Checkmark Push-offs & Breakout Stroke Techniques by Michael Collins (2003)


I coach in Irvine, right up the road and we have a pretty large program.    My main group is the Masters but I do coach at all levels and I have coached college. I have coached from learn-to-swim on up and stuff in this talk is going to incorporate these for all levels of swimming. This is called the age group track but this stuff you can really take with you regardless of what level of swimmer you are teaching.


As a coach or as a swimmer myself I was always a real student of the sport – trying to figure things out and how to be better. I researched a lot as a swimmer growing up, read books and went to clinics. I went wherever I could to pick up knowledge about swimming. When I see something that is different, I study it and try to put some sort of organization to it that I can take back to my swimmers. I have defined pretty specifically what goes on in underwater swimming. These are the questions I had, which I am going to try to answer through the course of this talk:


What are the differences between good and bad swimmers under water?

Why do some come out well down the pool while others struggle and just pop up at the flags or before?

What is the real effect of being under water on the rest of the race?


The checkmark is a simple way to explain what happens when we leave the wall:

You go deep early, level out, kick strong and narrow and you let your lungs bring you up towards the surface at a gradual angle – you breakout traveling at a faster speed than your actual swimming speed.


That is a real quick definition of what we mean by the checkmark. A checkmark (√) has a steep angle on part of it and then a longer run going out the other way. This is Natalie Coglin using this exact technique and is probably the best person at doing this; lets just see what it looks like. She had already hit the first part, her maximum depth, and now she is just kicking level to bring it up gradually. She is pretty deep and the real key to this is that it is the lungs that bring the body up to the surface. It is not fighting to stay down and that is what a lot of swimmers do incorrectly. A lot of people do what I call the reverse checkmark, which is to push off and then work to kick themselves deep. They run out of juice, turn and shoot for the surface at a steep angle with no speed in the breakout. I will go into that in a little bit more detail.


There is a pretty big difference between Natalie and this guy. I don’t know who the guy is that they are showing but he is a national caliber swimmer. Where are the air bubbles? She is not exhaling. She is able to pinch it off a little bit – keep the air in her lungs. Watch the guy, see all those bubbles coming out of his nose and his mouth? He is blowing it out pretty hard and has to use more of his energy to kick himself back to the surface. Because the air has gone out, he is losing his buoyancy.  Here is a schematic of it. It is a level out and then letting buoyancy bring you back to the surface. What this is supposed to show you is that the greater the distance down the pool that you want to go, the deeper you need to push off from the wall. It is a really important point. If your ability level is to only get out 5-10 yards off the wall then you do not need to go as deep as Natalie Coglin. The deeper you go off the wall, the further out the breakout will be. The distance should be determined by the size, strength and underwater kicking ability of the athlete.  It is also determined by the length of the race and the conditioning of the athlete. I am going to go into that a little bit more in detail later.


Another important point, if you guys have seen this style of underwater before, is the difference between being on your side and being on your stomach. What is the difference? Is one better than the other? In training, kicking on the side helps you to check on your direction.  If you are too close to the surface, most importantly in backstroke, you need to kick water up instead of a dolphin, you have to level off near the surface and that is where the difference is. Someone said that you get more power if you are kicking side to side because you are not kicking the top off the surface. You are not blowing the water off the top. That is true to an extent, but I don’t really think that that’s the reason for it as much.  Natalie is so deep that it really doesn’t matter whether she is on her side or on her back. I played with it for a while and figured out that you are down so deep the difference is in how water works and using the laws of nature to help you, that is really what this is about. How can you receive free speed from nature and not fight with it. See that arrow?  Buoyancy is pushing up. Your body on its tummy is a wider surface area so it is going to get pushed up faster than it will when you are on your side so you can get your depth easier on your side. You can stay down there and choose when you want to corkscrew towards your stomach to come back towards the surface. If you want to come up a little sooner you are on your tummy sooner and the buoyancy will bring you up.  That is something to try with your athletes.


