Introduction: Good afternoon everyone. Those that are still outside, come on in, we will go ahead and get started. Our topic this afternoon is freestyle technique and we have the distinct honor to have someone uniquely qualified to speak to us on this topic. I have had the opportunity to have a couple of his past swimmers swim with me, and in both cases they were of two qualities: they were extremely tough, and very smart. I think our speaker had a lot to do with both of those aspects. The speaker has been with the Sarasota Y Team for the last three years, but prior to that he was with the Bolles School for 16 years. He was our USA Swimming Developmental Coach of the Year at a point when for two years when he put multiple swimmers on our National Junior Team. It is my distinct honor to be able to introduce to you – Larry Shofe.
First of all I would like to thank ASCA, John Leonard, and Guy Edson for giving me the opportunity to come and speak with you all. I have done this one time before while as an assistant coach at Bolles with Gregg Troy. We talked about the relationship between the assistant coach and the head coach, and it was very rewarding. I have had a number of opportunities to speak at local clinics in the Southeast and many high school clinics in the state of Florida. What I have always found when I have tried to talk about the program at Bolles is that when I look in the audience mostly of Florida High School swimming coaches, and I would realize nobody was going to have the situation that we had in Jacksonville. I tried to look at the group and from that point on I have always tried to look at the people that were in the audience and tried to impart something on to everybody. I want to give them a better understanding and some of the things that I would do if I was in their situation and wasn’t blessed with the facilities and things that I have had in the past.
I want to give you a little information about my background, since I do not think I have met a lot of you before. I didn’t learn how to swim until I was 10 years old. I grew up in Northern California playing Little League Baseball. I was one of the guys that when I was 8 or 9 years old didn’t make the cut of like 300 players. I cried all the way home and my dad worked with me every night from that point on. I was a much better baseball player than I ever was a swimmer when I was younger. I swam when I was 10 years old. I swam in a summer league in Northern California. I started to swim year round and gave up baseball when I was 14 so you know, I wasn’t very good. Karen Moe Thornton swam on my club team. The team was coached by Ron Richardson of the Aqua Bears in Northern California and I wasn’t very good. I was as tall as I am right now and skinny. When I was 14 I think my time in the 400 yard freestyle, because back then in high school it was 400 yard free not 500, was 6 minutes so I wasn’t very good. I was very fortunate to swim for some great swim coaches in American history: Ron Richardson who is now retired in Northern California, Larry Gruber who was my summer team coach and coached with the Aqua Bears and I also swam for Dick Jochums and I swam for Peter Cutino at CAL-Berkeley. At the University of California Berkeley my educational background, I got a physical education degree and masters in Kinesiology specializing in Exercise Physiology and Administration. During that time I was Nort Thornton’s assistant coach in his first couple of years. Actually his second and third year at CAL, and the one thing I did was that I picked his brain. I asked so many questions it wasn’t even funny and I wasn’t paid a dime however, I still almost stayed on to get a PhD at CAL, but I decided to move on. Dr. George Brooks was the Exercise Physiologist at Berkeley. I learned a lot from him and he was into swimming.
I started out as an architect major at CAL Berkeley for two years and switched because in the summertime I coached in a summer league. So my start in coaching was working with younger kids and teaching swimmers how to swim. The only way my team was going to get better is if I gave them private lessons, so I offered lessons. I would start with the youngest kids and my on first teams I didn’t have anybody over 14 years old. I then realized that this is something that I really liked doing. I wanted to get back to the sport that opened up a lot of opportunities for me, and I actually coached six years in the summer league in Northern California. I spent one as an assistant coach, if anybody is here form Northern California you will know these teams: Los Trampas Swim Club which is in Burton Valley in Lafayette where my parents live, and then three at Orinda Park, just outside of Berkeley. Through those years I was very fortunate. I had some pretty talented kids, but I spent a lot of time teaching, not necessarily training. Teaching all four strokes and not getting paid a whole lot of money for doing it. Larry Gruber had then accepted the head coaching job at Pleasant Hill Swim Club. When he asked if I would be interested in coaching the 13-14’s, I felt honored because he started me in swimming. He had a staff of ten at Pleasant Hill, before Pleasant Hill and Concord merged and I got all the 13-14 year olds regardless of ability. We had a coach for each age group and that was a great experience in my development as well as working with a staff like that. Then, I started working with Nort Thornton and I had to switch and work at Concord because Nort couldn’t pay me to be his assistant at CAL. He could pay me to be a coach at Concord Swim Club and I worked with the 13-14’s and the senior kids with Nort. That is the point when I was thinking of staying on andgetting my PhD, but I decided that at the age of 22-23 that I knew quite a bit and I was ready to move on. So I moved to Virginia and started Old Dominion Aquatic Club and coached Old Dominion University. I was there for five years and the next club team I took over was Amberjack Swim Club in Jacksonville, Florida which was tied into the private school, Episcopal High. From that point I decided that I needed to make a change and Gregg Troy at Bolles had an opening. Gregg Troy and I had a great team at Bolles of 60 kids. In 1990 we built the 50 meter pool and our program flourished at that point. I was fortunate enough, once Gregg Troy went to the University of Florida, to take over the Bolles program. The relationship that Gregg and I have has become a very good friendship as well.
