Teaching Backstroke by Tom Avischious (1995)


Published


Coach Avischious is a ASCA level 5 Age Group coach He is the Head Age Group Coach for the Carmel Swim Club (Carmel, INDIANA not California. Affectionately known as “Carmel by the interstate”). As head age group coach of the Carmel Swim Club, Tom realizes that his goal is to not have swimmers stop at the age group level, but to prepare them to become great senior swimmers. Tom is very active in the local LSC and is currently the chairperson of USS’s Age Group Planning committee. Tom is a member of the ASCA board of directors. Coach Avischious is also the Carmel Swim Club’s Business Administrator. (Editor’s note: Since Tom’s presentation at the World Clinic he has joined the staff at United States Swimming as Coach Development Director.)

It’s interesting to be asked to speak on backstroke because there’s a lot of information available on backstroke. Looking in the ASCA Clinic yearbooks the last couple of years — talks by Ira Klein, Rob Snowberger, Steve Bultman, John Mason, John Collins, and Peter Roca. Those are just a couple of names over the last ten or fifteen years. I’m going to give a little bit of interesting perspective on backstroke and it’s not only going to be on backstroke. It’s also going to be on freestyle and backstroke because I don’t think you can teach one without teaching the other. And I think a lot of the principles are the same on both of the strokes.

The first half is also going to be a little bit more of a philosophical discussion because I think that you have to know where the person is coming from in talking about strokes or stroke technique and what their base is before you can start talking about the actual strokes. I also have to tell you that I’m a real disciple of Bill Boomer. If you have never heard Bill Boomer talk on stroke or stroke technique, do it! I heard he’s only going to be doing some of his talks around the country for about another year or so. If you’ve never had the opportunity to go and see/hear him please do so because you will definitely be rewarded for it.

I work primarily with kids at the wonderful junior high age. I coach kids in my group between eleven and fourteen years old. In order to keep some kind of sanity coaching junior high kids you have to have some kind of basis or philosophy that you believe in. You don’t want to be part of the “Should School of Learning”. And the “Should School of Learning” is to me, the institute for advanced hind sight. I’m in the process of reading an incredible book by Steven Covey called “First Things First”. It’s a great book, I highly recommend it. It basically deals with life management instead of our normal view of time management. Although, it’s kind of interesting, I have to tell you that it’s taken me a year to read the book and I’m still not totally done because I keep putting it off. I read about a chapter or two then lose the book for about eight months and now I found the book again. So, I’m about half way through it.

Covey asks each person to answer two questions and I think these are really interesting questions.”What is the one activity that you know if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant positive results in your personal life?” That’s the first question. Then the second question is: “What is the one activity that you know if you did well, superbly well and consistently would have significant positive results in your professional life?” Then he asks, “If you know these things would make a significant difference, why aren’t you doing them now?”

Covey feels that there are certain things that are fundamental to human fulfillment and that if these needs aren’t met then you’ll feel empty and you’ll feel incomplete. And the essence of these needs can be captured in the phrase: “To live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy.” The need to live is about our physical needs for such things as food, clothing, shelter, health, well being. The need to love is our social need to feel accepted, to relate to other people. The need to learn is our mental need, to develop and to grow. And the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, and contribution.

When you’re dealing with your kids you have to take these four factors in to account in anything you that you do. If any of these items isn’t met, it’s kind of like a black hole that devours all of your energy and their energy. And these things are all interrelated. And only as you see how they’re interrelated to each other and the energy of each one of those four do you become empowered to fulfill them in a way that creates a real balance and a real sense of purpose in that kid’s life. You may be thinking, “Well, how does that really relate to working with eleven to fourteen year olds?”

Well, the physical needs can be met by you as a coach by providing healthy lifestyle, proper nutrition, regular exercise, adequate rest, and avoiding substances that are harmful to the body. The social need we can provide by teaching kids trustworthiness, how to make and keep a commitment, to share resources, to be caring, to belong, and to love unconditionally — a lot of the kind of things that Skip Kenney was talking about this morning in his team unity talk. We need to help kids find the commitment to lifelong learning and the continuous investment required in growth. And finally, we have to teach kids spiritual things. And I’m not necessarily talking or advocating a specific religion.

Although, however, I do think we have to combat as coaches the religion of what I think is present day society — the total focus on self. Whether it’s self esteem, self development, self improvement, it’s all focused on me, me, me. What’s in it for me? What do I get out of this? Pat Riley in his book called “The Winner Within” calls it the disease of me. He talks about the reverse 20/80 rule. Where, when a successful organization becomes infected with the disease of me. People who create twenty percent of the results will begin believing they deserve eighty percent of the rewards. I think that’s real true with a lot of the kids that we’re dealing with these days. Everything is focused on them.

