Teaching Age Groupers Starts & Turns by Bill Thompson, De Anza Cupertino Aquatics (2012)


[introduction, by Steve Morsilli]

My name is Steve Morsilli, I am an ASCA board member.  Once again, I have the honor and pleasure of introducing my very close friend, Bill Thompson; who has, at his advanced age, forgotten what he is talking about, so he is frantically checking his notes.  (I believe it is backstroke starts, Bill…  oh dear.)  So Bill is a great guy, we have roomed together at meets, we talk a lot.  I have had the pleasure of knowing him for over 30 years.  So again, it is my great pleasure to introduce my friend Bill Thompson.

[Thompson begins]

Can everybody hear me okay up there?  How is it up there?  Do I look bald from up there?  How about from down here?  Yeah, Steve and I roomed together at a few Nationals, and I found him to be a gentle yet forceful roommate.  [laughter]


So I will tell you a funny story.  It is not funny to you, but it is funny to me—so too bad, it sucks to be you.  I was… [tapping microphone] (wow, that is going to be a bad CD, isn’t it?).  So, I was in Hawaii on vacation, and I called the office because before I had left, I had looked on the schedule to see when I was speaking.  And I knew I was speaking on getting kids from novice and intermediate level to an elite level of Age Group swimming.  And I called Tammy [Hopkins] and I said—I was looking at the schedule—“I am speaking after Chris [Michelmore] on Thursday, but my name is on Friday in the afternoon and it is blank after my name.  Am I giving the same talk again?”  She said, “I do not know; let me look.  I will go online.”  She went online and she goes, “No….”  She said, “You are speaking on Friday now, you are not speaking on Thursday anymore.”—I like to get it over at the beginning so I can goof-around the rest of the clinic.  And she said, “You are talking on starts and turns.”  So I sat down, on my vacation, and I prepped my talk on start and turns.  And then I got home and I saw it was on turns and backstroke starts.  So too bad:  it is on starts and turns.  [laughter]  Which… backstroke starts are a part of starts, so we are going to cover that.  And I am going: wow, that’s a really big topic.




So I am going take you through an exercise right now; this is going be a little more active than me talking at you.  I find, it does not matter what start it is, age group kids—and even big kids—do the same thing: they get on the blocks, or they get in the water for backstroke start, and they do the… what is it?  The Bataan Death March.  They stand there, like that, and they do not breathe, because they are scared.  They do that or they do this: they get up on the blocks, they are like this, they do this and they go [banging/clapping/movement sounds; and laughter].  So we are going to practice that, because it is hard to do.  Because I do not know about you, but when I do not breathe, I get this way.


So here is what we are going to do: set everything out of your hands.  And if you do not know the person next to you and you do not have an empty seat, just put your stuff on top of their lap—what are they going to do?  Okay.  I want you to put your feet right directly underneath your knees, sit up straight.  And I want you to take a really-deep breath, and sit-up-straight and hold it.  Put your palms on your kneecaps, close your eyes—that is take your mark—do not breathe.  And when I say go, I want you to clap your hands.  Everybody holding their breath, everybody clenched up really tight.  Get tight, make a muscle.  Go. [mass clap]


Now, try this.  Put your palms on your knees, put your heels right underneath your kneecaps, sit up straight, slouch your shoulders.  Take a deep breath in.  Let it go.  Take your mark.  Go. [mass clap]  Okay.


I do not know what the hell that does, but that was really fun.  And I tell you, you did that really good the second time.  The point being that if you find your kids are all over the place—they are either a Joe-kung-fu or they are the death-march—there is a wonderful opportunity for learning.  So if you take them through this exercise—preferably not the day before a meet, but maybe like a few weeks or even a month beforehand—and start working on pre-race rehearsal; that is a great key to either start.  If you want to improve reaction time, relaxation is the key, concentration is the key, mental focus is the key.  Clearing the mind, not filling it with: What did my mother say right before I got on the block?  Oh God, where’s my towel?  My sandals, where’s my sandals?  My sandals!


We went to Far Westerns [the meet].  We coach a lot of Asian-American kids and they all wear sandals because there are germs… in the water and on the deck.  And so at sprints, they kick off their sandals when they get up on the blocks.  And so we thought it would be fun at JO’s, while they are warming-up, to take one of each of their sandals and hide them on top of a shed.  And we thought, Annie and I thought, we were so funny, and they were pissed.  And even more than that, their mothers were pissed.  So anyway, lest I digress more….


You know, mental preparation, race preparation, that is something that if you practice a long time, you are going to see really rapid improvement.  I mean if you are getting the kids that I am getting, when they go to the rec pool—which they do not hardly ever do anymore.  When they are at school, they do not use the diving boards because of liability.  When they dive… I like to compare it to a load of lumber falling off the back of a flatbed truck: they do not know how to dive.  And so imagine trying to do that backwards and upside-down for [a] backstroke start.  So we have to give them lots of opportunities.  And we do, but then when they get under a stress situation, they are nervous about it.  So I really think by doing that little reaction drill, you get a lot more benefit than that.


