Learning about Learning Freestyle by Cecil Colwin (1996)


Cecil Colwin has had a distinguished International coaching career, and is also known as an outstanding clinician, lecturer, researcher, author, cartoonist, and illustrator. Cecil has given over 200 lectures and clinics internationally on the sport of swimming. He has written three best-selling swimming books. His latest, “Swimming Into the 21st Century” (1992), with over 300 of Cecil’s own illustrations, is now in its fifth printing. This year, Cecil spent five weeks in Australia, where he attended the Olympic Trials; observed swimming programs in action, and gave a forthright talk on the drug problem in swimming at the Annual Convention of the Australian Swimming Coaches Association. In the past, Cecil has addressed ASCA clinics on a variety of original and thought-provoking topics. This year’s presentation promises to be no exception.

First, I want to thank ASCA for inviting me to speak at the World Coaches’ clinic. It is good once again to be among so many friends from around the world of swimming, and, more particularly, among my long-time American friends and hosts. I say thank you to John Leonard and his executive, and I certainly never forget the wonderful work of all the ASCA staff in organizing this great get-together and meeting of the minds. Thank you once more.

My topic today is “Learning about Learning the Freestyle”. The term “freestyle”, in large measure, means that you are free of restricting rules, free to do your own thing. There is a freedom about freestyle-. I prefer the term to crawl; it was called the crawl because in the beginning the stroke was similar to crawling. And as for “Learning about Learning” to me, learning about learning is about forming new concepts.

As I’ve said, crawl events were designated as “freestyle” because there was no set way of swimming it, and there were no strict laws stating exactly how the stroke should be swum, particularly as no one could be sure what new discoveries might be forthcoming in this new and unique form of swimming. The challenge is always there.

The advent of freestyle, and the story of its development, by various generations of swimmers, in a philosophical sense, typifies the whole nature of our sport, and the spirit of striving for improvement. Freestyle swimming epitomizes so much about the sport of swimming, and the ingenuity, and talent of superb athletes, who contributed so much to the knowledge of speed swimming.

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a great freestyler on the way to a world record, riding so comfortably in a beautiful curving, flowing bow wave, one smooth movement flowing into the other, with never a sign of visible effort. Visible effort is unproductive effort. It is effort a swimmer uses against oneself.

Although it is really a pity to single out any one person for special attention, whenever I think of the finest freestylers I’ve ever seen, there’s one image that will always remain with me of freestyle at its highest peak of development. One sunny afternoon, while standing on a hillock overlooking the Mission Viejo pool, I saw Matt Biondi break the world 100 record, eating up the distance with a few long, loping strokes, looking almost completely as if he wasn’t trying. That’s one sight I’ll never forget.

And then I think of our great world swimmer, he belongs to all of us, Alex Popov, whom the media call the shark, and his young rival and friend, that big, relaxed, wonderful kid, Gary Hall Junior, alias the dolphin. It does something to me to see the flow of their movements, and their effortless, facile, mastery of the stroke. Their uncanny talent is something that creates a permanent image in one’s mind. Their conquest over the water is a tribute to human ingenuity and to all the pioneers of the stroke who showed the way early in this century.

Now let me tell you a little secret. I get almost the same thrill when I see a youngster starting to get the hang of freestyle for the first time. Each time it is a unique new experience for me to see a pair of pipe stem arms starting to master the stroke’s characteristic, fluent, free-flowing, continuous movements. And I wonder what the future may hold for yet another new talent, and it makes me remember many another kid who set out years ago in exactly the same fashion.

We form concepts by trial and error, by progressing from today’s truth, the truth we know today, to the next truth. This is the empirical method. In short, we have all of us, learnt the freestyle by developing different concepts about it as we go along. We work with swimmers of varying physique, of different movement patterns, and from all of them we learn a little more at a time, of what to do.

So this is what I mean when I talk about learning about learning the freestyle. And you can also see that this talk is not going to hinge on the evolution and history of the freestyle, but rather various aspects of the thinking with which people approach the teaching and coaching of freestyle, as well as learning more about it.

