the difficult skill and finding plenty of distractions. Instead of aiming to cycle to the end of the road, she was asked to count each turn of the pedals. Being good at counting, she was eager to incorporate a skill she already had confidence in and it helped her to stop overthinking the bike riding skills. By the time she had counted up all the numbers that she knew, she found she had actually travelled the whole length of the road! This in turn gave her a belief in her ability to ride a bike and it wasn’t long before she was able to cycle round the whole neighbourhood!

*Pushing an underwater distance should only be done under the supervision of a qualified coach and lifeguard.

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