Coaching Novice Swimmers Freestyle & Backstroke


By Pete Malone, Head Coach; Mike Lewellyn, Head Age Group Coach; and Mary Lane Kamberg, Novice and Age Group Coach.

Peter Malone earned a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and Financial Management. He was awarded a Business Education Certificate from the University of Toledo, and was a licensed teacher in Ohio from 1972-1975. From 1975 to the present, Peter Malone has been the General Manager and Head Coach of the Kansas City Blazer Swim Team. He is also the Chief Aquatics Administrator at Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

From 1968-1974, Mr. Malone was the Head Coach of the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club. There he also established and managed the US Diving Program. He was also the assistant High School Coach at Toledo St. Francis DeSale, from 1968-1972. Some of his professional achievements include being the coach of Olympic Gold Medalist Janie Wagstaff in 1992. Janie won 100m and 200m backstroke, and the 400m medley relay. Janie also holds the American Record, in the 100m backstroke. In addition, Mr. Malone was the coach of Mark Dean, who was a member of the 1988 Olympic Team and the 1991 Pan American Team, where he won a Gold Medal in the 200m Butterfly.

Furthermore, he coached Catherine Fox, a member of the 1996 USA Olympic Team, and a 1995 Pan American Games medalist. Coach Malone has received a number of personal honors and awards. He has been the Region VIII Coach of the Year in 1988-1995. He was the Missouri Valley Coach of the Year from 1986-1994. He was awarded with the American Swim Coaches Association Gold Award for coaching Excellence for 20 years of placing swimmers in Top 8 at Nationals.

He has earned and held positions on the US International Coaches List (1977-Present). He was on the Board of Directors for United States Swimming Inc., from 1982-1986 and 1991-1995. He is on the American Swimming Coaches Association Board of Directors, (1991-1994) and (1995-1998). In addition, he is on the executive Committee of ASCA Board 1995-1996. He was an Olympic International Division Member (1984-1996). He was the Head U.S.A. Women’s Coach for the short-course World Championships, in 1993. Coach Malone, has been a speaker at a number of World Coaches Clinics, and has conducted workshops on goal setting and value of time management.

S.U.P.E.R. Coaches

Teaching novice swimmers can be one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching. Novice coaches get to work with swimmers in the early stage of their swimming careers, a time when they experience the greatest improvements in skills and performance in the shortest length of time. It’s not unusual to witness feats such as a 30-second drop in a 50-yard freestyle, the first 25 breaststroke without a DQ, or the first time the swimmer is brave enough to dive off a starting block. Victories such as these “hook” novices into a lifetime sport that can improve their health and give them the kinds of lessons that competitive athletics teach.

As a novice coach, you have a number of responsibilities beyond water skills. You are the swimmer’s introduction to your team’s program. So along with the finer points of the backstroke flip turn, you must also teach them your expectations on the deck, from behavior during stretches and exercises to your overall program philosophy. The Kansas City Blazers have made a commitment to excellence, and that concept is introduced at the novice level and continued through the Age Group and Senior programs.

Sound like a challenge? It is. But here are five tips you can use to become a S.U.P.E.R. Novice Coach.

S: Show and Tell

Children learn in different ways, so tell them what you want them to do, but show them, too. Use big gestures while you speak about a skill. Use demonstration, too. You can use demonstrators two ways: one demonstrator swims while the whole group watches, or pull out just one or two swimmers and have them watch someone who is doing the skill correctly and/or doing the skill the same “wrong” way as they are. At first, ask more experienced swimmers to perform the skill (the closer the demonstrator is to the age of the novice, the better. This promotes an “I can do this” attitude). As the season progresses, ask swimmers in your novice group to demonstrate skills they are doing correctly.

U: Useful Information

Use words children understand. Then explain the skill using different words. Assume nothing, especially with younger swimmers. One coach spent weeks trying to get a particular novice to circle the correct direction in the lane.

At each practice, we have odd lanes and even lanes alternate between clockwise and counterclockwise. The direction is announced with the warm-up set, “Odd lanes are clockwise;” etc.

The coach explained clockwise and counterclockwise to the swimmer every day, even getting her out of the pool for a close-up lesson watching the hand on the pace clock. Every day the swimmer nodded understanding, but got in the pool and went the wrong way. Finally, after weeks of frustration, the coach said, “You tell me you understand clockwise and counterclockwise, but you always go the wrong way. I don’t know what to do.” The swimmer, just as frustrated as the coach, said, “I do understand clockwise and counterclockwise. I don’t understand odd and even lanes.”

P: Praise

Surely even your least skilled novice can do SOMETHING right. Find it and praise it. Maybe he has a great flutter kick, can hold his breath forever, does a great streamline. Praise is especially important when correcting a skill. Try to sandwich the correction between two “good” comments. Say something like, “You’ve got a great kick, but you stop kicking when you turn your head to breathe. If you concentrate on kicking when you breathe, you’ll go even faster.”

