Teaching Strokes 101



  • Not about power, but rhythm and timing.
  • Allow for plenty of practice time.
  • Repetition is the heartbeat of every skill.
  • A level of conditioning will enhance ability to improve technique.
  • Teach timing to achieve undulation through modeling and choral responses.
  • Teach kick timing to enhance propulsion through modeling and choral responses.
  • Feedback (FB) is essential, but too much FB has been shown to hinder performance. Don't forget, practice is the heartbeat of skill. When we get too full of ourselves and we start talking more than they're practicing you know you're over-teaching!
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Stroke Correction Tips

By Wayne McCauley ASCA Level 2, Masters All-American National Champion Breaststroker

First, we must strip away old ideas about competitive breaststroke. I don't want it to be smooth; I want a series of explosions with as much streamlining between the explosion for the legs and the explosion to the in-sweep scull. I try not to say pull on the arms because I don't want the swimmer to think there is a pull except during the underwater pull-down.

The best way to coach breaststroke is the way I warm up my breaststroke swimmers every day. They know why I make them warm-up this way as I reinforce what I tell them every time we swim breaststroke. We always start with easy kicking to gently warm up the legs and the knees. We might start with 100 kick on the surface, then go to kicking two kicks underwater and one at the surface to breathe. We never use a conventional kick-board for kicking breaststroke, as it will cause your butt to sink. We want the butt as high in the water as possible to allow recovery of the knees with as little resistance as possible. Our swimmers' hands are locked together straight-armed during these kicks, with the head looking down. Next, we continue the same kicking, leaving the arms straight, but sculling out and in for 6 inches, for two lengths. Then the same thing, except sculling out and in about 12 inches for the centerline of the swimmer. Again the arms are as straight as possible, emphasizing to the swimmer there is NO PULL BACK in the modern breaststroke. Tell your swimmers the water is harder at the surface;they need to scull about 1 inch under the water's surface for the out-scull and 8-12 inches under for the in-sweep scull.

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Teaching Swimmers Breaststroke for the First Time

Teaching young age group or novice high school swimmers how to swim legal and pretty breaststroke is a good challenge requiring a patient, skillful, and persistent coach - like you!

Breaststroke skills are awkward for most beginning swimmers, so you should understand that it will take time to teach the stroke well. In preparing to teach breaststroke, you should learn how the stroke feels by getting in the water and swimming the best breaststroke you can and find words to fit the movement which you may have seen swimmers doing. This way, you might find a fresh perspective for correcting errors. Even "established" coaches are advised to get in the water and stay in touch with swimming.

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How Do I Approach Stroke Work

By Debbie Potts, the Aquatics Director and Head Senior Coach of MSJA

Stroke drills are fun, challenging and add variety to work-outs. I incorporate drills to work parts of the stroke and then we put it all together and try to swim the "perfect stroke." Drills can be added to any part of the work-out, as a warm-up set, after a sprint set, as the set, or at the end of the practice. I like to drill at the beginning of practice when the swimmers are fresh, but I also like to drill at the end of practice, because this gets the kids to think about good mechanics when they are tired. A swimmer who has solid technique and good work-out habits will be successful.

During the past four years, I coached MSJA's top age-groupers, who ranged in age, from 9-13. Our goal for this age-group is to have our athletes become good IM swimmers. Therefore we focused on the overall stroke progression of each stroke concentrating on technique, starts and turns.

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Teaching Humans To Swim Like Fish

By Terry Laughlin

How can I get more out of my swimmers? What can I do to make sure they always reach more of their potential? How can I take them along the most direct path to excellence with more certainty, fewer mistakes and missteps? Even after coaching for over 25 years, I still puzzle over those questions. For me, the most satisfying aspect of coaching has always been the opportunity to daily explore the limits of human potential and see the results of my work reflected so concretely, so unlike the 9-5 routine that most of us shrink from. When my swimmers go faster than they ever have before, when my teams outperform other teams in similar circumstances and/or perform better than they did before I coached them, I’m a happy coach. When they fail to reach the potential that I envision for them or when their progress is so inconsistent that I question my direction, I’m less pleased.

So I’ve always been curious about how to feel more assurance that I’m doing the best job possible. Never having had the chance to learn from a mentor as an assistant, most of my learning was by the less dependable trial-and-error route. I was always certain that if I could just observe closely those fortunate few coaches who always seem to produce great swimmers, I could learn the “secrets” I was sure they must have and eliminate a lot of inconsistency and missteps.

Fortunately, in 1988 two things happened that hugely increased the effectiveness of my coaching. One, I heard Bill Boomer speak at a clinic and subsequently became a disciple and friend. Two, I dropped out of conventional coaching for eight years to devote myself to teaching swimming technique in camps and workshops and through books and videos. Bill caused me to question many of the bedrock assumptions I had operated under for 16 years;he also gave me priceless direction on developing a new set of organizing principles.

And the opportunity Total Immersion provided to experiment on thousands of human “guinea pigs” with stroke technique and how people learn it gave me an unparalleled laboratory to refine these new insights about how fast swimming happens and what are its unfailing, non-negotiable terms. The most precious insight I’ve gotten is one that is little known and understood among coaches, yet is so common-sensical that I’ve wondered why it had not become clear to me earlier. And every coach who has begun to make use of it in their programs has reported that it will reliably produce better results faster, with more consistency and with greater numbers of swimmers. Sounds to me like a coach’s dream come true!

