Stroke Drills by Rick Stacy (1998)


Good Afternoon. This session focuses on stroke technique and stroke drills. Our guy like, changed the rooms around, so I hope you’re all in the right location and not expecting something different.  Could be disappointed.


I make no claim to infallibility or originality. Just about everything I know I’ve learned from talking to other coaches, from reading what other coaches have written, or just from observing swimmers. Moreover, there is obviously more than one way to go about teaching proper stroke techniques and stroke mechanics. But what I’m going to discuss and suggest has produced positive results for us. I hope that it will provide you with some useful ideas and, if not new, at least reinforce some of the things that you already do.


The philosophy of the Lake Erie Silver Dolphins is to develop our age-groupers into the best possible senior swimmers that they can be. With this in mind, we believe that the first priority of an age-group program is proper stroke mechanics. Endurance is important; we’re very much an endurance oriented program. And certainly a pretty stroke that cannot be maintained for competitive distance is essentially wasted. But the flip side of the coin is also true. If you train your athletes and they are well conditioned but they have poor mechanics, then essentially you have a Formula 1 racing engine inside a garbage truck; they’re going to be frustrated, you’re going to be frustrated. Without doubt, the swimmer’s ultimate potential is controlled by his or her mastery of stroke technique, or stroke mechanics. What I would define as maximum propulsion and minimum resistance.


Before we discuss mechanics, I think we have to discuss teaching principles. What it takes to make an effective coach or an effective teacher, and I think teaching and coaching are the same thing. I think the greatest coaches have been the greatest teachers. Whether it’s Vince Lombardi or Johnny Wooden or Rick Pitino or Bobby Knight or Doc Counsilman. Those people were all known as great teachers. And coaching is more than sitting down at a computer and planning a workout or walking out on the deck and yelling at your kids to go faster. You teach. You have to teach.


I think first of all a good teacher is enthusiastic. The younger the swimmers, the more enthusiastic you have to be. You can hardly go out on the deck and complain about being there, complain about the time of day, complain about being tired, being cold, being thirsty, being hungry and expect your swimmers to respond in a positive manner. As far as I’m concerned, every day of practice is another day in paradise, and I tell them that. I don’t care what time it is or what it’s like, it’s just great to be there.


I think a good coach is passionate about his subject and his athletes. You have to care about what you’re doing and you have to enjoy the kids. If you don’t, I don’t think you’re going to do a good job. If this is a business, if you’re just there to make money, I think they’re going to be shortchanged, I think you’re going to be shortchanged. I don’t know how much you get paid, but the money alone would not justify the hours that I put in. I like the kids. No, I don’t like the kids, I love the kids. And I love to be there, and I love to be around them, and I think it’s probably the most rewarding thing that I do day in and day out. It’s so good to be with the kids.


I think a teacher simplifies his subject. Whether we’re discussing the intricacies of 17th century parliamentary judicature or we’re looking at a breaststroke pullout, you simplify. You have to. You don’t have to impress the kids, you don’t have to impress the parents. You talk to them in terms that they can understand, and you increase the sophistication and the complexity of what you’re saying with the development of the kids and the questions that they ask.


At the same time, however, I think that sometimes you have to oversimplify or even exaggerate what you’re telling them. For example, if I’m talking to the kids about a flutter kick, I will tell them to keep their knees straight. Now, I know the knees bend a little bit, but if I say, “Okay, kick from the hips, bend your knees, snap the foot down,” they’re going to bicycle in the water.  If   I say, “Kick with long legs and keep your knees straight,” the knees will bend a little bit and everybody’s happy. So there’s a fine line there between knowing what to tell them and knowing when sometimes to exaggerate what you’re telling them.


Lastly, I think the three final principles, and maybe the most important principles of good teaching are patience, patience, and patience. I say the same things over and over again, and I think you have to. All of these kids want to do well. They just don’t know how to do well. And sometimes they don’t do things that you want them to do for the silliest reasons. I had a little girl years ago who kept doing what I call “Big Bird Turns”. She’d take a flip turn and her arms were out here. And I kept asking her if she was watching Sesame Street and she’d smile. She did this for two years. Day in and day out I kept repeating the same thing, “Why are you doing this?” The last practice that she did for me as a 10 year old before she went to the Central Zone meet, at the end of practice she yelled at me. She said, “Hey Rick, look at this!” And she swam into the wall and she did a perfect turn. I said, “Allie, this is great, but why did you wait two years to do it?” She said, “Well, I wanted you to talk to me.” So you never know what’s in their minds, you never know why they do it.  You just have to be patient.


I think the next thing we need to discuss is the method or vehicle for teaching proper stroke mechanics, whether we do it with whole stroke swimming or with stroke drills. You can certainly do both, there is a need for both, but I think to a large extent, particularly with age-groupers, you have to use stroke drills. You can’t do it with whole stroke swimming alone. And I think there are at least three reasons for this.


First of all, young swimmers do not always understand what we’re telling them. We say “x” and they perceive “y”. And I know you’ve had that happen to you. You’re telling them one thing, they’re hearing another, they hop in the pool and you wonder, “What the heck are they doing?!” And then you ask them, and they say, “Well, you said to do a, b and c.” And you think you about it and you can figure out how they got there, even though it’s incorrect. They’re not all auditory learners, and that’s going to happen.


I think secondly, whole stroke swimming won’t always work because they don’t always have the strength or physical coordination to perform the movements that we desire. They just can’t do it.  Not yet.


Lastly, and maybe the most frustrating, you tell them to do something and they think they are. I mean, I know you’ve had a backstroker who’s got the hand over here and you’re saying, “Now look. Put your hand in directly over your shoulder with your palm out.” And they’re going, “But I am, Coach.” What are you going to do? Clearly, whole stroke swimming isn’t going to work at that point. The advantage of stroke drills is that they isolate the required movement and they either allow or compel the swimmer to perform the proper movement. Moreover, stroke drills also put swimmers in what I would call “unnatural positions”. And I think this is a big plus. I think this improves their feel for the water, I think it improves their balance in the water. I think it improves their physical coordination. We all need or want better athletes, and I think this is a way to get there.