And one of the things that I do when teaching starts, whether it is forward starts or backstroke starts, is we do a lot of rehearsal on what the sequence is supposed to be.  So here it is in a nutshell.  When you are standing behind your block, you do your easy relaxed breathing.  I want those shoulders going down; forget posture for right now.  Step-up on the block, and place your front foot first.  Get it… (I almost fell off the stage—that would’ve been memorable. [laughter] But I would’ve been relaxed. [laughter])  So you get that forward foot over the edge and you get that place first.  Then one to two fists-widths apart, the other foot goes back to where it is going to be when you take your mark.  So you do not go down and grab and then move, right as the horn goes off while you move your foot.  You know what I am talking about.


Okay, so we practice that: front foot, back foot.  Look at where your target is, which I teach, it is the T on the bottom of the pool because I want their eyes forward, I want their balance forward.  We are going that way; we are not going back that way.  Then position your hands, and I make a big point about tucking a thumb-in by the index knuckle, so that you are hooking the block.  You are hooking the block; you are not putting your weight on your thumbs, you are putting the weight on the ball of your feet, front and back foot.


Now, I am going to give you a couple of things to use as references to get a good look at some of these things.  There is a great video out, a DVD, by Championship Productions that was produced by Trip Hedrick.  Trip Hedrick was the women’s coach at Iowa State, and he remained there and he works for Championship Productions now—he is their producer.  But he has a probably 75-minute DVD with all these different drills on: foot placement and trajectory and launching and timing and sequence.  It is really worth it, and you can pick-out little segments to show your kids—if you have access to that AV-type stuff.


So we rehearse placing our feet.  We rehearse placing our grip.  We rehearse what we are going to do behind the block before the race.  We practice breathing easy and letting go.  And then focusing on the water; and now I have a visual thing to look at, so I am not looking at: my mom, and the crowd, and the lights, and the flags, and the starter, and… they all, a lot of beginning kids, look like there is a yellow jacket around each starting block.


Something else that I notice when we go to meets, we do not always teach the kids what the starter is going to do and what the whistles mean.  I go to a lot of ABC meets; I see novice swimmers way too often.  And you can tell they are not prepared.  So, do you have a whistle?  Do you keep a whistle in your bag?  And do you take them through the whole thing so that when they get to the swim meet, it is not a new experience?  On the backstroke start, and on both starts… and unfortunately, I was actually going to be so condescending: I was going to read them to you.  But I read the rule book regularly.  And I read the rule book to my kids, so they know why the starter is the way the starter is—at least at the meet.  What they are waiting for.  What are they looking for.  What do they need to have in-place in order to start the race.


Backstroke start: the same thing.  I tell the kids, you know, I want you to, in practice, use the bar; and I will take you through some drills that we do in using the bar.  You know, if kids are really, really short—and I have a lot of short kids—I do not make them use it at the meet.  But I want them to start getting accustomed to it, because I am trying to build skills that are going to go on with them.  I do not want to have the Development coach or the National coach or the Senior coach have to be teaching them how to do these things that they should have learned as basic Age Group fundamentals.


So what I tell kids I want them to do is: I want them to grab the bar first and then I want them to put their feet up so it is comfortable.  Now the reason being: that they can grab the wall and put their feet up, and then if they grab the bar, they are going to have to move their feet again anyway.  So they are moving and fidgeting around, and a lot of times starters—are inexperienced and—they will start to rush the kids.  Now I tell the kids when we practice and I teach the kids also: when they are supposed to grab the bar.  Have you seen kids enter the pool and grab the bar and put their feet up and they hang there?  And they hang there.  And they hang there.  And then the deck referee goes: Lane 7, Jimmy Chow, from PASA; Lane 7, Jimmy Chow; and your kid is still hanging there.  And now all the blood has rushed-out of their arms, and it is down their stomach—they have a stomachache—and they have to go to the bathroom.  And they cannot feel their fingers anymore.  Or when the starter says, Take your mark.  Come down.  Lane 6, you need to have your feet below the water—we will talk about that in a minute.  Take your mark.  Okay, they have been hanging there for 30 seconds: you try that and you will be all tingly.


So that does not conduce peak-performance opportunities, and you are not giving them the confidence to be aware of what is going-on all the time.  So it is like: yeah, when you get in the water, you grab the bar first, but you do it after you hear that last whistle; then you place your hands; then you place your feet and you sit in the chair; and when you take your mark, we look at the edge of the starting block, we do not look down here.  I have seen kids—I am not kidding—who grab the gutter, that when they take their mark, their head is underwater.  And from this position here, I only think… the best result possible is that they are actually going to Polaris missile straight-up.  But chances are even better that they may actually hurt themselves when their feet slide down and their head goes down, and they get hurt.  So basically, is there anything that is more uncomfortable than a backstroke start?


So let’s do one.


[audience member’s phone ringing]

(If you were here earlier, you know I am ADHD, and I hear that cellphone ringing and I just want to answer it.)


So if you cannot get your stuff off your lap, it is okay, play along here.  But just do this: sit straight in your chair, but get your back against the back of the chair and put your feet right underneath your knees.  Okay?  Put your hands right out here, in line with your shoulders and your elbows are bent down.  And move your head back so that your chin is pointing towards the ceiling.  And throw your hands around your head.  And that is the difficulty of a backstroke start.  But that is the basic position.


I was going to say, And you do the hokey pokey….  See, I know, you may have thought, you know, I really mean it… we do failure sets in our workout tonight, I line them up and I command them; but we have a lot of fun.  Our kids laugh a lot.