The insight I’m talking about is capsulized in this formula: V = SL x SR or Velocity equals Stroke Length times Stroke Rate. Speaking plainly, how fast you swim is a product of how far your body travels on each stroke multiplied by how fast you take them. All of the complex interactions that take place between coach and swimmer ultimately boil down into wrestling with that formula on a daily basis. Most of us miss the simple clarity this provides because we’re distracted by our focus on other, far less influential aspects of training.

All the training we give swimmers, in the final analysis, provides them with the skill and power to move a certain distance through the water with each stroke (SL) and the fitness to repeat those strokes with a certain frequency (SR). Because the formula is so simple, it is often overlooked or misunderstood, but if we remove starts and turns and restrict ourselves to how a swimmer moves between the flags (making an understanding of these facts even more critical for success in long course swimming) all coaching input can be reduced to the following: If a swimmer increases stroke length and can maintain stroke rate, they will swim faster. If they maintain stroke length while increasing stroke rate, they will swim faster;if they can increase both stroke length and stroke rate by a little bit (an act of genius – but one that can be taught and learned), they will swim much faster.

To go a bit deeper, we should ask which factor – SL or SR – is more influential. There’s a clear answer for that. Every study ever conducted of what distinguishes faster from slower swimmers has reached an unambiguous conclusion: SL is the key. When a Penn State biomechanist analyzed all swimming events at the 1988 Olympics, he reported that the fastest swimmers had the longest strokes. When ICAR analyzed SL and SR data from every US Olympic Trials dating back to 1976 it showed that 70% to 90% of the time the fastest swimmers had the longest strokes. A study released last summer analyzing the results of the 1997 Iowa State High School Championships reported that the fastest swimmers had the longest strokes. Does anyone see a trend? If someone bothered to analyze the City Summer League championships, I’m sure it would show the same – the fastest swimmers in that league would have greater SL than the slower ones.

Whatever slice of the swimming pyramid you examine, from the wide base of developing swimmers to the narrow apex of elite swimmers, the faster swimmers in that slice will have longer strokes than those who are slower. Clearly the SL of the top swimmers in the Olympic slice will be greater than those of the top swimmers in the State HS meet slice, which in turn will be greater than those of the top swimmers in the city summer league slice. But here’s the rub: What we do instinctively to swim faster is just the opposite. The way the human mind works while swimming is simple. Stroking my arms moves me down the pool;therefore to swim faster, I stroke my arms faster.

The single most valuable insight of my Total Immersion teaching experience has been an understanding that:

  • The best swimmers in the world produce their speed in a way that’s fundamentally different from the way everyone else does. I call their style “Fishlike Swimming.”
  • They usually master Fishlike Swimming, not because they’ve been coached to do it, but because one aspect of their genius for fast swimming was the intuitive ability to find the most effective way – often in spite of being coached to do something different – i.e. coaches who say things like: “You have to turn over faster if you want to swim faster!”
  • The things that the other 98% of the population do naturally and instinctively often make it harder to swim fast. I call this “Human Swimming.”
  • The aspects of stroke technique that make humans more fishlike, though non-instinctive and often counter-intuitive, are simple to understand and easy to learn. When coaches teach them and swimmers learn them, they unfailingly swim faster, often much faster. The converse is that when coaches fail to teach them, most swimmers won’t do them.In a series of articles for this publication, I will lay out and explain the principles of Fishlike Swimming and illustrate simple ways to teach and reinforce stroke efficiency that will produce much greater swimming speed with much more reliability.

Happy laps!


Teaching Backstroke with Mirrors

By Michael Cody, Mountain Lakes, NJ

In an effort to teach backstroke better we resorted to using mirrors. We used mirrors to teach body roll, a still head position, bent arm pull and proper hand entry. At first we used mirrors on land. The swimmers would look at themselves in the mirror while the coach instructed them on the corrections. However, this method did not give the immediate feedback I was looking for! I could put the mirrors in the water on the pool bottom and all of the other strokes were given immediate feedback. The feedback given was limited but was still great. We videotaped our backstrokers underwater, from the balcony and from the side and ends of the pool. However, the swimmer would get out of the water, see visually what they were doing and get back in and try to make the proper stroke correction. I was still left looking for something immediate. I asked How can I use a mirror for backstrokers? I thought that if a swimmer could see themselves while they were swimming backstroke they would be able to make the corrections themselves. How can I place mirrors above the pool on the ceiling so the backstrokers can fix their strokes.

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Teamwork: Age Group Stroke Drills

By: Debbie Potts - Mission San Jose

Debbie Potts is Certified ASCA Level 4, and is the Aquatics Directors and Senior Coach of Mission San Jose Aquatics, a USS Swim Team in Fremont, California. She was part of the steering committee that formed MSJA in September of 1989. In just 4 years, she has helped MSJA grow from a 39 member team to a 150+ member year round team, boasting 300+ members in the summer time. From 1989 to 1992, Debbie coached the MSJA Elite Age-Group program. Debbie's background includes 13 Years of competitive swimming, 15 years of teaching swimming, 6 years of elementary school teaching and 10 years of USS club coaching. Debbie began coaching in 1983 and has developed quality swimmers, including Pacific and Nationally ranked swimmers, National Champions, Junior National qualifiers and Top 16 finalists Pacific and Western Zone All Star members and Pacific and National record holders.

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