The pros and cons of it are that you have a little better guidance if you are flat on your tummy or flat on your back if you have poor posture in the water, which a lot of swimmers do. They have an arched back and are not keeping their spine straight enough.  Have your swimmer kick on their side in a banana shape, where do they go, into the next lane.  If they do it on their back or their tummy it arches them back up toward the surface, not too bad of a deal. You will notice some backstrokers that keep the back arched plummet towards the very bottom and hit or they have a real hard time getting up. Their coaches tell them to get on their side so they are not arching towards the bottom and therefore staying a little more level. The issue is realizing the body alignment is a problem.  If you are a swimmer yourself, get in the water and play with this. Push off on your stomach, level out and notice how the buoyancy brings you up differently than when you are on your side. As soon as you start rolling towards your tummy you will feel yourself just parachute towards the surface faster.


A little history lesson, where did the under water come from? These are some of the big names in underwater swimming.  David Burgoff – he had the Burgoff blastoff.  Dennis Pan – butterflyer, Melvis Stuart, Misty Hyman, Michael Phelps and Natalie Coglin – these aren’t the only people that have done it but these are some of the big names in swimming that have done underwater.  Burgoff set the early standard and broke the one hundred-backstroke record by quite a bit. FINA got all upset and changed the rules. When they first changed it, they actually changed it to just 10 meters off the wall and then they realized that wasn’t going to work so they pushed it out to 15. Funny to think that there are kids in high school right now that were not even born when Burgoff swam in the Olympics. A little trivia question for you:  At the 88 Olympics Burgoff, the world record holder, was in the final but he didn’t win the race. Does anyone know who won the 100 backstroke?  A Japanese guy by the name of Suzuki won. He was also good at the underwater.  So when swimmers started doing it in butterfly, the 15-meter rule had to be set for fly, back and free.


Should (underwater) be done in freestyle?  This is a question I get asked a lot.  Possibly, but you know there are pros and cons to everything, you have got to weigh these options with your athletes, how you are teaching them, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I am going to give you some of the parameters so that it helps you make those decisions. Realize that in freestyle swimming speeds are higher than they are for fly and backstroke, so they are closer or faster than what you can do kicking underwater. It depends on who you are but we do travel faster in freestyle so that is going to tend to shorten it as well. Also we do not tend to break down stroke mechanics and fatigue as much in freestyle,  another reason why it might be okay to get up and get swimming.


(Underwater travel) probably is most effective at the 100 and 200 distances. When you start dragging it out to longer distance races it is putting yourself in potential trouble with oxygen debt and again that speed factor of just being up. You can afford to waste some effort output on turnover on the surface in things like the 50. Unless you are an exceptionally great dolphin kicker you are probably better being up off the surface swimming (freestyle). A perfect example of that is Anthony Irvin, he doesn’t spend a lot of time down underneath because he swims so fast on top.  Other people that have a better awareness or flexibility or whatever it is that helps them underwater, might go further under water.  I recommend teaching it for fly and back first and those that can do it pretty well there you may have try it on freestyle.


Differences for breaststroke:  There isn’t as much of this checkmark in the breaststroke because you get to have the pull down to keep the momentum going. I think people that do too much checkmark end up hitting the surface going up too much and not carrying the speed too well in the breakout.   I have a little video I will show you of that. (Breaststroke swimmers) hold a more level position through the pull down and come up at a gradual angle, not too steep of an angle and really kick into the breakout stroke. There is still some of that upward part of the checkmark but it is definitely not as pronounced from the push off.