So do this again.  Sit straight up in your chair and put your feet underneath your knees, and put your hands on your front, and stand up.  Now, go.  Okay now try not to lean forward.  You stand up; sit down.  Okay, sit straight in your chair and try to keep your head up while you stand up.  Stand up.  Okay?  Sit down.


Now, how many of you have bleachers?  Bleachers by the edge of your pool?  Okay, when you are working on backstroke starts, take them through this.  Have them sit on the front row bleachers—the ones you do not like, put them up higher.  Put them in the front row of bleachers and just let them sit there, and have them practice that.  Okay, I am here, I am going to be in basically a sitting position, and I am going to become straight.  And you can actually do that; do that a few times and then add a jump to it; where they get used to going from a sitting position to a jump.  Because really what they are doing, is when they position their feet on the wall, what I look for—you can look for whatever you like—but what has been working for me lately, is that when I have them position their feet on the wall, I have basically taken their chair [position] and rocked it back at about 45°, and they are still sitting in the chair.


Dave Marsh has a great video, that he did years ago when he was at Auburn, on starts.  And basically he has his swimmers sitting in the chair.  Sit in the chair, and then I can have kids adjust it from there.  Some kids that have really long legs, I let them stick their tookis out a little bit.  Other kids, I have them pull their hips in just a little bit and recline a little bit more.  But I am trying to get away from this hunching over.  And I learned this years and years ago when I was at Santa Clara and we had great backstrokers there: Libby Hill, Christy Mesola, Lindy Asic.  And you could hear their coach talking to them about not getting their weight over their feet, and timing their takeoff best to get their weight out over the water before they try to press or push.


The thing that causes slipping… (is Colorado Timing System touchpads [laughter]).  But if you are fortunate enough to go to a meet that has new touchpads, boy, kids can really light-it-up if they have good equipment and they are in the right body position.  But the biggest thing that we all hear—and my kids slip too—is my feet slipped.  It is because they are so excited and they are so tensed-up, they are not relaxed like you were when you did the reaction drill.  And it is easy to do when you take-your-mark forward; but when you are doing a little pull up here, you are not relaxed but part of you can be relaxed.  But if you get that head back… what I tell them to do is: the head goes back first, and the chin goes straight up, and you get the arms to push away from the bar and start to swing around your head, so that your body is up over the water, and you can go up-and-over the water.  Okay, are you with me so far?  Okay, let us talk about some activities that we can do with that.


Here are some of the things that I do for forward starts.  I will have them get-up on the starting blocks….  I want to remind you, I am working with A/JO/Far Western-level swimmers, with some experience, who are 11 to 14.  Some of these things need to be age-appropriate, and I am fortunate that most of the time, I am swimming in 10 feet of water.  If you are swimming in less than 7 feet of water, do not do these things; okay?


So I will have them get up on the starting block, with their heels on the back of the block.  Not over on the back on the block, but so that the backs of the heels are even with the back of the block—so their toes are about in the middle.  And I will have to put both hands on their knees.  And I teach my kids that when they grab, I want their elbows pointing towards the back fence behind them, not out here.  Because when we are out here when we pull—because the first thing we are going to do is pull; a little quick, snappy pull—when they pull with their elbows out, their body goes down; when they pull with their elbows back, the body goes forward.  Okay?  Take it or not.


But with their palms on their knees, I am working on: getting compact, being relaxed, taking that relaxed breath.  And we are working on getting our hands forward and our body up-and-over the front edge of the starting block.  We are also practicing keeping their eyes on their target, which in my group is the T on the bottom of the pool—that is their visual cue.  Okay, they are looking at the water, they are looking at the T—that is the head position I want.  I also tell them to pretend that their body is a cannon barrel and their head is a cannonball.  I want you to shoot the cannonball out of the cannon to where their hands are aiming, to their target hole in the water.  And we will do a bunch of starts like that, with the heels on the back and the hands on their knees.  Then from that same position, when I like what I am seeing, they will take one hand and get their hand in the grab position—still the heels are on the back—but the other hand remains on the knee.  Because I am trying to get them to do this, and I am trying to get them to do that quickly.  Because I want them to get their hands in the water so we can get into dolphin, okay?


Then from the one-hand grab, we will take a two-hand grab.  And then when I like what they are doing, I will let them: put the front-foot forward, back-foot forward, put their hands and their knees first;  now, grab one hand, grab the other hand, go.  And we will do that series a number of times.


Some other things to do… yes?


[audience member]:  So they… the first position, you are talking about standing with the heels at the back of the block?


[Thompson]:  Heels at the back, elbows in, hands on the knees.  I tell them their shoulders need to go below their waist.  Some of us are no longer able to do that. [laughter]  I can, but I will pass out.  Okay, anybody else not clear on that?  Okay.


How many of you have people that when I said looks like a load of lumber falling-off the back of a flatbed truck, you said, Oh, that’s Hofu or that’s Jimmy or that’s Suzy.  They go [movement] or their legs are all askew.  So we do this thing, and, again, you need deep water and you really need crowd control.  We have been doing this exercise for years.  Every time I do it, I preface this:

  • Okay, a word about safety before we do three-step. I want to remind you, your feet are not to go over the edge of the pool.  Believe me you will not crash to your death if you dive into the water a foot back away from the edge of the pool.  The idea is not to go over the edge of the pool.  You’re to work on your leap, your extension, your body control and your dive trajectory.  Do not step over the edge.
  • Number 2, do not step on any enameled, glossy tile; stay on the concrete.