When you begin to shape your age-grouper’s stroke with your drills, I think that you need a model of the stroke in your mind of where you’re going, but I think you have to be cautious. Swimmers vary in length, width, weight, muscle mass, strength, coordination, and just about everything else. There is no one stroke that is perfect for every swimmer, for all swimmers. But there is a stroke that is perfect for each swimmer, and I think the art of coaching is figuring out which is which and knowing when to leave well enough alone. Knowing when a swimmer is doing certain things for reasons that are natural to that swimmer and that if you change that, you’re going to be in a whole lot of trouble. You’re going to make them a slower swimmer than they were. Consequently, I try to teach principles and not a single vision of a stroke. There are mechanics in mind, but my swimmers vary a great deal in their appearance in the water. They don’t all look the same and they shouldn’t–not if I’m doing my job.


I would caution you as well that we coaches are often superstitious. We either blindly copy the stroke of the last Olympic champion, or we uncritically accept what the sports scientists tell us. Both are errors. Science is a tool, not a master, and the age of received authority died in the 17th century. We should be aware of what the sports scientists are saying, but we should subject it to common sense and practical experience. Similarly, we should not focus exclusively on the mechanics of any single swimmer as our guide. I think when we look for practical examples, we should look to programs and multiple swimmers. If I want to model a breaststroker, instead of looking at the last Olympic champion, I think I ought to be looking at what Ed Frasier does with Seapak. I mean, every time he shakes a tree, another great breaststroker falls out. He’s doing something right. It isn’t a one in a lifetime fluke. I think you should look at the programs and the multiple swimmers and not the single swimmer.


Now there are several ways of executing stroke drills. You have choices here. I think the most common with younger swimmers is to perform a single drill for one length of the pool, give the swimmer feedback, knowledge of results, and repeat the exercise, and you do this for multiple times, what we would call “block learning”. And it’s pretty effective, or it can be. However, I prefer to go another way.


Now, I’m looking at kids that are typically 8, 9, and 10 and up that are generally “A” swimmers or better–at least double “B”. What I prefer to do is to perform their drills in progressions. Progressive sets of various distances that require the swimmer to perform a different drill on each length of the pool. The distance can vary; it may run up to a 400, but I prefer to use 50s and 75s. That gives me more time to interact with the swimmer. And incidentally, I would never swim age-groupers long course. As far as I’m concerned, 11 and unders belong in a 25-yard pool. I realize they’ve got much better endurance swimming long course, but half the time they’re going to be 55 yards away. And I think it’s more important at that point to be teaching than actually to be conditioning. I’d rather be able to talk to them more often than I can in a long course pool.

We do our drills always, always on a 10 second rest interval. Never on a send-off. This way I can try to get the swimmers  to focus on the proper execution of the drill and not to race to make their send-off. I think 10 seconds is pretty much optimal. If what I have to say can’t be said in 10 seconds, they’re probably going to tune me out anyway. Their attention span is about like that. It isn’t very long. And I think that gives you optimal time. Not maximum, optimal. There’s a difference. You can give these kids too much feedback. If you’re there every single time they come in the wall, they’re going to become dependent on you, they’re going to take over less and less responsibility for their own strokes and their own mechanics. I want them to do some of the thinking. So I think sometimes you just have  to back away and let them fight through it, let them work with it a little bit, and then talk to them about what they’re doing. It’s surprising how mature they can become in their discussions about their strength and their strokes when you do this over time. I can remember with Erica Rose and Diana Munz, at 9 and 10 they carried on conversations with me that I would expect from a coach. And they could talk about their mechanics, because they bought into it. They had an idea of what they were doing and what they were supposed to do, and they were intelligent enough to ask me questions. And I think that’s what you want. If they’re never asking questions you’re probably in trouble.


There are several advantages to executing drills in these progressions. It allows the swimmers to put in additional yards–and that’s not an insignificant consideration. If Swimmer A is going 1500 yards in half an hour drills and Swimmer B is going 200 yards in half an hour drills, Swimmer A is going to get better. All things being equal, he or she is going to get better. This isn’t a yardage sport, you have to do it to get better at it. You swim the drills in progressions, they do more yards. It adds variety and alleviates boredom. And that’s no mean consideration. I mean, we spend most of our time, or they spend most of their time, swimming down a pool, face down, looking at a blank bottom. So the more variety we can put into it for them, I think the better off it is. We shouldn’t make it more boring than it is. I think doing drills in this fashion imposes significant mental training on young swimmers. They are required to perform a number of complicated operations correctly and in the appropriate sequence. Mistakes are not accepted, standards are and should be high. Swimmers who make mistakes are allowed to repeat the drills.


I don’t make my swimmers do anything. They don’t have to be there. They may never ask me how much longer they have to swim. The only question regarding time is ”how much longer do we get to swim?” And they are not made to do a drill, they are not made to swim a stroke, they are allowed to do that drill, they are allowed to swim that stroke, they are allowed to be there. Everything’s as positive as I can make it. That’s the way I want them thinking from day one, and you shape their attitudes at the same time that you shape their mechanics. You improve their ability to focus on the task at hand when you ask them to do more complicated things. There’s a juggling act here. It can’t be too simple, it can’t be too complicated. I don’t want them constantly into failure. But I do want to stretch them, physically and mentally. I ask them to do a little more than they’ve been doing, and we move forward.


A further advantage of stroke drill progressions is that it offers sequential, as opposed to block, learning. In other words, if we’re working a drill just to get the elbow up, and we do that 10 times in a row, that’s block learning. And they’ll probably learn that fairly well. But if you do a sequence of drills, the entry, the recovery, the body rotation, they will learn the sequence faster, which implies the whole stroke faster, if they’re doing them in sequence. They will not learn the individual components faster, but they will be able to put it together faster. And after all, it’s the total package that you’re after, not the isolated tidbit.


Lastly, stroke drills performed in progression build on the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of each individual drill. And this is a point worth remembering. Every drill, no matter how valuable, has a weakness, has a downside. It does something negative, and you have to compensate for that over time, or you’re building that negative into their stroke. Our kids know, I would guess, hundreds of drills if they’ve been with me for a couple of years. I mean, if you think about it, there are a million drills out there, you can double the number by adding flippers, you can double the number by adding paddles, you can double the number by doing them with clinched fists, it just goes up and up and up. But my preference is to do a small core of drills for each stroke. To master that core of drills. And then  to add occasional drills either for variety, or more importantly, to concentrate on a specific problem. If we’re going through the season and they can’t rotate their backstroke properly, then maybe I’ll dig out twenty drills on backstroke rotation and we’ll do all twenty, and we’ll just hit it and hit it and hit it. But otherwise, I think you’re better off with a smaller number.


