Learning Skills and Strategies for Age Group Swimmers by Katherine Thomas Ph.D. (1997)


Using Science and Magic to Teach Children and Adolescents to Swim

A paper prepared for the American Swimming Coaches Association World Clinic, Orlando, FL, September 4, 1997

Katherine Thomas Thomas, Ph.D.

Department of Exercise Science and Physical Education

Arizona State University


Children and adolescents (8-14 years of age) are not miniature adults, therefore instruction should be different for children than for adults. Learning is a long term or permanent event, which occurs as a result of practice. Expertise is a result of learning, but not guaranteed by practice. In order to develop expertise, learning must be maximized. Changing bad habits is more difficult than learning correctly in the first place. Optimal practice for children is different than the practice which works best for adults. The structure of practice, feedback, instructions/demonstrations and the role of both the teacher/coach and the learner/child must be planned specifically for the developmental level of the child. Other issues such as development, skill level, gender and previous experience are discussed.


A special thanks to my friend and aquatic mentor, Mary-Alice Miner of Ocean Springs, MS. She taught me about making magic. We share a respect and affection for little ones, and a desire to spread the magic and make science work for little ones. Also thanks to Ernie Maglischo, the Sun Devil swimming coach, for introducing me to the ASCA and allowing me to present at his swimming workshops. Finally, my thanks to the ASCA for inviting me to write this paper and to participate in the 1997 World Clinic.

Using Science and Magic to Teach Children and Adolescents to Swim

Coaches and teachers usually have the goal of improving skill and performance in their swimmers. Further, the goal is for the improvement to be permanent and for the skill to transfer from practice to competition. In order to accomplish these goals we must understand the nature of children and adolescents (e.g., swimmers between 8 and 18 years of age), the environments which nurture skill development in children and adolescents and our behaviors as teachers and coaches. With those goals in mind, this paper will address two questions: How do children learn new skills or change skills? How should teachers and coaches teach skills to children?

How do children learn new skills and change skills?

Learning is defined as

  • a permanent change in performance,
  • resulting from practice,
  • characterized by changes in the CNS (central nervous system) therefore not directly observable,
  • and as efficient, effective and reliable. (Schmidt, 1991)

Learning is tested, and in essence, is accomplished when a movement can be executed after a period of no practice with skill or can be used in a new situation with skill. We could consider learning to have occurred when a swimmer can do a skill with consistency during a meet or at the beginning of a practice session. The issues which influence how children and adolescents learn and change skills include: motivation, control of movement, stages of learning, information processing, feedback and physical growth and maturation. The following sections will address those issues beginning with physical growth.

Physical Growth

Physical growth occurs steadily during childhood, increasing dramatically during the prepubescent growth spurt and then slows until maturity. (Malina, 1984) There are few meaningful gender differences prior 271 to puberty. Females typically have a rapid growth spurt between 9 and 11 years of age, reaching puberty (the onset of menstruation) on average at 13 years of age. Males reach these landmarks approximately two years after females, however there is a large variation within the genders and therefore overlap between the genders. Biological factors account for approximately 12% of the gender differences observed prior to puberty. (Thomas & Thomas, 1988)

In world class athletes, the performance difference between males and females is between 10 and 20 percent, most of the gender difference at this level is biological. The point is that when gender differences exist, the majority of the difference is probably due to environmental factors. There is little or no reason to treat males and females differently. When large gender differences are observed, these are most likely due to different expectations, opportunities and treatment of the genders.

During childhood and adolescence all children increase in size, gaining height and weight. Part of the improvement in performance (e.g., swim speed) is due to the increase associated with growth. (Malina, 1984) In addition, three other anthropometric variables change which have the potential to improve performance. First, the limbs grow at a faster rate than the head and torso, so the levers used in swimming strokes increase and should improve performance. Second, the amount of muscle increases, thus increasing strength. Third, the shoulders grow dramatically in males during and after puberty.