Okay, I’d like everyone in the room to stand up now. We’re going to do a little exercise. Put your stuff down. Okay, now I want everyone to also close their eyes. I know when I’ve done this with the kids they never want to do it — everyone always cheats and looks around. So everyone please close your eyes. Okay, now what I want everyone to do is to point where you think north is. Okay, now open your eyes and look around the room. Okay you can sit down now.

I think it’s somewhat important that we know where north is. I don’t know where north is! But I do think it’s important that we know where north is. There is such a thing as true North. You know, it’s not the kind of thing we can all vote on; Well, where do you want north to be today? There is a place that is north. It’s a principle, it’s a reality, and it’s a fact. It doesn’t change. We can’t say, “Well, I don’t really like where north is, let’s vote to change it.” It’s there and that’s a principle and it’s a reality. You know if you’re off by one degree and you are taking a flight from San Francisco to Jerusalem you’d end up in Moscow. Okay? So, that’s how important it is to know where your bearings are and how important that can be.

Just as important as it is in the physical world there are timeless principles and realities that operate in our human interactions and human potential. These things are truths and they do not change. By teaching kids principles instead of only practices or teaching them the principles behind what we do or behind the practices that we do, we better prepare them to handle the challenges of the future. This is a great philosophy lesson but what does this have to do with swimming? Well, the discussion that we just had about principles or true North, I think are things that do not change. Some people may chose to ignore them but they do exist. And I think the sooner you start to realize that they exist and find out what your own personal principles are in those things, you will be a better coach. You’ll be a better coach even in teaching stroke drills. Because that brings me to the next part of the talk. That brings me to specifically talking about swimming.

I think that for a long time we’ve been looking the sport through the wrong eyes and we’re ignoring a number of fundamental principles in nature. The one thing I think that’s probably what I consider to be the number one problem with swimming in the United States today is that we are focusing on the extremities. We’re focusing too much on the little things that are not the problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if thirty to fifty percent of our extremities are used to balance errors of body position. We use them like outriggers on canoes. It’s like the Hawaiian canoes you see on commercials — those big canoe boats with the outriggers on the side. That’s the way we’re using our arms and legs right now. For those of you that are older, if you’ve ever watched “Hawaii Five-O”, you know what I’m talking about. We must get to the core and we have to fix what is causing the problem rather than fix the end result. So if you take in physical activity on land today, I think probably about eighty to ninety percent of your energy goes into the actual movement and only ten to twenty percent goes in to waste energy. However, because our sport is conducted in an environment that is foreign to us, it’s probably the opposite. I wouldn’t be surprised if only ten to twenty percent goes in to actual movement and eighty to ninety percent goes into wasted energy. And this happens because water is much thicker than air. The faster you move in water the thicker the water gets. And we use our power to force our way through our errors. And we need to be aware of the errors at the slower speeds and fix them at the slower speeds first. Not the other way around.

I would like you to think about for a minute about what does the word pace or pacing mean to you? Now some coaches or swimmers will say, “Well, it’s splits. It’s how you split a race.” Some people may say it’s stroke tempo. Some people may say you tell your swimmers to have a certain pace underwater between the flags and the fifteen meter mark. Specifically, I think we should define pace as the relationship between waste and effort. People often discount that fifteen meter mark that you can swim underwater and don’t think at all about underwater swimming. The thing you want to try and do the least amount of is also the thing we do the slowest, and that is surface swimming.

Swimming is all about carrying wall speed. The more wall speed you can carry off or the more speed you can carry from when you dive in, the faster you’ll go. Because that’s where people swim the fastest. So where does the swimmer have the greatest velocity? Again, they have the greatest velocity off the wall or a dive. As an example, let’s look at a 200 backstroke race. The key to swimming a fast race is controlling the heart rate and this is a decision that involves pacing. Where do you want to finish the race? What should the heart rate be at the finish? You want to make sure that you are planning the race from the back to the front, not the other way around. If a swimmer that I coach can swim the first part of a 200 with a heart rate that is ten beats less than a another, they’ll probably win the race. Or if a swimmer uses a huge cycling rate by doing a lot of huge underwater dolphin kicks, there’s usually going to be a pretty large energy waste. And this will accumulate so by the fifth or the sixth wall probably what’s happening is they’re coming up a lot slower up off their walls. They’re also coming up way before the flags, not even getting close to the fifteen meter mark. So by narrowing the amplitude of the kick you control the frequency a lot more and you can maintain a much lower heart rate. And then you also have more energy to finish the race.

