Coaching Fluency in the Water by Terry Laughlin (1999)


Published


Before I begin talking about what is on the video I’ll be showing, I’d like to mention a few important lessons I got from the presentation Coach Richard Quick gave yesterday on the kind of coaching he did to help Jenny Thompson break the world record in the 100 Butterfly. I was as inspired by his presentation as I had been by any talk I had ever heard at an ASCA World Clinic dating back to the first I ever attended in 1978.

 

What I found so exciting was hearing Richard say that he considered the same foundations important in working with a world-class swimmer that, just an hour, earlier I had emphasized as critical to helping less-experienced and less-skilled swimmers to reach their full potential. The very exact process I described in urging coaches to make Teaching Fluency  to all their swimmers was precisely what Richard did with Jenny, who came to him as already a world-class swimmer eight years ago.

 

I did make reference to the fact that if you’re like me and all of my coaching experience over the past 27 years and like virtually all of the coaches in America, you don’t get to pick and choose the swimmers you coach; you don’t recruit swimmers. They come to you from the general population and what I have learned from teaching thousands of “average” swimmers in Total Immersion workshops is that only about two of every hundred swimmers have the gift for natural fluency, while the instinctive skills and habits for the other 98 percent will be what I call “Human Swimming” which is awkward, inefficient and exhausting.

 

What was really remarkable about what Richard related was that Jenny Thompson set a world record in the 100-meter Freestyle in 1992 and she was a pretty decent butterflier at that time, placing fourth in Olympic Trials. But seven years later, she’s the fastest swimmer in history in that event, breaking a world record that many people thought might stand even longer than it did.

 

The message in Richard’s talk that was so inspiring and powerful to me was that the accomplishment of this world record was a joint effort between a coach and a swimmer. A coach who had won five national championships at University of Texas before he took the job at Stanford and in the time he has been at Stanford he remained open to significant shifts in his coaching principles and paradigms and opened himself to influences from unexpected sources. So a swimmer who was already a world-record holder and one of the most successful coaches in the history of American swimming really devoted themselves to refining some incredibly basic skill of butterfly swimming and to getting the fine details just right, ceaselessly over seven years of continuous learning and improvement.

 

It strikes me that we can all learn an invaluable lesson from witnessing that a swimmer who was that good could still consider it worthwhile to work on some very basic points in butterfly and that her coach was tireless in guiding her through that process. And those of us who don’t yet have swimmers at Jenny’s level, and those of us who have 8, 9 and 10 year olds who are certainly untutored at this point, should we be content to let them swim up and down without the constant tutoring and guidance they really need?

 

Another thing I found inspirational was that when Richard showed us video of what he considered Jenny’s critical skill refinement drills, they were drills that any 8-year old could do. That suggests that there are principles of excellence in movement that a child can begin learning from the very beginning of their swimming career and can continue refining without fundamental change until they become world-class. And the final thing that I struck me as really cool was Richard’s anecdote about Jenny being the last person out of the pool in warmups prior to setting the world record and there she was by herself out in the middle of the Pan Pac pool doing the most basic of drills to imprint a bit more deeply on her nervous system things that she wanted to happen automatically in the race. Things that she knows feel good and that she didn’t want to have to think about while racing. Just let that sensation leave its imprint.

 

I missed the beginning of Richard’s talk so I’m not certain if he talked about this particular point, but a year ago I did an article on butterfly for Fitness Swimmer magazine. The swimmer who was used in the photo illustration to demonstrate the techniques I described was Jenny. Naturally, I interviewed Richard in preparing that article and one of the things he talked about was teaching that a butterfly kick is not this (demonstrates knee flex and lower-leg whip) and that butterfly kick is not something that happens in the quadriceps, but that butterfly kick is this (demonstrates body-wave movement) and is something that happens in the core, and the legs are just an extension of what the core is taught to do.

 

So I asked, “Richard, you get many of the most accomplished and most gifted swimmers in America, how many of them come into Stanford knowing that, and how many of those ‘blue-chippers’ do you have to teach that the butterfly kick is not something you do with your quads?” And he answered “One hundred percent come in thinking that the butterfly kick is quads and have to be taught to do it as Jenny now does it.” So there are a lot of powerful messages in there about  the benefits of teaching on any level. And certainly if they can still benefit by being so dedicated and tireless about refining skills as basic as that, that any one of us can be equally dedicated to teaching skills to any of our swimmers at any time.

 

Yesterday I spoke about why coaches and their swimmers will benefit when they commit themselves to making fluency a habit as the foundation for all the training and fast swimming they do. Today I will talk about how to do that using video clips of various drills as an aid.

 

This first clip is footage of one of the Total Immersion summer camps, where we teach technique to age group swimmers. You can see the large concentration of coaches on deck. As I said, we use these camps as opportunities to train coaches and there are usually 14 to 16 coaches on deck at any time for 35 to 40 swimmers in the pool, so the swimmers are getting a lot of reinforcement, a lot of reminders and getting a chance to feel almost as if they have their own personal coach.

 

The swimmer in this clip happens to be six years old. We normally require that our campers be at least 8 or 9, but I couldn’t talk his mother out of bringing him to camp with his older brother and she said, “Well he’s really a pretty good swimmer.” If you just look at the expression on his face, you can see he’s quite comfortable. What he’s working on there (video shows swimmer kicking on his side in a balanced position) is getting comfortable in the water.

 

One of the things I was talking about yesterday is that we do some very simple things but we do them with a great deal of attention to detail in teaching swimmers to do things they would not do instinctively or naturally. Some of the things about this position are critical when you’re teaching balance, but they are things I have found that few coaches understand perhaps because they don’t spend as much time teaching and studying balance as we do. If you don’t teach all the key aspects of the position, the swimmers don’t really learn balance.

 

This swimmer here is Joao Gloria, a 10-year old boy from Portugal who was at the camp and the reason I select his underwater video is that he does as good a job as I’ve ever seen of demonstrating the qualities that I call “Fishlike.” If you stop him at particular moments in the stroke and look at the shape or profile of his image on the video monitor, you could think of nothing but “Swordfish!”