I was also very fortunate in that I had a younger son who was 13 years old at the time. I have an older son who is a United States Marine and he is in Afghanistan right now. My younger son informed me when he was 10 that he never wanted to swim because he would never be as good as some of the young men that I had a chance to coach. It broke my heart. The kid had a perfect body for swimming. We lived in the girl’s dormitory at Bolles for ten years. My wife ran it for half that time and I looked at her one day and I said, “I am not going to get to know my youngest son. I think it is time we take a break”. I always said that I never wanted to fade away in coaching so I left the Bolles School and The Bolles School Sharks at the top of my game. I felt like I had given it everything and it was time to do something different. I would also get to know my younger son. My wife and I both resigned our positions and we didn’t have jobs and so were thinking of moving back to the West Coast. We ended up moving right here to Westminster, Maryland. I and a former swim coach in this area, Sid Bercott did home improvement work and during that time we bought a house with a 5 car garage. And my son and I rebuilt an 86 Ford Mustang together. We also went to all the NASCAR™ races in Richmond, Virginia and at Martinsville. He started helping me with the some of the home improvement work because I started off NOT deciding I wasn’t going to work on Saturdays and Sundays. In a short period of time I was working on Saturdays. I was working on Sundays and then there were nights when my wife was helping me carry sheetrock into basements that I was going to build out. It was one of those things that eventually I was back to the 7 day a week job, but did get to know my son very well. I went to the Nationals at the University of Maryland, after I had been in Maryland for two years. I took my son Kevin with me. Kevin had never been to a swim meet with me. I had made him swim at Carol County YMCA three nights a week when he was 13 and 14. He did open turns, went about 1500 yards a night and hated every minute of it. But he was a good athlete in everything else. We went to the University of Maryland and we walked in when Michael Phelps broke the American Record. It was the last night and I somehow was able to get Kevin and myself on the pool deck. He could not believe the coaches that I knew. Gregg (Troy) had all his three sons with him and Kevin had grown up with his younger boys. We all went out to dinner that night and I went home and told my wife that I missed coaching. She said, “I know it, I have just been waiting for you to say it.” At that point I had a year and a half. Almost two years, where I was doing home improvement work. The whole time I am thinking about all of the things that I would do differently if I had a chance to coach again. It was refreshing because for a long time I didn’t think about swimming. For a while when people would ask me about why I got out of coaching; it was never because I didn’t like coaching and it was never because I didn’t like working with kids or I didn’t like dealing with parents. I loved every bit of coaching, I just felt I that owed it to my son and my wife.
So my problem was at that point when I announced that I wanted to return was, “Where can I go?” I left one of the premiere coaching situations probably in the world or at least in the United States. Now that I am interested in coaching again where could I go? I told my wife that it would have to be a place that I felt really had the potential to be as good as we were with the Bolles School and the Bolles School Sharks. Lo and behold three months went by and I didn’t really apply for anything. I really had not kept in contact with many people either. So when I sent my resume to the Sarasota Family YMCA for a job position that was open I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to accept the position they offered. I have been there ever since and now I am going on my third year. In my talk tomorrow I will expound quite a bit more on everything that has happened in this fast-paced two and a half years, but the biggest thing for me is that I have been very fortunate.
I have coached some pretty good freestylers in the high school and working with Nort Thornton there were some great athletes at CAL. Then the background that I had and those coach’s names that I mentioned; – Dick Jochums, Nort Thornton, Larry Gruber, Ron Richardson, Pete Cutino and working with Gregg Troy for ten years. Those were the greatest years for me. I am so fortunate to have had that opportunity. I had assistant coaches that came and went and when that opportunity (Bolles) opened up I thought what a great way to be on a pool deck, two professionals, bouncing things off each other all the time. We talked technique. We talked training. Troy and I did that in Jacksonville. Those of you who stand on a pool deck by yourself, you know what it can be like to coach by yourself. Paul Silver – I know worked for him (Gregg) a couple of years when I was cross town. I myself, when I swam, swam freestyle but I was a backstroker also but I mostly swam freestyle. When I got asked to speak at the clinic I didn’t get to pick what I wanted to speak on. I knew they wanted me to speak on taking over the Sarasota Y Sharks, bringing it to the point that it is at right now and all the steps involved. I was pretty excited about that because I had a feeling a couple of years ago when John Leonard and Rob from South Florida had come to our meets. Of course I had told them everything I was doing all along. John a couple of years ago had said, “You know, you might need to be a speaker of ours in the future, depending on the success of your program.” So here I am and I was asked also to speak on freestyle.
