Modern Backstroke Owes a Lot to Roland Matthes

In Nicholas Nassim Taleb's "Antifragile", he describes a phenomenon he calls "neomania". Neomania is characterized by the "love of the modern for it's own sake". Often in the sport of swimming, there is technical "neomania".

We look at the latest, greatest swimmer and try to analyze what made them great. Then we try to copy that. Lately, I've been heavily influenced to look into the past. It can be easier to pick apart old swimming videos and the swimmers in them for technical flaws. Earlier this year I looked back at Matt Biondi and what first struck me where his painfully awkward breakouts. 

On further look, however, there are so many things that Biondi did right in swimming that aren't necessarily emulated by today's swimmers. That's a shame. In order to get a better understanding of how swimming should look, sometimes we must look backwards. That's why I titled this post "forgotten technique".

Rolling Mattress

One of the swimmers who has always fascinated me is German backstroker Roland Matthes. When I first heard of him, it was impossible to find footage of him actually swimming. But descriptions of his graceful swimming abounded.

He had acquired the nickname "Rolling Mattress" for the way he seemed to slip calmly down the pool when swimming backstroke. Matthes was incredibly ahead of his time, as you'll see for yourself in a moment. In 1968 he dominated the Olympics, winning the 100 backstroke in 58.7 (no other swimmer was under 1:00) and the 200 backstroke in 2:09.6.

By 1972 the competition was far stiffer, but so was Matthes, as he improved his winning times to 56.7 and 2:02.8.

I finally found footage of Matthes at the 1968 Games, and the quality is actually incredible:

Again, the flaws are easy to find. Matthes is so dominant that he actually has time to turn his head around in the way you might scold a 10 year old for doing at the end of the race to find the wall.

That said, there are a number of things that Matthes did that are truly impressive and that a fair amount of world class backstrokers today miss.

The first is the start. Again, your eye will hate the start on first look, as Matthes nearly backflops straight out into the water. But just before he enters, Matthes does a reasonably good job of collecting his upper body (hips through shoulders and hands) into a collective unit. He's arching a bit, but it's nothing in comparison to the exaggerated arches some of his competitors are doing.

For what it's worth, the best modern example I've seen of a swimmer nailing this collection is Natalie Coughlin. Look at the position of her upper body through hands around 2:32 of this video:

As for the actual swimming, it's easy to see why Matthes earned his nickname. While many of his competitors look "bouncy", Matthes arm seems to somehow enter the water and begin pulling immediately and powerfully. 

Without underwater footage it's hard to make determinations of how deep Matthes is pulling, although you get a decent view around 0:23. His pull is rather shallow, and looks remarkably similar to what Ryan Murphy does now:

As we constantly try to move forward in swimming, it's just as important to look back and recognize the strengths of those that came before. Swimming "technique" is not just constantly moving forward, and sometimes we risk losing beautifully wonderful things swimmers of the past (like Matthes) used to do.

Where Coaching Accountability Goes Wrong

Coaches love to glorify accountability. We love stories of athlete's "owning up" to their own weaknesses and failures, taking responsibility for them and then making a positive change. "If only more of my athletes were like that" we get caught thinking. 

"Accountability" may make coaches feel all warm and fuzzy in our stomachs. It may also reinforce a stereotype we have about "kids these days" and their lack of it. It's not the best way to coach. If we want to create thriving, resilient athletes, we should focus much less on accountability and far more on depersonalizing failure.

It's not about you

Funny enough, many coaches think of "accountability" as a selfless attitude. I'm about to argue that it is destructively selfish. In taking your failings and making them personal, you're actually draining the energy you need to make change.

Last week I put out a resilience test for swimmers. The test is based on explanatory style. Explanatory style, put simply, is the way that you explain events to yourself.

One aspect of optimistic people is that they tend not to attribute negative events to themselves, i.e they do not take personal "accountability" for bad events. As coaches we desperately want optimistic athletes- these are the people that will shoot high, push to the extreme and bounce back from failure.

Pessimistic people, on the other hand, tend to be very "accountable". More often than not, the negative things that happen to them are "their fault". They are ones that will "stay comfortable" in training and be haunted by failure.

Ego Protection

Again, we tend to think of those that are not "accountable" as egotistical. This is a social concept. I'm not suggesting athletes should not take blame for anything. Then you would just have a team of assholes.

A lot of "accountability", however,  is about ego protection. Coaches like to hear their athletes take responsibility for failures because it protects their ego. "It wasn't my fault," the coach can say to herself as the athlete takes the blame. 

Coaches need to model and teach optimistic explanatory style for their athletes if they expect to have optimistic athletes. One step is to drop all the ego protection around "accountability" and teach athletes to depersonalize failure so they can move on. 

Want to learn about how to make optimistic thriving athletes? Write me!




Get Faster, Faster: Work on Starts

Of all the skills you need to swim fast, the block start stands alone. It is the only swimming "technique" that has your entire body out of the water. Somehow, despite how simple the fundamentals for a good start are, poor start technique is everywhere, from the beginning to elite levels.

Don't believe me? I used to have a terrible start. I spent my first two years in competitive swimming tucking my knees into my chest to protect from belly flops. By the time I finished college, I had progressed to a slow two-foot on the front of the blocks leap.

So when I made my masters swimming comeback this year, I knew I needed to get better. But more than any other technique, it's really impossible to improve your start unless you can see what you're doing. Because I always swim alone, I had to sheepishly ask a lifeguard to film me.

Then I watched the video, and tried again. It didn't take a lot of attempts, but considerable focus to change my instincts.

When I got to my first meet, this happened (I'm in the farthest lane with a white cap)

Slow the video down to quarter speed at the start. It wasn't a perfect start, but I smoked my competition off the blocks. My start went from "mildly terrible" to pretty good with just a little bit of work. 

So how did I do it?

Start Learning

The nature of coaching swimming is that most knowledge is passed down from coach to coach. For whatever reason, very little knowledge about starts makes its way out there. That's a shame, because a start can have a huge impact on a swim.

Most people focus on reaction time, and if you do that you'd think there is very little reason to work on starts. Bad reaction times are in .8 or slower, good ones are .6 (sometimes .5, I was .58 in the video above. So why spend a lot of time on something that only means a couple of tenths difference?

The start has a domino effect on the race that follows it. A good start can get you into clean water, allowing you to swim free from the disturbance of others. Think Anthony Ervin with a slightly better start winning Olympic gold again. 

Having a great start also gives you a psychological benefit. I used to panic after my start- knowing that I had to play catchup on the rest of the field. Having a good start allowed me to settle down and swim my race as I had planned.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the kind of flexibility work you need to do to work on your start improves your technique on all four strokes, as well as turns and underwater swimming. One of the most frequent questions I see posted to the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange group on facebook is "Help with this start!". I'm here to help.

Are you a coach that wants to be great at coaching starts or a swimmer looking to get a competitive edge? Write me