Sensory Homunculus

How fast would this guy swim! Huge hands and huge feet…

sensory humonculus

This sculpture can be found at the Glasgow Science Centre

The information attached says: SENSORY HOMUNCULUS: Different patches of your skin have different touch sensors.When you touch something, signals travel from those sensors to your brain. Your brain analyses the signals to produce your sense of touch. On the sculpture, the size of each body part reveals how much of your brain is devoted to analyzing signals from the skin of that body part. The way that we describe this phenomenon for our swimmers in our training sessions is with this graphic I made: ‘Slippy, The Holding Water Gremlin’.  I used to provide it for my swimmers but now I have them draw it their logbooks themselves.  It can be quickly drawn on a whiteboard too:


The idea that our hands are not the entire ‘paddle’ for a swimmer is often a surprize for many.  It is extremely important to use both hands and forearms in swimming.  The way the brain gets information from the body, especially from the hands, is overwelmingly dominated by the hands and importantly; not by the forearms.  You can see this graphically illustrated in the sculpture of the Sensory Homunculus.  Overcoming this biased sensory input is difficult, but possible.  It is one of the most important ‘tricks of the trade’ in swimming.  It applies to every stroke: fly, back, breast and free. To overcome this problem we introduce the use of holding onto balls.  This is not a new concept.  Many coaches use closed fists to teach this skill but sometimes, it seems to me, the reason behind it is lost without an explanation to the swimmers.  It might seem obvious to a coach but to children not quite at home in the water; it is new.  An alternative is the ‘anti-paddle’, invented not too long ago by a Hungarian coach.  This is a paddle that has a curved face (front side).  A brilliant idea.  He obviously did not patent it universally because I have seen some show up recently (PT paddle) in the offerings of a growing company which sells new swimming tools, most famously a snorkel that is front mounted.  (A tragedy when that happens but there are is no conscience when it comes to business). I have also seen a glove that has no fingers so the swimmer must have a closed fist.  This is an invention by Scott Lemley, currently coaching in Alaska (see comment below), and promoted by the swimming coach & historian Cecil Colwin. To put these ‘tools’ into use (I don’t think I can get a patent on a ball, so I am giving this one away…) I have my coaches follow this progression;

  1. Get a normal stroke count (use for example 4×25 @10s rest and get most common count, not the mean).
  2. Introduce holding the ball (or fists, or anti-paddle) and get a stroke count on the same set of 4 x 25 @ 10s rest.  Don’t explain why they are holding the balls at this point.
  3. Explain how the forearms are used in swimming. Draw a picture of Slippy on your white board.
  4. After that explanation you should get the swimmers to try to get their original stroke count while holding onto the balls.  Repeat 4 x 25m @ 10s rest.
  5. After that you can re-introduce hands and then with the encouragement of thinking about forearms PLUS hands, you will see a significant change in stroke count.

If you don’t see a change then it is likely that the swimmer is already using their forearms affectively and that is also a good thing to know. It is better to not let the swimmers know why they are holding onto the ball during their first trial.  Then you will be able to see a change if they truly understand the concept of using their forearms after you’ve explained it.  The overwhelming sensory input from the hands is then added to a focus on the forearms.  Eureka!  Swimmers holding water…a good thing. I have our coaches use a bag of balls that can be bought in a toy store; Early Learning Centre (ELC) provide them at £10 a bag.  I found a bag in a charity shop for £1. Ping pong balls are better for small children but I have also used the floating flip eggs from the ‘learn-to-swim’ aisle. The ELC balls come in a clear plastic zip-lock bag and are easy to store, or if you teach at multiple pools you can carry in your boot (trunk of car). I have tried this progression with fists.  For some reason this is not as affective.  I think that the sensory input of holding the balls breaks down the message to the brain more completely.  With no input from the hands the brain is forced to swim using their forearms.  Since they are likely not at the correct angle to move them forwards, the swimmers ‘slip’ a great deal of water.  Slipping means that the spot where their hand entered the water is not the place that it comes out.  Arms moving around quickly and the body is not moving much.  So the stroke count rises considerably.  It leaves the swimmers almost floundering in the water.  I have seen a stroke count improvement of seven strokes over 25m using this method.  However two is the average.  I feel that a stroke improvement of two is extremely significant and this sequence of drills is useful in teaching swimmers how to make the biggest possible paddle with their arms. Once swimmers understand the use of their forearms you can get into the more technical aspects of swimming like the concept of ‘pressing & pushing’ and not pulling.  With a ‘bigger paddle’ this idea works wonders to a swimmer’s distance per stroke.


Using the forearms is important to maximise surface area of your arm as a paddle

NB. If you are currently watching the World Swimming Championships in Barcelona, you will see how every swimmer holds water extremely well with their forearms.  The underwater camera shots are golden.  Coaches and swimmers of today are so fortunate to be able to see the fastest swimmers in the world so easily and quickly with such extensive TV coverage and Youtube.  I always encourage my swimmers and coaches to watch as much swimming as possible to understand how swimming works.  Since I have been on a poolside every day since I was eight years old I am lucky to have a solid base of 40years of looking at swimming.  However, it wasn’t until the last few years that Youtube has given everyone the opportunity to be able to watch any world class swimmer, at any time, over the water and under the water. Pure gold.

About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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2 Responses to Sensory Homunculus

  1. Great points about using the forearms and how being “eye-hand coordinated beings” makes us so much more aware of the pressure of the water on our hands than on our forearms. One correction: Cecil didn’t invent a glove without fingers, I did. I market it as the fistglove stroke trainer. I sent a pair to Cecil many years ago and he tried them and liked them. He and I partnered putting on a swim clinic almost 25 years ago at Mission Viejo to introduce them to the coaching world. He endorsed the fistglove as did Don Gambril. Don was instrumental in popularizing the goggle many years ago and I believe was a 5-time US Olympic coach. Both Cecil and Don and two of the great pioneers of coaching.

    Scott Lemley, Head Coach
    Alaska Women’s Swimming


    • garyalison50 says:

      Scott, congratulations on a very cool invention. Apologies on not crediting you! I never had the opportunity to meet Cecil and am very honoured to have someone like yourself reading and commenting on my blog. Thank you. Gary


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