Conducting Focused Practice in Swimming by Rod Havriluk, Swimming Technology Research (2013)


I am just going to go ahead.  I am Rod Havriluk, I am in swimming technology research.  I am a biomechanist; I am not an active swim coach.  I have not coached for many years; I coached for about ten years when I first began my career.  But I have worked as a biomechanist, and I specialize in technique instruction and analysis.  So, I work with swimmers every day, just not in the same kind of role that most swim coaches do.  The goal of my presentation is to present practice strategies that can help swimmers gain better control of their bodies, and in doing so speed-up the learning process.


The type of practice is critical.  In traditional practice, swimmers typically emphasize conditioning; and consequently they get very good at knowing how fast their swimming, knowing about intervals, maintaining whatever effort level the coach specifies, often even knowing their heart rates.  In a deliberate-practice approach, swimmers focus on specific technique elements, and in doing so, that is the way they can better control their bodies and speed-up the learning process.  And now I will use focused- and deliberate-practice, I will use those terms interchangeably; but I will draw a distinction between them in a minute.


What I am going to do is first present the benefits to the coach for incorporating deliberate practice in your normal routines, and then explain why there such a big need for it.  And then I will get into the characteristics of deliberate practice as laid out by Anders Ericsson, who is a renowned psychologist.  Twenty years ago, he published a paper and laid out concepts that are common to performers in all different domains: he has worked with musicians, he has worked with people in the military, in addition to sports.  And he has found that that certain concepts need to be incorporated into the learning process so that the performers can progress to the highest level, typically experts.  And then within each major concept that Ericsson has identified, I am going to present specific learning strategies specific to Swimming.


So, if swimmers are focusing on their technique and they are being more deliberate as far as the skill-learning process, they will progress faster and that is certainly a professional benefit to coaches.  It turns out that many of the technique elements that help a swimmer to go faster also helps to avoid shoulder injury.  So that in making these technique adjustments, a swimmer is likely to avoid injury, and in that manner, you will retain more swimmers, you have a more healthy social environment; and certainly that is a plus to the coach.  And if the first two are happening—if swimmers are progressing faster, if they are avoiding injury, if it is a better social environment—then there ought to be an attraction to the team, so that you gain some new bodies.


As far as the need for deliberate practice, this graph is for freestyle and each data point is the mean for ten swimmers and it shows their active-drag coefficient by age group.  And if you are not familiar with active drag coefficient, it is the overall, best measure of technique effectiveness; and the lower the value, the more effective the technique.  And what you see is that there is a pretty good improvement in technique until swimmers get to be teenagers, and then, not so much.  Very often swimmers fail to improve their technique anymore past when they get to be teenagers.




[audience member]:  Yes, sir, how do you measure that?


[Havriluk]:  Well for this study, it was done with Aquanex, and it is… to give you a very detailed explanation, that takes a while.  But with Aquanex we measure hand force, we also measure the swimming velocity; and when we use that information combined with the body size we can calculate the active-drag coefficient.


Now these are the mean values.  The asterisks [on the graph] show you the swimmers in each group who had the lowest active-drag coefficient.  And you can see the swimmers with the most effective technique are in a whole lot better shape than the average person.  Now although these values of 0.8 are pretty good, I have tested a bunch of swimmers who are even below 0.7.  And when your drag coefficient is that low, you have a decided advantage over the average swimmer.


Let us look at something more basic; in fact, let’s look at the most basic position for competitive swimming: the streamline.  This is the position that is going to minimize resistance.  Now I do a whole lot of clinics and I see a whole lot of swimmers especially from the front view, and they are often in a position close to this, but they are not in a position exactly like this.  Very often the hands are separated, the arms are not against the ears, there might be a body part sticking out at one place or another; but they are not optimizing the position.


Here we have the passive drag coefficient, swimmers tested in the streamline position, and we have had these data points plotted by age.  And these data points are from 9 studies, 32 groups of swimmers.  And you can see that the swimmers continue to improve, the most basic position of competitive swimming, until they are older teens.  Until they are about the age where most swimmers retire.  And to think that swimmers are not benefiting from having the most optimal position that they can—for this basic position in competitive swimming—at an earlier age, is just is really sad to me.


But let us consider this: how many swimmers are focusing on seven cues every time they get into the streamline?  When I run camps and clinics, the first exercise that I have swimmers do is to push-off from the wall and get into a streamline, and then run through this list of cues in their head to make sure they are complying with each one of these cues before they take a stroke of breaststroke.  And then after they take that stroke of breaststroke, they get back into the streamline and once again go through this list of cues.  And using that kind of an approach, by the end of the week, swimmers can have a really, really sharp streamline.


