Friday Interview: Dr. Jan Prins Speaks on Competitive Swimming

Friday Interview: Dr. Jan Prins Speaks on Competitive Swimming

Dr. GJohn Mullen Biomechanics, Blog, Competition, Dr. John Mullen, Latest&Greatest, Training Leave a Comment

Something unique for our readers in this week’s interview. What follows are notes from a phone interview I conducted with Dr. Jan Prins, Ph.D. Dr. Prins is the Director of the Aquatic Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at Manoa along with Founder and Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Swimming Research. He is one of the contributors to The Swim Coaching Bible, Volume II. You can find more information about Dr. Prins at his website here.

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.). Been in the sport forty years as coach and researcher. Former lead assistant under Doc Counsilman at Indiana and former head coach at the University of Hawaii. Currently, a professor at the University of Hawaii and operates a biomechanics lab for swimming. The lab has four synchronized underwater high-speed cameras to capture all stroke angles. Many labs have synchronized multi-angle but few have high speed. It took five years to set up due to high costs. The lab is also equipped with biomechanics software to assess stroke kinematics. Has spent most of his research career studying freestyle. Next focus will be turns and breakouts. Frequent presenter international biomechanics summits, not just in swimming. 

2. In The Swim Coaching Bible Volume II, you write about ‘applying science to your coaching’. How can coaches improve their application of science in sport? Journal of Swimming Research now has two parts for each published article: a manuscript and a coaching application section. Coaches are often turned off by scientific mumbo jumbo. Important to simplify but don’t mindlessly recycle ideas. Example: “roll the body; lead with the hips”…These ideas make no sense in light of the research. Unfortunately, people have used these ideas for so many years, but it’s important to make the information accessible or coaches get blurry eyed when the science gets too technical. As both a coach and researcher, he understands the importance of applying research to the deck. Important to be patient. Treat each swimmer as an individual. Most top coaches have programs tailor-made for the individual rather than putting everyone into the same program. 

3. You also discuss stabilization of the spine in The Swim Coaching Bible Volume II, could you briefly describe this importance? Because water is unstable, stability must come from the hips. Hips are translators of velocity and roll in reaction to movements of the hands and feet. Hip velocity tells us how fast you are going. People assume you roll your body but that is incorrect. Previous biomechanical models were based on fixed resistance (land), but water is an unstable medium. Hip stability allows force transfer initiated by the hands and feet. Roll occurs naturally via arm extension. Don’t try to swim on your side like a fish. 

4. What are the most common biomechanical flaws for each stroke between the elite (National level) and ultra-elite (Olympic level) athletes in each style of swimming? Elite athletes have very few technique flaws, but breakout velocity can vary widely between elites. That will be the next key research area. If there is a common flaw, it is slipping water on the weak side. 

5. Do you have any future progressions or predictions on biomechanics? Future research will address “interference drag,” which refers to body parts creating drag upon each other. Soni’s breaststroke pull (rounding out early) could be one way to minimize interference drag. Lochte’s arms exiting the water sooner in backstroke may be another way to minimize interference drag. This has not been formally studied yet, however. Other areas for future research include optimizing pull width in breast and fly. More recognition that swimming is a learned skill like golf or tennis. Tennis pros and golf pros have coaches helping them with technique constantly. Takes continual awareness to keep refining stroke. Doesn’t happen overnight. Small things you do in the stroke can add up via thousands of strokes. Bad “strokes” in golf/tennis give you instant feedback when the ball goes off target. Technique flaws in swimming are more subtle. 

6. One of the last topics you discuss is research equipment in swimming, what research equipment do you think is mandatory for a swim team? TV monitors and cameras on deck allow coaches to give instruction and swimmers to get instant feedback on deck. Waterproof iPads can be placed into the water and create even faster feedback. However, video analysis is still subjective without biomechanics software. 

7. You were the head assistant coach at Indiana University with “Doc” Counsilman, what was one thing most people didn’t know about “Doc”? Most people don’t realize how much emphasis he placed on stroke mechanics. Every Sunday, when there wasn’t a meet (approximately forty weeks per year), was spent filming underwater from 8AM-3PM. Hard to appreciate what he accomplished with video in the 1970s without the modern conveniences such as advanced video equipment and underwater windows! 

Thanks for a great interview Dr. Prins!

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