We get all the gear out of the way.  And just… you know, the grooves in the concrete on our pool deck are 4×8, to keep it from cracking (it didn’t work).  And I tell them: it is really simple, we are going to do the send-off, we are going to go from a dive at one end, we are going to go from three-step at the other end.  One, two, three [moving].  And, I am telling you, with the kids that are really bad divers, they have a hard time with this at first—they are actually kind of afraid of it.  But if you do this for a year…. I am serious, if you do this for a year when you are getting ready to do your sprints at the end of practice, or if you are doing some sprints for warm-up at the beginning of practice and you want to go off the blocks and you want to go a dive, try these three steps.  But if you have a tiled pool deck—if you had an indoor pool and you have a tiled pool deck—I would not do it.  But we have a concrete pool deck, so we have pretty good traction unless you are in sandals.  Do you remember what I said earlier about kids all wearing sandals?  So we do not run on the deck, I will tell you that; not with their sandals on.


Any questions on the progression there?  Yes, in the back.


[audience member]:  How far back… how far away from the pool are they when they dive?


[Thompson]:  Well, some of them do step-over and… what I am watching is their feet.  And if I catch a kid doing it, I say, “If you step-over the edge of the pool again, you are not going to be allowed to do this.”  So about a foot.  Honestly, if they launch from 3 feet back, they would clear the edge of the pool. (Unless they jump like me.)


On backstroke starts, I literally have them sit in a chair.  There are a bunch of plastic chairs out on our pool deck.  And I will get a kid or I will have them take turns, and I have them get in a chair and get into their backstroke position.  And then I will rock the chair back, and they all go like that until I make them relax: “I am not going to drop you”.  And I rock them back.  And that is the position.  So, sitting in the chair and practicing that is great.  During our dryland, we do a lot of deck squats—and we do them right according to CrossFit’s bible.  The heels have to stay on the ground during these squats and their shoulders have to stay back and you have to stay erect.  And when their form gets bad, we go to the wall and we slide down the wall.  We do not touch the wall, but we try to keep our back parallel to the wall.  This really has helped the power in their legs for backstroke starts.  We use the front row of bleachers.


Something that I got from Joe Bernal’s daughter [Michelle Bernal-Sweeney] at a clinic that she spoke, an ASCA [World] Clinic [2006], was butt flops.  So if you want to teach them how to really launch, you have them go from the wall; and they do not even do a backstroke start, but they try to get as high out of the water as they can on their takeoff—and they start from the gutter.  They try to get as high above the water as they can, and they just land on their butt.  Their head stays up, they sit straight up.  And you do a bunch of those butt flops to get them to start getting up and over the water.  So we do butt flops.


When you want to really start getting the timing together, if the head does not go back, all is lost.  If the beginning of the start is not correct, the rest of it is going to be wrong.  So a nice progression to use is: hands in the gutter, shoulder-width apart, and if they are doing this, then I have them put their hands as far out as they can.  Way out here so that they have to go here, right?  And their feet are up.  And here is something….


Think about this: why is it that when we are on the starting block, we have a stance like this or this, but for some reason the extrapolation from that for a backstroke start is your feet should be like this—like little ballerinas.  So we practice jumping and looking at the width apart of where your feet are.  You know, when you are doing vertical jump, do you go from parallel stance or foot-back stance?  Because it varies.  And you have the kids practice their foot position: you want one-up/one-down, the other way, or even.


But they should be, the feet should be inside of the shoulders, but not touching; they should be in-line with the knees.  I love it when a kid grabs here and their knees are out here, right?  Like when I pick something up; there is Chris Woodburn’s backstroke start, right there, until we fix that.  So the knees are about in-line with the chest, feet are in-line with the knees, hands are out.  Take your mark, where you just barely crack the elbows.  Go.  Hands at the side [for butt flops].  They do not like that, but they get used to it after you do it enough times.


And you would be surprised how many of them can get up-and-over the water with their hands at their side, and as soon as they go back to this, their butt hits.  So this is a problem.  So when they can achieve the right motion with the head back and the hands at the side, then start having them work on the swing, okay?  That is a nice progression to use.


Noodles: I love these.  I just found a new use for these Tuesday.  I kept wanting to stop kids to tell them they were not breathing threes when they were supposed to; and then when we are doing five, they were not doing that either.  And I usually use a kickboard, but their turns are so bad right now, they were not hitting the board.  So I looped them.  And it worked great: their feet come over, I caught them right in there.  Boy, were they surprised.  But it works really good.


So you have a kid; [you are] alongside of him, hold the noodle at their back and then about a foot away.  And you just practice going over this on send-offs; do it over and over and over and over, and over.  And they will get better.  And in most cases, if you look at their backstroke starts starting out: it cannot get worse.  You cannot screw that up anymore than it is right now.  So try that.