 

As I said, each year we teach and videotape thousands of swimmers, but the number that come in and naturally show a position like this is minuscule. And then you think about the shape of fish and the design of man-made objects like torpedoes and submarines and understand there’s a reason why they are designed that way. They move through the water much faster and with far lower energy cost because they’re shaped that way. And you should begin to ask yourself, when you consider dolphins and how you can teach your swimmers to be more like dolphins, how can I afford not to pay far more attention to things like the shapes they assume in the water. And then to start looking more closely at and think critically about “when they’re not in positions like that, why? What are the things that cause them to be in positions that are far more awkward? And how much energy are they wasting when they’re not staying ‘slippery’?”

 

Specific things we can observe about the position and shape Joao is demonstrating here include all of the things that I talk about that are not natural or instinctive things a swimmer will not do unless you teach him or her to do them. For instance, his head position is not the position that most of us as coaches have taught over the years. (Video shows swimmer’s head directly in line with the body and looking down, not forward.) It’s only in the last few years, through the intensive teaching that we do, that I realized that balance is influenced by head position more than by anything else.

 

If your head is in the conventionally-taught position where the water-line is at your forehead, you’ll find the hips and legs much lower in the water and the arms occupied with trying to hold the head up there. What we’ve arrived at is a sense that in all the strokes it’s super-critical to have the head remain aligned with the body. And as I said yesterday, it’s a principle of movement excellence in almost any movement art that the head should be kept in close alignment with the body. There’s no reason at all to suppose that swimming should be able to defy those principles just because it’s swimming. If we’re willing to give up many of the things we’ve done by rote as coaches, it may be possible for us to learn invaluable lessons from other sports and movement arts.

 

We call this position “hiding the head.” When teaching freestyle and backstroke and when teaching balance for the long-axis strokes, it’s the first thing we teach. What we want to see is not more than one-quarter of the head’s mass visible above the surface. When watching someone swim freestyle, if I see more than a sliver of the back of the cap above the surface, I’m suspicious that the swimmer is struggling a bit more to hold their balance than they would if they had the head right in line as Joao shows here.

 

As I’ll show as we get further into this video, we find simple ways to teach head position, but we don’t teach anything else until the swimmers learn it. When we’re teaching balance, we don’t shift our attention to the next skill until we see every swimmer in the pool get it 100% right and everyone understands how it feels to have their head “hidden.”

 

First of all that position is better for the health of the spine when you’re swimming. Holding your chin extended will inevitably cause tension in the neck and spine and cause lower-back fatigue. It’s easier to keep the hips near the surface when you’re aligned. But when you look at Joao and ask yourself “Would they ever design a torpedo that had a bulb on the end that stuck out like this (demonstrates head-up position)?” It wouldn’t move through the water. So, again, there’s no reason why a human vessel should move through the water well in that position.

 

The second thing that’s unusual is that he’s perfectly horizontal. If you drew a line that starts at his fingertips and follows the body back to bisect his feet, you’ll see it’s perfectly straight and exactly parallel to the surface. If he were in an “uphill” position, he’d have to work much harder to move through the water. The “uphill” position is natural for human swimmers because that’s the way our bodies are designed. We’ve got a lot of mass here (points to hips); we’ve just got space, volume here (points to chest) in our lungs. So naturally the chest will ride high while the hips and legs sink a bit. Every stroke you take, generally, your body is tending to torque in that direction. So being perfectly horizontal is un-natural and has to be taught. Being balance is what I call “effortlessly horizontal” learning to make the water support you, not having to use your arms and legs at all for support.

 

The third thing that’s unusual is that we talk and swimmers understand good body position as being “high on the water.” Fast swimmers swim on top of the water, right, so in order to swim fast you have to try to stay on top. Well, as we see from watching thousands of swimmers’ underwater video, it’s physically not possible to be on top of the water. The body’s just not buoyant enough, particularly when someone is athletically-lean, to float on top of the water. Balance means sinking in equilibrium. Trying to swim “high on the water” is a futile effort; all it will do is make you tired.

 

People find their equilibrium at different levels, based on the particular physiognomy of their body, the distribution of their fat, their leg and torso length, but every swimmer must be taught to find that point where the body finds its own equilibrium and it’s easier to remain horizontal. Joao doesn’t have much body fat, but he’s not big, he’s not heavy boned and you can easily see in this video that at least 95 percent of his body mass is under water. He’s swimming rather slowly here and naturally if you’re swimming faster you’ll come up a bit higher in the water but the speed at which hydroplaning can begin to act on a 6-foot vessel is 33 mile per hour. Popov was going about 5 miles per hour when he set the world record in the 100-meter freestyle. So we can expect to gain a hydroplaning boost to ride “high on the water” when the 100-meter world record improves from 48 seconds to about 7 seconds. So clearly we need to teach our swimmers the best way to move through the water when they’re in it, not on it and just as clearly that means teaching them to be horizontal.

 

Now let’s use Joao’s underwater video to clarify our understanding of Stroke Length. I believe the most common definition is “to have a longer stroke.” Coaches and swimmers usually interpret this to mean reaching way out and pushing way back with each stroke. My definition of Stroke Length is “how far your body travels in the course of a stroke cycle.” Even this can be interpreted in different ways. The most common sense of how to create more Stroke Length is to travel further by using your hand more effectively to push yourself forward.

 

But my experience in watching what actually happens to swimmers in the water, when we study their underwater video shows something quite different. So let’s observe what happens during one stroke cycle as we watch Joao underwater and look for some evidence of where the distance-per-stroke is happening. (Watching video.) Okay, he completes a left-hand stroke there, so let’s mark his right hand against a landmark in the pool. You can see that he traveled past two and-a-half lane markers during the interval between when his left hand finished stroking and when he began stroking with his right. What was he doing during that time? Not simply gliding he was slicing forward in this slippery side-lying position the entire time he was recovering his left hand. In between strokes, there’s not a lot of deceleration happening. Why is that so? Because his body is set up to just keep moving; there’s nothing about his body position that will break his momentum. It’s because he keeps his line so clean throughout recovery that he’s creating stroke length.

 

Admittedly, what we see here is exaggerated stroke length because he’s swimming slowly. But if you can create exaggerated stroke length at slow speeds, it gives you a basis for better stroke length at every faster increment in speed, until you reach race speed but are able to accomplish it with much greater stroke length than previously. I spoke yesterday about the potential learning value of “Super-Slow Swimming;” creating exaggerated stroke length is one of the purposeful things you can do while swimming slowly.

