Number 30

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University


Brent S. Rushall, Ph.D., R.Psy.
May, 2002

There is a strong tendency for swimming coaches and theorists to analogize characteristics of fish to swimming man. At the best of times, arguing by analogy is risky and fraught with false premises. Analogizing only works when the characteristics of the "like" entities are very similar.

When the only commonality between entities is the environment, analogies are spurious. However, when the common environment is water, it is easy to see how one could be seduced into seeing themselves like creatures in aquatic realms. There have been numerous attempts to make men swim like fish, or at least describe as some coaching aid some, usually incorrect, aspect of phylum Pisces. Misty Hyman's double-leg kick on the side was one attempt (Rutemiller, 1996).

However, it is more important to ask, "How valid is the analogy between terrestrial man and the aquatic fish?"

A long time ago, somewhere along the Darwinian continuum, an ancestor of man left water and its discriminative demands, to eventually prance across the plains of terra firma. Man is now skeleted and mobilized to contend with the atmosphere, gravity, and a solid supportive base. His structure, force and energy production, and patterns of natural movement have evolved to function best in those conditions.

Also, along the Darwinian continuum, fish decided to forgo the land journey and continued to evolve into a myriad of specialized creatures with little commonality in function with man. With relevance to economy of movement in water, the bluefin tuna evolved to be supreme.

When man's ancestors were adjusting to life on land, other species evolved differently, each filling a niche in the terrestrial neighborhood. Of particular importance are mammals. Structurally modified, but basically similar, energized and powered by similar capacities, they have survived the "evolutionary walk." The Asian elephant has terrestrial mammalian characteristics and when the opportunity provides itself, enjoys an aquatic environment. So too does the beaver.

In all things structural, physiological, and mental, an Asian elephant is more like a human than is the bluefin tuna.

It is reasonable to ponder why swimming coaches idealize fish as models for human swimming while the elephant has been ignored. It is a great leap across a very wide and deep evolutionary chasm to look at "lessons that can be learned from fish" and apply/analogize them to man's attempts at progress through water. A lesser leap would be to look at the aquatically oriented elephant and see what lessons could be learned. It would make more logical and biological sense to do that. The evolutionary chasm would be much less than the fish-man comparison. There are just more relevant lessons that might be learned.

Mammals (e.g., porpoises, whales, pinepeds, and beavers) also populate aquatic environments. They are structurally very different to fish and therefore, would be more relevant models for man for they are more like him. One could say that swimming coaches are learning from them. We use the "dolphin kick" in all strokes. The "dolphin" here refers to the mammalian porpoise, not the piscine "dolphin." Perhaps it was "flipper" who influenced us to use the term dolphin, rather than the more generically correct "porpoise." "Dolphin kick" sounds much better than "porpoise kick" or "whale kick."

There is little commonality between fish and aquatic mammals. Mammalian appendages, structures, and surface coverings have evolved differently to produce forms of function that are more flexible/adaptable than specialized fish. How incongruous it is to cover our bodies with "sharkskin" suits when it might have been better to try and copy killer whale skin. There seems to be a common urge in competitive swimming to return to the fish model rather than mammals.

Meanwhile, off the coast of Sumatra, while we are looking at fish, an Asian elephant swims with effortless grace to another island, unnoticed by the competitive swimming community.

Not so long ago, man made a big leap of faith across an equally wide and deep evolutionary chasm, when he tried to fly like a bird. By copying feathers, wings, and things, early attempts at flight resembled rocks more than birds. While flight of birds, dragon flies, and beetles remains interesting, man has conceded his non-avian structure should not be analogized to birds or creatures that fly naturally. The painful consequences of attempting to fly like a bird clearly showed the fallacy of the analogy. However, the fish-man analogy has been spared thudding stops at the end of failed flights ("falls"). As long as man can keep his nose out of the water when necessary, the supportive and less painful aquatic environment will remain less threatening than an altitudinal atmosphere. The consequences of a false analogy in water will not be as readily recognized.

Man learned quickly and completely about the false bird-human analogy. The swimming coach has yet to learn the same lesson about fish and humans.

Meanwhile, the elephant glides effortlessly in the tributaries of the Ganges with untold wisdom about the function of terrestrial mammals in aquatic environments. The beaver too does likewise irrespective of atmospheric temperature or wind chill factor.

It is just as logical to assert that one functions "like a man in water" as it is to assert a functioning "like a fish out of water." Neither functions well in the other's environment.

So what does this mean for swimming man and his coaches? It means that competitive swimming is an alien activity that is purely contrived. It is appropriate to look at man's functions (kinesiology) and then take them and adapt them to progression in water (biomechanics). These applications should be undertaken without blind detours down "fish lane." It is solely a mechanical task because there is nothing "natural" about swimming for man. Some are not as bad at it as others. Man is not a natural swimmer, although TV commentators and those who know no better would say so.

Perhaps that explains the frustrations when hearing and reading of theories from fish, tadpoles, and mosquito larvae and applying them to humans. If printed space and fees and/or expenses for conference presenters are applied to these matters of fishy faith, swimming development will be diverted and retarded rather than advanced.

Might it be worthwhile to ponder the role of evidence-based science, as distinct from theoretical "science" (e.g., the Bernoulli Principle) and pseudo-science (e.g., "being at one with the water [like a fish]")? There is verified knowledge out there, it takes some finding because of pseudo-knowledge pollution, but it can be done.

Meanwhile, the elephant snorkels on effortlessly executing movement mechanics that are efficient and useful. Never having had a swimming coach, the elephant does the best, and very well, with what it has. God forbid that someone tells the elephant about pitch, Bernoulli, bodysuits, and weight training! The elephant sees fish on a daily basis and has shown no interest in turning on his side to make his "tail" vertical, or even horizontal like a whale.

The lessons to be learned from fish? None! From whales and porpoises? Possibly a few. From the Asian elephant? Even more. Just go and discover them with reason, experience, and objectivity. Avoid the evolutionary chasm with spurious analogies.

And to the sharkskin manufacturer; ditch the idea for it does not work. But in Canada, there is a terrestrial aquatic animal, the beaver, which swims very well. Would it not be a better analogy to make swim suits that mimic beaver pelts? It is a proven technology, would make an established and time-honored fashion statement, and there would be no need to ever heat pools? The benefits are obvious.

Meanwhile, back in Southeast Asia, who knows what lessons wait to be learned? Blessed be the elephant.


Rutemiller, B. (April, 1996). Tech tips: Misty Hyman. Swimming World and Junior Swimmer, 37(4), 22-23.

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