Now when I think about concepts I believe this to be a very important aspect of coaching. I can remember when I was about seven years old splashing around next to the wall, at the shallow end of the pool, with a bunch of other kids, all of us thrashing away, spasmodically trying to project our bodies up onto the surface of the water. We would progress with a wild lunging motion of our hands for a few feet, and then stand up breathless while we wiped the water off our faces.

One day, I spotted a boy swimming further out from the wall, who seemed to be going quite well. I asked the kid standing next to me “What is he doing?” The reply was, “Oh that’s over arm. It’s very hard because you’ve got to lift your arms out of the water”, he explained wisely.

That was my first exposure to the crawl, or freestyle. To a seven year old, the concept of freestyle was simply that it was “over arm”. The point I’m making is that concepts about something will necessarily vary according to one’s age and learning experience. The young child doesn’t have a great deal of organized ability to think logically about concrete objects, let alone with abstract concepts. Later a coach can start to talk to youngsters in detail about concepts of stroke and how to perform freestyle. Progression through the learning process involves coaching as much of the whole stroke as possible, and then later teaching movement accuracy as the swimmer’s skill develops.

If I had to ask you, one by one, to stand up and give a brief description of what you understand to be the most important points in freestyle, I am sure that the sum total of your expressions would provide a wide variety of concepts, opinions and views on the what constitutes the ideal form of freestyle.

Yes, I would not be surprised if we discovered that we have a great deal of variation in our concepts of the freestyle stroke. I don’t say this to be negative but merely to point out that our concepts are of necessity based on our own experiences, and on what we each consider to be the present truth.

Throughout this century, in the history of swimming we have always seemed to be busy “learning about learning” the freestyle. Probably all of you present, who were freestylers in your competitive years, will remember how you went about developing your ability to swim freestyle, and how you formed your early concepts on the subject.

You will remember the various adjustments you made to your technique in trying to fit your freestyle to your own body shape, buoyancy, and physique. For those, like me, who have been caught up in observing and studying the many variations in technique between freestyle swimmers, this can easily become an intriguing, not to mention never-ending, lifetime challenge.

It has often been said by those (who should know better) that freestyle “is a difficult stroke to teach.” I think that this misunderstanding arises out of a failure to recognize that, although there are basic fundamentals that should be observed, there is no one way to swim freestyle. Many coaches have one concept of freestyle. It is important that I should enlarge on this topic before I proceed too far into this talk.

Those who have a fixed idea that there is only one way to swim freestyle are probably more than 80 years behind the times in their thinking. Way back in 1912, Frank Sachs wrote that “The characteristics and powers of thought that individuals draft into the stroke impart the continuous charm of variety, and it is now generally agreed that the best stroke is the one that gets one home first.” Well, I don’t entirely agree with the last part of that statement, but it may be true to the extent that sometimes, when a swimmer is obtaining good results with a certain technique, it might well be foolhardy to attempt to change it. The watch word in this case is: “If you’re riding on the piggy’s back stay right where you are!”

It is rare that we see two swimmers using exactly the same freestyle technique pattern, yet they are all, to some extent, trying to observe the main fundamentals of the stroke. I’ll elaborate on these presently. In a long career, I have seen a case of “doubles” on exactly two occasions only.

Throughout the history of the stroke, freestyle has had as many variations as there are individuals who swim it, and my purpose is to try to make it easier to learn to recognize the differences between faulty technique and idiosyncrasy, and how to nudge a swimmer gently into the technique that seems to best suit that particular individual’s natural way of moving. This I suppose is what is meant by the art of coaching, as opposed to the science of it.

There was a time when the freestyle stroke was similar to crawling but today when you see top swimmers the action is more fish-like than like a human crawling – Look at the stature of these athletes too: they’re tall, lean, and slinky.

