Effective Stroke Drills for Age Group Swimmers by Harry Meisel (1998)


Introduction: One coach came up to me and very nicely said, ‘What are you trying to prove by always dressing in a suit and tie. You certainly don’t do this at home.’ I say, ‘No, I just wear these twice a year. I wear them once as ASCA and once at USSAS. What I am trying to prove is that I can definitely be more comfortable in a freezing room than you can be.’ I learned a long time ago what they do with these rooms and I am going to be warm and not shiver out there.


It is my privilege once again to be in the age group track and a special privilege to be able to introduce Harry Meisel, since he is, I think the epitome of a professional age group coach. He was one of the first ever-level 5 age group coaches. And as most of you know what it takes to get to be a level 3, 4, or 5 has both educational fulfillments and also performance requirements. A level 5 age group is something that most of us will dream about our entire career and few of us will ever attain. So that in itself is an accomplishment that is very noteworthy. He and his son are co-owners of the Blue Dolphins Swim Team. He has 45 years of coaching great swimmers. I think his most recent one was 1996, Olympian Joanne Siroki. He is also parallel in somewhat my career. He is an inventor and he invented the swim bench, which was shown in the 1974 ASCA Clinic. Harry has done it all and done it well. We are again very luck to share some his thoughts this afternoon.


I am going to get ahead here and I am going to give him his gift now, because I know what happens at 5 o’clock, the dinner bell goes off in our heads and we are out of here. I want to say that Colorado wants to thank you for being here. We know that you are going to do a good job, so you can have your gift now. I have heard you talk before and so I know what we are in for.


I am going to turn it over Harry now and we are all going to learn something.


Meisel: Thank you Nick. It is normal I guess for the members of the boards of directors to make these introductions. John gave me the list and I went down and I looked under Nick’s name that he was an English major in college and also a speech major. So I picked Nick and he did a wonderful job. He read that just the way I wrote it. He left out one thing though. Nick, you forgot about my shoe size 9 ½ D.


Good afternoon coaches. I have a very special announcement here. In deference to my talk this afternoon, the Mayor of Atlanta has proclaimed that Happy Hour will not begin until 5:15. I will guarantee I will have you all out of here at 5:00 in time for happy hour.

I want to thank John Leonard for inviting me come here and talk today and again on Saturday.   Last year John called and asked for help at the World Clinic in Orlando and I obliged by coming through with about a dozen parents and swimmers. Our first job was filling about 1500 of these bags with flyers, folders and advertisements. We went around and around a big table and we did it in hour and a half. Guy tells me that is in the Guinness Book of World Records for stuffing those things in an hour and a half. Another task was duplicating the tape of my talks and the many others that go on here. My wife headed that up with the help of three other ladies. Normally she would be sitting here in the front row, but she has the croup and I made the mistake of kissing on her before I came and I think that I am getting it too.


So the next thing was that about a dozen of our swimmers took part in the live drills in the pool. They had a great time under the tutelage of JT. That is John Trimbley in case you don’t know and Eddie Reese and several other outstanding coaches. They greatly enjoyed that. But what all this did was give me the opportunity to get to know the ASCA staff and I saw first-hand all the hard work that goes into these world clinics. I will tell you that we are very fortunate to have John Leonard at the helm. He has surrounded himself with some very excellent people, Guy, Karen, Andy, Laurie, Julie, Sharon, Hilley and Kelly. They all handle administrative posts and I believe that we are really getting our money’s worth out of that group. I also sincerely believe that they have made ASCA the finest coaches association in the world with that fine crew. I just hope that we can keep John around for another 20-years. He recently had turned down an offer to be CEO of the Universe. So it was really a heavenly offer and he wanted to put it off for a while. John is a prolific, terrific writer and a great spokesman for ASCA and he has been a leader in the battle against drugs in our sport. This is a very special day for my magnificent other back with the croup in Orlando. It is her 39th birthday and I had planned to have everyone in the audience participate and sing her happy birthday, but she isn’t here. This is also our 49th anniversary, forty-nine years. My memory is really getting bad and it is a good thing that she is not here, I forgot to pack my Viagra.


I would like to make a couple of comments. Forty-nine years, you know that is a long time. And here I am courting a little Florida girl who didn’t have any shoes. So I went out and bought her a pair. I didn’t think it would be right to go down the aisle barefooted. She complained that the darn things were uncomfortable. I went out into the yard and I got some sandspurs and put in her shoes and they were fine from then on.