Some of the improvement with increasing age in speed and effectiveness of strokes is due to growth. The major portion, however, is probably due to improved technique. Children undergoing rapid growth may experience at times, especially if the growth occurred during a time with limited practice causing difficulty coordinating movements. Consider a youth who practiced 3 months ago and is now practicing with arms and legs which are 3 inches longer and a body which weighs the same but is 4 inches taller. Clearly, some adjustments will be necessary. Since each child grows at a rate determined by heredity, children will grow and mature at different points in time. Two children who have been very similar in size for several years may suddenly be very different—giving one child a new advantage.

One final note, later maturing children tend to be taller and often the best athletes after maturity, while early maturing children have a temporary advantage (due to increased size and maturity) during childhood. Coaches and teachers should have similar expectations for males and females, encourage all children, both early and late maturing, to develop the best possible stroke technique, recognize and if necessary, discuss with children, the influence (both positive and negative) of growth on performance.

The remainder of this section will address those factors which influence changes in technique, beginning with motivation.


Children 8-11 years of age are motivated by two questions: am I improving? and am I normal? (Scanlan, 1988). While these questions persist through the life-span in many of us, others will replace these questions or add additional questions. For example, during adolescence we may add the question: how will others view me if and when I do this? Dropping out is often attributed to lack of improvement. Another reason to focus on improvement is that task oriented motivation is associated with longer adherence, while ego orientation is associated with burnout. Ego orientation is when an athlete participates because participation brings status, while task orientation is associated with mastering new challenges and continual improvement. In other words, children will naturally begin with a task orientation, but some switch to an ego orientation. Intuitively, task oriented individuals tend to be easier to motivate, especially after they become experts.

Clearly, for many children an important motivator is tracking improvement. Unfortunately many performances are judged by the win-fail method – where winning is success and all other places are failure. Coaches and teachers must find methods of evaluating performance which indicate improvement, for example race times, fewer disqualifications or more efficient technique. Each of these work well if coaches and teachers are genuine. Children figure out very quickly what is actually important to coaches and teachers.

The second question for children: – am I normal? This can be easily addressed, but is often ignored. The teacher or coach can identify problem areas with statements like “many swimmers find it difficult to do this at first,” or “ it is normal to have trouble with this skill.” For all motor skills, the performance is very public. If you are having trouble everyone can see it. Children and adolescents often drop out to avoid public failure, others pretend the skill is unimportant. These youth may clown around or become discipline problems for the coach.

The best motivator is improvement. A clear understanding of the relationship between hard work (e.g., practice) and improvement also helps motivate learners. Children often think that exceptional athletes were “born that way,” or “athletes have ‘it’ while non-athletes don’t.” Looking at practice schedules of successful athletes or a teacher/coach who can recall the effort that went into mastering a skill, and the reward that results from hard work, can be important motivators.

Coaches and teachers should:

  • help swimmers track improvement,
  • encourage a task orientation by focusing on mastery of skills and individual goals,
  • discourage judgments made based on winning and awards,
  • identify difficult skills and
  • relate progress and success to hard work and practice.

Movement Control

Movement is controlled in one of three ways. Rapid movements are programmed entirely in advance and are executed with little or no change to the program. Some slow movements are controlled by sensory feedback, for example reaching for the alarm clock in the dark, your hand moves around recognizing objects until it finds the clock, the switch and finally the alarm is shut off. The third type are movements which have programmed components and then use on-line (or sensory feedback) control for other components. In order to increase speed in these combination movements, the programmed portion must increase. One of the things which is probably gained during practice is to program greater portions of moments, and therefore to rely less on sensory feedback to control moments.

The typical adult can make no more than three changes per second based on sensory feedback, so there is an advantage to programming movements in advance and reducing the reliance on sensory information.

One benefit of practice and one change in the CNS which occurs during learning is that more of a movement is programmed and less is controlled on-line. Younger and less experienced performers tend to rely on sensory information to control movement. With age and experience, performers rely more on programming. Programmed movements tend to be smoother, faster and less attention demanding.

Slower movements tend to be more accurate partially because sensory feedback is available to make corrections. However, when the sensory information is not available the movement will probably deteriorate. That is one reason to limit or avoid slow motion practice. Skill practice should be done in “real time,” not necessarily “all out” (e.g., as fast as possible). Learners should work in units which can be programmed, then as the movements are mastered, the programs can be lengthened or even linked together.