Just a couple of examples about… well both the need for deliberate practice and what the payoff is.  And these values are mean values for all four strokes and the bottom yellow line shows you the difference between 11+12 and 13+14 year-old swimmers in the active-drag coefficient.  Now that is the biggest line and you would expect the biggest difference between them.  In a study using deliberate practice on 13-year-old swimmers, in one week we got an improvement that was comparable to about half of the difference that we see in two years.


Then when we looked at the difference between 13+14 and 15+16 year-old swimmers, they did not even improve, they regressed a little bit.  But you know think about what is going on there: a lot of times there is more of an emphasis on training distance, maybe not so much of an emphasis on technique.  And then we did another study with 17-year-old swimmers, and these were national caliber swimmers, and in one month of deliberate practice, it was also a substantial improvement.


Well if that does not convince you, this is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen; as far as what can happen to a swimmer in a very short amount of time.  And this is from a study conducted by one of the ASCA Fellows, Stuart Jefferies.  And he had a 14-year-old boy—and Stuart, if you are in here and I make any errors, let me know.  But Stuart had this 14-year-old boy swim in a meet just before the study, and he swam a best time in his 100m Backstroke.  And then at the beginning of the study, he was pre-tested and the force curves on the left, these are hand-force curves for the swimmer, swimming backstroke.  And you see he has got a peak force of maybe 15 pounds.  Well, Stuart had the swimmers practice in a flume with a monitor directly above them, so as the swimmers practice, they could see every single force curve.  And they did that for a week, half an hour a day.  And at the end of the week, you can see the improvement in his hand force is about doubled.  Keep in mind, he swam a best time just before the study; after the study, he dropped his best time by another four seconds.  So, the impact of deliberate practice can be phenomenal.  And I am so thrilled, that I have that example to show you.


Now there are issues with progress, no matter what you are doing with swimmers.  As far as conditioning, whether you are emphasizing quality or quantity, if you have your swimmers swimming really fast a lot of the time; it makes it difficult to focus on technique, makes it difficult to control the body.  If you are emphasizing quantity, there is a lot of fatigue; when a swimmer gets fatigued, it is very difficult to control.


And I just had to show this graph, because I think it is such a beautiful graph; just something to consider when you plan how you are going to allocate your time.  If you realize that at two minutes of exercise, that is where the aerobic contribution finally gets to 50%.  And most swimmers, swim most events in two minutes or less.  So just something, a little sideline, that I had to throw in there.


Now again, back to whether you have got swimmers swimming really fast or whether they are swimming considerable training distances where they are fatigued, in either case, if they are not able to maintain focus on technique, then they are going to reinforce the limitations that they have got as opposed to making changes.  So that is another issue, as far as helping swimmers progress.


And then a third issue, and especially when it is compounded with overuse, excessive training distance combined with harmful technique, if the changes are not made, there is a greater chance of shoulder injury.  And just to touch on this, because this is such a critical topic, there are so many swimmers whose careers are ended because of shoulder injury.  There is a bone in the upper arm and there is a bone in the shoulder, and in-between those two bones, we have a bunch of soft tissue.  Well the more the upper arm bone is elevated, the more it reduces the space between the upper arm bone and the shoulder bone.  And compressing that soft tissue, which also reduces the blood flow, that can cause injury.  You know doing that a few times is not a big deal, but when you consider some swimmers put in a million repetitions in a season, that is when it can be a very real problem.


So often when the swimmer completes the arm entry in freestyle—and let’s not be concerned with the force curves right now, I am going to get into that in just a minute.  But when a swimmer typically completes the arm entry in freestyle, the arm is usually parallel to the surface or the hand is even a little bit closer to the surface and the shoulder.  That is very, very common; and that is what reduces that space between the upper arm and shoulder bones and can lead to injury.


Now when you combine that with the fact that a lot of times swimmers will leave—the right arm, in this case—the arm in front in position while their torso rotates, not only does the swimmer have the arm in a stressful position, but they keep it in that position for very often 2/10ths or 3/10ths of a second, which further stresses the shoulder.  So this is just one reason… the swimmer is of course swimming with catch-up stroke.  And this is just one reason not to do catch-up stroke; there are many others, which I will touch on a little bit later.