I think you have to plan what you’re doing with some care. I do. I can’t walk out on the deck and wing it very well. And I don’t pull drills out of a hat. I like to have a reason for everything I do–at least I like to think that I have a reason for everything that I do. So you have to plan. Certain drills are more appropriate to certain points in the season, certain drills are more appropriate because of what they’re doing or not doing, certain drills are more appropriate for some kids in your practice than others. So I may have three lanes doing one set of drills and the other three lanes doing a different set of drills. It just depends on where they are, and that’s part of my job as a coach–I’m supposed to know that.  That’s my responsibility.


Two general points, and I’ll run through the drills and then we have a little video.  Everything we do starts with a streamline.  I emphasize this. I probably use that word more than any other word in my vocabulary. I’m sure I do. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said it I wouldn’t worry about Social Security. I’d be set for life.  But I don’t think you can say it too much.


Secondly, all drills stress the legs and kicking. Now that’s a plus. Every time you do a drill you’re getting a bonus. You’re working their kick, and that’s worth keeping in mind. It means, perhaps, that you can cut down a little bit of kicking that you do later in the practice because you’ve already done it. On the other hand, it means that you’d better spend a little more time talking to them about the kick.


We always start with freestyle drills. I think the freestyle is less stressful to the swimmers, in terms of a joint, so we start with freestyle. I think it’s a little easier than the other strokes. We don’t segregate out a lot of kicking drills on crawl stroke, very rarely, occasionally, but not too often. When I do talk to them about the kick, I ask them for long legs, I want them to relax their ankles, to try to make the water boil. To visualize their feet in  a shoebox and keep them close together. If we do separate it as a drill, they’ll start out kicking on their stomachs, streamlined. When they drop underwater we’ll spend a fair amount of time kicking on the side. We get lazy. The legs are buoyant, they float up. So I have them kick in both directions. Eventually I‘ll work in some kind of a rotation drill, because if they’re swimming their freestyle correctly, they’re rotating anyway. If I do in fact want to stress the kick, if I want to make them kick harder, then we tend to do it with the head up. Either we’ll overlap the hands and hyperextend with the arms in front or we’ll do what we call “swan kicking”, put the arms behind them with the fingertips out of the water.


Now, I think you have to caution kids. When you make them kick harder, you have to remind them that harder doesn’t translate into deeper. Harder translates into faster. Because if you’re not careful, they’re going to be down to here, going nowhere. Harder is faster, harder is not deeper.


Most of the time, we start with some kind of a drill to work their head position, their entry, and their catch. We do a lot of swimming with the head up. We do some dog paddle, we make them press all the way through with some dog paddle. Most of it is what we call “Tarzan Swimming”, just whole stroke swimming with their head up, down to what…we work our way down… but down to what we call “Alligator”. Now, an alligator would object that we’re not doing it correctly, because when we do alligator, the goggles are just below the surface, the eyes are not just above the water. But I want them to end with a fairly high head position. And then I tell them that “this is not too much higher than I want your head when you swim.” We keep it fairly high. I know there’s some discussion of this and some debate. My consideration is that if a small swimmer buries his or her head, number one, they can’t roll their shoulders out of the water. They plow through. And number two, they can’t breathe. If the head is down here, they have to twist the trunk so far to breathe that it becomes an almost impossible operation. If they swim head fairly high, it takes just a slight flip of the neck and they can breathe and go back into position. So, just to give you my opinion, we swim with the head pretty high.


The advantage of doing drills this way, of swimming with the head up, is obviously, first of all, that they can see what they’re doing and we work the front end of the stroke. We work the entry this way. I want them to see where and how the hands are going in. I ask them to put their hands in the water just inside their shoulders, and my frame of reference is their ears. “Put your hand in the water in front of your ear. Not your nose. I don’t want you to overreach. Not outside your shoulders.” I don’t want them to overextend and hit flat, but I don’t want the hand going in next to the head. Actually, I think this is worse. If they put the hand in short, they’ll drop the elbow 99% of the time. So, if it’s not perfect, I’d at least rather have them overreach.  I ask them to visualize a little hole in the water out in front of them, extended from their ear. Elbow up, wrist straight, they’re going to put their hand in the water–fingertips, fingers, hand, wrist, arm, elbow, through that same spot in the water.   Now   I know they can’t do it, you know they can’t do it, they don’t know they can’t do it. So it works. You know, it’s surprising what you can tell a little kid.  Fine, great idea.

I think you have to be very careful with your cue words. I used to tell them to “place” their hands in the water. Well, okay, they came up here and right here they slowed down because they were going to “place” the hand in the water. Now I tell them  to “knife” the hand in the water and there’s no image of deceleration. They get it in there fairly quickly. Then I ask them to dip the thumb down a little bit. So we make a clean entry, we extend the arm, I ask them to flex and press on the water. I think it helps a lot when they can see this and they can put together what they’re feeling with what they’re seeing at that point. I think they learn to make a pretty good catch. It improves their feel for water pressure.


I never talk to them about making an out sweep. I’ve never asked a kid in my life to make an out sweep, to press out on freestyle. You don’t have to. If they press on the water, the hand goes out. It just happens. So why tell them to do it an exaggerate it? Press, the hand will go out. What I tell them to do is to press and sweep the hand under the body or scoop the hand under the body. I never say pull, because if I tell them “pull”, they conjure you tell them to scoop, the elbow tends to stay up pretty high. And I worry about getting the hand under the body, making the in sweep, not the out sweep. The out sweep takes care of itself. And then I talk to them about pressing through.