There are three characteristics of a movement which are permanent when a program is well learned, when one of these is changed the entire program tends to deteriorate. (Schmidt, 1988) First, order of the parts is constant within a well learned program. For example, in breaststroke the order is pull, kick, glide. Changing the order to kick, glide, pull would necessitate a new program and would clearly not be the breaststroke as we now recognize the stroke. Second, the relative timing of the movement must be constant. This is the internal timing. One way to think of this, is that if the pull in breaststroke takes 50% of the entire movement, it will still take 50% whether you swim faster or slower. Relative timing maybe the most difficult portion of a motor program to learn. Small changes in timing can have disastrous results on the outcome. As swimmers practice, it is important to avoid any activity which may change the relative timing of the stroke. Many training aides which provide physical constraints do alter the relative timing and should be avoided. Third, is relative force produced by pairs of muscles within the movement. If relative force changes, you see movements of different size, so in the breaststroke example alterations of force might cause one arm to fully extend at the end of the pull rather than ending in a circular motion. Programmed movements also have features which can change without demanding a new program. This allows us to swim the same stroke faster or slower. Overall timing and force are two of these.

Coaches and teachers should:

  • encourage learners to program movements,
  • do most skill practice in “real time,”
  • break skills into parts that can be programmed,
  • encourage learners to think about sensory feedback after the movement is complete,
  • discourage making corrections during rapid movement and
  • avoid changing order, relative timing and relative force in well learned movements.

Stages of Learning

Three stages of learning are evident in children and adults during the acquisition of all motor skills. (Magill, 1993) The first stage is characterized by getting the idea of the task and is called the cognitive stage. The learner wants to avoid injury (and in adolescents embarrassment) while making the first few attempts. The errors during this stage are large and often each trial looks very different.

The second stage is called the associative or motor stage. The learner still makes errors, but tends to make the same error repeatedly. The errors are usually smaller than in stage one, and the performer becomes aware when an error has been made. Hopefully, during this stage more of the movement is programmed. The second stage can last weeks or even years, some performers never leave this stage!

The third stage is reached when the movement is learned. The stage is called the autonomous stage because the performer doesn’t have to think about the movement during the movement, it is programmed ahead. Sensory feedback is used afterward to determine if errors were made and the person is able to make corrections. The movement is efficient, effective, consistent and can be performed after periods of time without practice.

The object of coaching and teaching is to help swimmers move into stage three, the autonomous stage. Because the learner in stage 3, has skill (e.g., low error, high consistency, efficiency) and can detect and correct errors, the process is to make yourself unnecessary! Clearly, the goal is independence in the student or athlete. Realistically, athletes seeking higher levels of performance will always need coaches for the physiological training aspects of performance as well as the skill portion. However when learning, a shift of focus does occur, from skill development to physiological and psychological training. Coaches and teachers should:

Stage One: Reduce anxiety by pointing out potential difficulties, provide a nurturing environment, make sure the learner understands what and why before attempting the task.

Stage Two: Focus on programming more of the movement and having the learner detect errors.

Stage Three: The focus shifts from skill acquisition to physiological and psychological training.

Information Processing

Learning is dependent upon cognitive understanding and occurs in the CNS. Therefore the information processing system (cognitive system) is the center of learning. (Thomas, 1984) Expert athletes have many facts, large banks of declarative knowledge which are often viewed as necessary for expertise. (Thomas, 1991) Having this knowledge does not guarantee expertise, but it would seem expertise is impossible without declarative knowledge. The first stage of learning is also characterized by knowing, so the foundation for skilled performance at many levels is contingent upon knowledge. The information processing system is the source of knowledge acquisition.