As harmful as the arm entry in freestyle can be, we see a lot of extreme cases in butterfly as well.  And here is where… I was talking about the beginning, about how effective technique can also be technique that stresses the shoulders less.  Here is an example of how this swimmer is in an extremely ineffective position with a lot of shoulder stress, and the vertical grey lines which are where that red arrows are—they do not show up as well on that screen.  The vertical grey lines will move as we step through the video.  And until the hands are below the shoulders, we really do not see any substantial force generation at all.  So it turns out that an arm position that has less stress on the shoulders is also an arm position that will allow a swimmer to generate more force and swim faster.  So avoiding this range of motion is critical to both swimming faster and avoiding injury.


So as I said, no matter what you are doing, you have a tough job—there is just no getting around it.  There are a lot of issues that conflict with it.  But let me get on to what Ericsson has determined are the concepts that need to be emphasized to incorporate deliberate practice and hopefully result in expert performance.  And I am going to give specific examples of these for Swimming.

  • But the first thing he pointed out was clear instructions, and that is pretty straightforward.
  • Appropriate task difficulty. This is one that, just by itself, can make a huge difference.  And when I explained the specifics for Swimming, I hope you will see that.
  • Sufficient number of repetitions. And there is a trade-off here: you have got to do enough repetitions to develop permanency in a technique; but if you do too many repetitions, a swimmer is no longer going to stay on-track with effective technique, usually because of fatigue.
  • Immediate feedback and
  • Individualized supervision. Well good luck with that.  And I know the situation that a lot of coaches are in: you have a whole lot of swimmers and you do not have them for very much time.  And to be able to incorporate that into a practice is difficult.  I will give some strategies for that, but certainly that is a challenge for coaches.
  • Having a variety of learning strategies is another concept that Ericsson has found to be vital.
  • Staying in the cognitive and associative stages. Typically swimmers are not training very long before they can get from one side of the pool to the other without having to think.  They are in that third learning stage:, the autonomous stage.  And I will get into why that is counterproductive.
  • And finally, you need to replicate superior performance. And that is as important as anything that can be included in deliberate practice.


Now Ericsson came up with these about 20 years ago, and at least that long I have been working on strategies for Swimming that are very consistent with what he is doing, with what Ericsson recommends.  And it just so happens that I finally got a chance to get together with him; we both live in Tallahassee—he is a psych. prof. at Florida State.  And so now we are even collaborating on projects.


Clear instructions

But the first thing he mentions is that you need to have clear instructions.  Well one way to do that is to have a model, and a lot of times a top swimmer will be used as a model.  Well I have done… the force analysis that I showed some examples of, I have done that kind of testing with many, many swimmers; and every top swimmer, the world record holders, they all have technique adjustments that they can make to go even faster.  So, as opposed to using a human, I use a biomechanical model.


But the important thing is that you have a model that the swimmers understand what point you are trying to get across as far as effective technique.  And then to add specific cues to that model: specific body orientations for a swimmer to see and feel throughout the entire stroke cycle.  Now we usually have a very limited amount of the stroke cycle that we can see, so visual cues are only going to be of… well, they are going to be of limited value.  But the little bit of time that a swimmer’s arm is within view, it is vital that a swimmer focus on that.  Because that… humans do a whole lot better with what we can see than what we feel.  So if there is part of the stroke cycle that is within a swimmer’s view, those cues can really help to speed-up the learning process.  And then of course the rest of the stroke cycle, that is what you feel; it is kinesthetic cues.


Another way to make the instructions more clear, to enhance images to add something to them like the hand path, that can make it more clear as far as the information you are trying to get across to them.  And sometimes the best thing to do is to physically manipulate a swimmer’s body parts, and you can see how well it is working here.  There are exercises, such as performing a breaststroke kick on the deck where the swimmer is laying down on the deck, and as far as the panel on the right…. (And you know is it, does anybody know how to decrease the brightness, I think maybe that is why we are losing the color.  Is anybody a projector wiz?)


Well, I wanted you to look at the position on the right because it is a little bit washed-out.  This is a pretty extreme position, and for a swimmer to get into that position all by themselves is… it is not going to happen very often.  Many swimmers, particularly younger swimmers, do have the range of motion, they do have the flexibility, to be able to get into that position, but they usually will not by themselves.  So this is where guidance, where you actually physically manipulate a swimmer’s body parts to get into that position, can help.  (It looks like you are on track, oh there we go, much better, thank you so much.  Okay, now I am going to have to start all over again and show you all the images.)