I would rather speak on freestyle than any other stroke. I have had a lot of great freestylers and I think one of the reasons I have is that our training is predominantly freestyle. When you look at swimming freestyle it is a stroke that you need to get to get aerobically fit. Most of your early season training has to be freestyle; therefore, you are swimming it probably a little bit more in your programs. Therefore, there are quite a few more mistakes and are bad habits that can be picked up with over-distance swimming in freestyle. It is one of those that I think, as coaches, and I have done it myself in my career, don’t spend enough time working on technique. You may just use one week where you are going to work on the strokes and then you are into your training. In Florida we are fortunate to have a very fast high school swim season. We are unfortunate, I believe, that we have to shave three times in the state of Florida. Our state meets are on a weekend in November, either the 3rd, 4th and 5th. By that time I have already swum thee high school meets and that was giving kids two weeks off. I personally do not think that is enough time off for a high school athlete, especially high school males. In preparation for this speech I thought I can put up some videos that I can talk about. Then I thought about it and decided I am not going to put up any videos so I hope you all don’t mind. I wanted to look at everybody in the audience and treat you as if you are in my swimming pool right now. So I am going to talk about the things that I think are important in freestyle development.
If you look at some of the freestylers we currently have on our team they still have a lot of little things that we do wrong, but it is great getting kids to higher levels where you can point out what some of the great athletes do in the water. I think the biggest thing that a lot of us don’t do it is very easy. Incorporate drills in everything you do. You can be an aerobic based team or be in the aerobic phase of your training cycle and hit freestyle drills or any types of drills every day. I go into a period where I think I have got to get back to freestyle drills because we are starting to get sloppy off the walls or our breathing patterns aren’t correct. It is something that if you really force yourself, you can go three 300’s on 4 minutes and go six 50’s drill. Certainly you want to do a 200 kick 5 X through instead of going twelve 300’s. I sometimes get caught up in that. Sometimes I will go the longer set and I can get upset at some of my athletes for taking a breath off the wall, even though I’ll talk about it all the time. The best season I have had with freestylers, or any stroke, is when I put drills in practice. When is the best time to put drills in practice? I think in the beginning of practice when they are fresh. But I think it is even more important at the end of swim practice, when they are tired. Maybe instead of going a 200 swim down you go six 50’s and work on a drill when they are tired from what you had done within your workout sets. I also have always found that filming athletes is a great way to get corrections. There also have been times that I’ve got the cameras and I don’t do it. But I think it is pretty important. Listening to Mark Schubert talk I could have got on a plane back to Sarasota last night and I was a 10 X better coach after the national team talk and hearing about things we need to do. Remind, re-remind and don’t assume anything always remind your athletes. I am a broken record when it comes to streamlines off the wall and the breathing pattern not taking a breath in or out of the wall. I am a broken record. Coaches, I am going to reiterate what was said last night. Coach Schubert talked about being demanding; repeat it, repeat it and I repeat it. The results are amazing. I was talking to Nort Thornton before the talk this morning and Nort is a brilliant man. Take the opportunity if you ever have a chance to talk to him one on one about what he is doing with his team right now. It is a lot of the things that I have done before as he was I think, one of the coaches that I really picked a lot up from. The core ideas are balance in the water, body position, and floating in the water. I almost did a Masters thesis on the center of buoyancy in swimmers and how your body type makes that center different. That center of buoyancy where your body sits, are you long legged are you short legged, has a lot to do with how you are going to swim freestyle. Not everyone is going to swim freestyle exactly the same. But it was good talking to him and it is the times that we have spent that will be in my talk tomorrow.
My younger son is a freshman in college and swimming and he called and said, “Dad, my first day of practice we ran five miles. I was third and I was up with the coaches. We spent a whole practice on streamlining, how come we never do that in Sarasota?” I said, “Well it is this thing called the high school season.” Because of the High School Season, the swimmers I took to Nationals this summer and I have got some young kids that have really come a long way, decided that I am going to take a handful of them and we are not going to rest for the high school state meet in Florida. I decided that some of the West Coast California athletes have an advantage over Florida athletes because they only have two times to shave during the season and we have got three times. I have got some swimmers that are fairly good aerobically that we are going to cut that part of our season out. But I don’t spend enough time on that (streamlining) because we have to stand up and swim fast right away. I have done so much more drill work this year and incorporated it into practice, it is really important that you do.
When I was first at Old Dominion University and then I started Old Dominion Aquatic Club, we filmed. In fact there is one young coach there; 23 years old, his name is Jack Berry from Virginia. He was 14 years old when I coached him and we filmed every Saturday afternoon. I didn’t substitute practice time. We had an underwater window in the pool. I would bring him in every half an hour and I would film and I would go up stairs. We had the most unbelievable time drops that year, the best in my coaching history. That year I had to spend Saturday afternoons there (at the pool). I had to bring them in (swimmers) and I had to take the time to go one on one with them and I had a big team. We got to a point that we had 250-300 swimmers and I had a senior group of 50. I still spent the time every other weekend and brought them in the early season and filmed them, and then showed them. That was a number of years ago, with today’s technology as Coach Schubert said last night, there is no reason athletes can’t have their own CD. There is no reason they can’t download things from USA Swimming, or the American Swim Coaches Association has a ton of information as well. Your athlete can have their own tape, alright? I think the biggest thing is you need to do is to spend the time to educate your athletes that way and go one on one with them. I am here to tell you, I wish that I had done it like that all along. But I haven’t and I am now at the point where I think, gosh maybe I have let some of them down along the way especially those that I haven’t videotaped as much.