Now this involves what I would call creating possibilities to swim fast. It’s the continual learning process and it’s kind of like life as an athlete is a process and it ought to be viewed that way. If we only concentrate on working hard with not having good technique, it’s not going to cut it anymore. Too much of what we do in the U.S. today is focusing on power. We must use technique that is in tune with the principles of nature to create more beautiful swims. The focus has to shift from one of being only work oriented (how much yardage can you pound out) to one of being discovery oriented — discovering how the body reacts to the different environments of water. That doesn’t mean I do not believe in hard work. For those of you that know me and know our team, I think we work pretty hard. But, I also believe that it’s really important that the kids will also discover themselves in relationship to the water.

Now why do I think there is a problem in the U.S. today? Because too often we use the shoulder and the arm joint only as the major propulsive force in freestyle and backstroke. Nort Thorton showed a video that had Popov swimming next to Hudephol and the difference in stroke rate was incredible. Popov averages around forty eight cycles per minute. Our better U.S. swimmers average around fifty six cycles per minute. And we’re still, for the most part, teaching swimmers the old “S” shape swimming pattern, which is a horizontal plane. Now if you think about it you’re really not moving that much new water. And also by doing that, that also puts almost the entire stress of that swim in the arm on the shoulder joint. The rest of the world is coaching in vertical columns of water. Now think back to most of the distance swimmers that you’ve ever coached or that you’ve seen. Most of them have a real disregard for balance and rhythm, and they kind of have the attitude that I’m a distance swimmer, I can gut it out. And they can do it for a long time but they have really terrible stroke technique. The Russians on the other hand are doing something that we’re light years behind on. And that is, they’re separating their age group swimmers not by chronological age as we do in the U.S., they’re separating their swimmers by biological categories of development. So, what does that mean and how does that impact us? Each swimmer, I think needs to do a couple of things. First thing they need to do is feel with their center of mass and their center of flotation. The center of mass never changes on an individual, it’s always about six inches above the crotch. Whether you’re born, or whether you die, it’s always at six inches, that doesn’t change. However, the center of flotation is centered around the lungs. In the water the body acts like a teeter-toter. You have to treat it as a first class lever. The teeter-toter will balance if the products are equal. You know, if you think about, if I got on a teeter-toter with my little three year old boy I know which side will be heavier. But if you add more weight, or if you try to balance things out the teeter-toter will ultimately balance. The heavier mass at the trunk end of our body will cause the trunk and the legs to sink. What do you need to do to raise the trunk and how many heart beats are you willing to give up to do it?

Now let’s say when a swimmer is doing aerobic work we generally consider that somewhere a heart rate of around 170 beats a minute. Let’s say their resting heart rate is 60 beats a minute. That means you have in a workout or in a race they have 110 heart beats to work with. What happens because of our inefficiencies in stroke technique is that we’re using 30 to 40 heart beats by kicking or doing something with their arms to adjust for incorrect body position, because they do not have their body positioned correctly. That really only leaves about 70 heart beats to actually swim the race because they’re not in proper balance.

So to improve swimming velocity what do I think the keys are? You have to have the swimmer develop and find a relationship with the water whereby they can balance themselves. And number two, then find out how hard they can work in relationship to the water after they have developed the relationship with the water.

Poor posture will effect performance because as I’ve said earlier, it’s all about carrying wall speed. If a swimmer had poor or bad posture their legs would sink and they’d have to start kicking because they’re going to start to slow down. And if they don’t have good posture off the walls, they will make it a lot more difficult for them to be successful with the actual swimming. It has absolutely nothing to do with ability. It starts with posture and it has everything to do with their ability to carry that posture in the water.

The first thing you have to do then is teach kids a sense of balance in the water. Most kids have no concept of this. Not only young kids but old kids, kids that have been swimming for years. You know, when you try to introduce this principle with them, they’ll be totally lost. They have absolutely no clue what they’re doing because they’re so used to kicking harder to maintain their balance in the water. Or using their arms to maintain balance in the water. You need to get their body in alignment. To do this start with the athletes the deck. When you get them all out, can have them lie down on the floor, stand against a wall, get a partner, hang in front of a mirror — these are all different ways to do it.

