This question was posted on-line at the TI Discussion Group: "My children swim for a nationally known USS club, the top age group team in our state. They have watched TI tapes and feel better when they lead with the top of their head when swimming freestyle in practice, but their coach insists they should look forward. They're confused, and so am I."
The forward-looking head position ("Keep the water at your hairline.") for freestyle is one of the stubborn traditions of swimming. It might have made sense at one time - 50 to 80 years ago - when no one used goggles and races were often held in pools without bottom lines. Swimmers looked up simply to see where they were going. Johnny Weismuller swam that way and generations of coaches and swimmers concluded that was "the right way to swim." For decades -even after the rationale for swimming that way disappeared, no one questioned it. In fact a mythology developed to justify it: Top coaches insisted that holding your head up was the way to "get your body on top of the water." Ray Bussard of the University of Tennessee had the best sprinters in the NCAA in the early 70s and he coached them to lift the head immediately after the start "to get on top of the water." In 1990, Mark Schubert, in the book Competitive Swimming Techniques for Champions, wrote: "Your head should ride where the water level is between the eyebrows and hairline; a high body position helps the body ride higher in the water" with a picture showing a swimmer with their head quite high. And like most other coaches, I believed it to be true because Olympic coaches said it was true. So I taught that same head position from 1972 to 1988.
But it appears that none of us coaches actually got in the pool to test that theory. Because as soon as I did experiment with a lower head position, I found that just the opposite is true. Try it for yourself: Look forward while swimming and you'll instantly feel your hips and legs sink lower. Yet some coaches still cling stubbornly to that and other examples of mistaken orthodoxy, simply because that's how they were taught; physical laws and logic notwithstanding. But there are physical laws governing such things and swimming isn't exempt from them. The fact is that the human body was designed to work best when head and spine are in alignment. EVERY movement art and discipline recognizes this. If you watched the Winter Olympics last month, as I did, you might have noticed how often the expert commentators on the tube have mentioned head-spine alignment as critical, from leaping into triple lutz in figure skating to whipping around gates in giant slalom skiing to performing spins and twists in skiing aerials and snowboarding. Your body ALWAYS works best when head and spine are aligned.
How head-spine alignment works
Here's why: The human body is an integrated biomechanical system - if one part is out of alignment, it weakens the whole structure. The body is designed so weight is transferred and supported through the center of each joint. The weight of the head through the center of the first vertebra, and so on through the whole spine, the center of the hip, the knee and ankle joints to the foot.
If the head is shifted forward, back or sideways, then joints, bones, ligaments on muscles opposite that shift must strain to support that misplaced weight. What muscles do is move bones and they can only pull, never push; thus muscles always work in groups, never alone. One group contracts to produce a movement; its opposite group must relax or lengthen to accommodate the movement. But if those muscles are occupied with supporting misaligned weight, they remain in contraction, which inhibits the full and free expression of any movement with which they're involved. And the constant state of contraction eventually produces tension, soreness and fatigue. All this is true the body is vertical, as is true in land movement.
All of these relationships become even more complicated and finely balanced when the body is horizontal, as in swimming. In this position balance is far less intuitive and far more delicate and the head - a dead weight of 10 lbs or more, located a long way from the body's center of balance - has far more potential to upset the body's harmonious operation. A head held in good alignment can do all of the following:
Help compensate for the tendency of the hips and legs to sink - by connecting its weight by a straight spine-line to the hips, it acts as a counterweight.
Help lead the body in a straight, clean line down the pool; you obviously follow the top of your head when moving horizontally.
Minimize drag by making sure the head travels through the same water space as the torso; a head-held-high is an additional source of drag.
If you think about it, there's a very good reason why all fish and sea-going mammals have the head as an integral part of the body; a high head position is simply not an option for creatures that spend all their time moving through water.
A quick course in head-spine alignment.
Here's a simple series of awareness exercises you can do on dry land to improve your sense of head-spine alignment. We do these same exercises on deck before each TI weekend workshop because we've learned how even a slight misalignment of the head is magnified into large position errors at the hips. And conversely, even a small correction of head alignment, almost always makes the position of torso and hips feel dramatically better.
1. Stand in front of a mirror with your feet at hip width and parallel and your arms hanging loosely at your sides.
2. Imagine your head is suspended from a skyhook, lengthening your spine toward the ceiling. Feel as if you've grown an eighth of an inch taller. Tune in to the feeling of a long, straight spine.
3. Hold your chin parallel to the floor. Once you know how it feels to have it there, then tilt your chin down toward the floor very slightly - just a few degrees. Be aware of your head's weight slightly forward, no longer directly supported by your spine but pulling lightly on your neck muscles. Next , raise your chin slightly above parallel and feel your posture change in the other direction. Do this several times until you can sense fine distinctions between a properly-aligned head position and one that may be only slightly out of alignment.
4. Shift your attention to your shoulders. Don't pull them back; let your arms hang naturally from the shoulder sockets. You'll feel them hang naturally a bit forward; leave them there, sensing how a neutral shoulder alignment feels.
5. Allow the muscle between your neck and shoulders to relax, so there's plenty of "space" between your ears and shoulders. Sharpen your sense of this by lifting your shoulders toward your ears. Feel the tension, then relax again and enjoy the feeling of release.
This series of alignment-awareness exercises can be extremely beneficial to good practice in balance drills. Try doing it at poolside (and perhaps again while standing in the water between repeats) before practicing the four basic balance drills published in the previous four issues. Then pay particular attention to head-spine alignment during the drills and during any swim lengths. What new awareness does it bring?