Now, there is another thing; in fact, there is one over in the Counsilman table over there [the Counsilman Create Coaching Awards].  I made a whole bunch of these things with a piece of PVC with a T-union on it.  A little PVC glue, stick it in there, take my chop saw, cut a groove in it, stick it over the wire of my lane line, take a noodle and slide in it so it is just sticking there floating.  Watch the noodle.  (Coach Bauer is watching the noodle; he is going, uhhh… feel sleepy.  Who is this character?)  You put that back there.  Yeah, they are going to get knocked off, son; but you can send-off like that.  You can send-off like that, put one of them up for the start, put one at the other end, at about 8 meters off the wall; and they have to dolphin underneath that before they can breakout on the backstroke; and do a bunch of 50s backstroke from the start.


Now, you cannot do this on freestyle starts because you will have kids spearing other kids, you will have kids diving on top of each other.  But if you have kids start from the gutter and they do a send-off on backstroke, on every send-off—it does not matter what stroke it is but—they have to start-out with the backstroke start and say five dolphins and then break-in to whatever stroke you want them to do, for a whole workout or for a whole set; they are going to start getting really familiar with backstroke starts and they are going to get better by repetition.  They are going to start feeling what works.  We give them the kinesthetic experience without spending 60 minutes practicing backstroke starts and getting nothing else done—I do not want to do that.  I want to have them do these when they are tired: then they are harder.


Now here is something else, and you need to find out if you are comfortable with this or not.  But I like the kids, especially like a month-out of a touchpad meet—which we very rarely have touchpads in our meets.  But when I know they can get a good start and it is a big meet, I will have them, only doing 25s now—this is not repetitiously during workout—I will have them grab the bar with their toes-over the lip of the gutter to get the same kind of grip with their feet that they would get, hopefully, with a good touchpad and do backstroke starts with their toes in the gutter.  Or I will have them, if we are going to work on the back dive—they hate this, but I do it—grab the bar, pull themselves up, grab the side of the starting block, and do back dives.  They do not know how to back dive.  I do it in 10 feet of water.  You have to make sure you are comfortable with that, because it certainly is possible to have a kid on the wall going this way, go like that.  So they better be pretty well on-their-way of already knowing how to dive backwards before you try that.  But that is something I do and they hate it.  Or I will have them stand up and grab the block, and then sit down and put their butt on the surface and dive from that position—just to work on a little more confident back dive.


We do a lot of contests and we will do this as part of sprints; we will do it in the middle of practice just to get them sprinting.  And that would be to do backstroke starts and have a contest to see who can make it to the other end underwater dolphining, who can get to the 15-meter mark first.  You are not allowed to breakout, so you are going to dive-in, dolphin, and I am going to stand there at the stripe in the bottom that is at 15 meters, and I am going to tell you whose head crosses that line first.  And we will keep score, and the winner will be whoever has 10 points first.  Is that in every group?  No, it is whoever gets the 10 points first.  So I can run four or five groups like that, then they breakout and they can practice a championship finish into the touchpad at the other end—the hypothetical touchpad.


Relay starts

I am going to tell you this: it is going to be the shortest part of my talk.  I go totally basic; I do not do step-up starts.  I know… Mike Bottom and I have known each other for a long, long time; and Mike came down and did a start clinic with me and I talked about the step-up start when I was coaching Senior National-level swimmers.  And I said, “When do you start working on your relay takeoffs, your step-ups?”  He said, “I pretty much know who my relays are at the start of the season.  We start working in September on our relay takeoffs.”  I said, “How often do you practice?”  He said, “Pretty much… oh, just about every day.”  Okay, I do not have that kind of time; I have got 32 kids in my group, and maybe 8 of them are going to make the relay, maybe 12.  The rest of them, I am taking time away from practice.


Not only that, but I am specializing in something that when they get to somebody else—they get to another coach—it is probably going to change.  They get into high school, it is going to change.  I see step-up starts at Age Group meets, and I see tons of teams getting DQ’d.  And it is hard enough to do the touch, the finish, and the touch and the takeoff—a simple basic takeoff—without throwing in a bunch of other motion.  So I keep it really simple.  I tell kids: I want both feet on the starting line, I want you standing up, I want you aiming at where their fingertips are hitting the water, and when the hand that is going to touch the wall is coming out of the water, you wind-up and watch them and go.  So we do a windup.


How many of you do a wind-up?  How many of you have kids that wind-up like this[laughter]  (They’re so cute, aren’t they?)  Two buckets of tennis balls; pick up a ball, throw it against the wall, pick up the ball, throw it against the wall.  So when you are doing relay games, there is one.


Here is a drill, this is a great way to get kids to work hard, because nobody swims harder than one on a relay.  Three kids at 12½ yards: that is where the send-off starts.  Three kids on the deck, one of whom is on the block.  The first kid in line at the middle of the pool, you will leave on the 60; you practice a 12½, championship finish, no breath.  The guy on the block does a relay take-off and goes a 37½; or 25 build-up to sprint, sprint-speed turn, comes back to the line.  Send-off every 20 seconds; everybody goes 16 times.  You get a lot of relay work in, but you get even more sprinting in—it is great.  And turn work in.  That is my favorite relay drill,


Any questions on starts?  Yes.


[audience question]:  Is there really a big difference in regards to relay starts?


[Thompson]:  A big difference in what respect?  You mean as opposed to having a kid go a track start, and not stepping-up and going from a track start?


[audience]:  A track start versus two-feet.