Even the ideal build for a swimmer has changed from the big stout barrel-chested person with stocky legs, the “steam boat” type. Everything changes, always there’s change, and sometimes it is slow and imperceptible. I believe this development will continue and that human propulsion through water will become even more facile. How far have we advanced and where could we be heading?

The early pioneers of the freestyle were trying to achieve continuity of movement. The crawl stroke, albeit very rough and ready in its early stages, eventually became fluent enough to eliminate the stop-start movements inherent in breaststroke, sidestroke and trudgen. All three of these latter strokes were leg-dominated. The crawl was the first stroke in which the arms provided most of the propulsive power.

As talented swimmers switched to the crawl stroke, it became more and more fluent. And, youngsters who had learnt it as their first stroke were soon performing with an easy rhythm that had only been seen before in a few isolated cases, in such swimmers as Cecil Healy, Barney Kieren, and the first great American, Charles Daniels.

Before underwater movie films of top swimmers were readily available, it was very difficult to form a concept of what was considered ideal form. A standard book, “Swimming the American Crawl”, by Johnny Weissmuller that came out shortly after he retired from competitive swimming, in the late 1920s, became a standard work and went to many editions. Weissmuller’s technique, in which he advocated a high elbow recovery, a bent arm pull, and a stroke that went through a working phase of press, pull, push, was quickly adopted around the world, but, nevertheless, all sorts of debates continued on the exact way to swim the crawl.

For example, inspired by the recent invention of the motorized hydroplane, swimmers tried to increase the number of leg beats so that they could drive their bodies up higher in the water in the belief that a swimmer could hydroplane on the surface! Actually hydroplaning is only possible when a craft moves quickly enough to allow the bow wave to come under the boat. There were many other brainstorms of this nature, and this era of swimming saw many swimmers who failed to reach their potential because they adopted theories that were not effective in practice.

While we are on the topic of so-called “hydroplaning”, swimmers shouldn’t attempt to force themselves into a high body position by lifting the head too high, arching the back, or entering the hands too close to the face, water-polo style, as it were. Instead, as a swimmer who is well-balanced in the water speeds up, the body will start to plane slightly due to the increased water resistance passing under the body. The effect feels as if one is moving on an invisible conveyer belt under the water. But this kind of planing is not to be confused with “hydroplaning”. Hydroplaning is a “non-event” for human swimmers!

Eventually the better coaches came to realize that a wide variety of stroke patterns exist among swimmers attempting to observe the same fundamentals:

How and where the swimmers entered their hands, centre line, in front of the shoulders or wide of the shoulders…a short “dig-pull” type of entry, a “chop- catch” as it was called, or a long leisurely slide into the entry in which the swimmer feels, channels and manipulates the oncoming flow of the water.

The amount of elbow bend. How far does the hand come under the body in midstroke? Across the centre line, or a pull wide of the body. Some female swimmers tend to pull quite wide because of weaker pectoral muscles than their male counterparts.

What should be the timing of one arm in relation to the other? A 45 degrees overlap? Or “right angle timing”? Or timing well past the right angle?

How should a coach analyze a swimmer’s stroke? First view the action as a whole. Does the swimmer have a constant momentum through the water as a result of proper body balance and accurate timing between the finishing arm and the entry arm? This is perhaps the most neglected phase of coaching freestyle technique.

The coach should view rhythm, fluency and stroke application. Then look at body rotation, arm and head timing, the pattern of the arm pull and the recovery. Analyze the leg-action, is it 2-beat, 4-beat, 6-beat, 2-beat with cross-over, or some form of “broken tempo”, perhaps uneven in its cadence, yet not interfering with a swimmer’s balance. Knowing what to change and what to leave well alone is quite an art.

View the stroke as a whole. Check for continuity of movement. What is the swimmer’s rhythm pattern? Does the body rotate on its long axis? Is the start of the roll timed with the start of the arm stroke? There are some authorities who say that the roll of the hips starts the arm movement and others that say just the opposite. It is the sort of question-. “What came first the chicken or the egg?” I think that this is a specious argument, and one that is misleadingly attractive in appearance. Exercise physiologists tell us that, in learning skills, it is better to think of the movements involved rather than the muscular action involved.