Another thing that she wanted was we were to go to Daytona Beach and she wanted to be on the 10th floor of the Peabody Hotel with a big window looking out onto the ocean so that she could see the sun come up in the morning. We did that and the first thing that she started to do was complain that the room was too small, there is not window, there is not even a door, and who are these people in our room? I said. ‘Sweetheart, you are in the elevator.’ So anyway, it has been a great 49-years.


My first world clinic as Mitch mentioned was in Las Vegas in 1974. I introduced the swim bench that year. It has spread all over the world since that time and there are probably a dozen other versions just like it on the market. One thing it did do was bring about a tremendous amount of research. It has changed out thinking on exercise. This is my 22nd world clinic. I have notice that presentation on stroke drills have been a major part of every clinic I have attended. We have listened to some of the world’s greatest coaches lecture on this subject. And yet every year you have three or four people up here behind the microphone talking about stroke drills. This is important. Anytime I say that it is underlined in red you better mark it down. To me this indicates that strokes drills are the heart and soul of competitive swimming. You might see that when you get your tests. And especially at the age group level. When I get my world packet the first thing I do is run down the list of talks that are being given. I highlight the ones that I think are going to help me on Monday morning at 7:00 a.m. on the pool deck. Those are the ones that I usually attend. I pass up talks on nutrition and financial planning. I have a heck of a time controlling my eating habits much less the eating habit of 150 people. I’ve never had enough money to worry about financial planning, even for a rainy day.


A few years ago there was a major talk on Lactaid acid testing. It was very scientific, very well presented, but after 15-minutes I knew I was in the wrong room. If I started pricking fingers and earlobes and drawing blood, my parents would have me arrested for being a vampire. We had enough of that problem back in Florida last year if you read the paper.


The next lecture that day was by my good friend Dr. Councilman. His topic was hand acceleration. I sat on the edge of my seat. Here is something that I could use on Saturday morning. After his great talk, the first question that was asked, ‘Doc, does lactic acid testing help?’ Without batting an eye Doc said, ‘Yes sir, if the kid can swim. Next question please.’


As you can see my notes are not even dry. I have to go from memory and my memory is not that good. I went to my Doctor and I said, ‘Dr. Boone, I think I have Alzheimer’s disease.’ He said, ‘Coach, it is all in your head.’  Well, okay then.


If you want your kids to swim fast you better instill sound stroke techniques at an early age. I have been doing that for 12-years. My concern has always been at age 12 before I send them to my senior program that they can swim all four strokes and swim them with good IM. When they get to high school that is where they are going to specialize – you’ll know who the breaststrokers are, the butterflyers, the IM, the sprinters and the distance freestylers. By the way if you didn’t get a handout, I left some on the back table. You’ll find that there is just a topic up top and it is followed by a lot of lines and then another topic. The reason I did that is the coach who takes the most notes and brings his paper up here will receive this shirt from the victor. This is the way to capture an audience. I know you coaches, hell you will never leave the room until you get that shirt. So get those pencils out and take the notes.

Some of you probably heard Bob Steele talk last year. Bob suggested that the kids dive-in and swim to the far end of the pool and have a celebration – I am number one. The next kid comes down they do somersaults and they do high fives and have a good time. I have been doing that ever since I heard Bob last year and it has really been effective. It gets a lot of enthusiasm going. And that is what we are all there for the kids to have fun and have a good time. Do get them to come down to the far end of the pool first thing and have a celebration. It won’t work on the deep end by the way; you can’t jump up and down.


Another thing that I do at the end of practice, I have the kids come over the ladder and as they come up, they will give me a handshake and say, ‘Hey coach, great workout,’ or they will say, ‘I will try harder tomorrow,’ or ‘ I will work harder tomorrow.’ There is a kind of a bonding there at the end of practice if you do that. It is a good idea to get them to always give you a big smile. And sometimes they will do some funny other things too. So we go through that little ceremony every few days.


I want to get into the numbers I think you will find there:


The first one is getting ready. When you step onto the pool deck put all your cares and worries and cares aside. Get ready to provide a great experience for the kids and do that each and every day. Make swimming the highlight of their day and your day. And that is the highlight of my day believe me, to get away from the paperwork and all of the problems of the world.


Be the first on deck and the last to leave. That is highly important.