 

I’ll let Joao finish this length of swimming now and if we count his strokes we see that, despite being 10 years old, he took only 10 or 11 strokes to complete this lap, unusual stroke efficiency for someone his age by any measure.

 

Now let’s watch underwater video of him swimming breaststroke to examine “Fishlike” short-axis skills at work. He hasn’t fully refined his skills yet, but we can easily see him doing the most important thing getting into the position where he encounters the least resistance. In long-axis strokes, that was the sidelying position. In short-axis, where you can’t get on your side, you have to find another way to minimize drag and that is get underwater a little bit. And what do you do when you get underwater? “Thread the needle.” Turn your body into a long, balanced needle so it slips easily through the water. “Thread the needle” is a term we use frequently when teaching breaststroke.

 

Now Joao is threading the needle in a way that’s not completely refined, as I said. He has to climb a bit too much to begin the next pull and breath after his glide and he dives a bit too much after his breath, but he’s at that level of achieving or mastering the part of the skill that is realistic for a 10-year old to master. Next we’ll watch an underwater clip of Jenna Street, a much more accomplished swimmer so we can observe a higher level of refinement in the same skill.

 

Let’s watch Jenna thread the needle (shows video). You’ll notice she threads it in an S-pattern, the short-axis rotation that she includes in her stroke. Notice how her hands and arms cut a path through the water and she then slips the rest of her body through the same path or sleeve in the water that her hands cut. In Joao’s case what was a straight path, with Jenna becomes an undulating path. Her great skill here is to make every other surface of her body head, torso and legs — slip through the same “hole” that her arms cut in the water.

 

Now let’s use Jenna’s video to examine where short-axis propulsion comes from. Yesterday, Richard was talking about how in butterfly, the object is not to pull back, but to anchor the hands far in front, then “vault” the body over where the hands are anchored. We can watch Jenna do the same thing in breaststroke. It’s easy to look at her hands and measure their movement against the lane markers and answer the question: “Does she pull her hands back, or does she anchor them in front and move her body over them?” You can mark her fingertips on the blue lane marker and watch where her hips go. (Watching video) They move past that spot and then she uses that position as a launching pad to dive forward into the next cycle.

 

Just what Richard described in the butterfly, we can see is common to both short axis strokes. One other thing that’s interesting in looking at this video is if I paused the tape at this point (pauses video when hands have just reached the anchoring point) and you had just walked into the room, if I asked “What stroke is she swimming,” you might be likely to say “Butterfly.” The best breaststrokers if you watch them on video and stop the tape just as their hands reach the corners, you can’t tell whether it’s breast or butterfly.

 

What this tells us is that there are essential aspects that the two short-axis strokes have in common and what I’m going to be showing you with the Total Immersion drills video is that a teaching process should start by teaching the common aspects of that axis. If you start the teaching of breaststroke and butterfly by focusing on the skills they have in common, then you can progress to breaststroke-specific drills on one path, to butterfly-specific skills on another path, then from either path come back to unify the two strokes again with  a set of “Short-Axis Combination” drills that reinforce and refine both strokes to a higher level than is possible when using just single-stroke drills. We’ll show you how to use that teaching approach in both long and short axis.

 

This is some additional video from this summer’s kids’ camps. These are not kids we have year-round on a team, just a group that were with us practicing flow for a week. What is very evident is the universality of graceful, fluid movement and the complete absence of any struggle. They’re alternating a length of a drill of their choice, from among those we taught, with a length of swimming and it’s very apparent that what’s going on is the practice of ease and control.

 

Here’s Drill #1 Basic Balance and I’ll relate how we teach the various aspects. The swimmer is Jeff Utsch, who was a world-ranked distance swimmer at age 16 when I coached him. Now he’s a 33-year old Masters swimmer. We start by teaching basic balance, but when we do so, we’re really emphasizing the head position. He’s demonstrating two things here he’s hiding his head and he’s leaning on his chest a little bit while kicking gently with his arms at his sides.

 

Here’s a really striking thing to observe. Watch what happens to his hips when he lifts his head just a little bit to that conventional position. He doesn’t have to lift his head very much at all to completely lose his balance. It’s amazing how much the hips get affected by a minor change in head position; we just don’t recognize this as dramatically until we watch the chain of events unfold while watching underwater video in slow motion

 

Watching Jeff from above, we can see how little of his head is visible above the surface, when he does it right. The degree of ease is another thing we really emphasize. We talk about doing this drill as quietly as gently and as easily as possible. When you really master balance, you can move with incredible ease.

 

When we begin teaching balance on the back, which will later translate into balanced backstroke swimming, we start by teaching how to hide your head. When on your back this means we want to see just the face, and nothing more, visible above the surface. And the face should be exactly parallel to the surface. As we teach we’re looking for swimmers who have the chin either jutting toward the ceiling or tucked into the throat and we make sure they fix that and “hide  the head” before we teach anything else. It’s amazing how many swimmers are in better balance immediately as soon as they hide their head and get it in alignment. Among all elite swimmers today, Lenny Krayzelburg is the best example of the head position that allows you to balance and swim with far more ease. The idea with balance is not to work at it; it’s to make it effortless and the starting point is to get head position right.

 

This next clip is of Mike Collins, a highly-ranked Masters swimmer and triathlete and a USMS National Masters Coach of the Year and a Total Immersion Senior Coach on the West Coast. Mike is demonstrating a drill we call “Finding your Sweet Spot.” You may have read Jonty Skinner’s article in SWIM magazine on the perfect body type for swimming. Jonty describes Category 6, people who are very lean  and have a high center of gravity — as the least favorable body type. People in Category 1, who have a bit more body fat and a low center of gravity (relatively longer torso and shorter legs) can balance effortlessly in all positions, which allows them to make more choices. At one time, Jonty said half-jokingly that Category 6 people should be encouraged to take up soccer.

 

Our take on this is a little bit different. When we teach our workshops, we have to find a way for EVERY swimmer to learn balance; they don’t want to hear us say “go play soccer.” And a lot of them are runners and bikers, many who are quite lean with long legs. They do struggle more while learning balance, but we’ve found that we simply needed  to find different positions for people in which they could learn sidelying balance with the least effort and the greatest comfort. That position, for each swimmer, is what we call the “Sweet Spot.” A swimmer from Category One can balance effortlessly at 90 degrees, exactly on their side. A learner and taller swimmer from Category Six may need to learn “side” balance in a position very nearly on their back.