Appropriate task difficulty

In addition to clear instructions, the appropriate task difficulty.  And here is where just such a huge difference could be made in a very short amount of time, is if you consider the course distance, the stroke rate and the breathing frequency.  Now what I mean is if you have swimmers swimming a short enough distance, where they are not tired enough so that they do not have to breathe or least not have to breathe very often, and they can use a very slow stroke rate, these three factors can do a whole lot to increase how deliberately a swimmer can practice.  They can focus so much better if it is a short distance; they are asked to swim with a slow stroke rate; and they do not… if they do not have to breathe, they do not have to move their head, so they can have a much better idea how they are controlling their body.


As far as adjusting the course distance, here is a few recommendations.  But the first time that I saw just how important this was, I was consulting with a team that had done a really good job recruiting 6&Unders.  They had done such a good job that they had 30 6&Unders in three short-course lanes—and you can imagine what a battleground that was.  So I asked them to pull-out one of the lane lines, so that the swimmers could just go from the wall to the lane line—a distance of about six meters.  And that really helped in being able to structure a practice that was more deliberate; where swimmers could focus better, instead of just, you know, trying to run somebody over, beat somebody or stay ahead of somebody.  But much more of a focus on controlling their bodies.


And even with older swimmers, older teens, I have used distances as short as 15 meters, and that has worked really well.  Now of course, you can use 25: there is nothing wrong with using a 25.  There are a lot of reasons that logistically that works better.  And an awful lot of teenagers can swim at 25 with a slow stroke rate and maybe only have to breathe once, and still get to the wall without fatigue.  But structuring a set like that can make it so that a swimmer can have much more focus on what they are doing.


So, a slow stroke rate is essential.  And for butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, when I am working with swimmers in trying to maximize the deliberate practice, I ask them to move their hands through the entire stroke cycle as slowly as they can with a continuous motion—not to have any hesitations anywhere.  And in doing that, when the arm comes into view, they can better see to make adjustments; and when the arm is out of view, they can better make adjustments as well.  Breaststroke is a little different story.  Like the drill that I told you about that I use with swimmers in my camps and clinics, to have them actually stop in this position, process all the cues, before they take another stroke.


And while swimmers will often take 5 or 10 seconds to process all the cues when they first start doing this, in not very long, they are able to process the cues in a much, much shorter time.  And then of course you can make the transition to racing.


And non-breathing, as I said the head does not have to move, so a swimmer can better focus on that visual sector.  And non-breathing, of course in a workout, it is not practical to always have swimmers not breathing at all; you can recommend minimal breathing.  There are a lot of sets where a swimmer can breathe minimally: warm-up, cool-down, descending sets—at least at the beginning of the set.  But there are certain sets where you probably are not putting an emphasis on speed, and swimmers can go a little bit slower and breathe less.


And even when a set does require faster swimming, there are still a lot of times when a swimmer can at least fit-in a complete stroke cycle before they take a breath.  And when they are not breathing, once again, their head does not have to move, they can better see and feel what they are doing; they can be more certain of how they are controlling their body.


So these three factors are absolutely essential to implement focused or deliberate practice.  And along with these, it is also important to consider fatigue, recovery, comfort and attention.  To make the rest in-between repetitions long enough so that a swimmer is not fatigued when they push off for the next one; so that they can be as sharp as possible, controlled as good as possible, on the next repetition.  But the rest needs to be short enough so that they maintain focus, because it is very easy for swimmers to get distracted.  Once you get past about 20 seconds, there is a danger that, of them losing attention, and then also getting cold.


In drills that you use, whether it is a swim drill or a deck drill, if a skill can be isolated, if you can remove all the motions that are not essential to focus on a specific movement, that will make it so much easier for the swimmers to understand and control.  For example, to have swimmers push-off in a streamline and move their arms through the breaststroke pulling motion and then get back into the streamline; but to do this with no head, no body and no leg motion.  And if no other body parts are moving, this is the way they can find out how to benefit the most from their arms.  When a swimmer first starts doing a drill like this, and they find out that it takes them 30 or 40 arm motions to get across 25 yards, it might register with them that there is something that they could do a little differently with their arms.  So, adding a stroke count to that exercise could be beneficial.  But very often swimmers will just realize that they are not going any place, and then you can give them specific adjustments to help them progress with that.


I use a similar drill with butterfly, where I ask swimmers to maintain their head, their body and their legs in a motionless position as they move their arms through the stroke cycle.  And in doing this, it is a whole lot easier for swimmers to understand how they can benefit from the push phase.  In addition to this, both with the breaststroke drill and the butterfly drill, it is extremely rare that a swimmer does not have excess vertical motion in both bilateral strokes.  And these drills not only help swimmers to find out how better to use their arms, but also how to remove that excess vertical motion, that is just wasting energy and slowing them down.