Some coaches will not agree with what I am going to say now, but I must speak from my own experience. There are coaches who believe that swimmers should learn to correct their strokes while swimming fast, but my experience tells me just the opposite. I believe that swimmers should swim very slowly when correcting stroke, and they should be asked to think of only one point at a time. They should go so slowly that they are making movement without effort, so slowly that they are just able to avoid sinking. In this way they can concentrate on movement rather than applying effort. When accuracy is the dominant feature of a movement, the swimmer should first strive for accuracy at a slow rate, and, only then, gradually learn to do the movement at increased speed.

A fundamental of the crawl that is often overlooked is that the eyes should look forward at the entry of each hand. The swimmer should see the hand enter the water, and then turn the head to the side for the inward breath, in time with the roll of the body to that side. If the swimmer watches the hand enter for too long, there may be a tendency to restrict the roll of the shoulder into the stroke, with the end result that the swimmer will be swimming as flat as a plank.

In addition to swimming flat, the muscular action will be restricted to the muscles of the shoulder girdle rather than the larger and more powerful trunk muscles. So that is an important point of technique right there, and one that is often neglected. On the other hand turning the head to breathe, before the hand has entered, can lead to a poor placement of the hand in the water, as well as a distorted body balance as the stroke progresses. While on the topic of head position, it is important to keep the head centered in the long axis of the body throughout the complete stroke cycle, even when turning the head to breathe. On the topic of head timing with the arms, remember that accurate timing in this department is an important factor in balance, and “the finer the balance the greater the speed”. Example: Rowing boat vs. a sculling shell.


In all the writings on the crawl stroke there has not been much reference to the interaction between the swimmer and the water. There would be such comments as “grip the water”, “feel the resistance of the water” or ” catch the water”. What happens to the water when we swim? The answer is we don’t exactly know. It’s almost as if we swim in “dry water”, a phrase coined by Nobel Prize physicist, Richard Feynman, who headed the enquiry into the Challenger disaster.

Stroke mechanics are rarely analyzed with reference to the water and its resultant flow reactions. Some studies claim to be able to calculate the forces that swimmers develop in the water. But the trouble with these studies is that they depend on the premise of “essentially still water”, and water doesn’t obediently stand still while forces act upon it.

Consequently, some studies may well be flawed because they are based on the mechanics of solids rather than those of fluid behavior. In dealing with a solid it is generally sufficient to measure the velocity of the body as a whole, whereas the motion of a fluid may be quite different at different points.

Swimmers and swimming coaches understand the importance of good streamlining, efficient stroke patterns, distance-per-stroke, and stroke frequency. But, most have little understanding of the effects of their stroking actions on the water. Occasionally, one will hear a coach say: “Pretend you are pulling through soft mud”; or “imagine you are pulling yourself along an imaginary knotted rope, or an invisible fixed point in the water.” While these descriptions may create an effective ‘word picture’ in a swimmer’s mind, strictly speaking, they are inappropriate because the propulsive force is not being developed against a solid or rigid resistance.

When a swimmer strokes efficiently, propulsion results from the water’s resistance to the applied force. Water changes shape when a force is applied against it. These changes are known as deformation and they appear as flow and elasticity (caused by viscosity). A flow increases continuously under the action of an applied force, however small. A given force produces elasticity, which vanishes if the force is removed, unlike an elastic band which snaps back.

Flow and elasticity are the two characteristics of moving water that a skilled swimmer should feel and recognize, particularly as the hand and forearm reach forward into the entry. The swimmer should actually feel the water stretch – yes, it does stretch!-as the hand meets the oncoming flow.

Unfortunately, most swimmers are unaware of this, but sensitizing exercises can quickly heighten the sensory nerve endings of the hand to become alive and sensitive to this stretching, flowing reaction of the water.