 

Here’s the application for the typical coach. A lot of us are now convinced that much of our kicking practice should be done on the side, rather than with a kickboard. But as we practice, we should ask ourselves “what’s being reinforced, what are we working on?” I travel quite a bit so I’ve seen many different teams practicing sidelying kick. Here’s what I see in almost every instance. The swimmers are on their sides, but their heads are sitting up, their legs are lower, and their hands are sculling to try to support what really looks like an uncomfortable position.

 

What they are really practicing is poo balanced, not being very comfortable and using some of their “kicking” energy to try to correct or compensate for their poor balance. But this is not an action we want to use when we swim, so why spend precious practice time imprinting it?

 

When we teach balance on the side, our first goal is to show them a side balance position in which they can be comfortable. We want them to feel good in everything they do in the water. When they feel good, they will stop struggling, they’ll stop inhibiting freedom of movement; they will move with more fluency and efficiency. So the first thing we tell them is “Hide your Head” As Mike practices it in this clip, you see the same amount of his face visible as you saw of Jeff’s as he practiced balance on his back in the previous clip. And the second thing we tell them is to find a position in which you can practice kicking on your side and “show me no evidence of struggle or discomfort.”

 

First I want to see no craning of the neck. Second, I want to see the body line neutral or horizontal. Third thing I look for is to see a long, clean line. To heighten awareness of this I ask the swimmers to try to move through the smallest possible “hole” in the water. Fourth, the arm lying on his side should be dry from his shoulder to the knuckles. Another key thing I look for, that you can observe as Mike performs this drill, is that the arm can lie so gently on the side that his hand moves back and forth gently with hip action as he kicks. There’s no evidence of tension whatsoever. And finally, I look at the swimmer’s face. It should look relaxed. When I’m teaching this drill, I even tell the swimmers we’ll keep practicing until they “show me bliss.”

 

So the Sweet Spot Mike shows here is different from mine, which is different from Jeff’s, which is different from Kris Kirchner, who’s sitting out there. If Kris was coaching a woman who was 5 foot 6 inches and not as lean as him, he would need to teach her a different side-balance position than the one he would likely use to practice side kicking. Kris would be more on his back; she could probably be nearly on her side.

 

What’s critical about getting this right is that it’s integral to every long-axis drill. You’ll start and finish every Long Axis drill, at least as we teach it, in the Sweet Spot. If, on the other hand, your swimmers practice their Long Axis drills from  a 90-degree side-balance position, many of them will also “practice struggle” as they practice their drills. If you want to be smooth, controlled and fluent throughout the entire drill process, get this position right and don’t progress to the next step until you can do this with both arms at your sides.

 

Here’s Glenn doing the same exercise with his FistGloves on. Here’s Jeff Utsch doing it. With every swimmer we see the same thing they’re hiding the head, they’re “showing” the top arm; it’s dry all the way from shoulder to hand if it’s not dry, they’re not in their Sweet Spot. In most cases, when I see water covering part of the arm toward the elbow, they’re too close to 90 degrees and their balance improves as soon as I get them to roll a bit more onto the back. This is one of those things where I say “A drill done 99% right is 100% WRONG.” You could be five degrees short of being in your Sweet Spot and it won’t feel right at all. Roll just a bit more on your back and it will feel 100% better.

 

Once the swimmers have learned to be effortlessly balanced in their Sweet Spot, we teach them to rotate, as you see here, from nose up to nose down. The key difference is that when the swimmer swivels the head to look directly at the bottom, rather than looking up, is that everyone will be at 90 degrees when they go nose down. After we teach the nose-up position, we teach nose-down, and then we teach them to go back and forth freely and readily from nose-up to nose-down and from Sweet Spot to 90 degrees. This movement will be integral to every freestyle drill that follow this in Long Axis and will also be included in the Long Axis combo drills. We teach them to do it first with the arms at the sides. All balance drills are mastered in the Head Lead position first because most swimmers have a history of using the arms to correct balance, so we want them to learn an “untainted” form of balance first before extending either arm.

 

Here are examples of three swimmers who are not in their Sweet Spot and these clips make quite graphic what you as the coach will need to look for and correct. Do you see the head craned? Do you see the arm covered with water? Most coaches, at this point, would be satisfied: “You’re kicking on your side; that’s a good thing to practice.” But if you’re like these swimmers are, not in your Sweet Spot, you’ll be practicing inefficiency.

 

After we teach that, then we introduce the first thing that   is quite similar to backstroke. This is active balance in the nose-up position. Simply kick a short distance in your Sweet Spot on one side, then roll to your Sweet Spot on the other side, while continuing to look up. This is an 8-year old girl doing it in this clip. You can see she keeps her head hidden and fixed, shows us her arm on side, then rolls and immediately shows us the whole arm on the other side.

 

This clip is a 13-year old girl who I videotaped doing this  a year ago. This past spring, she won the 1650 at Junior Nationals West on very modest training yardage. She was taught Fishlike Swimming quite thoroughly as an age grouper by Derigan Silver and show now swims for Ira Klein  at Santa Barbara Swim Club. You can see how completely fluent her movements are because she was taught to make fluency a habit.

 

This clip is the 8-year old again, demonstrating Active Balance, looking down. You start in your Sweet Spot, look down, pause, then roll your body like a log until you are in your Sweet Spot on the other side. Rolling like a Log means everything moves as a unit and you stay perfectly horizontal as you roll. This is how we start to introduce the idea of moving the body in a coordinated fashion. I don’t want to see it move in segments, nor see the head initiate the rotation. If anything, the hips should move first.

 

This is another example of using a well-designed drill to teach a universal principle of excellent body mechanics, which will be applied to swimming propulsion later in the process. Here’s another young lady doing the same drill. With each swimmer, we see the same sequence: Start in your Sweet Spot. Look down and go to 90 degrees as you do. Then roll everything as a unit and go directly to your Sweet Spot on the other side without any hesitation.

 

This next clip is of Active Balance Full Circle. It combines the previous two drills and it’s important because your ability maintain alignment and control is heightened when you ask the swimmer to go through a full 360 degrees of rotation. Here’s the 8-year old girl again. That’s extraordinary movement quality and control for an 8-year old and she’s successful at this because we’ve brought her to this point by leading her by increments through a series of simpler drills and staying with each until she has fully mastered it. By the time she gets to this point, this rather advanced drill is easy for her. It’s rare to see this kind of fluency in an 8-year old because they are too often asked to do things for which they do not yet have the necessary coordination.