E: Enthusiasm

Novices must enjoy the sport. If they don’t have fun, they’ll go try tennis or baseball. You need discipline, of course, but novice coaches must project a sense of fun into practice sessions. Remember your enthusiasm for your swimmers’ ability and progress is what encourages them to continue in your program.

R: Repetition

Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. And tell them you told them. Create “mantras” like “when your hand goes in, your shoulder rolls up” or “every flip turn is a sit up.” Remember to say the same thing in different ways, too. Repetition can also be accomplished by asking questions, “What does your shoulder do when the opposite hand enters the water?” Choose two or three different children to answer the same question. This technique is especially helpful for children with short attention spans. Even if you don’t call on them, they hear you say something. Then they hear their teammates repeat it. Praising correct answers also encourages swimmers to pay better attention so they’ll be prepared with the right answers. Hopefully novice competitive swimmers come to your program with at least basic Learn-To-Swim skills. At the Kansas City Blazers, we require that a swimmer be able to swim 25 yards crawl to enter our program. (We do not count underwater swimming, dog paddle, or survival techniques. We recommend additional Learn-To-Swim lessons for those applicants.) Even so, the ability to negotiate one length of our practice pool still leaves an infinite number of skills you must teach.

When our novice coaches approach new swimmers, they assume the child knows nothing. So, from the ground up, here are some of the ways we coach novices in freestyle and backstroke skills.


The biggest obstacle for novices working on freestyle is their unquenchable desire for oxygen. They’ll do ANYTHING to get it. Your mission – should you decide to accept it – is to get them to stop thinking about breathing long enough to work on whatever skill you’re teaching. That’s why we begin with the kick.

The Kick

  1. With Kickboard – Most novices used kickboards in Learn-To-Swim lessons, so the kickboard is a helpful transition to competitive swimming. After brief safety information (don’t throw the kickboard, hit anyone with it, or throw it into the water and try to jump on it like a surfboard), show them the way you want them to hold the board. Keeping in mind the novice’s addiction to oxygen, we like to have them keep their heads up out of the water with elbows straight. They should hold the board with both hands at the top. (This is different from the way most swimming instructors use the kickboard, so here you are on the first day and they’ve already learned something new!)

    Talk about keeping the hips near the surface. Encourage a shallow, fast kick instead of a deep, slow one. The heel should just break the surface. (Kicking air does not contribute forward motion.) Be sure they kick both up and down and keep their ankles loose. Natural breaststrokers have a tough time with flutter kick, because their feet turn out, often without the swimmer realizing it. They also often use a bicycle pedal technique you should discourage. Tell these swimmers to pigeon toe. Show an exaggerated pigeon toe and have the swimmer stand with you on deck with knees and toes pointed in. Using fins for drills and some kicking sometimes helps these swimmers.

  2. Kick on the Side – Try this on the deck first. Have swimmers lie on their sides with the “deep” arm straight above the head. The head uses the shoulder for a “pillow.” The “surface” arm is straight and rests on the swimmer’s side with the hand on the side of the thigh. Have the swimmers kick back and forth sideways and explain (five times) that they are on their sides so there should be no splash. Finally_here’s the part they like_their faces should be in the air SO THEY CAN BREATHE ANYTIME!

    Have them swim a whole length on one side, then switch sides for the other length. Correct anyone who paddles with the deep arm or who doesn’t leave the “surface” arm straight and still. The most important part of this skill is head position. Emphasize the idea of the shoulder as a pillow with the ear on the arm. If they can’t keep their faces in the air, have them roll more toward the back rather than lift the head. Be sure they are kicking both back and forth and that the kick is shallow and quick, rather than big and slow.

  3. Kick with Streamline – On the deck demonstrate streamline position and have the swimmers try it. Have them put one hand on top of the other, keep elbows straight, and hug their ears. A streamline position stretch and vertical jumps during warm-up exercises reinforce this skill. Say, “streamline off every wall every time” or some other repetitive saying of your own.

    On the deck, use one swimmer as a model to demonstrate the effect of resistance on open arms and how smoothly water goes around the pointed hull of the boat they create when they streamline. In the water have swimmers push off and glide, holding their breath as long as they can. Be sure they are underwater for this skill. Correct anyone who pulls during the streamline.

    Next have them push off in streamline position and kick as far as they can in one breath, then stop and either walk or swim back.

The Arm Stroke

  1. Deck Work – Swimmers stand on the deck facing the coach. Have them extend one arm straight from the shoulder with the palm down. The thumb rotates up. The swimmer then bends the elbow to a 90 degree angle so the forearm is parallel to the chest and the hand is approximately even with the opposite shoulder. Be sure swimmers leave elbows in place and move only the forearm.

    Now the hand rotates to a palm-down position parallel to the ground. The hand pushes down from the shoulder across to the thigh. Arm stroke ends with elbow straight and palm touching the front of the thigh. After several repetitions, have swimmers float on the stomach in the water and repeat the motion.