This is a 10 year old girl that I have coached and I do some lessons with. She is a decent breaststroker but was having some problems and wasn’t quite getting the times she wanted so I filmed her before and after. This is using that dart trainer software so we can see the comparison. The red lines are just to help you see the visual difference of what is going on.  You will see in this side here she is going to push off and do a huge checkmark, angle back up and really loose a lot of speed and momentum into her breakout. We watched her on video and had her see it too. This is in less than an hour of practice or a lesson I should say, she learned how to do this stuff. See the difference in where she has gone, and really important to me, her body alignment?  See the uphill body with the head over, buried versus straight body alignment? She is traveling way faster in that one than she is in this body position. There is just so much drag here and here, caused by that head being down those few degrees.


She would have never known this. Coaches would never know this until you watch it on a video with them in slow motion. You cannot see it. It happens too fast in the pool. That is a pretty big difference right there, she is going to be moving forward in the breakout on that one and in this one, watch how vertical she comes up. You will see a lot more drag and frontal resistance because she went that way into the stroke and the other one she is carrying that momentum forward in the pool.  She got to see herself on the video before and after, it was pretty plain to her. We have another one of her doing some fly with similar issues, a little bit later.


How to help your swimmers improve: You will learn as much as your swimmers from watching them under water. Swimmers are a little afraid to be under water because it hurts and there is the risk of dying at the end of a race so we have to change that perspective. A lot of the way we train athletes, we add to that fear because we make them work so hard under water.  We tell them we are going to do some 25s under water, all out kick, really hard effort.  The goal is to carry momentum from the wall into the breakout swimming fast but using the least amount of energy, not the most amount of energy. They cannot be down there lazy. The goal is to get them to breakout down the pool fast and not have spent their wad doing it. Show videos of proper technique; define in specific terms what is good and bad. Teach swimmers to be comfortable under water and that means air and effort management.  Teach them before you try to train them to do this. Finally, you need to enforce practice perfection all the time for them to do it.   I am going to go through these six steps right here and show you how we do this.


Tape your swimmers under water and show it to them. Kids like to see things and it is so much more powerful than telling them. You do not even have to coach them, you show it to them and they will see it. It is really not that expensive to buy the equipment now and if you do any private lesson teaching you make this money back in no time.  I do $75 for an hour lesson and I am constantly getting calls to do it. I am turning people away because I just don’t have the time to do them all, but I really believe that a swimmer will learn more in a one-hour session with me than they do in a month of training. They will have that much improvement from just learning a different perspective of how to do things correctly. Digital video cameras are coming down in price too. You can incorporate it with Dart Fish software that will allow you to do side by side analysis of good and bad swimmers – these guys out here are selling CDs that have all the world class people in little clips so you can film your swimmers the same angles and stuff as these guys.  If you really are totally inept at any technical stuff, hire somebody like Mike O’Brien to come in and film your team. He sets up a little camera, films everyone, and gives your swimmer a videotape to take home. There are other ways to do it than having to do it yourself.  You can actually do that as a fundraiser for your team.


Here is a butterfly example.  A little choppy, she got underneath the turbulence that was coming in so she got her small amount of checkmark, getting underneath it, getting her depth. She is a little girl so she doesn’t have a huge lung capacity to stay down there for a real long time so I don’t want her to go too deep. But the breakout is where we start to have problems. Breakout is a really critical place and it is a tough place because swimmers are usually not too aware of where the surface is. They are more looking at where the bottom is. That is a real big issue when it is an uneven bottom or they go from swimming in a 3-½ foot pool to an 8-foot pool. They do not have good awareness of where the surface is so they tend to lift their head to look for it, breaking the spine line. See this big curve in her back here, she is going to go that way. She climbs out and slams her head down so her head totally breaks the other way and she thinks she is keeping her head down. The important thing is to keep the head in alignment with the spine and never be too far above or below it.  I am going to pause it at that place where you can see the difference. See how much more angle there is here than there is there? She is closer to level and you can see the head slammed way down. Her bodyline is this way but her head is broken down off it. She is coming up and instantly breaking that momentum and speed she had for breakout by slamming the head down. Again we saw it when she raced. She would lose time in her breakout but we couldn’t put our finger on what it was so I slowed it down on video and I could see she was just way over slamming the head on her breakout.