You see, the swimmer isn’t stuck in some rigid unyielding medium but creates a continuous dynamic situation within the moving flow that is constantly changing. The swimmer should try to feel how the water flows and stretches in reaction to the force impulses applied during the swimming stroke.


I’m not referring now to drills that sensitize the hands and feet, because these sensitizing drills can be done while swimming the full stroke, and they are very effective in sensitizing the sensory nerve endings of the hands and feet to the reacting flow of the water.

Stroke drills are intended to be effective in teaching skills. However, over the years, I’ve thought long and hard about the many stroke drills that seem to be very much in vogue as a standard part of the coach’s repertoire. Studying the ASCA world clinic yearbooks of recent years, I notice a growing tendency to accumulate scores and scores of different stroke drills, as if there is a certain merit in being able to produce a lot of different drills.

Back in the 1960’s when I was still coaching in South Africa with our small swimming population , and cut off from the mainstreams of world swimming, I developed a few stroke drills for teaching whole stroke, as well as stroke accuracy by means of part stroke drills. This was because we didn’t see many great, talented exponents of the various strokes, and neither were there many instructional films available at the time to aid the youngsters in forming concepts of fundamental movements.

In fact, when I visited the United States in 1966, after a 14 year absence, I was surprised, when meeting Walt Schlueter for the first time, to hear that, although we were separated by a distance of 8000 miles, he and I had worked out some very similar drills, such as six-and-six- beat-kicking while lying on each side, and then changing sides by means of pull-push arm actions.

Today, my stance on the question of the value of stroke drills has become somewhat ambivalent. I’ve had a change of heart, and I’ll try to explain my reasons for this. In the first instance, I believe that, if carried to excess, there’s a danger of the swimmers becoming very good at doing stroke drills only, and little more.

I have some doubt as to whether stroke drills have much positive transfer value in improving the overall, finished stroke. I’m not entirely convinced of their value. O.K. there are some drills that will help develop rhythm, increase flexibility, for example, and they will also stretch the soft structures of the shoulder joints.

However, the use of drills has reached a ridiculous point, in my opinion. We see coaches who incorporate stroke drills into their practice routines because they don’t want to miss out on training. They include stroke drills as a combined conditioning and stroke development training item, but I believe this to be a self-defeating approach. I don’t think it serves much purpose as a training item, and the effectiveness of these drills as such is also dubious.

Some swimmers become adept at doing drills rather than improving their racing strokes. I’m being facetious, and perhaps unfair, when I say that perhaps they could even end up creating new racing events for sideways kicking drills, and the like.

Now let’s examine a typical drill just to try to illustrate my point. Take the drill where the swimmer lies on one side with one arm extended forward and the other extended back next to the thigh. The swimmer does three sideways kicks, and then pulls the forward arm back to the thigh while extending the opposite arm forward. What is the stated purpose of this drill?

It’s said to develop the idea of equal movement on each side of the body. It teaches a swimmer that the body rotates on its long axis. It teaches controlled exhalation in time with the arm-stroke. It develops the pattern of the arm stroke. It teaches that the legs also roll naturally within the body roll.

Now the question that I have asked myself is this: What does this drill do that can’t be taught while swimming the full stroke? If you have not done so already, I respectfully suggest that you think awhile and ask yourselves the same question. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a swimmer do drills, but it all depends on what you are trying to teach the swimmer. A well thought-out drill may be useful if used just briefly, I repeat, just briefly, to illustrate a point in technique, or to establish an overall concept. But, again, I repeat-. use it just briefly. It is a means to an end, not an end to a means.

In my view, the more talented the swimmer, the less the need to rely on drills. I’ll make this concession though; for the swimmer who has a hard time learning movements, then drills may very well be the answer, but use them judiciously. Don’t linger too long on these drills.

Finally, take another look at the drill done with sideways kicking, with arms changing over, that I’ve just mentioned. Do you know what I consider to be the biggest drawback or handicap of this particular drill? Its stop-start sequence could interfere with the swimmer’s timing when doing the full stroke. I refer to the momentum developed by the ideal split-second timing of the entry hand with the final impulse of the opposite hand. This important timing phase is not there in the drill I have just mentioned, and I believe that there are few drills, if any, that adequately teaches this vital “connecting” phase of freestyle technique.

