What if infants slithered, rather than crawled?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 10th, 2009

Long-time swim coach (an assistant to Doc Counsilman in the 1960s) and swim writer Bob Collyer sent me the forward to a not-yet-titled book-in-progress, in which he’d written: Swimming is an unnatural act.  Humans simply are not born with a natural capacity to adjust to continuous immersion in water.  Reflexive crawling actions may help an infant learn to “swim,” but for children and adults, swimming is a complex skill that becomes increasingly more difficult to learn as one grows older.

This got me thinking about the implications of the fact as infants make their first efforts at “land locomotion” they instinctively start with crawling. Which makes perfect sense. After eons of natural adaptation to a terrestrial environment, the human brain is “wired” to begin learning movement skills that way.


When we begin learning locomotion in the water, i.e. our first — usually harrowing — attempt to swim from this end to that end of a pool, we choose a remarkably similar movement. We even call it crawl.

Yet this movement is very poorly adapted to an aquatic environment and it sets up a pattern, for the overwhelming majority of humans, of a lifetime of highly inefficient swimming.

Beijing Olympics Swimming Mens 50 Freestyle

Considering the fact that water is 1000 times denser than air — and thus the mechanics of avoiding resistance are  far more critical than the mechanics of locomotion to swimming well — if an infant’s initial movements were more like slithering than crawling that would suggest, some years later,  their initial instinctive attempts to learn aquatic locomotion would bring a better result.

The takeaway? Slithering on land might not be a bad thought-model for swimming through water.


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