Show videos of proper technique. For example, the new Richard Quick series is awesome. Really good stuff, (he covers) full stroke swimming with good explanation of how the strokes work as well as good drills in the pool, and good dry land exercises to teach the core strength as well as things that they need to execute it. They have got ten but if you wanted to really work on this stuff, these are the three that you would get:  the posture line, balance to underwater and turns for all strokes.  Tape important meets off the TV like the World Championships, NCAA’s, and Nationals. I try to tape everything I can find off the TV to reuse and show to the athletes.


I don’t mind losing half or a full training day to watch videos and talk about technique, we may go in the water and only work for twenty or thirty minutes on something and we may do that a day or two before a meet – maybe not our end of the season, but a more mid-season meet if I just want to rest them a little bit we might do that in place of practice. We will go watch a video and get them all pumped up and show them what it is supposed to look like so it is real fresh in their head for a meet.  I might even do this right after the meet. In fact, this is the time I often do it because they are kind of toast from being at a meet all weekend. The workout we do on Monday is pretty much useless.  I will have videotaped a lot of their swims at the meet so we might watch those. We might watch an instructional tape and kind of compare a little bit and have a little better training goal going into the next meet.  Teach your swimmers before you train them.


Define Standards. Do you have standards of what is correct movement for the strokes and for the turns or are you just trying to verbally tell them what is wrong? They are not doing it right, they are not streamlining or you tell them that they have errors. You really need to have standards of what is correct and they need to understand what those standards are and what they look like.  The definition of an error is a deviation from the standard so if they do not know what the standard is or you do not have a standard yet, they really are not making any errors.  So what are you teaching or allowing at practice? Are you teaching things that stay consistent with the standard or are you just kind of letting them get away with it and once in a while call them on it?


This is a pretty recent book breakthrough swimming.  This is what they teach in the book, the feet are pointed down, the head is much higher than the feet and pretty close to the surface. You will see the push off is parallel to the surface and again we think this is right. The fastest from Point A to Point B is a straight line right?  No – it is not and even if it is the fastest it might not be the least amount of effort.  If you can get there in the same amount of time by pushing down and riding your buoyancy up and not having to work as hard that is a good thing. This swimmer is going to have to work like hell to stay under water because surface tension pulls him up and buoyancy pushes him up. There is just no way that he can make it 15 meters under water. If they are kicking on their belly their feet are starting to break the surface a lot which looks pretty cool when they are coming off the wall, but it really doesn’t do much for propulsion. See the flip turn over there; legs are really wide open and apart, feet pointed down on the wall. There are a lot of problems I see with what is in some of the swimming books out there.


Here is a backstroke turn and that is not how they are doing backstroke turns these days. Notice the straight back. This is not good. You want a straight back when you are swimming but a round ball when you are turning, Bill Boomer talked about that. You go from a line to a ball at the wall and back out to a line.  That is really a simple way to explain it to your swimmers – go from a line to a ball to a line. How quickly can you transfer your body from a line into a tight small circle that spins fast and get it back out to a line again? The back needs to be C-shaped with the head tucked. The feet should be planting higher than the head.


Here are the characteristics of good underwater specialists.  The turn is a fast, compact spin with the back rounded and the chin tucked. The heels are close to the butt, they don’t fly way up in the air, they stay real close. You can barely see the feet come out of the water. The feet are placed fairly high on the wall, just below the surface and they can either be pointing straight up or maybe diagonally up in the direction that they are going to rotate off the wall. The head is deeper below the surface than the feet at the push off.


What some people do is to start off with the head and the feet at the same level when they push and they try to go down but they really have to arch their back to do that. They are not getting the power off the push by having the head already situated deeper than the feet. The knees are bent at about 90 degrees, maybe even a little bit more to really get maximum propulsion. Kind of like a spring, it hits, loads and fires. And then the upper body is tightly streamlined with the head in line with the spine.