And we see a series of other swimmers showing how this drill should be done. This girl, as you can see, is exquisitely graceful and flowing in everything she does. But she didn’t start out that way. She learned because her coach, Derigan Silver, was a committed teacher. (Comment from audience). Yes, this is simply rolling in a complete circle, but the key difference is pausing at each Sweet Spot, so you can get the movements under control and keep everything coordinated. We allow time in all the drills for some mental reflection on how you just did the preceding part and to plan how to do the next part. As the drills become “no-brainers,” you can reduce the pauses.

 

Now after, teaching fluency in all the Head-Lead positions, we finally introduce Hand-Lead balance. We start the swimmer in their Sweet Spot and, once they’re balanced, instruct them to just “sneak” the bottom arm overhead until their body line is fully extended from fingertips to toes. Once they have the arm extended, I just tell them to check the gap between the back of their head and their shoulder and to make that gap as narrow as they can without feeling any tension. They should already be demonstrating the key aspects of “Hide Your Head” and “Show Us your Arm,” they should already be in their best balance position, so there’s nothing new to learn here. Just lengthen the body line. Once you’ve found your Sweet Spot in the Head Lead position, it remains your Sweet Spot for everything you do.

 

Everything we did in Head-Lead, we repeat in the Hand-Lead position. So the next drill is Hand-Lead Sweet Spot, swiveling from nose-up to nose-down. What mainly changes as you go from Head to Hand lead is you’re starting to understand how balance will feel when you swim. In Head-Lead, you learn quickly how head position can influence balance because without an arm in front to correct or stabilize, your body reacts instantly and sharply to a change in head position, so you learn quickly what you need to learn to balance well. But once you’ve learned those lessons, you should rehearse balance as it will feel when you swim. So we tell them as they practice this: “when you swim, you want your balance to feel the same way it does here.”

 

As we practice nose-up, nose-down in Hand-Lead we want mastery of the same skills as we had in Head Lead. Hide your Head and Show your Arm in both positions. Move readily from Sweet Spot and nose-up to 90-degrees and nose-down.. Feel your sense of “Going Downhill” become slightly heightened in the nose-down position.

 

In this clip, we see an underwater view of Jeff doing this drill. Do you recall the position in which I showed Joao at the beginning of this video, which I described as the most slippery position in which you can swim freestyle? Here we see that Jeff is showing exactly the same position and we’ve progressed to it naturally through a series of drills. It’s much easier to learn and understand this position quickly when learning it through a series of drills than by trying to “tweak” your stroke. We teach every swimmer that position before they swim; by the time they get to swim, they know that position, they’re comfortable in that position.

 

I coached the sprinters at West Point for the last three seasons. In that time we didn’t do a single pool length with a kickboard. When the freestylers did any kicking, they did it like this, probably spending a bit more time looking at the bottom than at the ceiling. The backstrokers did it in the nose-up position. Essentially the same balance position for both, but the freestylers spent more time nose-down. Why? Because doing flutter-kicking on a board doesn’t teach you anything you will use while swimming. As soon as they start offering races which involve holding a kickboard and racing up and down the pool, then it will be more worthwhile to train for it. But as long as we’re going to swim on our side, then we should spend the precious practice time we may devote to kicking exercises, also teaching your bodies valuable balance lessons.

 

Once again, look at Mike’s hand. It’s relaxed and moving lightly with his hip. We keep looking for the same visual cues in all drills. Here’s an 8-year old doing the same thing but now we’ve made it a bit more difficult. We call this one Shark Fin and it’s not a drill that we consider critical to the learning process, but we use this as a test of your side balance. If your balance is good, you can swivel to the nose-down position, then slide the hand up to the armpit, so the elbow is pointing straight up as you see her do here, and then you can just kick in this position almost indefinitely with no loss of balance. There might be an inch or so of deflection when your arm reaches the Shark Fin position, but if your balance is good, your foundation is good, that will be all. If your balance is poor, as soon as that arm starts to come up, you’ll sink under water.

 

What we’re looking for in this drill again is relaxation and control, lack or tension, lack of inhibition, the ability to be in a more challenging position and still maintain good balance. Look how relaxed her hand remains as she slides it into the Shark Fin position. That’s a good sign.

 

The next drill is Stop-Stop-Switch. When we teach our weekend workshops, there are a couple of intermediate steps which this video does not show, but this drill will encapsulate everything we have taught to this point. You start in Sweet Spot, then swivel to 90 degrees and nose-down. Pause a moment there, then begin recovery. Just as your hand passes your head, you slice it in and switch directly to your Sweet Spot on the other side. Through this drill, we’re introducing the swimmer to the idea of Front Quadrant Swimming. We do that by rehearsing what we call the “archer position” the same position your hands and arms would be in if you drew back the bow to shoot an arrow.

 

As they do the drill, we first check that they are making the switch in the archer position. Then, as they make the switch, we want to see that they roll the body like a log. And finally that they finish the switch right in the Sweet Spot. Pause there, relax, reflect on how you executed, then swivel the head down and prepare to do it again.

 

This is the first place in the drill process where we’re linking the propelling movements to the action of the core-body. In previous drills, we’ve already taught the action of the Kinetic Chain. This drill gives us a simple way to link the propelling arm stroke to the rhythmic rotation of the core body. What’s powering the stroke now is not the arm doing this (demonstrates pulling action with one arm), but of anchoring the hand and using powerful body roll to move past your anchoring point.

 

In this clip, you see Glenn demonstrating the drill with Fistgloves on. We teach the drill most often with gloves on to take away the option of trying to muscle the water with the pull. Wearing the Fistgloves, Glenn doesn’t have much to hold onto, so he has to be patient and wait for his hand  to achieve purchase. Even though he’s wearing a glove, you can see there’s no slippage here. As he makes the switch, you can see him really move past where his hand was anchored. But it’s the rotation of the body, not an arm pull, that propels him past that spot. If you can learn to do that you have a truly effortless source of propulsive power.

 

This next clip shows where we begin to transform drilling into swimming. We just add two more switches to each cycle, moving from Stop-Stop-Switch to Triple Switch and within the three switches, you can see it has become swimming, not drilling. If you count the number of steps we have used, you’ll see that it took 11 steps to go from not swimming well at all to swimming with great fluency and efficiency. The streamlining of the learning process is what allows us to take people a long way on the learning curve in just one day.