[Thompson]:  I prefer the both feet over, because I think they get a better push, with both feet.  Oftentimes, if they have one foot back when they are winding-up, that back foot can slip.  Okay? I just think you get better security there and I think you do get a better leap.  In a sedentary start, in a traditional race, the reaction time has been proved to be slower but the distance on the launch has proved to be greater.


[audience]:  On the two feet.


[Thompson]:  Correct.  But on a relay, I like both feet there because you do not have a lot of slipping going on, you do not have a lot of movement going on.  And then I also see kids doing this: the ones that are not comfortable with both feet up, they will get ready to go and they will step back.  So I tried to catch them on that practice.  I do not think it is a huge deal.


Anybody else?


[inaudible audience comment about backstroke starts for little kids]


[Thompson]:  Oh, when they take-off and they are doing hands-on-the-side?  Well, that is an interesting idea.  Coach is sharing here that when you are doing the hands-at-the-side launch, that when they launch have them try to clap behind their back.  I like that, thanks.


Anybody else?  Alright, turns.




Again, I read them the rules for every turn.  It is surprising there is getting to be more and more variety in turns now, but I read them the rule on turns.  I use visual aids on turns, and I love this one and talking about flip turns, freestyle turns.  When you go into the wall—here is the wall.  When you go into the wall and your head goes down, your hips are going to come up.  When your hips come up, if you throw your head back, look where you are.  Your head is back here so now you have to straighten up and throw your legs over.  When you go to the wall and drag your head down and your hips go up, you want to bring your nose to your knees, and keep it there and keep your chin down and your arms over head and aim your heels at your butt because that is going to create a spinning motion.  If you just bend at the waist and your legs have to go up and reach for the wall, you unfold; and now it is not fast turning.


This is great for any age to show them, unless you want to get in the water and show them what you mean.  That is what I love to do with kids whose parents try to coach them.  You see them at the meet, they are all videoed-up; and after they are done, they are over at the warm-up pool talking to him.  So we have our team meeting at the beginning of the year, I tell the kids, whose parents are guests at our meetings: “When your mom or dad are showing you the video from your meet, if they are not telling you Why, you sure did a great job, we are so proud of you, when they start trying to explain how you should change your stroke, tell them, Could you just go put on your Speedo and get in the pool and show me what you mean?”  [laughter]  Most parents do not think that is as funny as you do.


I like to take things and I like to break them down into components.  So when I talk about turns, I tell the kids: what’s a turn?  “Well, it is when you turn around.”  No.  No, there are three parts to a turn.  When you are turning, your turn begins with the last five meters from the flags to the wall, because that is called your approach.  And the only thing you should be thinking about at that point in time is your lane, your approach, your turn.  When you get to the flags, you are not aware of anything other than that turn is coming at a fast speed.  So we have the approach.  And there are times in practice when we talk only about the approach as it relates to turns.


Second part of the turn: change of direction.  If you saw Chris’ [Michelmore] talk yesterday, he talked about agility, he talked about balance, he talked about body control, he talked about athleticism.  That is totally an acrobatic move; it is a gymnastic move that has nothing to do with swimming.  But it has a lot to do with how much speed you have based on your approach.


And the third part of that turn is the departure, which has now become a lot more than the first five meters off the wall.  It is the angle of your knees when you push off, and the angle you push off: up, down or parallel.  It is what you are doing the moment you hit a streamline.  And are you streamline?  And it is: where do you aim?


So those are the things I include when I teach and talk about turns.  I use things like, “When you come off the wall, your fingertips should be pointing at the waterline where the water meets the wall at the other end of the pool.  Your chin should be down and your head should be pressed against your biceps.  And you should be as narrow as you can be.  And the moment you push-off and feel the water, start to move your legs.”  And those are the things that we practiced; that… I am surprised my swimmers do not call me—well they are more afraid of me than my daughters are—my daughters call me “Nagging Ned”, because I really do.  You have to repeat, repeat, repeat, and stay on them all the time.  Because it is hard to do it well, and it is hard to do it better.  It is hard to do these things fast.


Something else that I learned at a clinic, from Guy Edson: if you have kids that are bringing their head over here or throwing their head back, if you want them to really get the somersault.  Simplest thing in the world, you can go buy an expensive contraption or you can take a kickboard with the thumbs up and the fingers down… no, the thumbs down and the fingers up, and you bring your head down, then you press-down on the board then you somersault around the board.  Everybody got that picture?


Okay.  Kickboard [on hand], kickboard [in other hand], put it behind me.  It works best if you are in about 3.5-4 feet of water.  Bounce off the bottom and somersault and press down on the board.  Okay?  Great way to teach beginners how to do the somersault.  When they can do it away from the wall, then have them step closer to the wall and tell them you want them to try to touch the wall—it is okay if your legs are straight when you touch.  Then have them work on getting closer and closer.  It works great for novice swimmers and pre-competitive swimmers.  I promise you that they will be doing flip turns in ten minutes.


The other thing I learned from Guy, that I never thought about it, but it always used to really bother me, but he put it in words—he is a great guy for phrases.  So when you go into the wall… and I tell my kids because part of the approach is here that when you go into the wall, your turn begins not with your head, your turn begins with the beginning of the press on the last catch.  And that hand is going to go to the side.  And while that is going to the side here, this palm is going to turn down.  And when the finishing hand gets to your side, your palm should be facing the bottom of the pool, knock your hat off of your head.  And I will have a cap on my head and I will say I want your… when you finish your pull, your palms are facing down, knock your hat off your head.  Keep your elbows in.  Knock your hat off your head.  And then we do a bunch of turns.