But this is still on the topic of task difficulty.  And what I need to add here is that, you know making an exercise this simple is appropriate even for extremely advanced swimmers.  Because with the force analysis as the swimmer’s arms get towards the end of the push, we very often see that they are not taking full advantage of their strength.  And a lot of times it has to do with the fact that the body is also moving as they are making that push.


There are some deck drills that can help isolate skills as well.  If a swimmer is just standing on a deck and is instructed how to swing their arms for a relay take off, this isolates that movement and in a matter of a few repetitions the swimmers can have a pretty good idea how they are going to get the most out of the arm swing.  Wall push-ups, and I already talked about the breaststroke kick on deck: these are also ways to isolate skills.


The wall push-up, to mention again about the push phase on butterfly and of course also on freestyle.  That in-particular the second and third images focus on a movement that… of course it is not identical to swimming, but about as close as you can get to it with a land-based kind of exercise.  And the breaststroke kick again, because it isolates that skill and takes out all the head and body motion, so a swimmer can best understand what it takes to get in an effective position to generate maximum propulsion on their kicks.  And I have got to show you this image again because it is so important that with any of the strategies that are used to think of it as cue-focused practice.  Where there is always a specific body orientation that a swimmer can pay attention to and make sure they are replicating on every single stroke cycle.


Having cues for key positions within the stroke cycle can also help to make the task difficulty appropriate for whatever specific skill you are working on.  For example, the right arm in this position.  To push back until the arm is straight, the elbow is locked, the thumb touches the front of the thigh.  Then to lift the elbow until the arm is in the same plane with the shoulders, to have the elbow pointing straight up with the hand alongside the body.  Then to enter the hand directly in front of the shoulder with a downward angle, so that at completion of the arm entry, the hand is below the elbow, the elbow is below the shoulder.  And then to pull, so that the hand passes directly beneath the head, with a 90° bend in the elbow.  To add specific cues for the critical positions within a stroke cycle; this can make the task difficulty more appropriate to whatever individual you are working with.


Synchronizing cues is another strategy.  For example, in this image, to ask a swimmer to see the arm in front straight, and to feel the arm in back straight, at the same time.  Then, to see the arm in front bend and to feel the arm in back bend, at the same time.  And to alternate like that.  So, that in this matter, they can make the transition from just focusing on one key position, to focusing on two positions simultaneously.  This also works very well on breaststroke.  If a swimmer is asked to straighten their arms and legs simultaneously, the legs will probably not come together as quickly as the arms do.  However, in just trying to do that, there is a good chance that a swimmer will bring their feet together more quickly, generate more force out of the last part of the kick, and get into a more effective streamlined position more quickly.


Sufficient number of repetitions

After task difficulty, another concept that Ericsson found is important is to have a sufficient number of repetitions.  And it really is a difficult situation in where, you know in a normal workout, with a normal workout routine, it is pretty difficult to make sure that a swimmer is getting enough repetitions of effective technique to develop permanency.  Because that is what has to happen before they are going to get a payoff in a race.  They cannot just do it a couple of times; it takes many, many thousands of repetitions, but it is got to be of an effective technique and not just any technique.


And also often a swimmer will stay focused when a coach has a very structured workout set for them, where there is a real emphasis on maintaining the technique, but then as soon as that is over, the focus goes out of the window.  So it is… and you know of course this gets to the trade-off to, between training distance and how much time you are going to work on technique.  But there does need to be, generally, tens of thousands of repetitions of the effective technique before they are going to develop permanency.


Immediate feedback

And immediate feedback.  This is another tough one in a normal coaching situation.  But one strategy you might try is to do it with a group.  To pick out a skill that either all the swimmers are complying with or all the swimmers are not complying with.  But either way, you could give the feedback to the entire group at the same time, that that helps a little.  But then eventually it gets to the point where it is got to be on an individual basis.


And if you have got… if you have a two-hour workout and you have got 30 swimmers.  Let’s say you are only going to spend 30 minutes fixing goggles and you know dealing with all kinds of housekeeping issues.  Let’s say you have got 90 minutes for those 30 swimmers: that is 3 minutes per swimmer, if that is all you do.  If all you do is give them feedback about technique.  Three minutes per swimmer is a not a whole lot.  So no matter how you cut it, that is very, very difficult.


Individual supervision

And individualized supervision.  Well some strategies for this.  First of all: reminders before swims, and this can be done on a group basis or individual basis.  Feedback after swims.