  2. Sculling – Teach swimmers how to move their hands in a sculling motion. Have them make “tornadoes.” Then teach the polo scull with head up and flutter kick.

  3. Six-Kicks and 12-Kicks on the Side – Swimmers do the kick-on-the-side drill, but kick only six or 12 times on each side. They take one stroke of freestyle to roll over and kick on the opposite side. This helps teach the arm stroke and breathing. However, younger swimmers may have difficulty “counting” their kicks. Some are in fourth or fifth grade before they are developmentally ready for this drill. (You may just ask them to count to six before they roll over.)


  1. One Arm Only – In one arm drills, the flutter kick is used. Emphasize “long arms,” so swimmers take big strokes instead of short “baby” strokes. Talk about a “pull” and a “push” phase of each stroke (most of them don’t do the “push” part at first). Also introduce the idea of rolling the hip and shoulder up when the opposite hand enters the water and a roll to the other side so they can complete the push all the way back.

    The arm that’s not moving should be at the side during this drill. Correct swimmers who “paddle” with the non-swimming arm. This is a good time to teach breathing by reminding swimmers of the kick-on-the-side drill. Have them breathe on the side of the arm that’s NOT moving just as the hip and shoulder roll up. Watch for the same elements used in the kicking drill: head position with ear on the shoulder and continuous back and forth, fast, shallow kick. When working on breathing with one-arm drills, have swimmers breathe every stroke cycle. Pick out a landmark and tell them to “breathe to the bleachers” or “breathe to the parking lot.” Be sure that after the breath, the opposite hip and shoulder roll up as the swimmer completes the “push” phase of the stroke.

  2. Catch-Up – Swimmers begin with arms in streamline and swim one arm at a time. At the end of one arm stroke, hands return to streamline position and the opposite arm begins a pull. Have them breathe every stroke (on both sides) on the side of the arm that’s moving. Have swimmers breathe every stroke during the “push” part of the stroke, then complete the recovery by streamlining the hands. Emphasize long strokes. A strong kick helps the swimmer balance the stroke.


  1. Thumb on the Side – Add a new dimension to the kick-on-the-side, one arm only and catch-up drills by having swimmers touch the thumb on the thigh at the end of the stroke. The thumb stays in contact with the body all the way to the armpit. Then the swimmer reaches forward for the hand entry. This drill can also be added to full stroke swimming for swimmers who tend to straight-arm the recovery.


Many of the drills and skills you taught for freestyle give swimmers a good foundation for backstroke work. Help swimmers make the connection between freestyle and backstroke so they’ll build on freestyle skills rather than approach backstroke as a completely different stroke.

Body Position

  1. Float – Have swimmers float on the back with arms outstretched in a “T.” They may flutter kick a little to stay afloat, but the idea is to stay in one place. Have them point the chin toward the ceiling so you can see their whole neck. Have them be sure the belly button is on the surface of the water.

  2. Glide and Kick with One Arm in Streamline – The full streamline position on the back is difficult for novices;they often hold their arms in the air with chin tucked in, which makes back flutter kick difficult. Instead, have them streamline on the back with only one arm up. The arm that’s up hugs the ear with a straight elbow, and the hand stays underwater. Novices have more success with this arm position. Be sure they don’t bend their arms and that the hand is underwater. If performed correctly, this position helps maintain the proper body position for the backstroke. Teach the streamline glide and streamline glide with flutter kick. After you’ve taught the butterfly, add dolphin kick on the back to backstroke instruction.

The Kick

  1. Sexy Shoulders – Swimmers float on the back with arms at the side. They flutter kick as the body rolls from side to side, with head still. The shoulders and hips roll all the way to the side and the kick rolls too. Swimmers progressively kick on one side, the back, the other side, the back; etc.

  2. Sexy Shoulders with Hand Lift – Swimmers perform the sexy shoulders drill. When the body is on one side, the swimmer lifts the arm from the shoulder so the arm is in the air at a 45 degree angle to the legs. Repeat on the other side. Swimmers need a good kick to maintain balance necessary for this drill.

  3. Kick on the Side and 6-Kick and 12-Kick Drills – like freestyle kick drills, but on the roll overs, use a stroke of backstroke to rollover, rather than a stroke of freestyle. You may have to teach the difference on the deck so swimmers understand the correct ways to roll.

Arm Stroke

  1. Sculling – Make tornados. Also have swimmers do a double arm stroke (like upside down butterfly).

  2. One Arm Drill – Swimmers backstroke with only one arm. Opposite arm remains at the side. Emphasize shoulder and hip roll when the hand enters the water. Be sure swimmers are rolling both ways, even though only one arm is moving. Demonstrate hand position on entry so swimmers pull deep at the “top” of the stroke.


  1. Right Right/Left Left/Both Both – Have swimmers swim two strokes in a row with each arm (opposite arm at the side), then two full stroke cycles. Explain that when one hand enters the water, the opposite hand is coming out. Correct swimmers who leave one arm at the side until the other arm finishes a stroke.

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