Another nice thing about having the head up is that it forces them to accelerate. A lousy body position–if they don’t move that hand, they sink. So, we can see what we’re doing, we can accelerate. I said that every drill has at least one downside. Certainly this does. You’re in a lousy body position, it puts tremendous stress on the stroke, and they tend to swing the arms very wide. They can’t keep the elbows up. I will remind them, I will ask them to touch the side of their head on the recovery, but they can’t do it for very long. They will flatten out. So, quite often, if we’ve done a drill of this sort we come back and do some sort of recovery drill, where we get the elbow up and the hand in tight to the body. My cue words for this are pretty simple. I ask them to relax, to lift, and to reach. I don’t want them swinging. I just want them to relax, lift the elbow, reach in front. I know some people don’t like the word “reach”, they think they tend to overdo it. I’ve never really had that problem.  But I don’t want them to swing the arm.


We do a lot of drag drills–what we call drag drills. They just lift the elbow, they run the thumb up the side to the armpit. Or we do a double drag, where they touch the armpit and the top of the shoulder, or a triple drag, armpit, top of the shoulder, top of head. I think this is a great drill. First of all for the recovery, which is important, but secondly because it really teaches these kids to relax in the water.  They will relax more in the water  on this drill than anything else that they do, and I think that’s important. It’s probably under taught. We don’t teach them how to relax in their swimming. But you watch them do a drag drill, and as they get better at it they get more and more relaxed. They also tend to rotate their hips and shoulders a little better. They discover that it’s easier to get the elbows up if they’re rolling through the water.


Now, great drill, but downside: they’ll drop the head on you again, and bury it, so you have to remind them, and, what they really can’t control too well, the stroke gets very short in the back end. They’re so conscious of lifting the elbow that they start coming out up here instead of pressing through So quite often we’ll come back with some sort of a drill to put the back end on the stroke. It might be catch up swimming. Streamline, take x number of kicks, and then take a pull, recover, x number of kicks, take a pull with the other arm. Or we’ll do it as a touch and go:  the hands touch, they alternate arms.


I try to get them to exaggerate the finish. To snap the hand back. And actually the splash behind them…they’re pressing further than you want them to when they swim but I think a little exaggeration is good at times. It’s also a great drill for acceleration. The hands will get faster. The downside to this is of course that they’re swimming flat. Besides the hesitation, they’re flat as a board in the water. It’s very difficult to roll when you have your other arm out in front of you balancing you.


up pulling a rope and the elbows are down in a hurry again. If 80 So, we tend to come up, or come back, after our finishing drills, or substitute for them, with some sort of rotation drill, where we get the hips and shoulders rolling from side to side. What this typically means is simply, we’ll take one stroke and ten kicks on the side and then recover and rotate to the other side. I require them to go all the way over on their side. Just getting over a little bit doesn’t cut it; we want exaggerated. Go all the way over. Downside: they’ll start swinging the arms, so I make them do it with a drag drill. If you’re not careful, you’ll screw up their breathing. The body doesn’t know the difference between an intentional and an unintentional act. So if you let them do this drill on their side and they’re looking back here, they’re learning to breathe behind them. I make them put their head out on their shoulder and look straight out to the side and try to keep one eye, one goggle, in the water.


Of course, you’ve programmed a little hesitation into the stroke, so we try to speed it up. We’ll progress from this to maybe three strokes and then seven kicks, so that you’re actually working in drill and whole stroke at the same time. But they’re performing the operation with the emphasis on whatever you’ve talked about at that point, but they’re going drill to whole stroke. Then we typically go to single arm swimming.


I think of all the things you can do–freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, maybe even breaststroke, single arm swimming is the single most important drill. 99.999% of the time, we do this with the free arm at the side. I don’t want the free arm in front, I don’t want them balanced, I don’t want them flat. If they’re doing it single arm, with the free arm at the side, the body can roll. And that’s what I’m after. Rotation without hesitation. I make them breathe on the non-stroking side of the body so they also learn to breathe on both sides this way. Now, this is a great drill. First of all, you’re teaching them to rotate. You’re teaching them to breathe properly. I try to walk out in front of them a little bit, so that when they breathe they’re looking to the side and I ask them to look ahead in front. So you’re working their breathing. But you’re also improving their feel for the water and their balance at the same time. You can see it. When they’re doing this drill, you watch them in the water and you can see them, day by day, get better, and how they handle this. They find their balance, first of all. They’ll start out dropping their elbows, they’ll start out hesitating, and then they get much, much better at it. Then, if we can, I think it’s a good idea to finish up with some sort of whole stroke. This may be part of the drill, it may be the last length, we may do a set of 25s at the end of the drills, or just go right into the main set.


The second stroke that we invariably do is butterfly. I think it’s pretty demanding in terms of strength and coordination, I like to do it when the kids are fresh, but I don’t want to do it first because of the stress it puts on the shoulders. So it’s always second. We isolate the kick quite often. I try to make a virtue out of necessity. The pool that I spend my time in, largely, is very narrow. It’s the famous Hawkin Natatorium. It’s, arguably, one of the worst pools in the country, if not the worst. It’s pretty bad. It’s very narrow. When the kids swim fly, if they meet each other coming down the lanes, somebody has to give way. Somebody has to alter their stroke. So what I try to do is incorporate a kicking drill in, so that at least in one direction they’re kicking, and they’re swimming back in the other. Then they don’t have to break the drill, and I can kill two birds with one stone.


We kick from the hips, then I ask them to bend their knees and put a snap on the kick, and to keep a continuous kick without an obvious pause or hesitation. We do some of this streamlined, either on the stomach or underwater. We do some of it kicking with the hands at the side. That lets them get their hips into it a little more. We do a lot of the kicking on the side. Again, they get lazy. They don’t kick up. We do a great deal of kicking streamlined on the back. We do this because, one, it improves the dolphin kick, although it does flatten it out a little bit and you won’t get as much knee bend, but it does speed up the kick, it strengthens their ab muscles, and it strengthens their quads, and I’m always looking for ways to protect their knees. So we do a lot of this. We don’t do much kicking on their back with their arms at their sides. It might be a good idea, but my kids run into each other and they run into the wall, and I don’t like filling out accident reports, so it’s better if I protect them. We do it streamlined.