If they’re lying on their back you want a correct posture where there’s a straight line through their head on a long axis through their body. You want the chin kind of back a little bit. Most people will tend to put the chin down when they’re swimming. You want the chin to be forward and you want it straight through. Also you may need to play around with their hip position and rotate their pelvis some. Most people when they’re kids, when they first lay down on the deck, they’re going to arch their back. Kids that have been swimming for a long time will tend to do this. They’re going to lay on the deck and they’ll be a huge space, about an inch or two inches between the deck and their back. Their body is not in alignment. What you want to again create is their body being one huge lever. And to do that, you have to get their body in alignment. Because what’s going to happen is if I start to bend my head, I’ve got one lever from the neck to the top of the head, and if I bend at the waist I’m going to have another lever from my neck to my waist. Then there’s going to be, if you’re bending your knees, another lever from my waist to my knees, and another one from my knees to my feet. These are all different. What you want to do is create one huge lever.

So the ultimate goal is to create one single lever. This will be difficult, because they’re not used to doing it. And I have to honestly tell you we haven’t done it — we’re working on this on our own team. I’m trying to work with our younger kids to get them to do it, so I don’t have to reteach it to them. Right now half of our senior kids don’t get the idea at all. This will take quite a bit of time to develop how you want them to be flat and what it really means to get their body in alignment. Most educators in learning will tell you it will take you a minimum of three to six weeks for them to truly learn something. Let them struggle, do not give them immediate answers. They are the ones that need to develop their own sense of space. The ultimate goal is to swim freestyle and backstroke so they feel like they’re weightless in the water.

That’s the big key. They have to feel weightless in the water. Now what we’re doing by this weightless feeling is we’re creating torque around the center of mass in their body. To do this the swimmer must create posture and torque balance from the hips. Not the shoulders, and not the back. And to do this you need to achieve equal pressure on the chest and press forward with the chin. It’s called pressing the “T”. What I’d like to do is again, have everyone stand up. I want you to get a partner, probably it would be better if it was female to female and male to male partners. And I’ll explain in a minute why that’s the case. What we’re trying to create is equal pressure on the chest and the chin. You do not want the chin in a lower position, you want the chin up in an upper position. And you’re going to press evenly with both the chin and the chest. One person will be pressing evenly with the chest and the 8 chin at the same time. The other person will take their forearm and cup their hand and place it under their chin. You should feel even pressure together. Now the person that needs to give immediate feedback is the person who is leaning forward. You should feel even pressure on both the forearm and the chin. Most people when they first do this will feel a lot more pressure on the chin or they’ll be pushing forward with the chest and not the chin at the same time. so go ahead and experiment with that. The person should be able to fall forward a little bit with even pressure. I want to have both people do it also, please don’t just have one of you do it. It should be even pressure on both the chin and the forearm.

Those of you that are weightless can sit down.

When you’re doing this with your team let the kids experiment for awhile and if they are doing any bending at all you don’t want them to bend. The next thing you’re going to do is take this from experimenting on land, to doing it in the water. What they’re going to do is just going to be doing a front face float with their hands at their side. And you will do this with partners again, so one person can observe. What probably will happen is they’ll get in and they’ll start to do, I can tell you a lot of the mistakes they’ll normally do. They’ll drop their chin because you’re telling them to press with their chin. And they’ll put their chin on their chest and their legs will immediately fall down. Or else they’ll press with their chin and they’ll pull their head back up. Again, their hips are going to fall down. It has to be an even press. Sometimes is that they may not have hardly any pressure at all in this area. The head acts as a weight, your head, normally an adult head weighs somewhere around sixteen pounds. So what you want to do again, you want to maintain that line, that vertical axis through the head. And have that sixteen pound weight in line with the rest of the body. They will need to feel pressure on the sternum and they’ll need to press with their chin forward. Remind them that they’re suppose to feel a sense of weightlessness. And to get the head, one way you can talk about it is to get the head in the shadow of the body. You want to rotate the chin forward. Again, that’s floating just with hands at the side. Let them experiment with it. Pretty much what you’ll do is just let them float and if they get the press properly they can float on the surface of the water for awhile. They’ll run out of air and then they’ll lose their center of flotation, and they will start to fall down. But you want them to take a big breath, hold their breath, and experiment with that. The whole idea is to get them to feel what it feels like to be floating properly on the water.

Next step would be floating with a light kick. Again, the idea is to maintain the balance so you’d have them start with float.

The swimmers are not use to someone talking to them about discovering their relationship in the water, because it’s a new term to them. They’re saying, “I have to swim, I have to go fast.” You say, “No, all we want you to do is float.” We want them to find out what it feels like to be weightless in the water and actually be able to have their hips and legs up in the water. After they can float for a little bit then add a small kick to it. Not a large kick, a small little kick. Have them kick widths. That’s probably the easiest thing to do then you can stop and talk to them a lot quicker.