When you talk about freestyle the first thing that comes to mind for me is body position, body position in the water. Talking with Nort this morning, we were talking about center of buoyancy and being able to float. He was talking about his sprinters that just sink, they have no idea how to lie in the water on their side and just float, and they feel awkward on their side. In freestyle you are going to be in that position so you have got to be comfortable in that position. Streamlining, body position, reducing drag to make the body as narrow as possible is very important. We are working with our younger kids on streamlining off the walls. I have got some really good young freestylers on my Sarasota team who haven’t grasped how to turn off the wall. When they do, they are going to be so much better. Their body position and the length of their stroke isn’t where it should be either.
What is great about being at a national meet? I had a distance freestyler, 15 year old boy who qualified for the Olympic trials in Irvine. He stood the whole time while Erik Vendt swam the mile and watched everything he did, stroke for stroke. It was probably the best teaching tool that could have happened because now all of a sudden in practice, he is a little bit slower, but he looks like Erik Vendt. He has a relaxed recovery, very smooth and he learned this from older swimmers. It is funny how that works. I can tell them over and over again, but until you can point it out either in a video or one on one with them, they are not really going to pick it up. I actually, in graduate school, had to do a number of movement classes and freestyle and breaststroke were the two strokes that I really concentrated on. I used the center of the axis where you draw a rod through your body right here, and everything is going to rotate on that. One of my exercise physiology or kinesiology professors, and I have never really said that since that point, but he said, what a great way that you can explain it. It is as if you are on a rotisserie and the body is rolling right through the middle. A lot of us have freestylers, I have got a couple of guys who when they turn they lift their head up. Body position is extremely important in how comfortable they feel. I will talk about a few drills, but I think that anything that you can do to make them feel comfortable in the water and the more you can work on it and incorporate it the better. Get the body position as horizontal as possible where everything is in a straight line and it is as narrow as you can on the streamlines. The body position is extremely important and I will mention those drills in a second.
We do a lot of sculling. We probably do more sculling than drill work and I do it in the diving well to where we are working figure 8’s sculling. We will do sculling with a pull buoy, just working the front part of that stroke. Do exactly what you would do in the front part of the stroke, trying to get the feel. This is something where you might not think treading water is really going to help you, but it really helps all of your strokes. I will have kids at the end of practice and we will scull, and then we will do blasts off the bottom of the pool. You can do it in a diving well. We do it at our bulkhead and we will finish practice with hundreds to where they swim 45 meters, do ten blasts off the bottom of the pool holding that streamline position and then they kick up. Then they get to the bulkhead and do ten press-outs, working upper body strength. Being sure to put their hands in the position where you pull under water freestyle. Then they swim back easy. As the season progresses I will add on, the first week we will go three times a week we will go ten blasts and ten press outs. Maybe just once, and then we will go twice and we will increase that. This all is 1. working on their streamlining off the walls getting them in that position and 2. we are working on leg strength, what would happen off the wall and it is real simple to incorporate in practice. Blasts off the bottom of the pool, when we first did it when I took over at Sarasota, I had kids who couldn’t get themselves out of the water. Literally, high school age kids who could not get themselves up on the bulkhead. No one, no girls, no boys so we started in the gutter and I told them to use their legs and we have gotten stronger, now we are to a point now we can rip 80 of them off at once. It is specific. Hands are not out wide, they are in close, right in here inside your shoulders. Exactly where your power is in freestyle and you must keep your elbows up and bring yourself up. I know I am talking more about the power of the stroke, but this is just something where we are working on streamline. There are times when I have done it where I will them do a kick drill down, streamlining and then do the press outs. Then coming back I will have them do a kick drill down to where hands will be at the side and they will be looking (straight). One of the things that has really changed in freestyle over the years is that we used to have the sprinters swim with the water level right at their eyebrows, back in the day sprinters had their heads up. Well, we have learned over the years that this drops their hip, drops their kick. So now one of the more profound changes over the years is you don’t see swimmers with their heads as high as they used to be. So I will have them kick, go down, kick and bilateral breathe, just rotating the head through the axis. Go down, do the blast and then do the press outs and come back doing a hesitation drill. A drill where they are kicking ten kicks on a side so we have not only worked on the kick, we have worked on bilateral breathing on the way down, we have worked on blasts, we have worked on upper body strength and then we have done a hesitation drill on the way back so we have actually worked on a lot of components in freestyle and we have swum down at the same time. I think the more you can do those types of things, the better. I love sculling; putting a pull buoy in and sculling just like this all the way down the pool. Take the pull buoy out and have them kick freestyle. Go to a progression where you go to freestyle with the sculling. You can put the hand paddles on and work sculling on that front part of the stroke, while you are kicking. So now you are working on kicking and you are working on that front part of that stroke, but I think that it is pretty important to add that into your practice in some way. You can do vertical kicking. Two times a week we will vertical kick in the diving well and we will not grab the edge of the pool between vertical kicks. We will go 60 seconds vertical in the well where they cannot touch the bottom and then we will tread water, and we will do it with all the strokes. At Bolles I had a couple of guys who were unbelievable kickers in the vertical position and we ended up getting weight belts out. For Alex Lim, who set the national high school record in the 100 back, we would put 10 pounds on each side and he would vertical kick, dolphin kick and freestyle kick. Clay Kirkland who was there at the same time with size 18 feet and went 1:35 in high school would do the set too. They were great kickers. I really think when I look back that what made them great freestylers was that they were great kickers. We did a number of things that just changed it up. We didn’t necessarily go back and forth, but we had a sound aerobic background and we put more into kicking and sculling and the feel of the water.