But one of the ways that… one of the most interesting ways that I found that there can be individualized supervision is by having a dialogue with a swimmer, and really giving them a chance to talk about what they are focused on.  Because it really has been astounding to me to hear from some young and inexperienced swimmers just how much information they process.  And on the other end of the spectrum, to talk to some of the fastest swimmers in the world, and find out that they have really nothing that they are focused on.  So that can be an extremely productive way of finding out exactly what is going on in their heads when they are swimming.  And it is an opportunity for you to make adjustments at that point too, because very often the information will be translated in the swimmer’s head and it will not exactly be what you mean.  So you get a chance to square that away.


Variety of learning strategies

Ericsson also recommends using a variety of learning strategies.  And what we mean by this is, is typically instruction and analysis takes place at the pool.  And that is fine; that is very… it can be very beneficial.  But having… using a classroom, it is a more formal setting, it removes a lot of distractions, and swimmers will often rise to the occasion and really benefit tremendously just from getting away from the normal swimming routine.


So the green arrows show the cycle that is happening most of the time: that the instruction takes place on the deck.  And then the testing also does: you are timing them or counting their strokes; but there is some sort of evaluation of what they did on the last swim.  But to add a classroom can give swimmers a whole different perspective.  And here, of course, you can incorporate… well the first thing I talked about, the clear instructions.  The images, they can make it very clear as far as the technique adjustments that they need to work on.  And I talked about swims and drills that isolate focus, that remove all the extraneous motions.


Practicing with mirrors can be extremely beneficial.  Of course a lot swimming pools do not have mirrors, but a lot of times there is a nearby gymnastics or dance or martial arts studio, and they have all got mirrors.  And just spending a little bit of time in front of a mirror can give a swimmer a whole new awareness of what they are doing.  I often ask swimmers to go home and perform a few repetitions in front of a mirror, as a homework assignment.  Because there is so much of the stroke cycle that is out of their view, having some visual information about what is going on with those body parts can help speed up the learning process.  Of course, if you can have a mirror in the pool, that is nice too; but a lot of times, that is not a real practical situation.


And quantitative analysis.  Many swimmers are past the point where video alone is sufficient.  So many swimmers, that if you only have the video information, look pretty good; but when you actually quantify the motion—when you add something like their hand force to it—you can see just how productive or nonproductive different motions really are.  For example, when this swimmer begins his butterfly pull, his hands move sideways, and for the first quarter of a second he generates almost no force.  In contrast, once he flexes his elbows, the arms get into a much stronger position very quickly and that force increases.


(Oh good, now you can see the grey lines.)  So the grey lines matched up with… it is synchronized with a video image.  So you can see for this first quarter of a second, virtually no force, completely wasted motion.  Which of course increases the time of each stroke, so they have a slower stroke rate when they make a motion.  And this is one of the most common technique limitations that I see.  I have thousands of examples of swimmers moving their hands laterally at the beginning of the arm motion—both on butterfly and breaststroke—and generating virtually no force; just a complete waste of time.  And also I have many examples of when a swimmer bends their elbows, how quickly a force can increase.


So providing a swimmer with this kind of feedback, the numbers are really hard to argue with.  You know, the quantitative information can really hit home.  In fact, I was discussing with some coaches just before the session, it reminded me how many clinics I have done where I will point something out to a swimmer using the force data and the swimmer will say to me: jeez, that is why my coach was telling me to do that.  And then I will hear from the coach that the coach has been telling them that for like two years.  But you know, then they finally see the quantitative information and that solidifies what the coach was saying.


Stay in cognitive and associate stages

Staying in the cognitive and associative stages.  Well, the first stage of skill learning is cognitive.  And if you think about when you learn how to ride a bicycle, you have to think about everything.  That is the cognitive stage: you are thinking about every single thing, otherwise you are in trouble really quickly.


Then you move on to the associative stage.  Now when I learned to ride a bicycle, I did not associate breaking with stopping the bike before I ran into a tree or a car.  So I did not progress into that associative stage fast enough.  But when you start to be able to draw some associations, then you are in that second stage of skill learning.


And then the third stage is the autonomous stage.  And here is where it is automatic.  And many very young swimmers, they can push off from the side of the pool and set themselves on autopilot and they will end-up swimming the right stroke and probably even legally and get to the other end of the pool.  But that is about the worst thing… that is the worst kind of focus you can have, if you want to continue to improve your skills.  You have to stay in the cognitive and associative stages to maintain focus on the technique elements.  And again, if the swimmers get reminders before swims, maybe a question after a swim and a dialog with the swimmers about exactly what they perceived.


