Put the Happy Back in Swimming

A group of African-American Swimmers
Me and the Original Ebony Mermaids

So have you heard of that song “Happy”? You know that one that is so infectiously fun that everyone from the President of the United States to the homeless guy on the corner sing and dance to it? I recently discovered Pharrell’s song and have been bopping along to it for days now. Today as I was dancing down the streets of downtown Chicago I started to really meditate on the song to see why I love it so much. And that’s when it hit me: Pharrell’s “Happy” song has a lot to teach us about swimming. In particular, that when learning to swim there are three key components that this song embodies:

    • Simplicity
    • Repetition
    • Positivity

Keep It Simple Silly

I had a swim coaching client this morning and like most of my clients she’s earnest. She’s determined to do what it takes to be prepared for her first outdoor triathlon on June 8. She’s so earnest that she’s spent countless hours in the pool, sacrificing time with her kids, sleep, laid-back work days and whatever to get in her swim, bike and run training. I totally admire her dedication and commitment.

Yet, all that time in the pool did not yield her the results she wanted. She would swim 25 meters and just be plain exhausted. She had several different swim tips from all kinds of folks rolling around in her head every time she took the pool.
“Don’t Kick!”
“Rotate your hips.”
“You’re rotating too much.”
“You’re lifting your head.”
It was like a nightmare of drill sergeant commands playing over and over in her head each time she went to take a stroke in the water.
No matter how earnest you are it’s tough to learn to swim like that. You can learned to be overwhelmed. But rarely what you need to learn to feel confident in your swimming.
Swimming is an ecosystem. There are literally thousands of motions a good swimmer performs when she takes to the water and swims a set. Most of the motions are imperceptible to the naked eye and many are just so subtle you miss them. Which is why I don’t waste a swimmer’s time trying to teach them things people have taken years to perfect. Instead, I do a lot of curing of what I call “Adult Onset Swimming.”
Adult Onset Swimming or AOS, is an affliction by which the swimmer tries to do EVERYTHING perfect all the time before even learning what he or she needs to do. My first cure for AOS is simplification.

Like that Happy song, simple is better. The song only has two verses and repeats its highly infectious bridge SIX TIMES. The song is only four minutes long. It is quite possibly the most simple song every made. But simple is not to be confused with less than. It’s simplicity is its genius. This song breaks songwriting down to its bare essence and injects that simplicity into you with brute force that makes it tough to resist. It’s the same with swimming. Simplicity in swimming allows the swimmer to think of swimming as a well-honed ecosystem rather than a sum of dozens of moving parts. When you break swimming down to its essence you learn why you’re doing what you doing and can correct bad form more easily.


I  break down the 1000s of swim mechanics into three simple ones:


Relaxing in the water cures many ills incurred by AOS. It cures kicking too hard, short arm reach, low hip syndrome, dropped elbow, high head lifts and off kilter kicks. By relaxing in the water a swimmer can concentrate on the proper mechanics of swimming — a strong catch, a level and strong but not too fast kick and remaining parallel to the water. The goal of swimming is to move forward in the water. The best way to do that is to stay parallel as possible because you have to breathe. If you didn’t have to breathe you could swim faster underwater but alas we don’t have gills.

Balance is important because it keeps you parallel to the water which aids you in moving through the water faster. When your hips are too low your legs sink creating drag or resistance and hampering your ability to move through the water at a high rate of speed.

Finesse is my own twist but basically it means drop the brute force. Don’t beast your swims, make them smooth and creamy. The less fight the more finesse the easier it is for you to move through the water.


So how do you master your swim ecosystem? Well, like Pharrell shows us in “Happy” you find the groove then repeat. In his song he only has two verses, a chorus and a bridge. Like songwriter Carly Jamison points out in her blog, Pharrell repeats the bridge THREE TIMES and the chorus SIX TIMES in a song thats only 240 seconds long. Wow. That’s a lot. But listening too it only takes about a minute before you can sing along automatically without even thinking about it.
That’s what repetition does to your swimming. It takes what used to be filled with effort and makes it effortless. This is why you need to do repeat 50s and 100s instead of long, slow 1000 m swims. Short repetitive swim sets create muscle memory and allow you to get better faster as a swimmer.

Put the Happy back in Swimming

So all this brings me to my ultimate weapon in swimming better, faster: POSITIVITY. It is my opinion that you can’t get better at anything that makes you unhappy to do. You have to love it to want to improve. So when you swim don’t forget that it’s supposed to be FUN. It’s not all work. Play a little. Swim with friends. Find your favorite watering hole and jump and and splash around. Make swimming fun. Swim with your kids. Take your dog, whatever makes you happy. Do that at least once a week. Inject a bit of fun in all those hours and hours of black-line staring. You’ll find that your swim will not only get better but you’ll like swimming more and more.