In freestyle, to get to that sculling point, I have always looked at kids and just like we are right now and I have sort of watched myself in the mirror. It is too bad I am not a swimmer now, I think I would be a better swimmer now, a number of years ago once I stopped swimming, people would tell me when I would get in and demonstrate I looked like I was a better swimmer once I started coaching than when I swam. It is because you are more aware of it. You just don’t even listen to your swim coach when you are swimming and then when you start having to teach it you really think about what you do. I always try to get right in front of the kids and show them when your hand enters, you want to enter in front of the shoulder, with that thumb down and hand slightly pitched. Right in front of your shoulder, a number of things haven’t changed that much, at least in my mind when it comes to teaching freestyle. There is that imaginary hole, right there, where you want that slot that you want that hand to slide through. I called Chris Davis the other day. I always like to bring in some other coaches and Chris Davis had a young lady by the name of Amanda Weir who set the American Record in the 100 meter freestyle in Irvine. I said “Chris, tell me – give me two things that I can tell the group that you think really helps Amanda Weir be as good as she is.” Except that she is strong and she doesn’t really train like a classic older sprinter, she is more on the aerobic side. He said one of the things we really work on is making sure that that hand is below the surface of the water, on an angle, and make sure you are pressing with that hand and with the wrist in the first part of the stroke. Be sure you are coming out and pressing down and the elbow stays high underneath your body. Those are the two things that he reminds her of over and over. When that hand enters the water, it is in and it is on an angle, it presses out and the elbow stays up. I thought well shoot, that is the way we have always told people and he said “No, I remind her every day.” The American Record holder, you would think God, why do you have to remind the American Record holder what to do every day. But that is what Coach Schubert said last night, he said don’t assume anything; make sure you remind your athletes. Don’t assume that they know and they are doing what you expect them to do. The one other thing that he (Chris Davis) really wanted me to make sure that I mentioned to you guys is the press through. He has always talked about his hands and I have done the same thing. Where as your hand enters the water, it presses out and comes around. That the thumb is going to travel right underneath your bellybutton and through. Those are the two things he really works with her. Then he called back the next day and said, make sure you don’t have the head up too high. It was great that I had that and was able to talk to Nort Thornton this morning. I wanted you guys to hear about buoyancy, the streamline position and hand entry. But we can all learn from other coaches.
What is great about this clinic is I am hoping maybe you just pick up one or two things, or maybe I have reminded you of something that you could do. Head position, shoulder position are both extremely important. Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was thought the head position was up. That head position isn’t up as much these days. You want it to be comfortable and looking at the bottom. You do not want to bury it too far. You want to make sure everything is in a straight position. Of course in the stroke your shoulders are going to rotate and your body is going to rotate as well but the head position should be straight. I have got a 15 year old boy, strong kid, and a sophomore in high school. When he breathes he lifts his head up like this; so we have been doing a lot of things that keep him out front. Just make sure that your swimmers keep the front part of their head in the water when they rotate. We can go back to simple techniques when you teach kids how to swim. I had a girl last year who, I didn’t realize until started talking about it on the deck, said “Oh I never blew the air out of my mouth or out of my lungs, with my face was in the water.” She would take a breath, hold her breath and then blow it out and bring it back in while her head was out. And she was pretty good. We corrected that, but it is the simple little things that are easiest to fix. I have many kids that when I first got to Sarasota who would respond poorly when I would say let’s breathe out of the corner of your mouth. “Breathe out of the corner of your mouth?” But you want to minimize how far you are going to turn your head. There is that little trough right there that you are going to breathe out of the corner of your mouth and rotate it back in. This will minimize the movement that you have in any position, either side. I wish I had my swim team sitting here also we would probably be spending more time, but I have a few who could still benefit from that.
You don’t want the head up in a high position. The head should be in a comfortable position, looking at the bottom of the pool — that keeps the hips up. Having the hips up in the water is pretty important also. You want to be as buoyant as possible as you swim through the water and maximum distance per stroke. You have heard coaches talk MDS, which is extremely important, but also the entry and the exit. I will do a lot of drills where we will start off and kicking on their side and we are just sculling like this and kicking. It forces the swimmer to keep their arm fully extended and the other arm is at the side fully extended. We will go 10 kicks and then rotate to the other side with a high elbow recovery and work on the sculling up front and keeping the head position here. A lot of times, if you don’t remind your kids, they will be sloppy and their head is all over the place. I think it is really important that you force them to keep the head in that position and stay in that position. Work on rolling the body. Body and shoulder roll as well as hip roll are extremely important. I always use the example that I used the other day. We had 13-14’s in with our top group and I knew that we had some pretty good athletes. So I asked one of my boys to come up and I said, “Kurt, show me how you throw a baseball.”