We do occasionally work the entry with the Tarzan stroke on butterfly. They have to swim it with their head up. Again, I want the hands out in front of the shoulders, a little inside. I’d like the arms extended. I teach them to drop their hands in the water. I would prefer that their thumbs are down because I think the first sweep is going to go up, anyway. They can do it this way, but I’d rather have it more this way. It also improves their acceleration to swim with the head up, but we don’t do much of it because  it really does screw up their body position. And I think of all the strokes, body position on fly is probably the most important. It’s important in every stroke, but things just go wrong all over the place on fly if you don’t have a good body position. So we don’t do a lot of Tarzan.


We do work a lot of body position drills. Most of these involve hesitation, one pull four kicks, one pull six kicks, three strokes five kicks. What I ask them to do is to press the chest between the arms and get their hips up. I think it’s kind of pointless to tell them to raise their hips. They can’t do it unless the chest goes down. The chest has to go down first and the hips come up. You have to be careful if the first time you tell them this, typically for me at least, they porpoise. They dive down to the bottom and I bring them up and say, “No, that’s not what I said. I merely want you to push your chest down. I want the crown of your head and the tip of your rear end out of the water.” So, after a while we get the point of this and we get better at it. Of course, you’ve programmed in a little hesitation that you have to get rid of.


We do a lot of timing drills. I think the single most important drill for fly is single arm. Anyone can swim fly single arm. You take the biggest klutz on your team that can’t swim fly, turn them loose single arm, and they can do it. We do our fly with the free arm in front, unlike the freestyle. I want them balanced, I want them flat. I know some people like to do it on the side and swing the arm up to the ceiling. I don’t like that.  They’re not going  to swim it that way. The arm’s going to swing parallel to the water, I want to keep them flat, and I want to get their hand under their body, and I can’t do it otherwise. Besides, with the arm in front they are very well balanced and they can do the rest of the stroke. I will then tell them, either all at once, or different things at different days, depending on what I want to emphasize, to kick their hands in and kick their hands out, to press their chest, or to sweep their hand under their body without hesitating. I can work on one of those, or I can try to do all three as they mature. But the point is, fly is a fairly complicated stroke. A lot of things happen at once. Kids can’t do this whole stroke to start with, but they’ll pretty much all do it naturally single arm, if you just let them. You just turn them loose and watch them go, and they breathe at the right spot, they keep the hand moving, they kick at the right spot.  It works pretty well.


We progress from that to a one, one, and one drill–one right, one left, one regular. I ask them not to breathe single arm, so that we’re only breathing on the regular stroke and we turn it into a breathing drill. What I want them to do is to lean forward, try to keep their chin in the water, and you make them hold their breath for two strokes and they tend to do this faster. There are all sorts of little games that you can play with them. They can hold their breath and everything speeds up a little bit. Hands speed up, breathing speeds up, I’m happier.


We go from that to a one, one, one, and one–one right, one regular, one left, one regular. Now they’re into their normal breathing pattern. And again, you’ve combined the drill with whole stroke swimming, which seems to reinforce what you’re doing. And then again if you want, you can finish with a length of whole stroke fly or you can come back after the drills and do it again.


We go from butterfly invariably into breaststroke. It’s a good pairing, there are a lot of similarities, they’re short opposite strokes. I think it takes some timing, some coordination, some strength, so I like to do it when they’re moderately fresh.  And I do it third rather than second to protect their knees. I’m very gun shy about knees. I’ve had three knee operations myself. I don’t want them to have any, so I’d rather do free and fly, do some dolphin kick, loosen up the knees, and then go to breaststroke. We do more drills here than any of the other three strokes individually, because I think there’s more carryover from free to fly to back, and any time you’re working one of the three, to some extent, you’re working the other two. Breaststroke seems to be so radically different that we need to do a little more of it. So if I’m doing four 75s of each of the other three, I’ll do six or eight 75s of this.


We do isolate the kick quite a bit. I ask them to keep the knees fairly close together, roughly hip width. We do some of the kicking with pull buoys. I ask them to lift their heels and I explain to them the dangers of dropping the knees, that this is the worst thing they can do. When they get their heels up, we turn the feet out, they snap the kick, try to accelerate through, and they always finish with the feet together and the legs straight. I want them streamlined at the conclusion of the kick. We do this streamlined on the stomach. We do it underwater. In fact, I think underwater kicking is a great thing to do to lengthen kick. When they don’t have to sustain their body position on the surface, they’ll really stretch out and finish the kick properly. We do a great deal of what we call “heel-to-palm”, just put their hands on their rear ends and every time they kick they have to touch their heels to their palms. We do a fair amount of kicking on the back, either with the arms crossed over the chest or streamlined. Streamlined is a little more difficult. It pulls the body up. Either way, I tell them that they have to keep the knees underwater. For the flip side of kicking on their stomach, you’re working the knee drill. If they have mastered the kick in terms of the whole kick and a full kick, then I start worrying about the speed and we’ll go to some drills with the head up, either hyperextended or heel-to-palm with the head up. This will force them to kick a lot faster, but you have to be careful, now they start short kicking again and you have to remind them of what they have to do.


We do a little bit of wall kicking. Put them up on the wall and turn them loose. Because of the resistance of the wall, they can kick harder and faster here than they can with a kick board on their own. That’s the good news and the bad news. The bad side of it is because they are kicking so hard and fast it is very stressful. We don’t do it early in the season, I don’t do very much of it to start with. I mean, I’m talking 15 to 30 seconds. I’ve had kids that were sore the next day from 30 seconds of kicking. So it is a high stress activity. And, what I mentioned earlier, we actually do a lot of dolphin kick on our back with breaststroke. I want to strengthen their quad muscles so that the knees will track properly. I’m just very conscious of this. For the pull itself, we do a number of sculling drills, just trying to get them to sweep out and in and to feel the difference, to get the thumb down on the out sweep and the thumb up on the in sweep. We go from that to the pull very easily. Scull out, bend your elbow to come around the corner, try to whip your hand in under your elbow. If I get them thinking that way, then they can’t pull the elbow too far back. Hands come in, immediately recover without hesitating.