Children process information more slowly than adults or they process less information in the same amount of time. In addition children have less experience with learning and decision making, fewer strategies and often approach learning differently than adults. For example, when an adult wants to remember something, the typical strategy is to repeat the item(s). At 7 years of age children begin to repeat, prior to that children do virtually nothing to cause a remembering. When we asked 5 year olds how they remembered different movements they said “I put on my thinking cap,” “I just did because my teacher told me to,” while older children (11 year olds) had specific strategies such as “I visualized a peace sign and moved around the lines,” or “I saw a clock and moved to 2, then 10 and then 6.” (Winther & Thomas, 1981) These statements explain a great deal about why 11 year olds perform movements more accurately than 5 year olds. Adults use many cognitive strategies to aid memory, while children do not. Fortunately, children do benefit from using adult strategies; children just can’t invent these strategies. So coaches and teachers can help children remember by having the children do what the adult does naturally. In other words, as an adult you have the secrets which are not available to children, but if you share those secrets of memory and decision making children and adolescents will perform more like you.

Adults typically search their memory for experiences which will help in a new situation, children do not search and often lack experience. (Thomas, Thomas, & Gallagher, 1993) Relating new tasks to old tasks helps children initiate new skills. Forcing kids to use cues, for example 1, 2, 3, where 1 is face in the water, 2 is float, and 3 is kick, helps them to remember and therefore learn. Asking a child what they are going to do before they try is another helpful strategy. Children often do not plan (or program), asking them forces them to have a cognitive representation of what skill they will try next. By about 12 years of age children do most of the cognitive strategies observed in adults, but they are not as effective—probably a result of less experience. So for children under 12 years of age sharing your strategies will be helpful, and for adolescents providing links to experience and new experiences will also be helpful.

Coaches and teachers should:

  • have children under 12 verbally repeat items to be remembered,
  • provide labels (physical locations or mental images like 10 on the clock),
  • accompany physical practice with cues and verbal rehearsal,
  • ask children to explain what they are going to do before trying it,
  • help children use your memory strategies (e.g., repeating) and
  • link new skills to previous experience.

Extrinsic Feedback

Feedback can be sensory (intrinsic) or extrinsic. Extrinsic feedback is information which the performer is unable to obtain for him or herself—feedback from a coach or teacher. Early in learning the most frequent and important feedback is knowledge of performance (KP) which provides information about errors in execution. Knowledge of results (KR) is also extrinsic and is about the outcome, for example you were 2 seconds too slow on the first 100 m. In order for feedback to be helpful it must provide corrective information, the learner must have time to use the information to make corrections and it must not 274 interfere with learning.

Feedback should be presented more often (e.g., after each trial) at the beginning of learning, but during stage two (the autonomous stage) should be faded so that feedback occurs about 50% of the time. This could mean beginning a session with feedback on each trial and reducing the feedback to about 1 in 5 trials (fading). On some of the trials where feedback is not given or before feedback is given, you should ask the learner “what do you think you did wrong?” to encourage error detection. One way that feedback can interfere with learning is that it may become a ‘crutch’ where the learner never learns to detect errors, thus keeping them in stage two of learning permanently and dependent on a teacher or coach.

As we get older and as we gain experience we can use more precise information than when we were younger or less experienced. “Too fast” may be precise enough for an 8 year old, while an adult needs to know how much “too fast” the movement was. Children, when faced with too much information will either “round it down” to an amount they can understand or ignore it completely.

Young children need more time to make corrections based on feedback and typically do not consider the feedback or take too little time to make adequate corrections. If it takes an adult 3 seconds to make a correction it will take an 8 year old as long as 30 seconds to make the same correction, and with older children, somewhere in between. Often children are rushed into the next trial before they can actually use the corrective information given by the teacher or coach. Asking them to explain what they will do to fix the problem is one way to be sure they can use the feedback.

Coaches and teachers should:

  • give younger children and adolescents more time to correct errors based on feedback,
  • provide more precise corrective information with increased age and experience,
  • make sure the learner has a plan of how to use the feedback before the next trial,
  • give feedback which is unavailable to the learner from other sources,
  • fade feedback from every trial early in learning to an average of 50% of the time and
  • ask learners what they think they did wrong.

Learning and Unlearning

The most obvious example of a learned skill is riding a bike where we often hear “once you learn you never forget.” Why is that, when other skills seem to fade so quickly? Think about when you learned to ride a bike, did you say, “okay, been there, done that, never again?” Probably not, you most likely rode your bike many times and hours once you had some basic skill.