Momentum is a point of technique overlooked by the vast majority of coaches, and it is important. I’m not going overboard in saying this, but the ability to maintain momentum is probably the big differentiating factor between the great freestyle swimmers, and those who are content to make speed by digging holes in the water and falling into them. Momentum affects the amount of power that the swimmer must develop to maintain speed. Put in another way, when a stop-start action within the stroke causes a loss of speed, a greater amount of power is needed to overcome the inertia. If you must persist in doing stroke drills, then please be sure that the end-effect does not inhibit the swimmer’s timing and momentum.


Visualization is nothing new. I first read about it in 1948 in the “Physiology of Exercise” by Morehouse and Miller. I looked up the reference again a few days ago. Part of it read like this: “Thinking about muscular performance has been shown to produce an increase in the tension of the muscles that would participate in actual performance. This phenomenon suggests that learning and perfection of skills can proceed by reading and thinking about the technique of the event. Thus a golfer during the winter season may improve his swing by studying texts written on the subject. Divers commonly repeat in their imagination the movements of a new dive before attempting to perform it off the springboard or platform.”

Of course, the use of visualization has changed since then, and today’s techniques incorporate relaxation, autosuggestion, and even meditation exercises. Starting in 1966 at my swim camps in South Africa, I conducted “talkins” in which two or three swimmers at each session were advised in advance that they would be invited to talk for a few minutes on set topics, such as “How I think about freestyle”, “What I do on the day of a race”, or any other topic, the purpose being to obtain feedback on a swimmer’s learning and the concepts that are being formed in a swimmer’s mind. This verbalization process is also an aid to visualization, if this is not too much of a contradiction in terms.

The importance of visualization has been stressed by coaches and educators over a long period of time. John Hoberman who will be a member of the panel on Doping, Sport and the Olympic movement on Saturday, describes the work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) in his book “Mortal Engines” (Free Press, New York & Toronto, 1992). According to Hoberman: “It is interesting to note that, as early as 1883, Marey had anticipated the computer based technique that today breaks down athletic movements into discrete lines displayed on a screen for analysis in terms of their biomechanical efficiency.”

Marey was the world’s first visualizing physiologist and he used a technique called “photochronography” to take pictures of athletes in a “series of pictures at precisely equal time intervals.” According to Hoberman, Marey wrote “Language is as slow and obscure a method of expressing the duration and sequence of events as the graphic method is lucid and easy to understand. As a matter of fact, it is the only natural mode of expressing such events; and, further, the information which this kind of record conveys is that which appeals to the eyes, usually the most reliable form in which it can be expressed.”


Visualization should be accompanied by verbal description that highlight specific points in technique, and I believe it important to talk to the swimmers often, to ensure that their concentration is focused. Coaches should welcome swimmers asking questions, and not take this as a challenge to their authority.

I like swimmers to swim with their heads and not with their bellies. Therefore, before a workout starts, I make a practice of giving a brief lecturette, just a couple of minutes. I outline the purpose of the conditioning goals contained in the upcoming workout, and I also touch on one or two aspects of stroke technique that I want the swimmers to focus on, and try to accomplish.

There is a motivational purpose to this approach as well. I encourage the swimmers to try to make a little improvement each day in any or all of these three “departments”: technique, application to physical conditioning, and, third, developing a positive mental approach. The sum total of these small day-to-day improvements adds up to big improvement, significant improvement, over the days, weeks and months.

I will not hesitate to interrupt a workout and bring all the swimmers out on deck to reinforce a point that is not being observed throughout the team. I hate like mad having to do this, because I don’t like to interrupt a workout, and neither do the swimmers, but I think the best way to drive a point home is to keep emphasizing it, and I try to do it with good humor. Remember, repetition is the soul of teaching


I am surprised at the number of coaches I meet at clinics who say they have never videotaped their swimmers, or at least, found the opportunity to view them through underwater windows. Because of the distorting effect of light refraction on the water surface, it is difficult to obtain a clear impression of a swimmer’s action from the pool deck.

