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It's front crawl but not as you know it
For over 20 years Steven Shaw and his Shaw Method teachers have been getting great results teaching swimmers and non-swimmers to achieve an efficient and almost effortless front crawl. But did you know that the stroke taught now is radically different not only from traditional front crawl, but from how it was taught to Shaw Method pupils in the early days? Jane-Ann Purdy tells the story of Shaw Method front crawl …
Front crawl is as old as swimming itself, though it was not until 1844 that it first appeared in competition. In that year, a group of Native North Americans easily beat their British rivals in a race held in London. The Brits were devotees of what they considered the more gentlemanly stroke, breaststroke. They thought the crawl was barbaric and “un-European”. But times quickly changed and in 1873, English swimmer John Arthur Trudgen developed his own version after observing South American swimmers in Argentina. The Trudgen stroke involved a scissor kick rather than the flutter kick used by the Native Americans, and used in front crawl today. The modern stroke is based on the Trudgen technique after refinements by Australian swimmer Dick Cavill, and this is why front crawl is sometimes referred to as the Australian Crawl.
Shaw Method beginnings
The story of Shaw Method front crawl goes back about 40 years when Steven Shaw was learning the stroke in his childhood swimming lessons. In his teens, as a young competitive swimmer, Steven had a workman-like approach to the crawl. It wasn’t his competitive stroke – that was breaststroke – but a great deal of his training sessions were taken up by length upon length of front crawl. “I’m afraid I didn’t really understand the stroke in those days,” he remembers. “I just kind of muscled it really, and just tried to make myself stronger. But there were people who were not as strong as me, who were quicker, and I couldn’t really understand why.”
If Steven could have a word with his teenage self now, the story could have been quite different because as any Shaw Method swimmer knows it’s not the strength that counts, it’s the technique.
Going back to the early days of Shaw Method, in the 1990s, Steven was initially concerned with applying core Alexander Technique principles to swimming, primarily looking at the head/neck/back relationship. “The basic differences I introduced were about changing the head position, freeing the neck, and not lifting the head to breathe,” he remembers. “That made a big difference to me as I had been trained to hold my head relatively high.”
This new head position, eyes looking to the pool floor, lengthened out the neck and back, and liberated the body from expending effort on floatation. The body was naturally buoyant, and free from strain in this position. Steven’s work on breathing – using the water to breathe out slowly, and not actively taking a breath in – also had a calming influence on the stroke. However, at this point he was still swimming (and teaching) a relatively flat, traditional stroke with a high elbow recovery.
Updating SM front crawl
Through experimentation and reading about inspirational swim coach Bill Boomer, who was also a key influence on Terry Laughlin (the architect of Total Immersion), Steven started to work on the difference between propulsive and non-propulsive movements. He gained an understanding of how body rotation and front quadrant swimming could improve his technique.
“Front quadrant swimming is maintaining the length of the front arm until both arms are in the water, it gives you a much more balanced feeling and more stability within the stroke,” says Steven. This forms an alternative to a “windmilling” arm stroke, and is seen more and more in competitive swimming: Australian freestyle legend Ian Thorpe is a key proponent of this technique.
Body rotation is important as it allows the swimmer to drive the stroke with the whole body and achieve a more streamlined position. It also makes clear the relationship between propulsion and driving the body via the front arm directing forward powered by the hip and shoulder movement. It’s a popular misconception that the action of pulling the water with the opposite arm is what drives the stroke. Once you understand what the propulsive movements are you can direct any effort to them and relax in the non-propulsive phases.
For Steven though, experimenting with body rotation and front quadrant swimming brought a new problem. “I was still using a high elbow recovery and that seemed to pull my shoulder into my neck and shorten the neck. It didn’t feel very fluid. I thought if I can’t do it with pretty flexible shoulders then people over 50 are going to find it incredibly difficult.” The answer was the long arm recovery (see above), with the hand exiting the water thumb up. It didn’t crunch the shoulders and left the neck free, and has become the “above the water” hallmark of a Shaw Method front crawler.
Teaching SM front crawl 2.0
Leaving the arm extended, using the rotation, and keeping the arm long in the recovery, when added to the new head position and the easy breathing became SM front crawl 2.0, fully developed and taught to pupils since 2000. But in teaching the new stroke Steven encountered a lot of problems, particularly if the pupils could already swim a traditional front crawl. “If they had the habit of the bent elbow recovery, and were intent on pulling back really hard, it was pretty difficult to teach them to change their stroke in the water,” says Steven.
The answer was to take the pupils out of the water. Shaw Method teachers had used dry land practices previously but they were more akin to Alexander Technique lessons: working on the “whispered ahh” for the breathing and lying down semi-supine. Now they would teach new patterns of movement on land. “People found it very strange at first,” says Steven. “But I found they were able to understand the timing much more quickly than struggling with it in the water. It also meant they could practise between sessions without the need for a pool.” The dry land practices made it easier for pupils to get a sense of the body rotation without turning the head, something that proved more difficult in the pool.
