How To Be a Master Athlete (Gold Medal Not Required) Part 2: The Basics 1

This is the second in my series of articles discussing the attributes of a great athlete. If you haven’t read the first part, I would highly recommend that you do so, as the concepts in this article will be very difficult to put into practice without the solid foundation of a great work ethic!

As discussed in Part 1, a master athlete has a work ethic that is both strong and smart, and cultivated over many years of training and experience.  What also differentiates a master from a novice is a mastery of basic skills, both sport specific and general.

I will go over each briefly, and plan on dedicating future articles to them, and in much greater detail.

For swimmers, the most basic skill is breathing. When one learns to swim, the first thing they must master is putting the face and head in the water, and becoming accustomed to inhaling and exhaling at the proper time. In swimming, breathing is a “necessary evil”, as turning or moving the head creates resistance and puts the body in a less buoyant position. Thus, it behooves the swimmer to practice and master the art of turning or raising the head only enough to clear the airway for inhalation.

One of the best examples of this is Nathan Adrian, one of the premier sprinters in swimming history. You can find footage of him online. Take note of how minimally he turns his head to breathe out of the corner of his mouth.

Contrast that with those less experienced swimmers who roll over onto their back and gape at the sky/ceiling! With time and practice, they will become far more efficient.

Next on the list is the streamline. One might even define the act of swimming as moving from one streamlined position into another, and returning to the same position.

Consider each of the competitive strokes. Each starting position is a form of streamline. The propulsive phases of freestyle and backstroke begin and end with a single arm extended in front of the body.  Breaststroke and butterfly begin and end with two arms in front.

High level swimmers are masters of moving from the streamline, through the propulsive phase, and back to streamline as smoothly and efficiently as possible.Great swimming is truly an art, a fact that is easily apparent when one watches Olympic Trials, the Games themselves, and other high-level meets.

It should also be noted that the underwater dolphin kick (the “fifth stroke”) is nothing more than a streamline, and is a far more efficient way to move through the water than any of the strokes.

One need only watch races from any high-level championship meet to see the truth of this (more on this later).

Our sport is leg driven, which brings us to the next attribute: the kick.

One thing that I really like to tell my athletes (especially the younger ones) is that if you want to be a good swimmer, you have to be a great kicker; if you want to be a great swimmer, you have to be an exceptional kicker; if you want to be an exceptional swimmer, you have to be an elite kicker.

Newer swimmers tend to place too much of an emphasis on their arms and upper body. I see this on a daily basis, and every time I coach a meet with newer 10-unders: they’ll take seemingly thousands of strokes per length, with their legs dragging behind them, doing nothing.

When high-buoyancy racing suits were banned after the 2009 World Championships, coaches and swimmers needed to find a way to compensate for that lost buoyancy.

Enter a greater emphasis on training the kick.It took several years, but eventually, swimmers blew through the 40-odd records that were set in those illegal suits, and out of an unfortunate situation and circumstances, our sport evolved.

Breathing, streamlines, and kicking are three essential basics that anyone, from the casual lap swimmer to the elite, must master.

The next time you watch races at a high-end meet, keep an eye out for these, and take note of how easy and effortless those athletes make them appear! That apparent ease is earned over many years of training and dedication – the work ethic that I described in my previous article.

Next month, I will build on this and conclude this series of three articles!

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One thought on “How To Be a Master Athlete (Gold Medal Not Required) Part 2: The Basics

  • Elke Asleson

    So good to have ”food for thought’ during the difficult Covid times, helping me to focus ahead and brush up on some skills! Thanks!