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Wax-On, Wax-Off -- What swimmers can learn from Mr. Miyagi (or is it Mr. Han?)

Those of a “certain age” will remember this familiar phrase uttered by Mr. Miyagi in the 1984 version of The Karate Kid (fun fact, Coach Scott was a toddler and Coach Charlie wasn’t even born when the movie was released!). For the rest of you, you probably remember a similar scene starring Jaden Smith (Dre) and Jackie Chan (Mr. Han), in the 2010 remake of the film. While the version of The Karate Kid you may have watched is rather irrelevant (but you should probably watch them both), the topic of this week’s blog is certainly well-understood through this classic scene (What? The Karate Kid IS a classic!). See, what our kids often view as busy work (or dare I say, torture?) has an amazing purpose in the end. Sets, drills and workouts create muscle memory. Muscle memory leads to more ease and stronger strokes. Sooner or later, swimmers realize the purpose of the repetition and the approach creates a trusting bond between swimmers and coaches.


For those of you who have not seen the movie -- and seriously people, how have you made it through life without seeing this masterpiece???? -- The Karate Kid is the story of a teenage boy, Daniel, who feels displaced and rather alone. He finds an outlet studying Karate with his mom’s landlord, Mr. Miyagi. During his training, Mr. Miyagi uses a rather unorthodox method to teach Daniel some very valuable skills -- Daniel, however, doesn’t really see the point. He first must paint the house, following a specific brush pattern -- left, right, left, right -- he then moves on to painting up and down, with repeating motion. Finally, Mr. Miyagi has him wax his car. Daniel applies wax on Miyagi’s car, only to remove it in the same circular motion (hence the famous “wax on, wax off” scene) Later in the movie, the viewer, through the eyes of Daniel, realizes the importance of the training. For weeks now, our kids have been repeating the same 12x50s of drill, incessantly, endlessly, almost perpetually and certainly monotonously. But you see, drills are not punishments -- no, really kids, they aren't! These and other drills are serving an amazing purpose; they are building muscle strength and muscle memory.


This idea of muscle memory can sort of be compared to the rather thoughtless process that sometimes takes us on the wrong road or causes us to make the wrong turn. Our family recently moved to Asheville. But for a long time (two excruciatingly long years to be precise), we commuted close to an hour each way, on a daily basis. I don’t know how many times I have absentmindedly turned the wrong way over the past few weeks, and started to drive the “old” road, before realizing I didn’t need to go that way anymore. When a movement or a task is repeated with consistency and reproducibility and that repetition takes place over time, it leads to motor learning or muscle memory. Down the road, something that took so much effort to merely think about is done with little to no conscious thought. Efficiency and speed in our sport comes with having not only stamina, race strategies and strength, but through learning proper in water movements that minimize drag and maximize propulsion. The process of mastering an efficient stroke takes time, and yes, it can become monotonous, especially if your swimmer, like mine, had already acquired bad habits.

The benefits of acquiring muscle memory though is priceless. It’s how people swim longer, faster, and easier. Muscle memory does two things -- first, it helps your motor cortex (the part of the brain responsible for movement) develop better connections between neurons, which in turn helps the memory of that movement easier to access. Hence, after numerous (and perhaps painstaking) repetitions, the body moves without a second thought. Second, once the swimmer is free from having to put extra efforts and thoughts into remembering to do the movement correctly, he or she can focus on building strength and stamina. Just like Daniel discovers the purpose of those seemingly pointless movements, let us encourage our swimmers to realize the purpose of the daily 12x50s drill and SMAC’s beloved Man/Woman-Maker.

As The Karate Kid’s plot unfolds, we have a front-row seat to an amazing transformation. Shy, angry and untrusting Daniel metamorphoses into a strong, in-control, trusting young man. Daniel realizes that Miyagi wasn’t taking advantage of him. He comes to understand that the master was not mocking him or using him. He begins to trust the training. He begins to trust his sensei. This “wax on, wax off” principle is one we should desire for our kids to experience. We want them to determine for themselves that drills, workouts and sets have a purpose. We want them to understand that they aren’t in fact, instruments of torture coaches use to torment them (they don’t, right?). My hope is that our swimmers develop trust in their training and in their coaches. Our coaches cannot do the work for those boys and girls -- that’s on them -- but they can and they do guide them, day in and day out. Without a true bond of trust though, the relationship can get strained. In the movie, before he comes to realize the purpose of the training, we see a frustrated Daniel confronting Miyagi in a teenage-tantrum blowout. Later, however, it is the trust in the training that leads Daniel to victory. The truth of this principle is that no matter how great a sensei, or in our case a swim-coach is, the students still have to put in the hours. They have to be diligent in their training; they have to be willing to put in the hours; they have to be eager to develop their skills; they have to be prepared for the sacrifices; and yes, they even have to be somewhat enthusiastic about the rigor of the training. But as we have often discussed, a coach can make or break a swimmer. It is paramount that as they develop their skills, our kids trust the process and the leaders who guide that process. For them to “stick” to it, they have to realize that their coaches do, in fact, have their best swimming interest in mind. They have to understand that the countless drills, the dreaded sets, the atrocious workouts aren’t just random twisted thoughts born to bored coaches. Just as they spend hours putting in the work, our coaches spend hours planning practices and outlining the best possible approach for maximum results -- for each group, at every level. Once that trust develops, a shift starts to occur in how a swimmer performs. While there will still be peaks and valleys, ups and downs, victories and set-backs, the mindset of our swimmers becomes vastly different when they trust their coaches. And amazingly, they also develop a certain self-confidence and a definite self-satisfaction. The bond of trust that forms between athletes and coaches as a result of trusting the process creates fortitude. It gives our kids some spunk. It helps them be determined. It gives them a sense of pride -- for themselves and for their team.


Little did you know, when you watched The Karate Kid for the first time, that there could be some hidden truths about swimming in the movie. Perhaps it is a stretch to think that we can use any lesson, from any film, and somehow find a connection to swimming. The truth is that when you spend so much time, effort and energy into a sport, you come to realize that life lessons can be found in anything, if you are willing to look. So as I end today, let me come full circle and close the loop on this “wax on, wax off” principle. Allow me to reiterate the importance of muscle memory, not just for the purpose of building great swimmers, but also for the purpose of raising great future adults.



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