Open or Closed Fingers? A Review

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Recently the question of closed versus open fingers came up on the Facebook Swim Coaches group (what an incredible collection of coaching minds!), and it amazed me as to the diversity of opinion on what I thought was more or less a closed question. So I went looking to not only find out the present state of the research, but also to see what coaches and athletes were thinking. Here’s just a sampling.

Most said keep the fingers and thumb relaxed and in a natural position. The next theme involved variations on fingers tightly together so no water would ‘slip’ through. And many specified exact finger spacings or a small range of spacings. Here are some other comments from coaches.

  • thumb should be at 90° with four tight fingers
  • thumb anywhere but 90°
  • cup your hand so that the water doesn’t ‘spill’ over the sides
  • finger spacing should be with width of your fingers
  • swimmers should wear finger spacing gloves to train the fingers
  • (and my favourite) open fingers mean the palm of the hand will move through the water more quickly, so attention has to be paid to moving the fingers faster to catch up

The general idea is that a large number of swim sites discuss the issue but simplify the scientific study results horribly, resulting in incorrect generalizations and bad explanations. As a result, far too many professional coaches and swimmers are still confused about optimal finger spacing.

The Physics

So let’s start with a basic understanding of the problem, and then we’ll get to the studies that have been done.

Most of the problems come from a misunderstanding of how fluid dynamics work. At the simplest level, there are 3 factors affecting the drag coefficient of the hand (roughly equating to the effective surface area of the hand).

More Than You Want to Know About the New Backstroke Start Wedge

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More Than You Want to Know About the New Backstroke Start Wedge

In keeping with my “More Than You Want to Know” series, I’m including some backstroke and backstroke start history. But take a look, there’s some fascinating stuff and some really old Olympic backstroke videos.

After that we’ll discuss the new backstroke starting systems.

Some History

in 1896, the only events offered were freestyle (100, 500 and 1200 metres), plus a very questionable Men’s Sailors 100 metre freestyle open only to sailors in the Greek Royal Navy. Only three sailors ended up competing, guaranteeing them all with official Olympic medals.

Backstroke debuted in 1900 Olympic Games, with only the 200 metre event. This race was won by Ernst Hoppenberg of Germany, with a time of 2:47.0.

Now before you start laughing at that time, I should point out that backstroke was still new at that point, and was basically breaststroke done on your back. That’s right, it was like double arm backstroke but with underwater recovery and whip kick. Hoppenberg not only won by 9 seconds, but he finished more than a minute ahead of 8th place. And 2 swimmers in the 10-person final didn’t even finish. So that time is not too bad at all. For you swimmers out there, try a 200 m and see how fast you can go.

As an aside, the 1900 Olympics was also the one and only time a swimming obstacle course race was offered. The 200 m race involved climbing over a pole, then over a row of boats, and then under another row of boats. We HAVE to reintroduce that race!

It wasn’t until 1910 that backstrokers started to use an overarm pull and flutter kick, which is more or less the same stroke we use today.

In 1922, Sybil Bauer (picture below) of the US became …read more

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Funniest Things Heard on a Pool Deck

funny Warning no swimming

Every once in a while, we have to remind ourselves that swimming has its lighter moments. Please feel free to add your own funny stories in the comments.

At a Practice

Coach: It’s supposed to be kick. Why are you doing breaststroke?

Swimmer: Because I’m trying to improve my sculling.

Coach: …

Coach: I’m going to need your address.

Swimmer: Why?

Coach: I want to send your butterfly a Get Well card

Swimmer: Coach! Alex is threatening to kill me.

Coach: Alex! Don’t threaten. Just do it!

Coach: We have to work on your breaststroke

Swimmer: I was doing fly!

Coach: Oh….

Coach: Why are you doing a different stroke than EVERYBODY else in the pool?

Swimmer: I thought they were doing it wrong!

Coach: John, that’s the worst zip up I’ve ever seen. Maria, what are you doing?

Maria: Zip up.

Coach: John, nevermind

Swimmer: Why do we have to do this set?

Coach: This isn’t a democracy.

Swimmer: Well it should be!

Coach: Do you even know what a democracy is?

Swimmer: No….

Swimmer (upon walking out on deck and seeing that the pool jets were turned on, dropped her bag and then ran): The world is ending. We’re all going to die!

Swimmer: Where’s John?

Coach: His parents traded him in for a dog. Keep swimming!

Coach: Your breaststroke kick looks like a dying frog being electrocuted.

Coach: Don’t forget to take 500 Megagrams of Vitamin C every day.

Swimmer: Uhhh, isn’t that supposed to be 500 milligrams? 500 megagrams would be the size of this building!

Coach: Don’t argue with me, just take it.

Swimmer: Coach, I think I’m drowning.

Coach: That’s fine. Just make the pace time and you can drown all you want.

Swimmer: Can we do a 300 instead of the 400?

Coach: No, but I’ll let you do two 200s continuous instead.

Swimmer: Yes! …… No!

Coach: You only did 300 on …read more

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Can Short Swimmers Compete at the Highest Levels?

Asian Games 200 Free Men

I know this is a provocative title, but it’s a serious question. I often get approached by parents asking if their relatively short child has a future as a swimmer. And of course I say yes, because every swimmer should strive to reach their potential. But there is a deeper question buried in there. Can a short swimmer successfully compete at the highest levels?

Not surprisingly, the answer is YES! Short swimmers can and do compete at the highest levels in the world of swimming. So why is it that we see so few short swimmers at the highest levels?

The bottom line is that the truly elite swimmers have almost every possible performance factor going for them. Not just height, but toughness, discipline, technique, resiliency, competitiveness, body proportions, etc. And they have a team behind them that provide the best coaching, nutrition, sports psychology, emotional support, etc. But since no swimmer is superior in all areas, it opens the door to swimmers who have one or more factors that aren’t optimal.

This is where short swimmers come in. While being short is a serious handicap, this can be more than made up with very hard work, great technique, killer attitude, and some genetic luck in terms of body proportions, superior adaptation to training, joint resiliency, etc. A height disadvantage can be overcome. An inability to work hard, or pay attention, or bad technique usually can’t be.

It just so happens that we currently have two examples of outstanding short swimmers.

Kosuke Hagino of Japan is arguably the top male swimmer in the world. He recently medalled in all 6 individual events he swam at the 2014 Asian games, including 3 gold. This included beating out Olympic champions, and recording times that put him at the very highest levels in the world in some races. …read more

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