Next I had one of the girls get up and I had a baseball and a softball and asked her to show me how she threw. I said to both them I want you to throw as hard as you can at that door. I had everybody watch and they both did exactly what they were supposed to do. Then I said now let me show you what you guys are doing when you are swimming. If I take what you are doing in swimming to what you just did, this is how all of you are swimming. You are standing here like this and you are throwing the ball like that. You are not following through. In baseball and softball the body rotation aids in the speed of how you throw the ball. I have often said that when you swim, when you rotate your shoulders and hips, your body roll is helping that hand finish through. You are not just pulling the arm through the water and that the hand placement is important. A lot of people think they are pulling through the water. Your body is traveling over your hand, and I have always described it and I use that example all the time. The hand enters the water, your body rotates around and it is helping finish the stroke right here. Then you come around and do the same thing on the other side. I have always tried to relate to other sports because most of the kids come up and can relate to other sports that they do. You want to keep the head still all the way through that rotation. Unnecessary head movement, any type of head movement in the front of your body will cause you to have the hips move side to side. You want to keep that head still the whole time you swim. The arm recovery is pretty important, and it is something that was reinforced by watching Erik Vendt this summer. If that didn’t spell it out how relaxed he was, he was expending no energy on the recovery. It is pretty important that you keep everything in a straight line. The fastest way for me to get from here to there is straight away. No sense in me bringing my arms around this way because if I bring my arms out here, my hips are going to come this way and likewise on the other side. A lot of us have had those swimmers who just snake down the pool. You want to try to get everything in a straight line and minimize the drag you are going to have on each side of your body.
Here is a drill that I used to do, that watching Erik Vendt, made me think I would put back in my program. I used to always have the distance freestylers when they were swimming just to check when are going a longer set. Every once in a while, just shake the wrist. Make sure that arm is relaxed. Those of you who have swimmers that have tight arms all the way through a race; they are expending just as much energy over the top of the water as they are underneath the water. Now, if we could relax those arms on the recovery, your swimmers are going to be a lot of stronger. This young boy I was talking about earlier went a set the other morning. He has only just been back in the water. I gave him two weeks off after Nationals and he looks as good as he has ever looked and we haven’t been in the water that long. I just had him go three 1,000’s with 15 seconds rest and his last one I thought it was pretty good was 9:45. The others were like 10:15, and 10 minutes. He went 9:45 and we are only into the water for two weeks. I just looked at what he was doing above the water, he says “God, I feel great” and I said, “Why do you feel great?” He said because of what I am doing right now. I feel so much fresher while I am swimming. Sometimes just little simple things like that are tricks that we can clue our swimmers into and they really help them out. A lot of what I am telling you guys has been talked about over and over again at many talks in freestyle. But it is something that I think if you should come back to and re-remind your athletes and incorporate it into your practices. One of the swimmers I had at Bolles, Clay Kirkland, was not one of the best trainers. But he came up in our program, because he was as relaxed as anybody could be on the recovery. He had a pretty good kick and with those things combined, and the strength that we put in the press-outs and the blasts as well as the leg strength off the walls in High School He went from 1:49 to 1:35 in four years. He wasn’t even in the distance group but he was a pretty good athlete out of the water as well. But a number of drills put him in that position.
Hand pressure in the water is also very important. I have always looked at underwater pulls as you are accelerating through the water. We have got a number of swimmers when we do drills that just want to rush the stroke through. They tend to drop that elbow. You want to make sure in swimming or in a drill, first of all they are pressing on the water and they keep that elbow up under water, but that they accelerate through as they go through the stroke. One of my favorite drills is one arm drill and I have done it two ways, but I tend to do it the second quite a bit more. One arm drills up here at front where you can just really zero in on one arm. I really like the one arm drill where the opposite arm is at your side and you stroke with the right arm only, but you breathe to that left side. It forces you to go slow. You have got to actually show the kids how slow to do it because a lot of them will get in there like this and then turn their head. You have got to show them how slow to do it and have them breathe to that opposite side. If you have never done it before, start off with fins, and prepare to be frustrated because they are going to look like a bunch of bone heads out there breathing all over the place. It is something, if you are patient with it that really ends up working out great because it really teaches them. But you have really got to explain it. Once you get them to where they are comfortable breathing to that opposite side, if it is done right, it really forces them to roll their hips, extend, while breathing out of the corner of their mouth and then to come back around and especially on their non-breathing side. I found that drill. If was to pick one or two drills, that would be a drill that I would do. I will be honest with you, if you were to go through and talk to all of us here in this room, we could probably come up with over a hundred drills for freestyle very easily. We all don’t have time to drill all the time. You have got to train some and you just pick some drills that you think are important. That is one that I think is important. I really do the hesitation drill quite a bit. I do a lot of the kicking on the surface so they are floating and turning their head. I do a lot of sculling, but the right arm / left arm is extremely important, and the earlier you can start your kids doing that the better.