The body stays still from the ribs up. You want to keep this part of you still and power it with the lower part of your body. If the whole body is like a wet noodle you really lose the power of it and the direction of it. The kick amplitude is near and fast, but the legs finish the forward extension of the kick. What I see a lot of people doing is they just kick back here, they never use that frontward part of the kick, they never snap. You lose a lot of your power by not having that full extension both ways. What I tell them is I want their kick to be equally in front and behind the bodyline, not all behind.


Next they carry their under water speed into the breakout stroke. I call it the window of opportunity because if you pop up too early you have wasted that wall speed that you had and if you pop up too late you have decelerated too much and have to re-accelerate through effort and energy. You have this little window of opportunity to come up carrying momentum and you got some speed that isn’t too much greater than what you can actually swim at, just a little bit.


The mistakes, the deviation from standards, there are plenty of those. Here is the list of specific terms, what errors most of our swimmers make. I am sure that you guys have seen most of these but are you really addressing them on a consistent basis?  Maybe you cannot tell which errors your swimmers are making because it happens pretty fast on a turn. I am going through a lot of different little details. I don’t always know which error my swimmer is making. I have gotten a better eye for it from doing all this, but I still need to video it and slow it down. I look at it and figure out which ones they are missing and address those specific ones.   I want to be able to communicate with them really quickly about what they need to adjust in practice.  If they have seen the picture in the video all I have to say is remember that arched back on the video? Straighten the back. Remember how your head was out, tuck the chin. I don’t have to go through a ten-minute explanation with them, all I have to do is bring back the focus of one or two things that they have seen and they are back on.


Not carrying enough speed into the wall.

The lift of the chin right before the turn, the hips drop and it is really hard to get over the top.

The turn is too far away from the wall to get a good push off, the legs are almost straight when they hit the wall.

Not deep enough the swimmer is not going to get enough push off.

Not spinning in a compact C-shape. This is super important that they round the back, that they never arch it on the turn and it is the same for all the turns.


In freestyle and backstroke the turn is initiated from the head. The head drives down and the back rounds. In breaststroke and butterfly it is the knees that initiate the turn, not the head. If you hit the wall and you throw the head then you are going to arch the back. Touch and the knees spin the head back. But again it is a C-shape that we are looking for.


Landing the feet too low on the wall, they are going to go up and hit the surface right away. You will see some people do that – they push off and go up, change directions to go back down. That really kills speed and stalls them out.


Planting the feet on the wall with the toes down – I hate this. I go crazy on swimmers with this and the way I fix it is we are never allowed to push off with our toes down. Every time they leave the wall for a repeat, they are sitting on the wall, they have to start with one hand on the wall, feet pointed up and I am saying this all day long until they get it right. That is all I say; one hand on the wall, feet pointed up because I want them to get used to dropping and pushing off.  There is no turn where their toes should be pointed down.


Pushing off level with the surface or uphill instead of angled down


Not holding a tight streamline with their upper body. If you are lazy on the elbows and the arms, not getting it in tight.


Starting to kick too soon off the wall.  You know, the fastest you are moving in the whole pool is when you leave the wall so don’t blow it by opening up the legs. It is like opening a parachute. It is push to the line and then start to kick. But you can go the other way.


Starting to kick too late. Some people push off and just glide, slow down and either float up or eventually start to kick, but the race has passed them by because they are down there just gliding too long.


Moving the hands, arm and head while kicking. This is a big mistake we see a lot of and that has a lot to do with core strength and flexibility. I think Natalie Coglin is probably one of the best at keeping her upper body real still. Even some of the better athletes are still doing this a little bit when they are doing their dolphin, you will see their arm angle change a bit. She seems to do that the least of the people that I have seen.


Kicking too large and slow. Over bending the knees – that really puts the brakes on.


Kicking too small – fibulating, just kind of kicking but not really getting any propulsion from it.