SM front crawl 2.0 came with many practices or steps to build up the stroke from the glide up, but on adding the rotation Steven started to find that the stroke had become very angular, a bit “side-to-side” as he describes it, and some of the practices involved staying in positions that should really be flowed through in the full stroke.
Going with the flow
From the mid-2000s then, Steven began experimenting with a maintaining more of a flat position between rotating to each side. Shaw Method teacher Huseyin Dermis explains, “Steven has been putting more emphasis on the centre aspect of the stroke, so that it is not a side to-side-stroke, more a side-centre-side stroke.” So now pupils of SM front crawl will learn that the stroke is made up of phases, not positions, and there is even more emphasis on where the propulsive and non-propulsive phases are.
“We are concentrating on keeping the stroke flowing,” says Shaw Method teacher Kathy Davison. “Teaching of the stroke now moves quite quickly from ‘learning where the dots are’ to ‘joining the dots’”. And although the elegant long arm recovery is still important, Phil Tibenham, another Shaw Method teacher, says, “There has been a shift in focus toward the propulsive underwater phase. We now focus on the relative position of the arms, ahead of the body, and ‘holding on to the water’”.
So SM front crawl 3.0 is characterised by three flowing phases: the anchor or catch phase where you hold on to the water in a flat or centred position; the propulsive phase where you drive the non-catching arm forward with the rotation of the body into a handshake position (directed arm, released hand, thumb up); the recovery phase where the catching arm opens out and leaves the water thumb first (there is no pause here as this breaks the momentum).
The practices for this newer version have also changed into more flowing movements with lots of focus on understanding where the propulsive phase lies, how to maintain your head position whilst your body is rotating, and maintaining good slow breathing out into the water. Steven reports that these new practices have greatly reduced the time taken to learn crawl, and have increased the efficiency of stroke. The centring has led to a softening of the chest and the feeling that it is a lengthening and widening stroke. “This has brought it even closer to Alexander principles,” say Steven. “It feels more rounded, less sharp and there is more balance.” Another consequence of this more rounded stroke is that pupils who tended to scissor kick with their legs, find it easier to perform a relaxed flutter leg action.
Introducing the wave
However, version 3.0 is not the end of the SM front crawl story to date. Last year, Steven began to re-assess one of the most problematic aspects of the stroke: the breathing. Perhaps the most surprising thing about what has evolved on that front, is that it is heavily influenced by butterfly. “Being able to swim a sustainable butterfly has influenced all my strokes,” says Steven. “Even front crawl when you wouldn’t imagine any connection at all.”
So if we look at SM front crawl 4.0, the most striking thing is the very slight lifting of the head or looking forward – “crocodile eyes” – just before the rotating to breathe. Previously Shaw Method teachers found that unless a pupil had a very flexible neck, when they rotated their head to breathe the face wouldn’t clear the water unless they lifted their head. “This meant that the weight of the head was supported by the neck, rather than the water, and the hips tended to sink a little too,” says Steven. In this position, the neck is strained, the back arches, and the body comes out of optimum alignment.
Shaw Method teacher Kim Tomkins recognises this all too well, “I’ve always had a problem with the whole ‘moving the head forward’ as you rotate to breathe,” she says. “Mine only ever seemed to move sideways, but not forwards. Steven showed us how to begin to move the head upwards just before the breathing stroke. This has made front crawl breathing much easier for me. I now seem to move forwards and create a better space in which to breathe.”
If you start to look ahead just before you rotate to let the breath in, the head will actually dip slightly as you rotate, allowing the crown to be pillowed in the water, the neck remains free and the hips float. Most importantly, there is space to allow that inbreath. After the breath the head returns to its usual “glide” position and you realise that you have performed a slight undulation.
The benefits of this to pupils who previously struggled with the breathing stroke are enormous, and Steven reports that he is noticing a lot more people picking up the stroke in just one day. “About 80% will have the right timing after just a day workshop, and around 60% can incorporate the breathing. Previously we were looking at about half that number.”
So it looks like this flowing, undulating stroke is here to stay. Of course some elements will continue to change. Steven reports that he is constantly learning from his own swimming and his work with pupils. You can bet that SM front crawl 5.0 is just around the corner, but even Steven can’t predict what it will look like. Keeping it fresh and improving is what counts. “These developments reflect the dynamism and enjoyment to be gained from teaching and learning front crawl,” says Shaw Method teacher Mandy Hudson. Too true.
If you would like to learn Shaw Method front crawl check out our “Coming up” section for forthcoming courses, or book a private lesson near you.