In Sarasota we have put together a progression that wasn’t in place before. We started kids out at a younger age, working on things in freestyle and all four strokes. We heard Frank Busch talk last night on kicking and its importance. Talking with Gregg Troy, from the University of Florida, this past year they kicked more than he has ever kicked. Working with Gregg for ten years, we didn’t kick a whole lot at Bolles the ten years before he went to Florida. He told me exactly some of the kick sets that they have done and they have kicked a lot more at the University of Florida than they ever have. They have had some pretty good results. As age group coaches, in our program, we have our age group coaches to get the 10 and unders to kick at least 1/3 of practice. One third, I almost think 1/3 is not enough, sometimes ½. I inherited a team in Sarasota, where nobody could kick. The first practice I had them try to kick hundreds on two minutes. Two people made it out of 30. A hundred yards on 2 minutes! That was one of my big tasks was to develop better leg strength.
So we have taken a look at it and said okay, we are going to fix it. We can right here, but let’s start with the younger ages. The 11 and 12’s kick around a quarter of their practice. Coach Watts, I have an excellent age group coach, and really is a stickler for not allowing the age groupers to use fins. Kick more without fins. Freestyle on a board or freestyle without a board, but always tries to keep the fins away. I have always liked fins, especially for working drills, this year I have tried something different with the older kids. I started out with 25-33% of our practices kick. We have some pretty decent kickers. Have you really ever watched a kick set? I will tell you the set that I gave them this year. We are actually in this five year plan that I had when I took the job. We are committed. We are going five practices short course and four long course. We turn the pool Thursday night after the age group practice so we go long course Friday, Saturday and Monday morning. So we went twenty 100’s kick with fins on. The odd ones at 1:30, the even ones at 1:10. First, they thought I was joking. Then we started and then stopped and had to start over again because we had some people push off and give up on the set before it even started. Then I explained how long we were going to be there doing this set.
You talk about getting in aerobic shape. Do you need to swim up and down the pool back and forth? Do we need to go tons of swimming yardage? Well the shoulders are pretty sensitive and these legs, they take us around all of our lives and they are the largest muscle mass in the body which of course requires the most oxygen. If you kick, even vertical kick, you are going to get in just as good a shape kicking in practice freestyle now, as you are swimming. Now, you know me, it doesn’t sound like that is coming from me. I love going up and down that black line and I do not get bored at all watching kids do a lot of yards. However, as swimming has evolved in the past 20 – 30 years, we as coaches need to be smarter and we have become smarter in the United States. So much that we know you can get your kids in aerobic shape kicking freestyle, even if you are a breaststroker or even if they are a backstroker. You need to do those things. When I swam freestyle in high school I breathed to the one side and I had a high school coach who said, “No more, you are going to breathe every three all the time.” I had a stiff neck for 2-3 weeks. This was back in the day and each of us coach kids in that you have a handful of coach-able kids, but when you tell them to do something, they change it right away. Then there are a number of kids you will tell who don’t change it, but there were back then too. For some reason, these kids don’t believe you. I had a stiff neck for two weeks and at one of the meets I went to, I was awful. My coach was patient enough and he said that’s okay; it is balancing your stroke out by breathing every three. Now I am speaking from experience, I had one of those loafing strokes; this hand came right out of the water like that. Once I breathed every three, oh my-gosh, once I got used to it, my time drops were unbelievable. Swimming that way has more balance on both sides. If you coach a club team, you are coaching age group swimmers and for our younger swimmers I think it is really important that you have your kids breathe three all the time.
Now does that mean a distance freestyler has to breathe three all the way through the mile? No. Not necessarily. I coached a girl, Melissa Deary at Bolles and she breathed every three in practice all the time. When it came to swim meets and swimming 400 meters and 800 meters, I said, “Melissa, you can breathe off the wall.” She could breathe off the wall because it did not impede her speed at all. I think you have to look at each athlete individually you just decide what pattern they can use. I really think breathing every three, and not taking a breath into the wall and not taking a breath out is important. Here I am talking about this and I have a young girl who just turned 16 a couple of days ago. I have embarrassed her. I have yelled at her. I have had the team do things over. I have had her do things over. I have had it when she doesn’t breathe every 3 strokes. I have had the whole team punished while she sits there and watches and I still haven’t been getting through to her. I have done everything under the sun. I tried it the nice way. I am pretty passionate about coaching swimming and I am one of those guys who will do whatever it takes to get a kid to swim fast. I had exhausted all of my means with her.