Lifting the head to get to the surface. I hate this. If they push off and lift their head to go to the surface, this really puts the brakes on.


Blowing air out during the turn, which causes them to come up too early. That is a pretty major one and I will tell you a little bit more about that in a sec.


Staying down too long and losing speed.


Changing directions too drastically and losing speed.  Some people push off and then curve to get down. Some people push off down and change directions and go up which is what I call a V instead of a checkmark –when they go down and then they go up instead of carrying it down the pool. – It is not that you are trying to go up you are just basically kicking straight and letting the buoyancy bring you into the breakout, into the surface.


How can we help your swimmers improve? You need to do it in practice. At meets is the wrong time to ask your swimmers to improve their turns and their breakout because that is when they have to be going at maximum effort and speed and you cannot learn at maximum speeds and effort. A tired body is a stupid mind. You can’t really think straight when you are really putting it out there so it has to be pre-programmed to do it. You need to enforce perfection in training sets and this is pretty important that you are giving intervals that allow them to practice perfection. More often than not, the intervals start to be more of a survival set where they are just looking, trying to come in and make the next send off and if they do not have enough rest to get their air and do the push off properly they are not going to be programming themselves to do that.


I think that warm-up and easy swimming should have the best turns and the lowest stroke count. When I coach the younger kids they learn this pretty quick. The tendency when they get in, is to swim kind of hard for that first hundred because the water feels a little cold or something and it is just a mess. I tell them that on their first 200, they need to be coming up a body length past the flags off every wall. They can swim as easy as they like, but they have to come up a body length past the flags off every wall.  This is for pretty small kids and they start to learn that they can do that without kicking a lot to do it. If you push off and immediately start to kick it is a lot of work to get that far. If you learn to streamline you make it at least to the flag and the kick is what takes you that body length past the flags.  I want to see my swimmers, when they go easy, doing things really well and burning it into muscle memory instead of doing it sloppy.


I try to give some sort of focus point on almost every set of what the breathing pattern in the breakout is going to be, how many kicks off the wall I would like them to try to do, or distance off the wall I would like them to go.  We are in a 50-meter x 25-yard pool so we have lines that go the other direction.  I may ask them to go three lines under water off every wall or something like that. If you have any marks like that, that you can start to use, get them programmed to use them. One thing that is important though, when you give them focus points, is keeping it to one or two focus points. If you go through that list that I just gave you, they are just way overwhelmed so pick one or two items that you want them to focus on. Just pick a couple of them. Do that until they have done it pretty well consistently and then go to another few of them because you tell them thirty and they are not going to get it. They are going to be lost in it.


Teaching the checkmark: these are the five skills I try to teach the swimmers about the checkmark.  Notice the kicking is only 1/5 of the process. We tend to think that they are either an under water kicker or they are not. A lot of this other stuff affects how far they go and how effective they are on their under water, so don’t think that just because they are not a great kicker they can’t do a type of checkmark. They can use a lot of the skills that we are talking about here.


Breathing: It begins with air management, which is not focused on by most swimmers and coaches because they are already pretty good swimmers. It is just something you automatically do. I went to a learn-to-swim clinic for those that were fearful of the water and actually most of the time was spent on breathing. It started off in a little bowl learning how to do interrupted breathing of blow and stop, blow and stop. You alternate between the mouth and the nose to get a little better understanding of how the air goes in and out and how you can hold it. The tendency of your swimmers is going to be to blow a lot of their air out as they turn, which leaves them little or nothing for coming out off the wall.  It also takes away the buoyancy to bring them back to the surface if they have blown all their air out in the turn.


I got in the water and watched my swimmers push and blow. It used to drive me nuts when I would be at practice, they would be on the wall for 2 minutes listening to me give the set, and on their very first push off breath as they start swimming. Why do you have to breathe your very first stroke off the wall, on the very first push off of the first repeat of the set? You are not that tired. As soon as their head went underwater they blew all their air out and would need to bring it back in. Teach them how to just push off, not let the air out and glide. Then have them blow all their air out and push off. I like teaching people by having them do it wrong on purpose. Let them understand the difference in the buoyancy of how they come up and on the desperation to get air when they blow the air out too early.