Set out your equipment for drills each day. I use laundry baskets. I Put the pull plugs in one basket and the zoomers in another basket and they are easier to carry back and forth, plus they drain. If you put them in a cardboard box they won’t last. They are $2.95 at Wal-Mart I guess and they work real good. For little things like this, (a bone) I put those in a bucket.  We use those in our drills.


Another thing that I learned many years ago when I coached basketball. I took a course up at Boston U. I had a great teacher, he wrote the book – the early book just like Doc did. He wrote his on basketball and of course Doc’s was on swimming. He suggested that anytime that you go on the court that you have a card and a work out in your pocket. I have mine in my pocket every darn day. And every day I try to make it different. If I didn’t do that I might repeat myself. I also put them in my copy machine and make a copy and that goes into my notebook. So put in your notes down there that this is the first drill that you are going to do right on down the line. I also have to put reminders on the bottom like – the entry for such and such a meet is due for that day, or U.S. Registration is due and so on.


You are like a chef making a toss salad, — but you are using kicking drills, pulling drills, and combinations thereof. Variety is the spice of life so want to keep on changing it every day. The same old thing day after day gets boring. I have speaking of stroke drills a printout that my son Kevin who should be here but couldn’t get away. It is kind of lengthy as you can see. I counted up and I think there is a 172 drills on here, it will take me a week to fold this. If I had a six-year-old he will probably be 12 by the time I get to the last drill on this sheet. I think on this sheet there are a lot of frills instead of drills. I am a meat and potato man.  I believe in doing a few things and doing them well and it has worked out for me quite satisfactorily over all the years. Either that or I have been surrounded by a lot of good swimmers. I think that I had that good fortune too. There is 144 drills there. And of course there is another thing – Kiss – you all know what that means don’t you? Keep it simple sweetheart or Susan or anything else other than that other word. Your workouts don’t always go as planned. I often use a dry board that you can change during the course of the workout. The kids can see the dry board and know what they are getting into. I think that is important. You want to change because something isn’t working right and things don’t always work out right. I remember being in a clinic up in Chattanooga, TN in 1975 with George Haynes. He said how when have a workout you have those days when you want to get the devil off the deck and go home and have a beer, because nothing is going right. What he would do is say okay kids I am going to tell you the distance and the time a person has to make and you’re going to tell me who you want to swim. Okay it is going to be a 200-free and it has to be under a 140. And every kid in the place hollers ‘Spitz!’ I knew he had been loafing the whole workout. He would go a 137 and everybody would go home.


You have 1-½ hours of water time, so put quality in your workouts.


It is better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly. I had a young coach, who was very enthusiastic, but he came up with the darndest ideas, and they would last about one day and then he would change to something else. I will never forget the time he took one of my swimmers (Do you know what a metronome is in music?) he put the metronome down and set the swimmer down. The he big towel over the child’s head. He were supposed to think – pace back and forth. When we took the towel off, I think the kid was hypnotized after going back and forth. And of course the next day he changed to something else. So  do a few things well. Stick to your knitting. Stay with the drill that really work.


Another thing I learned from the basketball coach at Boston U last summer when I took a course up there, was to put ‘fun’ into fundamentals. Every clinic I think I’ve held since, if there is a chalkboard I write, Capital F, Capital U, Capital N damentals in small letters.


Another thing I learned from this great coach was pete-and-repeat. Just the way it sounds. Do the same thing over and over and over. That is the only way you are going to have success, the only way you are going to instill the drills, the only way you are going to improve technique – with variety mix it up. See is you can tell me who said this, ‘Never use back to back workouts.’ Does anybody know? Winston Churchill, but he said, ‘ Never, never quit.’ Do you remember that story? He came to Harvard to give the graduation address. And he got up and said, ‘ Never quit. Never, never quit! Never, never, never quit!’ And then he sat down and people were stunned. The people woke up and they applauded like crazy. So never, never, never back to back drills.

No one ever learned kicking and backstroking in one day. It takes many, many yards up and down the pool. Use any and all means getting your message across. You may have to get yourself down to speak the same language that your kids do. You get be way up here too scientific; it will go way over their heads. Continually search for even better ways to express yourself to the kids.


You need to have concentration days, days that you concentrate on butterflies, on backstrokes, breaststrokes, and turns. It is a good idea to work on starts almost every day. I know I do. It is so important. The most important part of you race is when you go off the blocks. You are going through the air there is no resistance that is the fastest part, plus you have the strongest muscles in your body at work – your leg muscles. So really concentrate on the start – really getting out there and making a ham sandwich, spear streamline, whatever you want to call it. You can feel the water slide right down your body. Again and again you will see them dive this way at a meet.