If you have kids that are doing this when they turn, the death angel.  Because there is only one thing that is going to happen right-here in the middle of the change of direction: they are going to have to stop to bring their hands here to push off.  These little palms-to-the-bottom-of-the-pool,-knock-your-hat-off eliminates that.  It takes a long time and if kids come to you from another group that have been… they are just learning, they have been promoted to you and nobody really noticed that they were doing that, then that is a quick way to change that and stop that.


Questions?  Yes.


[comments from Monika Schloder]:  One of the easiest ways to teach the forward somersault is to have an incline/a wedge.  You sit them on top, and you get them down doing the roll.  Put that wedge at the edge of the pool, do that roll down the wedge, and continue with a second and eventually a third roll.  The same thing with the backstroke turn.  It is a rotation into the arm-pit, what is a log-roll in gymnastics, with a forward somersault.  What we do back home in Germany is that everything on the turns is taught with a rhythm.  So it is 1-2-3-4, if you have x number of the strokes [in], 4-5-6-7 onto the wall, 7-8-9-10, whatever.  So the kids concentrate on the rhythm rather than “oh, oh, oh, oh, here comes the wall…”.


[Thompson]:  Absolutely, I could not agree with you more; that is great.  I am just curious: do you have a trampoline on your pool deck too?  Because you can shoot them into the pool.  Oh, I bet your kids have fun at practice.


[Schloder]:  By the way, I have a video out with ASCA…


[Thompson]:  Oh sorry, no promotional advertising here.  [laughter]


[Schloder]:  It is actually all dryland related to turns.


[Thompson]:  Yeah, that’s great, that’s great.


And that is a great segue into how I teach the approach of backstroke turns.  Because, invariably, kids will be going along here, stroking along, and they are getting to the wall and they are slowing down.  And what I want to see is I want to see… we are not here talking about backstroke finishes and how you teach that.  But let us say their stroke count is four strokes to the wall, then I want to see 1-2-3-4 [turn].  Or if it is five, I want to see 1-2-3-4-5 [turn]; 1-2-3-4-5 [turn]; 1-2-3-4-5 [turn].  And for a finish, the head goes back over the raising shoulder at the beginning of the last recovery.  So when we are going long course, a lot of times for warm-up, we will go five-count head-back for 50s.  1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5; and the head goes-back on each one.  The nice thing about doing it by fives is that they are forced to finish both hands, so that is something I really like to do to work on the approach and to work on backstroke finishes.


Kids love to do shallow-bottom push-off jumps into turns. And I do not care whether two-handed turns or somersault turns, they love to do: jump-off-the-bottom, turn and go.  So we have a contest like that.  At the far end of the 50m pool, there is a narrow black line on the bottom of the pool at about… I am guessing like 12 meters.  Then we have another line at 15 meters; but I use the closer one, so they can really jump-off and go.  And we will do turns from there.  And they will have a race: we have a contest to see who gets back to the black line first.  The other thing that I really like to do is I like to have them just jump off the bottom and grab the wall—that is on two-handed turns though, I am getting ahead of myself.  I like to have a jump off the bottom, grab the wall, and then do their turn, and stop, and then go.  So they kind of freeze-frame their turn to do a self-check.


Anybody here have an L-shaped pool with a handicap-approved area, where it is fairly narrow?  Because there is a pool in Morgan Hill, California that has about…  it is about 10-yards wide and you can get like four kids in there at a time to do ping-pong turns.  Do you do ping-pong turns in your pool?  I think that would be just great to be able to do those.  So if you have like a four-lane pool, that is really narrow, your turns should be the best in your area.  Because that is a great way to deal with it; where they push off, take a couple of strokes and turn, push off, take a couple of strokes and turn—or if you are working your underwater dolphins, no strokes at all.


I can have kids work on turns, on getting their feet over fast and eliminating some of the side-to-side head movement on turns, by having them just go: 3 strokes, turn; 5 strokes, turn; 7 strokes, turn.  So you are doing continuous turns without a wall, and you can do that on 25s.  I like to do feet-over-finishes.  Somebody, I think it was Dave Salo yesterday, talked about: they always finish their repeat feet-over.  And I love to do that.  There is a set that we got from the great Jason Carter where you go: 2×25 on 20, feet-over; and then a 100 on the 1:10, make the interval; and then 2×25 no breath on the 20.  You do eight rounds of that.


Backstroke rollover skills is something that, you know, as you said, losing rhythm, getting the cadence, getting all that, without losing speed.  But then when you see kids get to their back….

I go to NCAAs every year now, to the men’s meet, with my best buddy who is a retired coach; and you see guys doing this: coming into the wall and going here, the gasping red snapper.  And I am just amazed that there are not more people that are teaching that the rollover begins with the last backstroke pull.  By getting that air and getting that head over early, now this last backstroke pull just turned into freestyle; so now I get two freestyles.