 

Here’s the 8-year old practicing the Triple Switch. She starts in her Sweet Spot, swivels to look down, pauses for a moment, then does three perfectly timed “Front Quadrant” switches before finishing in her Sweet Spot on the other side. Here’s Glenn showing the next step. All he does is replace the Sweet Spot with rhythmic breathing and he’s swimming in a very Fishlike manner.

 

Now here’s our version of Single Arm freestyle. What’s different from the conventional form of Single Arm is that we start and finish each cycle in the Sweet Spot. All the things we did in the other drills, we also do in Single Arm. Start in Sweet Spot, look down, go to 90 degrees, anchor your hand, then roll past the spot and return to your Sweet Spot. Breathe, make sure you’re balanced and do it again.

 

What we’re trying to establish is the same thread and the same key skills stay consistent in everything we do. That consistency makes it so much easier for the coach when teaching and for the student when learning because your starting point and steps to mastery for everything you do is the same.

 

That completes the freestyle thread for this sequence. The backstroke thread is also simple because we’re not trying to teach a million things. We’re just trying to teach them to do two or three things really well. This position is your Sweet Spot Hand Lead. An active balance version of that drill is what other people call 6-kick Backstroke. What people usually do in that drill is Count Kicks “1-2-3-4-5-6-Roll 1-2-34-5-6-Roll, etc.” And I’m telling the swimmer, “I don’t care how many kicks you take; what difference does that make? What I care about is seeing you get into your best balance position, then roll directly to your best balance position on the other side. You’re effortlessly horizontal there, you’re in a clean line, you’ve got your head hidden and aligned with your spine and after whatever interval you feel comfortable with roll to the other side.” I don’t want them to roll to the other side until they can do it fluently, do it with control and maintain constant balance as they do. That’s when you go and I don’t care how many kicks you take. Once your skills are better, you’ll be able to do this with briefer intervals and fewer kicks between rotations, but you can’t dictate to the swimmer how long that pause on the side should be.

 

The other way this drill is simply an exercise in counting kicks. This way it’s an exercise in fluent, beautifully balanced, efficient backstroke.

 

Here’s our version of Single Arm Backstroke which is not dissimilar from the way other people teach it, except that we have our continuing emphasis on hiding your head, and showing one arm, then the other on each rotation. Because what we’re really working on is moving the core body like this and once we can rotate in a balanced fashion, then we link a propelling arm stroke to it. Here’s an alternating version of the single arm, in which there’s one cycle of regular backstroke. We’re not asking the swimmer to concentrate at all on the catch, the “S-stroke” the up-down-up. They’re not unimportant, but the body balance and coordination must be mastered first, so that is all we call their attention to in these drills.

 

This next clip shows the first of the Long-Axis combinations where we start to reinforce and heighten the skills learned in freestyle-centered drills and backstroke-centered drills. The first of these is a combination of balance and rotation drills from both free and back. Here’s Glenn in his Sweet Spot. Then he looks down. Does a Stop-Stop-Switch and balances in his Sweet Spot on the other side. Then he returns to his starting position with a Backstroke Slide and Glide roll. He’ll alternate a couple of cycles of Stop-Stop-Switch freestyle with a couple of cycles of Slide and Glide backstroke, then return to the freestyle drill.

 

We’re combining a drill we taught in freestyle with a related drill in backstroke and increasing your kinesthetic awareness and fluency in both by forcing you to go through 360 degrees of rotation. I’m looking for as many ways as I can to link the skills I taught in free with the skills I taught in back so I’m using each stroke to increase the efficiency of the other.

 

The next drill is the Whole-Stroke combo. We swim four strokes of backstroke, then staying “tall” (i.e. keeping the lead hand in the Front Quadrant) as we switch, do a Triple-Switch freestyle. On the third stroke, again staying “tall,” return to four strokes of backstroke. The reason why we do a 7-stroke back-free sequence is to make sure that with each cycle, the swimmer has to change the direction of their rotation. These LA Combo drills work particularly well in a 50-meter pool because you can string together many cycles of combinations without having a wall interrupt you. But we do practice them with great frequency in a 25-yard pool also.

 

And the last Long Axis drill is the LA Single Arm combo. Take two strokes of Single Arm backstroke, then with the same arm do two strokes of Single Arm free, then roll to the back again for two strokes of Single Arm back. The sequence repeats the same key movements from all our other Long Axis drills. After the second backstroke stroke, balance in Sweet Spot, swivel to the nose down position, anchor the leading hand and begin the freestyle cycles. At the end of the freestyle cycles, slide the arm out, anchor the hand again and roll back to your backstroke position. And this drill completes the Long Axis cycle.

 

On to Short Axis skills. You’ll see many of the same things in this video that you would have seen Jenny Thompson doing on Richard Quick’s “home video” of her butterfly drills in his presentation yesterday. You’ll just see a spectrum of less accomplished swimmers doing the drills on our video. In that they’re probably more typical of the swimmers you would be teaching to do these drills and skills. And we start with a very similar sequence. As I said yesterday, the sequence that we teach for all strokes is the same. Balance first, then we’re teaching rhythmic rotation. Then we teach the slippery body positions for that stroke or axis. And finally we teach how to link the propelling arm stroke and/or kick to the already established action of the core body.

 

So we start with Head-Lead Body Dolphins. This is Joao, the 10-year old Portuguese boy, demonstrating it. We teach this and all of the basic Short Axis drills without breathing first. All the things that Richard talked about yesterday having the head lead the body through the cycles — we establish that and make it effortless and rhythmic first. Once we have that imprinted, then we’ll teach the swimmer to fit in the breath. We work on refinement without the interruption of breathing. Here’s an example: too much amplitude in the pulses; they look more like piking. So we first have to teach this swimmer to control the optimal amplitude to make their pulsing and rhythmic. We teach them to keep the head in better alignment with the body. Move it a bit more subtly, don’t let it be moving independently of the body. And feel every pulse, driving the crown of the head or your nose toward the far end of the pool. If you pulse the nose toward the bottom of the pool, you turn pulsing into piking and there’s no length to the wave.

