Alchemy of Transformation

by Coach Emmett Hines

The Alchemy of Transformation is a revised article that first appeared in Runner/Triathlete in 2004.

For average swimmers intent on transforming themselves into highly effective swimmers, bridging the gap between current habits and desired future habits is (or should be) the primary purpose of time spent in the pool. Toward that end, I offer a strategy for decreasing the likelihood of mindless repetition of old, incorrect habits: mindful repetition of those old incorrect habits.

I know, that sounds antithetical to most all of what you hear me preach on a daily basis. But let's listen in as Coach and Joe Swimmer work on something at the pool..


Joe Swimmer says, "Hey Coach! Watch me for a 50 and tell me what I'm doing wrong!" Joe swims, Coach watches. Joe finishes and looks up at Coach expectantly.


Coach says, "You're looking forward while you swim. That means your head is lifted above the horizontal causing your hips and legs to drop. Try swimming this next 50 with your nose pointing straight down."


Joe swims, Coach watches. Joe finishes with a big smile and says, "Wow! That really makes a difference! With my nose pointed straight down my hips and legs rise to the surface, I notice a lot less drag, I don't need to kick as much, I'm moving smoother, faster and spending less energy!"


Coach says, "Great observations! Now swim forth and apply thy new-found knowledge."


Three minutes later, Coach looks over to see Joe plodding along, looking forward, semi-vertical, over-kicking again. Coach shakes his head thinking, "Another repeat of the same déjà vu all over again."


Alchemy of Transformation - Do it wrong to get it right

The average swimmer, given instruction and having experienced success, then left to his own devices, quickly reverts to habitual behavior. Conceptual knowledge about a desired technique improvement is not sufficient for a swimmer to make a habit of that desired improvement. Successful experience in applying the improvement is not sufficient. Only tens (or hundreds) of thousands of repetitions of the correct behavior with minimal repetitions of incorrect behavior will create the desired habit. Joe needs Coach to walk the deck along side of him during all his workouts, carrying a bell, ringing it every time Joe begins to slide back into his bad habit, thus waking him from his daydream to refocus on excellent repetitions.


Alas, Joe, who is not rich enough to afford such attention, needs another strategy in this alchemy of transformation. What if he spends some time mindfully switching back and forth between two distinct behaviors - nose-forward and nose-down? As he makes each transition, he takes conscious note of all the things that change. When he goes nose-forward he mentally ticks off the fact that he gets semi-vertical, needs to kick more, slows down and spends more energy. When he goes nose-down he mentally notes that his hips and legs rise to the surface, he experiences less drag, doesn't need to kick as much, moves more smoothly and faster while spending less energy. He swims enough strokes with one behavior to have time to be fully aware of each change, then enough strokes with the other behavior to be similarly aware of each changed position, orientation and sensation. By repeatedly going through such a sequence, Joe is setting up an internal feedback system that will eventually cause his mental alarm bells to go off whenever he begins to slide back into the old bad habit. He is also practicing and refining his ability to instantly switch on the desired, more effective technique when those bells sound their alarm.


For nearly any desired technique improvement, Joe's new feedback strategy, applied for a few hundred yards whenever he becomes aware that he is backsliding, will greatly shorten his learning curve.

Mindfulness is the alchemy of transformation. Swim forth and transform thyself! "


Emmett Hines was Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, held an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimmer (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. 

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