I use a camcorder frequently, and over the last year, I have also used one of Marty Hull’s “Snooper” underwater video cameras. The camera is attached to a hollow pole that contains a coaxial cable, and it is highly maneuverable. You can obtain views of a swimmer’s stroke technique from angles that normally would be difficult to achieve, without having to go underwater to do the taping.

In this connection, I strongly advocate the type of video tape session that I am about to describe. About a year ago, with the assistance of Scott Lemley, I conducted a very interesting experiment at a clinic in Mission Viejo. We spent considerable time carefully videotaping the swimmers underwater. Then we spent another hour or so in a unique three-way video-viewing and clinic session, in which the swimmers, their coaches, and I participated.

First the swimmers were asked to comment on what they saw themselves doing on the video playback. Some of them were quite surprised to see their strokes looking quite different to what they had envisaged … a surprise, I might add, that was echoed by their coaches. I think that we all found this to be an informative and educational experience. I highly recommend to you the value of taking a few hours out of your program to organize a video session of this nature.

Here are some other methods of forming visual concepts of swimming movements One method that Doc Counsilman recommended, I have copied over the years to good effect, and this is to have the swimmers use face masks and observe each other under water and to tell each other what they are doing.

Another method that seems to have fallen into disuse – in fact, Johnny Weissmuller first advocated it many years ago – is to practice your stroke in the bedroom mirror from both the side view and the front view. A piece of string should be stretched across the mirror to indicate the surface line of the water. Practicing in front of a mirror can be of tremendous benefit in forming a visual impression that leads to greatly improved stroke technique, providing it is done intelligently and conscientiously, and coaches should recommend it to their swimmers.

While on the topic of providing the swimmer with a visual impression of the swimming stroke, I want to comment on the illustrations of the swimming strokes that appear in the bibliography of the sport. The early books on swimming tended to be sparsely illustrated. Then more books were published showing more of the stroke sequences.

Although these were an improvement, unfortunately there were still insufficient frames to adequately convey the full sequence of the movement, and the reader had to guess what parts of the stroke were left out in between. Then, in the 1960’s, Doc Counsilman made a big break through when he perfected the use of the camera as a scientific instrument for analyzing swimming techniques. Both his educational films as well as the illustrations in his books were an important aid to conceptualization of the swimming strokes.


I think that pool side charts of the swimming stroke sequences are probably also a useful aid for swimmers to have around the deck. When youngsters casually view these materials, there is a strong likelihood that, in the process, they will subconsciously form concepts of the ideal movements shown on the charts.

Now let us come back to practicing the stroke in the mirror. Because of the nature of the exercise, it is possible to practice the continuing movement of the stroke virtually inch by inch, as it were. This gave me an idea: why not do a series of freestyle sequence drawings showing every inch of the swimming stroke? Well, there were days when I heartily wished that I hadn’t undertaken this long project…

I started by drawing one swimmer a day but eventually managed to get to a stage where I could “recruit” two, maybe three more swimmers a day on to my “paper team”. It took me 50 drawings, going from left to right, to complete one stroke cycle, and thereby illustrate about one second only of swimming time. Then I realized that I had to show the other side of the body with the swimmer going from right to left, and so I ended up with about 100 drawings altogether. You should realize that they represent only one of the many possible variations of swimming freestyle.

I have called the series “Every Inch a Swimmer” because I have tried to illustrate every inch of a complete stroke cycle, but each swimmer is so small that you could also say that every inch is a swimmer! You will note that I have not shown any water. The swimmers are “swimming” in negative space. In not “giving them water” to swim in, I am deliberately trying to make the point that instruction in stroke mechanics should always be made with reference to the flow reactions that a swimmer can expect while swimming!

Thank you.

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