And one thing I have to mention about this is: so often I will ask a swimmer what they see.  And the first thing they say to me when they respond is well I felt…. And I stop them right there, because they are just not using the visual information.  And you know that can be a really interesting experiment, that you know for a part of the stroke cycle that is within a swimmer’s view, to ask them what they see about; and see if they answer what they feel.  Because that tells me that they are not really using the visual information like they could.


Replicate superior performance

And then finally, you want to replicate superior performance.  And for this let me talk about freestyle arm synchronization for a minute.  When there are gaps in propulsion, this is called a negative index of coordination; and this is catch-up stroke.  When there is an overlap in propulsion—between the left hand and right hand—then that is called a positive index of coordination; also called superposition.


So here is an example of a swimmer who is doing both.  Now this is a pretty exaggerated catch-up stroke that you see in this image.  And you can see how long of a period of time he has got where there is only a trivial amount of force that he is generating.  It is not until his left hand gets to this position before his is going… the force curves for left hand are on the top and the right hand are on the bottom in solid.  But then the right-hand force curves are in outline on the top, and vice versa on the bottom.  So he has got a substantial amount of time… you can see his right hand is already submerged.  So it is a considerable amount of time that that left arm was not doing anything.  On the other side, it is different.  Where he has just finished generating force with his left hand, he is already at least beginning to generate force with his right hand.


Now he was swimming slow in this, and that is why that catch-up stroke is so exaggerated.  On the next trial, he is going faster.  And the amount of time, the gap between propulsion, is much smaller: it is only about a tenth of a second in this case; but it is still there.  On the other side, he is in much better shape: he is doing a much better job maintaining a more continuous source of propulsion.


And a sports scientist in France, [Ludovic] Seifert, has been researching arm coordination in freestyle for probably fifteen years.  And he gave the keynote address at the Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming Conference in Norway in 2010, and this [quote on slide] was with one of his conclusions.  So if what I said about not stressing the shoulder did not convince you not to do catch-up stroke, hopefully this will.


Every clinic I do, I ask swimmers if they do catch-up stroke and inevitably there is a substantial number who do it.  It is biomechanically ineffective, physiologically ineffective, anatomically stressful; and from the skill-learning perspective, it is not the coordination that swimmers use when they are going fast.  So, I am kind of like on a tear to end the catch-up stroke in the world.  So I hope you will join me with that.


[audience member]:  With the video or the pictures of the swimmer previous with the force curves, one being superposition and one being a catch-up, was it consciously explained to that swimmer to do that or was that just a natural progression of even going faster?


[Havriluk]:  This swimmer, that was his natural progression.  And in fact, you will find that, that is a natural progression with pretty much everybody.  He was not instructed to do anything other than swim at two different speeds.  He was a very competitive Division I swimmer; he was actually a Masters swimmer by the time I tested him.



So these concepts that Ericsson has found, that will help a swimmer get to an expert level of performance more quickly, I hope you can see that the strategies that I have presented here fit in very much, very consistent with what he recommends.


Now this should not all be your problem.  If an organization is really serious about having swimmers progress as quickly as possible; it has got to be a total involvement.  Of course the coach strategies is absolutely essential.  But in addition to that, there has got to be the appropriate team investments.  As to whether that is, you know, buying mirrors or video or force analysis, or you know whatever other… maybe more coaches, so that there can be more individualized supervision.  But it should not just be the coach that is responsible for making this work; getting swimmers to where they are as technically proficient as possible.


And then the third part of it is the swimmer.  They have habits; habits are hard to break.  They have done… especially with the teenagers, they have done so many thousands of repetitions with technique elements that could be adjusted to swim faster, it is hard to change that.  So the swimmers have to do their part too.  You know, it is not just enough for a coach to present all these different strategies, but a swimmer has to be mentally focused, they have to be willing to work as hard mentally as they do physically.  And that is kind of funny too, because most swimmers will work pretty hard physically; getting them to work hard mentally, it is a different story.


So, I went through the benefits of incorporating deliberate practice into training, and showed you some graphs that explain the need for it.  And then went through Ericsson’s general concepts for deliberate practice, and then the specific strategies that you can use for Swimming that will speed up the learning process.


And you can reach me at and I thank you for your attention.




[audience member]:  The associated part of the learning process: what is that again?


[Havriluk]:  Well, I guess the simplest way to say it is between the cognitive and the autonomous.  When a swimmer is first learning, they are going to have to be mentally involved in every single motion that they make.  And I am not sure that there is any need to really distinguish between that second learning stage.  I think what is probably more important is that you just make sure that they are not in the autonomous stage.


