By Wayne McCauley ASCA Level 2, Masters All-American National Champion Breaststroker
First, we must strip away old ideas about competitive breaststroke. I don’t want it to be smooth; I want a series of explosions with as much streamlining between the explosion for the legs and the explosion to the in-sweep scull. I try not to say pull on the arms because I don’t want the swimmer to think there is a pull except during the underwater pull-down.
The best way to coach breaststroke is the way I warm up my breaststroke swimmers every day. They know why I make them warm-up this way as I reinforce what I tell them every time we swim breaststroke. We always start with easy kicking to gently warm up the legs and the knees. We might start with 100 kick on the surface, then go to kicking two kicks underwater and one at the surface to breathe. We never use a conventional kick-board for kicking breaststroke, as it will cause your butt to sink. We want the butt as high in the water as possible to allow recovery of the knees with as little resistance as possible. Our swimmers’ hands are locked together straight-armed during these kicks, with the head looking down. Next, we continue the same kicking, leaving the arms straight, but sculling out and in for 6 inches, for two lengths. Then the same thing, except sculling out and in about 12 inches for the centerline of the swimmer. Again the arms are as straight as possible, emphasizing to the swimmer there is NO PULL BACK in the modern breaststroke. Tell your swimmers the water is harder at the surface;they need to scull about 1 inch under the water’s surface for the out-scull and 8-12 inches under for the in-sweep scull.
We then progress to sculling out just past shoulder width, strength determining how wide the swimmer can scull. My eight-year-old girls are sculling maybe a hand-width past the outside of the shoulders, and the strong 15-16 year old boys approximately 10-14 inches past. The criteria is that they must be able to scull out and have the arm and shoulder strength to explode the in-sweep of the hands to get into the streamlined position each stroke.
Streamline, streamline, streamline is what I tell my swimmers every set. They know to explode the arms so that when they kick they are already going into the streamline. They know the proper streamline is with the head looking down, hands together and the body straight as an arrow, with the head just under the water surface. The palms of the hands can be together in the prayer position or one on top of each other. To reinforce this exploding kick into a streamline, they do a one-second drill. After each kick, they hold their hands out in front in the streamline position for one second. I tell them to feel the speed of the water over their heads. Once in awhile I make them swim the same drill with their heads held up the way we used to swim back in the 60s and 70s. After a few laps like this, they are happy to return to the streamline stroke. Sometimes we will race breaststroke using the one-second drill. The swimmers look so good and swim very close to their best times.
The most important factor in breaststroke is a strong, explosive kick. The legs are brought up very fast to the buttocks, the feet angle out to catch the water, then instantly explode down and backwards until the soles of the feet crash together. The feet and toes should be pointing at the bottom of the pool when crashing together, and then for a milli-second you can point them backwards. This is not necessary though as the feet are now within the wall of water the swimmer has just swum through and they are not causing extra resistance. I have my swimmers use a narrow kick, so that the legs are within the width of the shoulders and just the feet stick out past this water to catch fresh water and explode backwards.
I use the two-hunch system, my swimmers hunch their shoulders outwards on the out-scull and a narrowing hunch at the end of the in-sweep scull.
The first hunch begins with the hands together in the streamline after the kick. As the hands reach full forward extension, the hands are in a prayer position with the thumbs up. Now hunch the shoulders outwards and the elbows rotate 90 degrees. The thumbs will be pointing to the bottom of the pool, cock the wrists so they are 40-45 degrees from being straight. We do lots of sculling drills, the swimmers soon learn they go much faster and easier with the wrists cocked instead of straight. This first hunch when done correctly will put you in a butterfly position and will utilize the large latissimus muscles of the back. These muscles are stronger and have more endurance than the forearm muscles.
The second hunch begins with the insweep. As the hands scull inwards under the face, the shoulders hunch up to narrow the body as the kick begins and the swimmer stretches out into the streamlined position. Remember two things;you must be able to see your hands in front of you, and the elbows never touch the body or chest.
Timing is what wins and loses races. I tell my swimmers, kick, streamline and fast scull. They know the faster they kick and the faster they scull the more time they have in the streamline position. Hence, the one-second drills where they explode the kick, streamline one-second, and rest, then explode the insweep scull. But I also tell them that during a race the hands are actually beginning to scull outwards during the streamline and first hunch. This is called overlap timing and is used by all championship breaststrokers.
Breathing should be done during the in-sweep scull. The force of the hands coming inwards lifts the body up out of the water. If you keep the head in line with the spine, you will have plenty of time at the peak of the in-sweep to breathe.
These drills will help any breaststroke swimmer from six to over 60.