Some time ago, in the book called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley I read about this idea that is being put into practice in therapy and in some sports and arts training programs – to train for an action by simply imagining yourself doing it.

I have been gradually introducing this idea to my live students. In our context with swimming, the idea is to simply imagine going through the motion of the stroke, or just some part of the stroke, and to do this with full concentration and attention to each detail.

To summarize, in my layman understanding, what happens is that there are (at least) two parts of the brain that make a motion happen – the pre-motor control section and the motor control section. The first one plans the action and the second one makes it happen. What the text explained was that those (like artists or athletes) who practice just carefully imagining the motions they are going to make actually prepare their bodies to take those actions.

To that pre-motor control sections of the brain it is as if they were actually doing the motions – the same kind of neural stimulation was happening – and this part of the brain reinforced the circuits to prepare for that action like it normally does the micro-seconds before one does real actions.

Of course, this ‘training in your imagination’ would not likely allow one to perfect every aspect and detail of a complex movement but it can do a lot to make it better – and more importantly, it can be done anywhere a person can quiet down and concentrate inside their own imagination – at home, in a chair, in bed, in the shower!

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A couple years ago I had a workshop student who had experienced a major skiing accident a few months before which also broke up his shoulder in addition to other parts of his body. Although healed up enough to resume swimming, in our Swing-Switch drills he could not move his arm up past his shoulder on the recovery.

When I had him fully release his arm into my care so I could gently test it through the full range of motion we found that his shoulder could, in fact, work through that range without pain or obstruction. I suspected then that what may have happened is that his subconscious brain was still so protective of the shoulder that it would not allow him to willfully move his arm past a certain point. (I have experienced this myself after my knee injury and subsequent surgery which removed the problem – but my brain has never fully trusted my knee since then). I wanted him to try this risk-free technique to retrain his brain to accept the full range of shoulder motion now that the injury was gone and there was no need for the brain to protect the shoulder this way. By imagining the full motion he may be able to convince the brain that the full range of motion was now possible and OK and could begin strengthening that circuit again.

My instructions were that he would simply lie down on his bed in something close to the skate position and simply and only imagine himself moving the arm – starting with very slow and careful imaginary motions – swinging his arm on the recovery path through the full range of motion.

Since he would be on business travel, and away from a pool for a week, I prescribed that he do this for 3 rounds, 20 times on each arm, each evening before sleep. Then next time he got in the pool he would get into Swing-Skate drill and carefully test his ability to willfully move his arm through the full range of motion in the recovery swing.

Alas, this student never tried my experiment that I know of! I am sorry to disappoint you, and I was disappointed also. But I am telling you the story because I want you to see how I was inspired to apply it. I am hoping some of you will pick up the experiment for one of your own areas of skill that you feel stuck in and test how this can work for you.

Then I want to know about your results!  You may notice that  I actually prescribe this as a pre-swim rehearsal, doing this before getting in the water to try the actual motions. You may consider using it either as a pre-swim warm-up, or an at-home training exercise.

Here are some skill areas that I think this technique could be used upon:

  • Recovery Arm shape and flow
  • Catch shape and path
  • 2-Beat Kick shape and rhythm
  • Head position and timing in breathing
  • Removing fear about swimming into deeper water
  • Swimming at a faster tempos

Can you come up with more?

Think for a moment. Now that you have an idea of how this may work, what are some parts of your stroke, some aspect of control, or some part of your emotional experience might you use this technique upon?

When could you set aside 10 minutes of quiet ‘imaginary practice time’ to do this each day for a whole week? How could you put yourself very close to the swimming position (horizontal) or in good sitting posture so that your body will be aligned and stable (and comfortable) while doing the meditation?

This is very fascinating and potentially powerful brain and body insights we are learning these days. It seems science is just scratching the surface yet. Especially with such safe activities like this to experiment with, I think it is in our interest to test these ideas. There is a lot more for us to learn about how this brain and body work and a lot more we can do to train ourselves. We can help each other a lot by sharing these insights, experimenting and sharing the lessons we learn from it.