I like to limit my swimmers to four breaths or less on the last length of a freestyle race because I think it makes them keep their form together better when they are not lifting their head and climbing out so much. I don’t care about their breathing pattern on the early part of the race in that I don’t limit it. They can take as many breaths as they want. I like to see them breathe a lot on the front half and less as the race goes on.


Alignment:  I talk to them about hand on top of hand, squeeze behind the ears. We do this on the land a lot first to learn to streamline.  You will see a lot of super arched backs, but get them to pull the ribs in, pull the butt cheeks down, and flatten the back.  A good way to teach them that is to have them lay on the deck and press their back into the ground to  get that alignment really straight.


Extended neck and spine, this is something off the Quick series stuff.  Grow it as long as you can, you don’t want this shrunken neck with the chin out and the chest out. They have to pull the head back and up.  Just that little difference of extending the neck and getting the longer bodyline takes that curve out of the lower back. It has a phenomenal difference on the distance they get off the wall and the power that they get on that push as well.


I call this drill pointed tips – they push off and they should be pointed from the fingertips to the toe tips. We get in the water in about , it depends on how big the athletes are, but anywhere from about 3 ½ or 4 feet of water to about 8 to 10 feet of water and we do vertical jumps. We sink under water, plant the feet, align and shoot off the bottom firing yourself as high out of the water as you can before you sink back down to do it again.  We will do about 30 seconds of continuous vertical jumps in the water and if they are doing the back arch they start shooting off in different directions.  They learn how to align themselves and how to rebound quicker.  You start them in shallower water, where it is easier to do, and gradually work them up to deeper water. Then just to screw everything up you can get them in shallow water and  have them do whale jumps, which is the exact opposite. That is where they jump up, spit and roll onto their back with a splat trying to make the biggest possible wave they can. That is their favorite, you have them do streamline jumps and then you go to whale jumps and they are flying on their backs and crashing into each other and stuff, but it keeps them entertained. Some drills I give really have no purpose other than to be a coach’s amusement drill.


The push-off:  The pictures here are of Natalie Coglin; I took these with my video camera at our meet. We have a meet at Nova – the Speedo Grand Challenge and this was in the warm-up pool.  I asked her to do a push off and breakout while I frame captured it. When she pushes off you can see that downward angle and the kicking underwater undulation is narrow and on the side, it is equally in front and behind the body. I think it is good to practice this with short fins and get the feel of it to build some strength with it. Get them to go further under water, open up that comfort zone a little bit to be able to go further down the pool.


Kicking: They have to learn to have a smooth transition from dolphin into flutter. A lot of them let the legs just die when they stop or they are still kicking dolphin when they break out into their swimming freestyle or backstroke.  Work on that transition of the kick from the dolphin to the flutter.


The breakout:  Swimmers need to carry their momentum into swimming much like riding a bike down a hill. They are not pedaling because it doesn’t do them any good, but at some point they want to start pedaling to where it is not really hard on their legs. If they wait until they glide it out at the bottom before they start pedaling it is tougher to get it going again. They want to start at that spot where it just leads them right into carrying the momentum and the speed.


I don’t know how many of you got to go to that first talk that Richard Quick gave but I think he was talking about Misty Hyman in her 200 fly and the difference between the trials and the Olympics.  In the trials she was way out in front. She died pretty bad at the end of the race but she just cleaned everyone’s clock off every wall, so they decided to make a change between the trials and the Olympics with what she was going to do under water.   Most people felt she was staying under water too long and that was causing big oxygen debt.  Well, that really wasn’t the whole story. They decided to bring her up a few kicks earlier because those first few strokes felt so effortless to her when she came up. She had such great speed under water with her kick that it was a real light feeling on those first few strokes and that kept her rhythmic tempo going all the way.  When she stayed down a full 15 meters, taking her speed all the way out to the end, her first stroke had to be real powerful. She had to push it, get it going and then try to build her rhythm into that. So they found that by bringing her up a bit earlier than that she could keep the momentum and rhythm flowing and she didn’t die at the end of that 200 fly at the Olympics.