So I really try to get kids to do that.  I try to get them to get their head back in their armpit after they get their air with the last breath and get their head down enough where this comes over and goes freestyle into the backstroke turn.  You follow?  And so the way that we do that… and I can start working on that during warm-up where I say, “Come off the wall on your back, go nine dolphin kicks off the wall, take three strokes backstroke and roll,” at mid-pool, maybe a little bit past mid-pool, “swim into the wall freestyle.”  Come off, nine kicks, do it again.  But you have got to get the head around early; you want two freestyle pulls, only one freestyle arm recovery.


So we will do that, or we will go 3 back/4 free, 4 back/3 free strokes.  And I will do them on a tight interval, long course, say on the 1:00 or on the 55; where they are doing that all the way down.  They like it because they get really dizzy, but it really does get them used to….  The other thing I like about it is, it is funny that you have some really great freestylers that you know you put snorkels on them and you get a good head position established, and then you take the snorkels off and the head looks good, and you put them on their back and they are swimming with their head up out of the water.  They do not connect that the balance point on freestyle is the same as the balance point on backstroke.  So when you are going from free-to-back and back-to-free and free-to-back, be aware of if you are lifting your head on that backstroke on the first stroke.  It starts getting them to lay-back more when they have gone into the first stroke of backstroke.


Dolphin skills underwater.  I think you can do… if you say, “I do not like what we are doing in the last minute.  I really think we need to draw our attention to our underwater dolphining skills.  So today, all send-offs, everybody does seven dolphins underwater on every single send-off.  It does not matter what it is.  And coming off of every turn, except breaststroke, you are doing five dolphins.  We are going to do that until you are getting used to doing it.”  Because, honestly, I see Tisha Steimle out there, Tisha Batis sitting out there—don’t I see you out there?  (Hi ya.)  I watch those PASA kids: their 10&Unders are as good as their 11+12s, who are as good as their 13+14s, and they are as good as the best of anybody in Pacific Swimming and maybe anywhere.  Those kids have great dolphining skills, and that is because… you do not get that without working on it.  And I got a feeling they work on it everyday.  Everyday?  Everyday.  Even at home.


Alrighty, let us see what else.  I am very frugal about using fins for dolphining skills, but they certainly do have their place—they certainly do.  If you want to get kids to really be thinking about feeling the speed and feeling the streamline from dolphining, then they can really hold that position with fins-on underwater.


When I am teaching two-handed turns, I use an analogy—I like to use imagery when I coach.  I tell them that when they come into the wall, this is the last motion in the wall is the kick into the wall.  Once they have done that, they need to throw the head to the shoulder, at the same time pull-back their bowstring—with The Hunger Games there, it is all a very relevant term now.  So draw back your bowstring and your palm goes by your ribs.  Pick-up the telephone; which is getting done less-and-less now—I cannot figure out how to tell them that this means to text.  [laughter]  Draw-back the bow, pick-up the phone, and streamline your push-off.


And the only variation to that, the only thing that is different about that, is that [normally] I want that hand to go right to the ear; but on a fly-to-back turn, I want that hand to go behind the head.  So if you are catching kids doing two-handed turns where the hands are going behind the head, they are looking at a DQ in fly and breaststroke because they are going to be off-balance, they are going to be out of position.  It needs to be here.  So if the head gets over to the shoulder early, they are more towards the breast.  If the hand goes where it should on fly-to-back, they are going to be on the back hip and they are going to be in the right position in both cases.  Okay?


I think… I do not think I mentioned that this session, but I think I did earlier.  One thing that I really like to do on two-handed turns is I like to do two-handed send-offs.  So I will have the kids hold on to the gutter on their send-offs and when they are doing repeats.  Did I say this already?  Okay.  Oh, you are messing with me, Tisha.  So, you have both hands on the wall and your legs are pointing at the other end of the pool.  And when it is time to go and it is time to do their send-off: they pull, draw the bow back, pick-up the phone, and go.  So they are doing two-handed turns.  And because it is so tiring, they start finding the body position that is actually the most efficient, because there is a least amount of drag.  They find that little pattern that actually allows them to slide-to-change rather than drag.


Okay.  Questions?


[audience question]:  When you do the drill with the two hands, do you focus too on the feet?


[Thompson]:  Absolutely, absolutely.


And I love to do… here is a set of hundreds for you.  They have to identify pivoting hand and non-pivoting hand.  Pivoting hand is the last one off the wall, okay?  Hundreds.  First turn, you have to drop the non-pivoting hand to the side and go one-arm-only into the wall, turn on your pivoting hand only.  Turn number two, drop the pivoting hand to the side and the rollback hand is the only one that turns.  Turn number 3, no touch.  So if you do not streamline your feet and draw your knees up hard and do a pivot, you are not going to get turned around.  So we do no-touch turns.  Or I will do breaststroke turns in the middle of the pool; so that there is no wall involved, there is no leverage there.  You either use your lower body correctly or you do not get turned around.  They have… you will be amazed at what a hard time they have doing that in the beginning.


Last question, right here.


[audience question]:  Foot placement on freestyle flip turns?  The angle?


[Thompson]:  Foot placement on freestyle flip turns.  Well, I think if it is done properly that the toes are pointing up and slightly to one side of the other, depending on what side they are on.  I like them to push-off on their side and take their breakout stroke with whichever arm is closest to the bottom.  And breathe on the side opposite of that.  And nag, and nag, and nag.


Thank you so much for coming.



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