The accidental stroke clinic: keeping the joy while doing the drills

I couldn’t have been more relaxed if I’d tried.

It was mid-summer, and I was floating on my back in the middle of Lake Desolation, at one of the docks where we all wait for our group to regroup before swimming to the other side of the lake.

“Hey,” said the swimmer-friend I often keep pace with. “Can I show you something?”

No sooner had I agreed, my friend—an age-group coach known as being a skilled stroke technician for swimmers of all ages—had her hand on mine, and was mimicking a stroke.

“When your hand enters the water, you don’t want it to be sideways, like this.” She mimicked my normal, thumb-first entry into the water. “You actually want to come in straight, like this. Your thumb will be in front of your nose.”

We did that thing people do when a coach tells an athlete about a technical deficiency and an athlete tries, awkwardly, to correct it (“Oh! Like this? No? How about now? OK. Is this better?”). Then, the group took off for the other side of the lake, and I said I’d keep working on it as I swam.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t keep working on it. Normally, my perfectionist streak would demand that I immediately correct the problem. But swimming is a little different, thanks to the post-high-school burnout that caused me to leave the pool for 10 years. I have a weird, secret belief that the swim gods will allow me to continue to enjoy this sport again only if I agree to keep a low-key approach that focuses on joy rather than speed: No intervals. No drills. Certainly no stroke clinics. And so I decided to ignore the tip, no matter how well-intended and much-needed it was. I settled into my nice relaxed pace—until I felt a tug on the back of my bathing suit.

“It’s your right elbow,” said my friend, excited to have found the root cause of my weird hand-entry and overreaching. “It drops at a couple points throughout your stroke.”

A lightbulb went off for me as she explained how to correct this. I felt curious about what the correction would feel like, swim gods be damned. This time, when I started swimming again, I focused on it, working closer to where I needed to be with each stroke.

I went to the pool the next day, wanting nothing more than to do the drill in which you drag your fingertips across the water on the freestyle recovery to keep your elbows high. And as I worked to put my right elbow in the correct place, I noticed something interesting: Rather than leading me down a rabbit hole of taking the sport too seriously, pushing me to strive for some future achievement, it forced me into the moment, one stroke at a time.

It’s been more than a month since then. I think the tweak—which probably moved my arm about an inch, total—is finally starting to feel less foreign. More importantly, I still feel all the joy I did floating on my back in Lake Desolation—with a little more smoothness incorporated on my right side.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The accidental stroke clinic: keeping the joy while doing the drills

  1. I have had those moments too. Like you, I often fear something other than the pure joy of doing. But, I have found like you, that improvement can be part of the pure joy. And isn’t that a metaphor for our lives..yeah, pure joy but also with the joy of personal improvement.

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