For those of you who were at the sectional meet this summer, she won the 800 meter free and I wasn’t very nice to her after the race. She thought I was going to come over and congratulate her, but the last 400 meters she breathed every stroke, she took breaths off the walls and she looked like a little age grouper out there. I wasn’t very nice at all. We were in Ft. Lauderdale and we went over to the other pool and once I got passionate with her she started crying a little bit and I sat her down. I told her to do a 2000 warm down and I want you to breathe every three the whole way. I turned and walked away. When I come back she and one of the Florida State girls, are out of the pool just sitting there. The Florida State girl had her arm around Carin. I ask, “What are you doing?” That is the PG version, “What are you doing?” And we proceeded to go where nobody could hear me then and I said, “Carin, come here.” We walked to the other side of the pool and I said, “This might be the last meet you are going to swim with me if right now if you do not do what I am asking you to do.” I really didn’t have to put it that way, but I said we are going thirty 100’s on 1:20. I want them all held under 1:08 and I want you to breathe every 3 the whole way. If you breathe, if you take a breath anything but every 3, we are going to start over. The reason I am bringing this up is that, Rob Emory, who coaches Broward Aquatics brought it up to me. He works with ASCA and after I walked away and Rob reminded me of it later. He said, “I will never forget it. It was the greatest thing I ever saw. This athlete of yours was crying between each 100 and went all 30 of them and breathed every three.”
Afterward she came over and apologized to me and said, “I am sorry coach.” She got 10th in the 400 meter free at US Nationals and is really moving in the right direction. I talked to Steve Brown, my assistant coach, this morning and we went a set of twelve 600’s this morning and he told me the times that she ripped off in this practice. If you can swim long course in your facilities, swim long course. I made a deal with her. I just told her I didn’t want to yell. I don’t want to get passionate. I don’t want to get passionate with you in front of everybody. Let’s do this, if you don’t breathe every three I am going to mark it down and every time you don’t breathe it is a half mile running. We are able to run and she said, “Coach Shofe!”, and I said, “I don’t want to yell at you, know that I don’t enjoy doing this.” I don’t enjoy getting mad. You are perhaps the best athlete and I have got to get mad at you, but I don’t care whether you are the best or you are not the best, I am going to correct you if I need to be. She has corrected it and she is unbelievable right now. The best that I have seen her in two years and it is because somehow, some way, I finally got through to her that this was going to help. She has got some goals that are pretty lofty.
I can’t stress enough, breathing every three if you can do it and keep your kids on it. Do it as much as you can. I do the right arm / left arm drill with the arms to the side like I said. I do a lot of sculling, sculling out in front. You can go a set of 200’s and you can go the first 50 scull with a pull buoy then drop the buoy and then swim a 150. You are going to get your drill in and you are going to get some aerobic in. I would encourage all of you as I am encouraging myself at the same time that I am speaking with you all, put drills into part of practice. Listen to Eddie Reese last night talking about swimming in kick sets, incorporating kicking a 200 on two minutes and a 150 on two minutes. Now that is college athletes. I might take some of my kids and go 200 on 2:10, a 150 kick on 2:10, eight times through instead of just banging out eight 400’s or eight 350’s. I love using paddles and fins, especially doing speed work and if it is specific to what you are doing. Breathing patterns – 3, 5 , 7, 9 – I have started lately doing a lot more of pulling, breathing every 5 instead of every 3. If you breathe every 5, every 3 is easy. I told Carin maybe we will just start breathing every 7 from now on in everything you do and every 3 will be really easy.
The closed fist drill, for those of you who have never done that, have your swimmers count their strokes with their fist closed. Then have them open up their hands and count their strokes. Ideally, they should be pretty close to right on it. If they are not right on the count, they are usually slipping the water and dropping that elbow underneath their body. It is a good way to count. We do a lot of stuff where counting strokes and then decreasing the stroke count. It really forces them to roll and hesitate. Over-exaggerate the shoulder roll. I like to do a lot of that in the sets. Distance per stroke is important too. I have always done recovery ten 50’s long course with the distance freestylers between sets going hesitation one way. I have them really work distance per stroke, and then breathe every 5 the other way. I have been given the signal that I am a little long-winded. Any of you that have a question from me you are welcome to email me at the Sarasota Family YMCA, if you have a question about anything. I just appreciate the opportunity of talking to you about freestyle. If you walk out of here and you picked up one thing from me, if you all just picked up one thing then I feel like it is a success. I appreciate your attentiveness and if there are any questions I would be more than happy to entertain those right now.
The question was – sculling up front – do you use sculling in any other part of the stroke? Good question. As you finish, I mean, any type of movement where you are moving your wrists, you know the sculling up front you are pressing here, but that hand is moving all the way through so if you really look at it you are sculling all the way through the stroke. That movement of your stroke is coming through and sculling back the other way. The sculling you can do – you can scull treading water, you can put your feet out front with a pull buoy and scull this way and bring your body that way.
There are a number of things, but very good question. I have always looked at the hold stroke as almost a scull all the way through, but we always talk about the front part of the stroke, the catch or the sculling phase is where you press here, but really, that movement and the strength in that movement is really a sculling motion all the way through.
What is the optimum timing of breathing? I have always had athletes try to breathe as early as they can. That hand enters the water – right as that hand enters the water, you want to rotate that head, get that breath and roll it back in. Don’t let the arm knock the hand back in so when this hand enters, you want to rotate the head, breathe out of the corner of your mouth and as this hand starts to come through you rotate your head back in. A lot of us have had swimmers to where they leave that head over here and this arm knocks their head back in. Now you do not want to breathe too early and then you really can’t breathe too early because when this hand is here, this is here you are going to fall forward so right as that hand enters, turn, breathe out of the corner of your mouth, rotate and come back around.