We do a lot of pulling of breaststroke, either with their legs dangling behind them or with the pull buoy. Whichever way we do it, they must do it, they get to do it, with their head up. Don’t let them put their head under. Two reasons. One, it does speed up the hands, and I think you’re always looking for quicker hands, but again, they can see what they’re doing. They can see if they’re making a full out sweep. They can see if they’re getting their hands all the way together on the in sweep. They can see if they’re hesitating. They can see if they’re recovering properly, if they’re squeezing the elbows and squeezing the shoulders. This may be heresy to some of you, but when we go from pulling to swimming, I also make them keep the head up in the sense that they’re looking forward. The head is going to rise and fall with the body, I don’t let them look down. Because my experience with little kids is that when they look down they immediately hesitate and then they go short stroke. They don’t reach all the way in front. If I keep the head up, their hands are faster, they immediately recover and they get the arms straight. Our older kids swim a variety of styles of breaststroke, and I’ve noticed that a number of them have learned to drop their heads and streamline. It fits their style. This doesn’t seem to inhibit their future development, but I think it does improve the mechanics of the stroke when they’re young.


We do some of our swimming single arm. I think this is particularly valuable on breaststroke in terms of working the transition from the out sweep to the in sweep. If they’re just concentrating on one hand and they’re balanced with the free arm in front, you can really get them to dip the hand, hold the water, and then whip that hand in. We do a fair amount of breaststroke with clenched fist, trying to teach them to use the entire arm. We do some of this with all the strokes. We do some crossover breaststroke if they’re not finishing their in sweep. What we started doing last year, and I think I’m going to do a lot more of this year, is what we call, or a derivative of this, three up and three down. Swim three regular strokes up, take three regular strokes under water. If you have a kid that doesn’t pull all the way through, doesn’t pull far enough back, doesn’t pull wide enough, swimming under water will solve that. They will pull further back than you want. The elbows will come too far back. But in terms of the timing and the mechanics of the stroke, this is like single arm butterfly. It’s almost magic. I have total klutzes that can’t swim breaststroke on the surface that swim beautiful breaststroke under water. And I am assuming if we do enough of it, we’re going to have a transfer of training from the bottom of the pool to the top of the pool. Either that or they’re going to drown first. We’ll keep going till we get it right.


We do a little bit of breaststroke with the flutter kick, trying to speed up their hands, and they’ll turn those hands over as fast as they can. And then we typically come back with some sort of a timing drill. And these are pretty typical–two pulls and a kick, three pulls and a kick, three pulls three strokes. If we do that side of it, then we always come back and do the other side, say three kicks and a pull, three kicks and three strokes. I think it’s the back half that’s more important when you’re doing the multiplicity of kicking, of kicks, because you not only work the timing but you teach them the recovery and when they do the kicking drill they have to overlap the hands, they have to squeeze the elbows, they have to squeeze the shoulders. And we talk about being streamlined in the water for their recovery, so we get to work a lot of that. We go from this into a lot of, say, double pull outs and then I’ll give them a number of strokes. If they’re pretty good 10 and unders I ask them to do a double pull out and make it in two strokes. If they’re really good 10 and unders they can make it in one stroke with a double pull out. But I think it improves their sense of streamlining through the recovery of the stroke.


We also do a little bit of breaststroke with a dolphin kick, or alternate one full dolphin, one full breast to work the timing. Again, the kids that can’t swim breaststroke can usually swim it with a dolphin kick, and I keep thinking we’ll get lucky, that this will transfer one to the other. I have one little girl that I’ve thought that forever. I don’t think it’s going to happen. She’s a senior national champion in other events and we’ve kind of given up on breaststroke–what the heck. There comes a point where you sort of have to fish or cut bait.


The last stroke we do is backstroke. I don’t want to denigrate it. I don’t want to insult anyone, but I just think it’s a little easier so we put it last. The only thing I truly worry about is the shoulders. So again, we do it last. We’ve warmed up from freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke. I think the shoulders are okay at this point. With the kick, again, just like the flutter kick on the stomach, fast and shallow, I do not want their knees to break the surface. I tell them to kick up with straight legs.  We do a fair amount of this streamlined on the back because I think when they kick streamlined, if they are streamlined properly, it pretty much puts their head in the ideal position for backstroke and then I don’t have to tell them where to put their head. I just say, “Okay, streamline, kick down the pool. Notice what you’re seeing, etc., etc.,” and we can go from there. Or we kick on the side. We eventually kick in rotation with various rotation drills. If I want to put more stress on their legs and make them kick harder, and again, harder is faster, not deeper, I ask them to kick holding one arm up. If they’ve really ticked me off that day, I tell them to kick with both arms up and then the ones that survive get to finish the practice and those that don’t are down there for the duration.


For the recovery in the pool, we do a lot of double arm backstroke. I think this is a great drill for a couple of reasons. By double arm I mean simultaneous double arm. You should have a perfect recovery. You’re looking up at your arms. You bring them straight up, you rotate the palms out, you’re in a perfect position and they can see this. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be perfect. Now the advantage of doing it simultaneous is that there’s no temptation to swing the head. I don’t know your experience, but mine is the most difficult thing to teach a little backstroker, first of all, is not to move the head. You know, normal human reaction, we turn our head wherever we’re going because we learned when we were cave men if we didn’t we’d walk into saber tooth tigers. Not a good idea. Well, backstroke, we’re teaching them to do something essentially unnatural. Move the body without moving the head. If you do it double arm, there’s no temptation to move that head. You can train them from the get go to keep the head perfectly still.


We go from that into a rotation drill. I think once you teach them to keep their heads still, the most difficult thing to teach   a backstroker is actually to roll through the stroke because they learned to keep their heads still by staying perfectly flat and now you have to unlearn half of what you just taught them. We do the same sorts of things that we did on freestyle–one pull seven kicks on the side, three strokes seven kicks, sort of…..


…double recovery drills where they bring the arm up. They may bring it up a quarter of the way, half way, all the way up and touch the water, do all of those things and then take a full recovery in stroke and each time they have to rotate properly and do it one arm and then the other.


We do a lot–a lot—of single arm swimming with their free arm in the air. In other words, they’re swimming down the pool and they have to keep the other arm straight up in the air. And I really like this. I think first of all, again, you put the stress on their kick. You make them kick faster, you also force them to accelerate through the stroke. They have to move the hand faster to stay afloat. And, maybe most important, you’re giving them a visual cue as to whether or not their rotating. If their arm is straight up in the air and they’re flat, that hand isn’t going to move. If they are rotating properly, they’re going to see it move up and down like that. So I really like to do this. I think it’s a great drill. You not only make them do certain things, but you allow them to see what they’re doing correctly or incorrectly, which is a big plus.