The product you turn out is judged every time the starter says take your mark. Did the times come down, did the times go up, did you have disqualifications, and did you put the right four kids in the relay?  Boy that is important to the parents and to the kids.


Sit down and make a list of drills for each stroke. Give your drills simple names. Review the drill that you have used at the end of each week. Were your drills effective? If yes, then use them again. Continually seek new drills and dust off old ones. It is a question of study, study, and study if you are going to be a successful coach. Limit to five or six stroke drills, five or six kicking drills and five or six combination drills. You multiply that out and you will come with something like fifty or sixty drills and not 144. If you don’t continue to review yourself you will find that you have forgotten this one or that one. Keep dusting them off and bringing them back to life. In the beginning drill with equipment – kick boards, pull plugs, hand towels and so on, but slowly wean the kids off as they improve and get them to swim just straight sets. Always come back and use equipment again to reinforce what you have already taught. Do not overlook dry land drills. Use dry land drills to instill sound technique. I was on the deck and I had an English coach visit me. He started on the West Coast and stopped here probably six or seven stops before he ended up in Florida before he went back to England. He said that as he came across the country and watched American workouts, he saw very little dry land work. That stuck in my mind and I thought of how often I used try land drills. You will see some of them in the film and I guess I have been using them ever since. That was probably twenty-five years ago when he made his visit. I also had a German coach come and he said that my children kick much faster than yours, but your children swim faster than mine. That was a good experience too. I had one man from Maharan a little island down there in the gulf of something or other. He was spending $300 a day in a local hotel. I asked him how can you spend $300 a day and this beautiful young thing came down and joined us for breakfast and then I think I knew where his $300 had gone. You didn’t put that on tape did you? I’ll be in trouble with John. Make your drills competitive. You give two kids kick boards and say ready go; they will turn the water to foam. You put them in a circle they are going up and down with two dead legs. Make your drills more competitive as much as you possibly can. Use your drills to condition them. Make them strenuous. And you have to be continuously after and push and push them up and down the deck. Something I do is rotate my lanes. Lane one is here in front of me and I tell lane one to come out and go to lane six. Then the other five lanes move over one lane each. The next set the lanes will rotate and say I have six kids in each lane so that is thirty-six kids. So I have every one of those kids in front of me at some time during the workout. If you put them over in lane six you don’t know what they are doing over there. Keep on rotating your lanes, you can work and get your stroke technique instilled a lot sooner. Drills are best done slowly in the beginning and over time increase the tempo. Rely on drills that nurture the feel of the water and the feel of power and sliding through water. Continually make corrections. Move around the deck. If you stand in one place too long you are going to kill the algae, so keep on moving. I get up on the blocks and I can signal the kids to backstroke, I can tell them roll their shoulder. So move and don’t stand in one place. Communicate constantly all during the workout. I mentioned hopping on the blocks. You can kneel on the end of the pool and get the breaststrokers coming towards you. You can have the butterflyers, I don’t like them to lift that head, but occasionally they do, you can get their eye and keep on communicating. Pace up and down the deck and be a cheerleader – whoop and holler. But please coaches do that on Monday through Friday. Don’t do that on Saturday at the swim meet. If you haven’t done the job Monday through Friday, it is not going to do you any good running up and down the side screaming and hollering like an idiot. I am sorry but I see a lot of coaches doing that. Their heads are down in the water, they can’t see you, and they can’t hear you, so sit down and relax and enjoy it.


Praise good drill work on any of your workouts. Do it loudly enough so the kids in lane six can hear you and praise the kids in lane six too. In fact you can get so loud that the parent can hear up in the stands. That is real good to do. Cut out the negatives as much as possible, people. You might want to write this down– an ounce of praise is worth a pound of criticism. Think about that. If you are going to criticize then give constructive criticism not destructive – don’t break the kids down.