One way of determining when a skill is well learned is to determine how much practice was done for the skill to be efficient, effective and consistent. To practice the skill that much more would make the skill well learned and one which you are unlikely to forget-similar to riding a bike. The idea of a well learned skill also gives us insight into the problem of eliminating a bad habit, or unlearning.

Consider a skill that took 1,000 trials to learn and 1,000 more to be well learned, for a total of 2,000 trials. Now let’s assume that our skill was learned incorrectly and must be relearned. It is likely that 2, 000 trials will be necessary to be consistent, efficient and effective at the new version, then 2,000 more for that to be well learned for a total of 4,000 trials. Clearly there is a high cost to getting into bad habits, and the longer the habit is allowed to remain, the more difficult it will be to change.

How should teachers and coaches teach skills to children?

Teachers and coaches should use science to plan practice. Magic is what allows you to connect with your swimmers. This section will describe planning practice, planning for transfer, using instructions, demonstrations and cues, coaching for autonomy, and developing trust.

Pre-practice Planning

Goal setting is the first step in planning practice. You are undoubtedly familiar with long and short term goals, both are important. Each practice should have a goal and that should be easily articulated by you and the swimmer(s). When asked “what was the teacher/ coach teaching you today,” all swimmers should be able to answer with the same answer. In addition to practice goals, goals for individual swimmers are helpful, especially as these relate to motivation. Once you decide what you want to accomplish during practice you can organize practice to make progress toward that goal.

The most common practice schedule is to have everyone practice one skill for all or part of the practice, then switch to another skill. When we practice one thing over and over it is called constant practice. This works well to help learners get the idea (e.g., stage one of learning). When we practice one skill many times, then switch to another skill, then another etc., it is called blocked practice. However, since nothing is ever easy, these two types of practice is often ineffective. Learners tend to stop thinking about the skill in both blocked and constant practice, so they benefit less than if they were thinking. Remember the learner is in stage one or two and both require thinking about the skill. Other types of practice are random, serial and variable, all of which are more effective than constant or blocked. This is especially true after the first few trials of a new skill.

Random practice means that the same skill is never repeated two times in a row. Serial practice is similar to random, except the order is always the same. Variable practice is like random practice except in variable, the same skill is done at varying distances or forces. Variable practice works well for skills like trying to hit a target, but has less application for swimming. If we did constant practice in swimming we would plan to do all flip turns. Blocked would have us doing 20 turns, 20 starts, 10 lengths of fly, 10 of free always grouping the same skill. Random would be 1 turn, length of fly, 1 start, 1 length of free, 1 length of fly, 1 turn, 1 length of free, 1 start, etc. Serial would be like random but in a predictable order. One reason random and serial practice are thought to produce superior results is that each trial must be programmed completely. The learner has to think, “okay, this time I’m going to…. .” With blocked and constant practice, the learner may do that for 1-3 repetitions then they just repeat without planning. The movement deteriorates and the most important part of learning hasn’t been practiced – the act of programming. So, as soon a possible move from constant practice to random or serial practice.

Intuitively you can see that random and serial practice are more like competition. So with random practice there is greater transfer and greater retention. As a rule 3 repetitions of anything is enough. After three, there is little learning going on. Switch to another task, and then go back to the first.


Another issue with practice is how to structure groups. How many ages and skill levels should be included in one group? Planning is easier for homogenous groups – groups with similar skill levels. However, there are benefits to having some variation. The absolute best teacher is the person who just learned the new skill. This person knows what tricks they used to master it, while a coach or very skilled individual may not remember exactly how it was learned or even be aware of how the skill is done. Remember we become more automatic as we learn, so we are less aware of what we are doing. Experts often have inaccurate ideas of what they actually do during a skill, even though to become an expert they had to have the knowledge of what to do before doing.

Planning for Transfer

Transfer and retention are the two measures used to assess learning. Planning practice so that maximum transfer occurs, maximizes learning. The most frequent transfer situations are either to competition for swim teams or to recreational and emergency swimming for swimming instruction. The first rule of transfer is that the more similar the situations, the greater the transfer. Ideally all practice would be just like the application, however, sometimes that is not possible, other times that is not practical. Clearly, in swimming, safety is of primary concern. Until at least a minimal skill level is reached the primary concern of practice must be safety. After a minimum skill level is reached, planning for transfer should be done. In a competitive situation the individual does a start, strokes, may do a turn and has a finish. Practicing those parts together and in order makes sense for transfer. Further, practicing at speeds which are “real time” and sometimes the maximum speed is also beneficial. To add “randomness,” alternate the strokes, one race of free, one of back, etc., or if the swimmers are young and do only one stroke, alternate deck exercise with a mock race.