 

To teach the swimmer not to pike, rather to ripple down the pool, we watch the back of the head as they’re learning. When they do this right, we’ll see the head dip just an inch or so under the water. On this clip, we can see a higher level of refinement. Watching this girl you can see the quality of her pulsing is a bit better and you can also see her head just barely dips below the surface with each pulse. This is a key action because the pulsing is an up-and-down action. What converts that into linear movement is the direction of the head. Keeping the head from going too deep channels that energy forward. So your swimmer needs to learn to control and direct head movement during non-breathing pulses before trying to introduce the breath.

 

In this clip we see Glenn doing it with Slim Fins on. He’s not using the fins because he has to but to demonstrate that it’s not only okay, it’s advisable to wear fins when you practice these drills for the first time. The fins are incredibly useful for amplifying “signals” from the core-body movement so the legs really understand what to do.

 

This clip shows the swimmer integrating rhythmic breathing into the movement for the first time. Richard Quick made the point yesterday that you shouldn’t try to hide your breathing errors by taking fewer breaths. You need oxygen to swim fast. So it’s critical that you teach proper breathing mechanics very early in Short-Axis skill development. The secret to making the learning process simple and successful is don’t teach breathing skills in whole-stroke. Teach them as part of the simplest drills and keep them integral to every subsequent skill-building step.

 

You can see Jessica, who is a quite-average 13-year old demonstrating what we call a “Sneaky Breath.” She breathes within the rhythm of her Short-Axis pulsing and keeps her head very close to neutral as she does. She’s actually looking down slightly as she takes the breath. She never juts her chin as she takes the breath and her head returns smoothly to the perfectly neutral position immediately after the breath. She fits it in very seamlessly to her short-axis pulsing with no interruption of her rhythm.

 

This is one of the most critical skills of both breaststroke and butterfly. There’s no point in moving beyond this drill until the swimmer learns complete mastery of the seamless “Sneaky Breath.” If you let them swim breast or fly without having mastered the breathing mechanics here, they’ll never swim as well as they could. If you haven’t mastered this first, all you’ll do is practice struggle.

 

When we are first teaching the Sneaky Breath, we only have them breathe every six to eight pulses because it takes them that much time to reflect on how they did on the last breath and plan how they can do it better the next time. As their breathing becomes more coordinated, then we gradually increase the frequency to taking a breath every four or five pulses, then every two or three pulses and finally they can fit in a seamless Sneaky Breath every one or two pulses. But we don’t have them breathe frequently until they can breathe in-frequently and do it well.

 

As we move to Hand-Lead instruction and practice, we’re going to go through the same process again. In the first clip we see Joao and what we are looking for initially is very simple. When we did Head-Lead, I want to see every pulse drive the crown of your head toward the end of the pool. As we shift to Hand Lead, I’m looking for each pulse to drive the fingertips toward the far end of the pool. What you can notice here is that Joao’s arms are at shoulder width. Just through teaching we found that most swimmers found it far easier to keep the hands moving forward as they pulse if they did not have them. When they held their arms in a streamline position, it was harder to disengage the shoulders and free the arms to channel momentum forward. So we always initiate instruction by practicing this drill with arms extended at shoulder width. The push off that Pankratov used in setting the world record in 200 Fly was the same position as this.   I imagine he discovered that the increased freedom of his body to generate momentum compensated for the loss of streamlining. And he probably used his hands a little bit in sculling — to assist the action.

 

Once again, we won’t introduce breathing in this exercise until we see them channeling the momentum forward through the hands and arms. As we introduce the breathing we are looking to see the “Sneaky Breath” performed in the same way as it was in the Head Lead Body Dolphin. We start with less frequent breathing and gradually increase the frequency.

 

The next drill is the one where we teach the skill of anchoring the hands that Richard Quick described as critical to Jenny Thompson’s butterfly. We call this drill “Sliding to the Corners.” In this clip we can see Glenn demonstrating it. Pulse…Pulse…Slide to the corners….then release back to the center.

 

We showed some clips of incorrect execution to help coaches anticipate what kind of errors will commonly show up as you’re teaching and to give them a guide on how to correct them. This clip shows a girl who doesn’t quite have the timing right and the voiceover explains how she should correct it.

 

The principles in teaching this drill and fitting it into the stroke development process are the same as with previous drills. First is that we use the drill to teach a key skill that should be employed in whole stroke. In this case, it’s anchoring the hands in front and linking the short-axis rotation to the initiation of the stroke. We want that skill to be learned before they begin swimming whole-stroke. Second we do this movement with less frequency when we begin teaching going to the corners every six to eight pulses. And as their skill improves, we slide the corners and anchor with greater frequency eventually doing it every one or two pulses.

 

The next drill is the first that is Butterfly-specific, not just a foundation skill for both Short Axis strokes. You would have seen Jenny doing the same drill yesterday on Richard’s video. We call it Stone skipper and this is an 8-year old girl from New Paltz demonstrating it. Pulse twice in a Hand-Lead position. Then take a Butterfly arm stroke (and leave your arms in back) and pulse twice in a Head-Lead position.

 

One of the things that Richard said about Jenny’s training yesterday is that Jenny never swims more than 50-meters of straight whole-stroke Butterfly and most of her butterfly training is done in the diving well in 20-yard lengths. The reason? She holds better Butterfly stroke quality training shorter repeats. He didn’t say this specifically, but what he’s alluding to is that he doesn’t want her to swim a single stroke of “Butter-struggle” not ever. He wants her nervous system to only know one way the most efficient way to move through the water. What these drills do is allow you the means to have any swimmer a novice 8-year old, an older Masters swimmer with limited range of motion and flexibility, a swimmer who has never swum butterfly to experience butterfly-like movement, to expose their body to how butterfly should feel when swim right, without ever exposing them to Butter-struggle.

 

The sequence for Stone skipper is: two Hand-Lead pulses, a stroke with a Sneaky Breath, then right into two Head-Lead pulses and then sneak the hands forward underwater and return to two Hand-Lead pulses. You never interrupt the core-body pulsing rhythm. In previous drills, you’ve already mastered Head Lead pulses, you’ve already mastered Sneaky Breath and Hand-Lead pulses. All you do in this drill is link them together with a stroke of fly.