Then we do a lot of traditional single arm backstroke with the forearm at the side. Again, I think this is the most important drill. The only catch, you have to remind them to roll both ways. When they start off single arm, even if they’re rolling, typically they only roll to the rolling side, the stroking side, and then they’re flat again. You have to remind them to follow through and get their shoulder up for their recovery.


We do a little bit of what we call a spinning drill. Sit down in the water, lift the head up, turn the arms over like a son of a gun. I think it’s actually good for rotation. They tend to really get the shoulders rolling on this. Of course, you’ve messed up their body position. You probably want to come back then and put them in some proper body position.


Okay. What I have next is just a short video that shows you a couple of kids doing these drills. They’re all going to do 75s. They’ll go free, fly, back, and breast instead of the normal order because they’re doing it with flippers and it was easier to go through the backstroke than it was to take off the flippers, do breaststroke, come back and put them on. Genius that I am, this is a homemade production, so I apologize for any flaws. My original thinking was that we have a five lane pool, I get five kids, I’d have a different age kid in each lane so you could see the progression and how well they do them over a period of time. Brilliant idea. Procrastinator that I am, however, I waited until Spring break and almost all my kids were gone, so I only have two of them. And lazy person that I am, I wasn’t going to do it again.


This was done last Spring. I probably should have left the camera on between the drills–you would have enjoyed this. We shot this a week before Grease, the movie was re-released. These little girls were singing all the songs to me between the swims. They were 13 and 15 at the time, and I’m thinking “How in the hell do you know the words to these songs? You weren’t even alive when this movie was out.”  But they’re singing.


The girl closest to you will be Erica Rose, the girl furthest from you is a little girl named Anna Stroh. They are twin girls from different mothers. They are identical. They are about as coachable a kids as you could ever find. They do everything you tell them to do. They work like dogs, they are just perfect. They were both valedictorians of Hawkin Middle School. When Anna was younger, she mimicked everything that Erica did. If they were in practice together and Erica was warming up and Erica started doing a drill, within three seconds Anna was doing the same drill. Didn’t matter what lane she was in. But they are two of the nicest kids you’d ever find.


Okay. They’re going to go through a length of dog paddle, a length of Tarzan swimming, and a length of alligator. Supposedly they’re working their catch and the sweep under their body and then should be pressing all the way through. Nice thing with dog paddle is that it really does force them to rotate, that they can’t do it flat if they press all the way through.


Again, that’s Erica on this side and Anna in the yellow cap. Erica turned 16 in July, Anna was 14 at the end of June, and they’ve both been doing this pretty regularly since they were 8. I have a fairly large number of kids that come in on Sundays just to do strokes.


Now they’re doing our version of alligator. You can see an alligator would probably protest that the head is a little too low for him, but it’s right where we want it. This gives them an opportunity to work their entry and catch and see what they’re doing.


Now they’ll go through some recovery drills, drag, double drag, and triple drag. I think you can notice how relaxed they appear in the water. I think that’s one of the advantages of the drill that you do teach them to relax.


Now they’re doing their double drag. See, they touch the armpit, then the top of the shoulder. It just makes them a little more conscious of the elbow. Anna forgot what she was doing and said “Oops” at that point.  Now they’ll go into triple drag.


Now they’ll come back and do a length of drag, a length of catch up to put the back end on the stroke, and then a rotation drill to compensate for the flat catch up drill.


There isn’t an earthquake going on. It was just that the cameraman was nervous and clumsy.


This is our version of the touch and go drill. The hands touch and they alternate arms. Now they’ll take three strokes and then extend their time on their side–or they should have been.


Now they’ll go through a rotation drill, just a descending hesitation, one pull six kicks, one pull five kicks, one pull four kicks. Again, if you’re not careful, they’ll start swinging their arms all over the place on you. So I usually ask them to do this with a drag stroke.


Now they’ll go two lengths of single arm to speed up the rotation and one length of good form just to try to put things together. Notice that they do rotate pretty well when you have them breathe to the opposite side.


This pool looks about ten times better on film than it actually is.

If you think I lied to you, I didn’t.  Come see it anytime.


Now they’re going to go through a set of fly drills. They’ll start out kicking, streamlined, on their back and on their side. You’ll see that they usually don’t get as much knee bend on their back. I does flatten out a little bit, but it’s a faster kick.


Now they’ll do a length of breaststroke pullouts under water with the dolphin kick, which we think pretty much mimics the fly stroke, then they’ll go translate that into another drill and then come up and swim a length of good form fly.


Usually when they do pullouts like this for butterfly like this, I ask them to exaggerate and do a crossover under their body so they do indeed make a full in sweep.


Now they’ll take one pullout then come up and try to mimic the sweeps with two strokes.


Now they’ll come back and do a body position drill. Just pressing their chest to get their hips up. They’re going too deep. The other nice thing about this drill is that it’s a coordination drill, that they have to be able to keep their kick going while their hands are stopping. Not the easiest thing in the world to do, and again, I think you make them a little better athlete asking them to do this sort of thing.


Now they’ll come back and do a body position drill, work in length of kicking, and then another stroke drill that combines some whole stroke swimming. Those lanes aren’t very wide. You can see if we had two people going in each direction they would have to alter their stroke to allow the other person to pass, so if we program in a kick length in the middle of a 75 it allows them to execute the drill without altering what they’re doing.


Now they’re just doing some simple single arm fly. One of the tricks with little kids is getting them to learn to relax the free arm in front of them. They’ll try to pull with it and you have to teach them to relax and not to use it. Again, the training of learning to relax the muscles that aren’t in use.


They’ve just switched arms. Yeah, most of the time when we do single arm I let them breathe to the side. It doesn’t seem to impact their ability to breathe to the front and it makes it easier on the timing.


Now they’re going one, one, and one. They’ll go through another kick drill and then come back three, three, and three.


Then the last drill that they’ll do, they’ll go one, one, one, and one, kick, and come back and repeat their drill.