I like to practice just doing a few cycles off the wall. So they might start from the middle of the pool, swim in, turn and come out swimming like two or three stroke cycles fast to see how far down the pool they can get doing that. The focus point is carrying momentum into those first few stoke cycles. I think you always should do at least one breakout cycle coming off a turn. When people work on their turns and all they do is the turn part and the push without the understanding of how that push relates to what is going on into the breakout, it is kind of useless.


(Swimmers) have to get that innate awareness of where they are in relation to the surface. They are going to lift their head to look for the surface and you want them to just know where that breakout point is.  It should start to become a pretty consistent number of kicks but it isn’t always if their feet land a little different on the wall. If they are good at it, they can sense when they are about to break the surface and breakout into that stroke. It is like that too early too late thing. You see people that hit the surface and then start to swim or they are two feet under water and it is like pushing down to climb themselves up to the surface. Often it is the ones that have blown out all their air so they don’t have buoyancy and are desperate to breath. You want to use surface as a reference point, not the bottom.


This was a quote from Doug’s talk earlier and I just grabbed it because I thought it was pretty cool, “Training should not only be physical, but also develop the athlete’s mental, technical and tactical skills”. That is what I enjoy doing. I don’t so much enjoy just training them physically – thirty 100’s on 1:20 – fastest possible average. I enjoy working on their mental part, on being more comfortable under water, feeling like they have that as a strength. What I mean by comfortable under water is that they are not afraid down there so that means they have to spend time down there at practice. Little kids just naturally have fun playing under water. They just like to be down there, but as soon as you load them, you make them work hard then they are desperate for air. They do not like being down there so much anymore. I think you want to start with 25’s or shorter in teaching these skills and work on things like going the racing distance and number of kicks. How far do you want them to come out, it is different for different athletes, it is different for different ages. You have got to play with it and find that place, but pretty much everyone in your program should, at a minimum, go to the flags or beyond. There are a lot of kids, even high school age kids, that are taking three strokes to get to the flags pushing off the wall.


A good challenge for swimmers is to go further under water, not less distance, as the set progresses.  This is another thing I learn from watching all these race tapes. There is very little race footage out there that you can go buy tapes of. I notice Shelly Ripple did this, Natalie Coglin did this, Michael Phelps does this – their best turn is their last turn. They go further under water off their last turn than anywhere else. They attack that last one.


I was watching a different sport but it kind of reminded me of it a little bit. I was watching the World Track and Field Championships recently on TV and I was watching the 3,000-meter steeplechase.   This guy busts out to this big lead and it totally reminded me of Michael Phelps 400 IM at Nationals last year where he is just days ahead of everybody. Eric Vent started reeling him in. So this guy is way out in front and he just starts cruising and the field starts coming back to him. They start coming back to him, they catch him with one lap to go and you think its over, the guy went out too hard. But he   amped it up again, dogged everyone and won the race in the last lap. It was as if his strategy was to take it out pretty fast, set a rhythm, relax, recover a bit and when everyone is just killing themselves and breaking down at the end of the race, flick the switch. That is what he did, and ended up winning the race, by pulling back away at the end.


A quick conclusion – the walls are one of the most important places in a race and it takes skill development before training.  I really like the thing that “” said about the pay scale being screwed up for swim coaches. We have a lot of the highest paid coaches coaching way up there and this is really where it needs to be taught, at the younger ages. We can make the next great swimmers but we have to start teaching these skills at much younger ages. That way we won’t waste time having to retrain them when they get older.




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