 

Again the same teaching principle applies. When we first teach this, we teach it without breathing. We don’t put the breath in until they show us the coordination to maintain unbroken rhythmic movement through several cycles. We’re going very short repeats usually cross-pool until they learn to move the body fluently that way. When we finally add the breath in, I’m telling them I want to see your head move right through the action and within the line of the body as you take that stroke. I don’t want to see your chin jut out. I don’t want to see your head get stuck in the up position. I don’t want to see your rhythm interrupted. If they can learn to do that within this drill, they can learn to do what Richard advocated in his talk to breathe every stroke with no loss of efficiency. This drill allows you to learn that in a simple fashion.

 

The only other instruction I need to give during this drill is to breathe as early as possible in the movement. If they breathe early, it’s much easier to keep the head moving smoothly through the breath and return immediately to a neutral position. Here’s a slow motion clip of the breath and you can see that it’s a Sneaky Breath looking down at the water as she breathes. We don’t go any further until the swimmers master it. It’s so much easier to master it here and later put it into the whole-stroke naturally.

 

The next drill is Body Dolphin Butterfly and this is the first place we finally put in the recovery action. You can follow the action on this clip: A couple of Hand-Lead pulses and then the stroke we just learned in Stone skipper, then right into the recovery. A couple of more Hand-Lead pulses and then repeat. We call it Body Dolphin Butterfly because we’re patterning the body to go through relaxed, rhythmic Short-Axis rotation and then every few pulses we put in a stroke.

 

And how frequently do we put in a stroke. Same teaching principle as previous drills. Less frequency in the beginning stroke every 5 or 6 pulses and increase the frequency to a stroke every 2 to 3 pulses as their skill improves. While learning the drill and the skills it is teaching, the swimmers need time between strokes to think about how they are going to take them. The extra pulses give them time for that.

 

This drill is also where we begin to teach the most efficient recovery, including all the things Richard talked about teaching to Jenny. The arms sweeping the water, not climbing up and fighting gravity. The arms landing forward, not hammering down into the water. And it’s so easy in this drill to make every recovery just right so it moves the energy forward and lengthens the body line, to increase the travel or the distance per stroke.

 

When we finally go whole-stroke, it’s only three strokes at a time, and consistent with all the drills we’ve done without breathing at first. We call it EZ Fly. Just take three relaxed, smooth strokes, then do a drill the rest of the length. When you can swim three fluid strokes, then go four. When you do four well, then increase to five strokes. But only increase at the rate you can stay fluid and avoid doing any strokes of Butter-struggle.

 

Once they can do six smooth, relaxed strokes, we begin to add breathing. At first we have them breathe only once in six cycles. Then they take two. And so on, increasing incrementally until they can breathe smoothly on every cycle.

 

(Glenn Mills takes over to describe the breaststroke-centered drills.) The first drill is designed to automatically correct the two most common errors in breaststroke. One is pulling two far back; the other is stopping the hands under the chin, rather than completing the stroke with the arms returned to the fully extended position. In order to maintain this Heads-Up position in breast pulling, you must quickly move the hands back to the extended position.

 

We’re teaching the idea of fast hands in this drill and we’ll maintain that quick stroke throughout the rest of the drills. On the next drill, Body Dolphin Breast, we reintroduce the core-body rotation and do several pulses between breast pulls. We introduce this as we did with butterfly, starting with five or six pulses between pulls and increase the frequency gradually. The pulses are gentle and fluent, but the hands are fast every time they come to a pull.

 

It’s important that with the aggression we’ve taught in the pull that when the swimmer returns to pulsing that they go forward and not dive down. Maintaining an energy-forward stroke is just as important in breaststroke as it was in butterfly. The same skills of head position and integration with body movement that we taught in our basic Short Axis drills and maintaining in butterfly are also being applied in breaststroke.

 

The next sequence is Two Up, One Down, followed by One Up, One Down, followed by One Up, Two Down. The first step teaches the swimmer to integrate the fast hands taught in Heads-Up Pulling with regular swimming. One Up, One Down is actually breaststroke swimming, but done with a lot of thought and awareness, particularly of the “thread the needle” position during the glide, slightly under water, in each stroke.

 

Before doing One Up, Two Down, we teach underwater kicking, as shown here. This teaches the swimmer to really streamline the body and to experiment with how wide the knees and feet should be to maximize the leverage of the kick. And this prepares them to squeeze off two very effective kicks and to really thread the needle following each of those kicks in One Up, Two Down. This is one of my favorite drills because you can really plan while you’re underwater taking those two kicks to explode through the surface, take a Sneaky Breath, then to re-enter at the right angle so you get the feeling of maximizing the distance of each cycle.

 

The main idea we’re trying to get across with the precise selection and sequencing of the drills on these videos is that drills should not be done haphazardly. If you do them in a logical and incremental progression, they will help the swimmer make extraordinary progress in their skills. When each drill leads logically to the next, they accomplish way more than when they’re just thrown out there in no particular order.

 

Terry’s going to fast-forward so we can show you several of the Short Axis combos in the time we have left, but the main idea of EZ Breast is to start with limited hand movement, a very small pull, but to establish the steady Short-Axis core rhythm and learn to fit the breast pull and kick to that rhythm. The core body rhythm, not the rhythm or timing of the pull, should drive the rhythm and timing of the stroke.

 

The idea of the Short-Axis Combo Drills is to take what we learned in breast, what we learned in fly and combine them to heighten the skills of both. The first is a Body-Dolphin Combo. You do a couple of cycles of Hand-Lead Body Dolphin, then one cycle of Breast, a couple more cycles of Hand-Lead Body Dolphin, then a cycle of Fly. The idea is to imprint and reinforce that Short-Axis rotation is the essential movement of both strokes.

 

This clip shows the Whole-Stroke Short Axis Combo. You swim two cycles of butterfly, then two cycles of breaststroke, then back to two cycles of butterfly and so on. This is one great way in which you can have a swimmer practice swimming some distance butterfly without degenerating into Butter-struggle. The cycles of breaststroke give the swimmer a chance to recover a bit, then return to fly feeling better. In this drill each stroke also reinforces something valuable in the other. The breaststroke cycles imprint a feeling of stroke length that you can carry over to the butterfly cycles. The butterfly cycles imprint a feeling of undulation that reinforces the idea of Short-Axis rotation on the breaststroke cycles. We alternate between starting one length with fly cycles and starting the next length with breast cycles.

 

We’re out of time now. Thanks for coming and you can get detailed information on both the videos we showed today and place a secure order at www.totalimmersion.net.

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news