Normally, at this point in a practice they’d go to breaststroke, but since they had the flippers on and we’re trying to do this in a short period of time we just went into backstroke. They’ve done a length of kicking to work the kick and to set their head position and they’ll kick on their side and then come back and kick on the other side.


They’ll come back and do a second set of kicking drills, streamlining the first length to set the head position and then we’re going to do something to put a little more stress on their legs.


This is fairly challenging, even with flippers on.

Now they’re at the arm pull. They’ll start with a double arm drill then go two, two, and two and then go one arm progressive. Again, the nice thing about this, there’s no temptation to move the head.  Kids will keep it perfectly still.


For these two girls, their weakness is backstroke. They were very good as flyers, breaststrokers, and freestylers. Almost all of my little girls fit into this pattern. Their weakness is either backstroke or breaststroke.  With this pair it was backstroke.


Now they’ll go into some rotation drills. Really the same sort of thing we did on the stomach, they’re just doing it on the back.


The problem…one of the problems with this drill on the back is that they’ll overreach pretty badly. If you’re not careful they’ll throw the hands across the head.       So I ask them consciously to go in a little wide and to try to put their hand in palm down, which forces them to keep the hand roughly where you want it, not behind the head.


Now they’re going to do their single arm drill with their free arm in the air. You can see that if they’re rotating properly that arm should be moving up and down about four to six inches. This is particularly important for both of these girls. They have trouble with the rotation. Now they just switch arms. The other advantage of this is that you tend to get a little more acceleration through their stroke.


And then their last length is what we call touchdown, or what some of you might call touch and go. They’re just doing the drill alternating arms, but they have to touch the back of the hands together between strokes. It does mean they’re overreaching a little bit on the recovery, but I think it’s worth it to force them to touch the hands, to reinforce the fact that their palms should be turned out by this point.


Now they’ll do a recovery drill, multiple recoveries. And now they’ve put the two drills together. I’ll see if I can’t speed this up because they’re just going to do the same thing with the other arm. They do accelerate, as you can see.


Now they’ll do a catch up backstroke, they’ll come back and do their touchdown, and then a one arm progressive drill. The theory is they start and end each stroke with the shoulder out of the water so they’re a little more conscious of the rotation. And again, this is also a rotation drill. They’re alternating arms, but the hand in the air should be moving up and down with them.


And their last drill for backstroke is just two lengths of single arm, trying to remind them to roll both ways and one length of good form backstroke to put it together. Erica tends to overreach with both hands and go in a little flat with the right hand. Anna tends to overreach with her left hand. So that’s what they should be thinking about at this point.


Okay, the last set of drills is fairly short, a handful of breaststroke drills. A little heel-to-palm kicking. Then they’ll kick on their back, and then they’ll kick a length with their head up to speed up the kick.


Q:  Where are their hands?

Rick:  On this set they’re crossed over their chest.


Q:  On the first set?

Rick: This, I think, is the first time they’ve kicked on their back. The first time they were kicking heel to palm so their hands were on their rear end. They’ll do some of this kicking on their back in a streamlined position that pulls their head back, pulls their weight back, and makes it a little more difficult to keep the knees under water, so it’s sort of a progressive challenge.


Now they’ve got the hands in front and overlapped. They’re kicking with their head up.  It speeds up the kick.  You    have a little tendency to short kick if you’re not careful.


Okay, they’ll do a sculling drill, then pulling, then a pull kick progressive drill.


Just ask them to sweep out and in, try to keep the elbows straight. I actually like them to sweep a little wider than that. And we  do it with a dolphin kick, do it with a flutter kick, they can do it with a pull buoy.


Erica is actually a pretty good breaststroker right now. She doesn’t get to train a lot of it, but she split 1:20 on her 400 IM last week, two weeks ago. Anna was also a very good age group breaststroker. She isn’t quite as good right now. It may mean she needs to do a little more work, but she’s growing and I think the change in her limb lengths has affected her stroke. And that…it will probably come around.


Which drill are they on? It should be pull kick progressive. I would think, if it’s the last length. Nope.


Okay. Now they should be into single arm, single arm and one, one, and one. They just isolate one arm, try to concentrate on coming around the corner, getting the hand in under the elbow, and then recovering without hesitation.


Now they do some of our under water drills. Three up three down, four up four down, one up five down. Eventually we get to none up and all down. They asked not to do that today. Again, one of the advantages of having them swim under water is that they tend to get faster and their hands speed up. It’s amazing what lack of oxygen will do for you.


Q:                                                            ?

Rick: This is typically their warm up. They’ll go about 1000 to 1500 yards of drills and then maybe a drill set to recover at some point in the practice. whole stroke swimming.


Okay, two drills to go. Three pulls three strokes, three kicks three strokes, and they’ll glide, which, if I remember correctly means that they’re going to have to do a double pull out and  try to get…they should be able to get down in one stroke. They probably won’t today. But they usually do. On a good day, Erica can get down with one pull out and two strokes if we’re working at this.


And the nice side to this drill, when they’re kicking out in front is that they’re actually…they’re also training their bodies to streamline through their recovery. I ask them to try to squeeze in.  …two pull outs.


Okay, last drill. Hand drill, flutter kick breaststroke to speed up their hands, then a timing drill, then they’ll come back full kick progressive and then they’ll finish up with a glide length again.


We do a lot of progressive drills. It just means a pull and a  kick, two pulls and two kicks, three pulls and three kicks, or if it’s single arm, one arm on arm, two strokes with one arm two strokes with the other, etc.


Q:                                                                     ?

Rick: Just about every practice. We have a few, maybe 5% of the time they just start with whole stroke swimming, because that’s what they’re going to do when they get older and I want to prepare them for it.  But most of the time they start with drills.


Q:                                                            ?

Rick:  Pardon?


Q:                                                            ?

Rick: They would typically do one set of these drills, I mean, one set of the 75s four times, and then we’d do a different set of drills the next day and a different set the next. Once in a while they’ll do multiple drill sets.


Q:                                                            ?

Rick: Doing one set of drills, maybe three times and then doing another set of drills in the same stroke three times. But we don’t do that very often.  I get easily confused, so…


Now they’re into their timing drills, two pulls and a kick, two kicks and a pull, and then they’ll put it together on their last length, two pulls two kicks two strokes, again. A nice transition from drill t

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