[audience]:  What about when they are racing though?  Because sometimes you want the body take over for the mind.  Are there any studies on that?


[Havriluk]:  Yeah.  And ultimately, when you get to the ultimate level, a swimmer’s technique is going to be optimal, they are not going to have to think; they can be autonomous when they are racing.  Practically, they can probably focus on one or two technique elements; it is not going to interfere with performance.  But that is going to be an individual thing; that is going to be something that you are… you know, that you would have to sort out.  But certainly you do not want to have them overloaded with information while they are racing, right.




[audience member]:  In you slide with the person swimming butterfly, you were saying that the lateral movement was useless, and you said in breaststroke as well.  For breaststroke, is there an ideal movement that you are going to generate force, instead of the lateral one?


[Havriluk]:  There is a similarity in both of those strokes.  I talked about flexing the elbows; at the beginning of both of those strokes, elbow flexion is critical.  Now with butterfly, you can flex your elbows, keep your hands inside your elbows; in breaststroke, of course, you can go a little bit wider.  But focusing on flexing at the elbows, that is where we see the force increases, and I mean it can be really dramatic.


Whereas with that butterfly I showed you, in a quarter of second he was only generating 3 or 4 pounds of force, and he is a 20-year-old male.  I have an example of a 14-year-old girl who was beginning her pull by flexing her elbows, and in the first quarter of a second, she is generating four times as much force as he is.  Not because she is stronger, but because she is putting her arms into a stronger position.  So the similarity between those two strokes is beginning the strokes with elbow flexion.  And that is not something a swimmer will naturally do; it is far more natural to begin to move hands but not to bend the elbows.




[audience member]:  In breaststroke you are going to have to initiate the lateral movement, the out-sweep, to anchor and then apply pressure.  So are you saying that that out-sweep in the breaststroke should be… should not happen any longer?


[Havriluk]:  No, that is not what I said.  There is going to be sideways movement of the hands.  What I am saying is that typically there is no elbow flexion as a swimmer begins that motion.  You can move your hands sideways with flexion of the elbow.  And then a compounding factor is in most cases swimmer’s hands, they are not even moving laterally with the shoulder; in most cases, they are above the shoulders.  So, it is even a more… a weaker and more awkward position.  So there is a tremendous amount of time that swimmers waste at the beginning of both the breaststroke and butterfly arm motions.




[audience member]:  You had these force graphs, or whatever: how did you get those?  And how can a normal, everyday coach get that?


[Havriluk]:  Well, if you go to my website, you will see many, many examples of it.  But Aquanex is a commercial product.  I do a lot of a testing with swimmers.




[audience member]:  You mentioned that the superposition… I understand it more as to what it is not, than what it is.  Can you explain that again?  You are not catching-up?


[Havriluk]:  Okay, okay, yeah.  The model that I showed you with freestyle—those freestyle examples where I was talking about the cues—it had the arms in complete opposition.  Okay?  For learning, that can be extremely helpful, because it is easier.  When a swimmer tries to go faster, they will naturally move the arm that is moving through the air a little bit faster than the arm that is moving through the water.  So the arm moving through the air will get to a point where it can begin the pull as the arm that is finishing the push is completing the push.  So that is the way that they will get an overlap in the force curves.  And that provides a more continuous source of propulsion, and a more constant body velocity.


[audience]:  But you do not see that much in backstroke.


[Havriluk]:  It is hard to doing backstroke, yeah.  Our bodies are not… you know, if a swimmer completes the arm entry in a position where the hand is below the shoulder, if they get their hand in the water quick enough in a position where they can start generating force, then maybe they can start generating force with that hand before the push.  But that is really tough.  Our body works a whole lot better this way than that way.




[audience member]:  This is a question about the catch-up drill.  Are you saying that you do not see any value in it at all?


[Havriluk]:  Right; absolutely, no value.  Anything that you think you can accomplish with catch-up drill can be accomplished faster and more effectively with other strategies.


[audience]:  What strategies would you recommend?


[Havriluk]:  Well, similar to what I showed you as far as the focus on the cues for freestyle—when I went through the stroke cycle with freestyle.  Usually for freestyle, I may use one drill; that is about it.  Most of the time for freestyle, I ask swimmers to focus-on specific cues; and I have them swim it slow enough and not breathing and swimming a short-enough distance that they can control and make whatever adjustments are necessary.  That is much faster than having them use an arm coordination that is ineffective.


Anything else?  Well, thank you so much for hanging in this late.



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