Interestingly the factors which seem to transfer the farthest, that need the least similar situations to transfer, are perhaps the most important. Confidence, perceived competence, notions of efficient movement and actions which have similar timing, are the most likely to transfer over great differences and time periods. (Schmidt, 1991) Children and adolescents who are confident about themselves (those who have had positive self-tests) are likely to approach most situations with confidence. Further, those who view themselves as skilled or competent, will also enter each activity with the belief that mastery is possible.

Previous experience helps us to understand what is efficient and what is not, for example, that splashing more does not equate to greater speed. Finally, the feel that is associated with rhythmic or well-coordinated movements may also help us, probably because we understand the importance of timing.

Teachers and coaches should:

  • organize practice so that each performer has the chance to develop skill and view themselves as competent,
  • build confidence in swimmers, avoid undermining confidence,
  • assist performers to understand the components of efficient movement,
  • teach the importance of timing in skilled performance and
  • begin with knowledge of execution, working toward skilled execution.

Instructions, Demonstrations

Instructions are verbal presentations of information, for example: “line up over here” and “you will go pull, kick, glide in breaststroke.” Instructions fall into two categories: management and skill. Management is necessary, to keep the swimmers organized and indirectly influences learning. Instructions about skill should focus on 1-2 important points, beginning with the most important. Demonstrations are visual examples of what to do. Demonstrations work best early in the learning process. Demonstrations do not replace instructions or practice. Most demonstrations should be accompanied by instructions about what to look at in the demonstration, for example “look at my hand” or “watch the way Susan’s hand moves under her body during the pull.” Between 1 and 3 demonstrations before trying a new skill is usually helpful for “getting the idea.” More demonstrations are actually counterproductive. Never spend more time demonstrating then the swimmers spend practicing. Cues are words which represent an idea or action and summarize the instructions. Instructions, demonstrations and cues are all used before practice and with practice. None of these substitutes for practice.

Teachers and coaches should:

  • limit instructions to 1-2 key points,
  • use cues (1 word) which represent an idea and instructions,
  • ask the students questions: about the instructions, about management, about cues,
  • give 1-3 (no more!) demonstrations—use a kid if possible,
  • focus the learners attention before the demonstration by telling them what to look at and
  • never spend more time demonstrating than the swimmers spend practicing.

Autonomy and Trust

The goal of teachers and coaches is to work themselves out of a job by developing independent swimmers. Swimmers are independent when they are skilled, can detect and correct errors, and feel confident and competent. Swimmers who need coaches or teachers present to perform well are not independent. Most athletes, including swimmers, will need some help throughout their careers in setting goals, developing new skills, establishing training regimes and eliminating bad habits. So in fact, coaches and teachers will always be needed, but the role shifts from constant guidance to intermittent advice.

The key to instruction at all levels of expertise is trust. Athletes return to trusted coaches for advice, swimmers learn best from trusted teachers. The basic component of trust is the truth. Feedback must be genuine. Feedback must be positive, corrective and encouraging. Teachers who promise help, must give what is promised for trust to be developed. Coaches or teachers who say, “It doesn’t hurt to lose” or “sniffing water doesn’t hurt,” do not develop trust in their swimmers. Recognize hurt and encourage swimmers to move on. Developing skill reduces the opportunity for many types of hurt. Helping swimmers achieve skill can build trust.

Childhood and adolescence are difficult and magical times. Adults who are sensitive to the developmental changes and to the need for magic will enjoy instruction and coaching—and make the experience better for the children. Magic includes kindness and fun and trust and skill. It is everything a child enters a sport to find.

Teachers and coaches should:

place the responsibility for learning on the swimmer

tell the truth

be magical, make magic, enjoy the magic.

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