Get in the pool and teach hands on. In the ASCA newsletter a month ago there was an article where a coach said that he requires every one of his coaches from the different branches to at least one day a week get in the pool with the kids. I have a hell of a time at my age. I put on fins and I take the kick board and I chase them up and down the pool – the old ‘gator is after you. You better move. If I get them I grab them by the foot and say you better go faster. People are always worried about alligators in Florida. I was at Rollins College for thirty-three years and these Yankees would come down (excuse me, any Yankees here?) (Good only one hand went up. I am talking to my kind of people) Okay. The lake was right by the pool. They asked are there any alligators in the lake? I said, ‘Oh yeah, quite a few.’ They said ‘You’re kidding me!’ I said, ‘Nothing to worry about. If an alligator grabs you, just hold your arms out stiff and they can’t swallow you.’ I tell them the same thing about bears up in Alaska. A friend and I were up in Alaska fishing and a bear came after us. We had our little packs and I opened up mine and put on my track shoes. He said it won’t help you out run the bear. I said ‘No it will help me out run you.’  I think I missed my calling.  There are a lot of starving comedians. Are we ready to dim the lights? At the end folks if you want to ask questions, or go to happy hour it is up to you.  I will stay around as long as you want.


Harry showed slides of swimming drills here and demonstrating a few of the drills.


There must be a thousand different styles of hand paddles on the market. I think it started off the original was the Jim Montrella. It was yellow and rectangular shape. I think he sold it out to Speedo. I think they are still on the market. But there are all different styles. I use hand paddles very, very little. The one thing if you ever swung a butterfly with it, the kids will cut the other kids and the kid coming the other way it will cut their heads off. They are very dangerous and I don’t use them with the younger kids at all. I think the thing to do is to get two or three different styles, get the samples and get in the pool and try them yourself. Every darn thing that comes on the market I usually get a sample and get in the pool to see if it is beneficial. Quite a few years ago they came out with a gadget that came around and had a drop door, you drop it a little ways and you got some scoop resistance, you dropped it some more and you got a lot more resistance. My son, Steve tried it and he said, ‘Dad you use this thing you will make the kids sterile.’ It also distorted your stroke. You have to card and discard.  Find what works and stick with those things.


I use the small pull float. Think they are great. You have them here between the legs. You can pull down, you can pop them out, put your hands over the front and kick back. You can alternate – pull down, kick back, pull down, kick back. Take a marking pen and put a big broad X just on one. Then show the kids on the small one – pinchy, whincy, loosen up the string, pinchy, whincy. Get on the wrong side of the pool – the left side and some circle pattern, and every time you pull see the x duck your head, see the x duck your head. You watch kids sometimes do butterflies and they are looking up at the top of the trees or the birds. The reason we do most of it the wrong way with the right arm, here is the lane line you send a kid of to do some butterfly, you have a nice arm here and a crooked arm on the other side. They are afraid of that lane line over there. We also take this thing and use it for a straight pull.    (He demonstrated more drills.)


Another drill what we do is 10-50’s – crawl stroke. You swim a 50, you climb out and you grab the jump rope, you jump for 30-seconds as hard as you can then dive back in. You do 10-50’s with nine jumps in between. What do you think is happening up here and down here – your legs – you need them. You need them off the blocks, you need them off the wall. So work on the legs. I used to be a disbeliever in spending a lot of time on kicking. I was a firm believer in the up-front part, but now I am working on both parts heavily, probably because of the trend of underwater kicking. We spend a lot of time on kicking. We do a lot of work on zoomers. The big fin the standard fin is much too slow. You going to go to zoomers. You get the kids to point their toes and use the top and bottom of their foot. Here they are coming out like a dolphin on their side down the pool – one arm, up, one arm down, statue of liberty.


You can start off on your side doing the crawl kick, you can roll on your back, kick on your back with the zoomers.  You can go to your side and kick dolphin, go back on your belly and kick crawl again.  Mix them up.


(Harry is again showing more drills via film footage)

I think that it is really important that you get in the pool and work with the kids on fly. The hardest thing that I ever do is teach the proper recovery and timing of the butterfly. In the butterfly you have both arms – very powerful pull. Some of those kids can pull be off the wall.  Then release them and let them go.


I can’t emphasize enough the use of eyes in sports especially in swimming. When those kids look up at the treetops they distort their stroke, or if they look left and right it distorts their stroke. You have to look across the pool on freestyle, head down low. Duck the head, get the shoulders under and make the buns come up. This hat I call rigid putty training — pete and repeat over and over. Show them where their funny bones are and tell that that the first thing you do is turn the bones up and then sweep the arm around. Mother Nature figured this out a long time ago. You turn the funny bone up and sweep around at your shoulders, the little finger has the lead and at your shoulder the thumb takes over and your thumb enters first. You turn your hand around and come out with the thumb first it is impossible to swim butterfly.


(Harry goes over the visual drills shown)

I thank you for coming.  If you have any questions come on up.

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