The next thing you can do after you’ve been doing that is ask them to add one or two arm strokes with it. See how few arm strokes they can go. You’re not going to be too much concerned right now with the techniques of the arms. But you want them to take as few of strokes as possible.

The other thing that you want to talk about when they’re in this kind of weightless feeling is making their body be as long as possible. Okay, now normally when we talk about streamlining, we talk about stretching your toes out, and reaching your arms up as high as possible. I think a better way to streamline is like, if you took a tube of toothpaste and you squeezed it in the middle how it automatically goes to both ends and it gets real long. That’s how I think we need to be teaching streamlining. Because you want to pull inside abdominals and your core muscles in and your body will get a whole lot longer than if you tell your kids to reach out with your shoulders and reach out with your toes. Your body also will stay if you have a lot more control of your body in the core than you do at the extremities. Again, it’s focusing on the core rather than the extremities.

If you went on a canoe trip would you rather have a twelve foot canoe or a sixteen foot canoe? I’m just going to take a straw poll here. How many, would if they went on a canoe trip, how many people would rather have a twelve foot canoe? Raise their hand. Okay. How many people would rather have a sixteen foot canoe? How many people have absolutely no clue? The answer is a sixteen foot canoe because the longer canoe holds its speed. That’s why you want to have the body be as long as possible. The longer the body, the more speed it can hold.

First we’ve gone through a front floating position, then we’ve added a little bit of a front kick. Next thing I would do is turn them over on their back and we’d go to a backstroke floating position. Again, I would have them get out of the water and I’d talk to them about the body position on their back. Now there is a pressure point on the back that is pretty easy to point out. Generally on girls, it’s right around where their suit straps come together in the back. One of the things that you want to do is, swimmers want to lie on their back and you want to bring your shoulders in a little bit. Round your shoulders forward. Again, the back has to be connected in a line down through the long axis of the body. What will happen is they’ll have a real tendency to sit in water. They’ll put their chin on their chest. One of the greatest learning tools is when you see that some kids are starting to get the ideas, tell them to do things wrong. Like, if you see that they’re starting to get the floating idea, tell them to put their shoulders back and see what happens. Tell them to start to sit down in the water, push your butt down and see what happens. Lift your chin up, put your chin back. Let them discover for themselves. And one of the things that’s real hard as a coach is to give up the work yards to spend two to three weeks just letting them learn how to float and get proper body position. But I guarantee you the couple of weeks that you spend working on some of these techniques will ultimately allow them to hold their speed for a lot longer time then the couple of weeks of quote, “Conditioning”, that you’ll miss. These are the things that they won’t forget.

The other thing that you want to make sure is happening is that your body is connected on a line through the long axis of the body. The head needs to pretend like it’s laying on a pillow. After you’ve talked about the back body position out of the water, I’d put them back in the water to do the same drills that you did on the front.

We would start off on the back float again, hands at your sides. And again, use a partner to make corrections. Now, a lot of times in a lot of the stuff that I’m doing, I’ll use kids to make the correction with the other kids because I think, that makes it go a lot slower, but the kids have a lot better concept of what’s going on. If I see that there’s something wrong, I will not talk directly to the kid that’s having the difficulty. I’ll talk to the kid that’s suppose to be correcting the problem and let them voice it to the other person. I think it’s a lot better that the kids have to act like teachers and it really makes them focus not only while they’re doing the drill but also makes them focus on what the other person is doing wrong so that you can learn from their mistakes. Probably by the fourth or the fifth day they may get these concepts and they may immediately be able to go into their weightless float.

The next progression involves the use of the arms. Again, let’s everyone stand up. This one doesn’t matter whether it’s female to male. I want you to have the person put their arm straight over their head. Face you directly, and put your opposite thumb up and just have them push down on your hand. Just a straight press down, that’s all I want you to do, have both people do that. Okay. Now, just switch, have the other person do it. Now when you’re doing this, the person that’s pressing down, I want each person to do it, and I want you to think about, where do you feel most of the pressure? The pressure for most of you will probably be in your shoulder joint. But, go ahead do it, now that I’ve given you the answer. Okay, it’ll be pretty much be in the shoulder joint or in your triceps and biceps. That’s the way that we swim in the U.S.. That is not a very efficient way to swim. Now, think about the way we work in the U.S. and that’s the way that we swim in the U.S. because we use our extremities to do that. Almost every other athletic event uses the hips and the core strength. In playing tennis, I’ve never seen the players jump in place and just use their arms. They use their whole body to do it. Have you ever tried hitting a baseball by just standing still and not rotating? It’s almost impossible to do. If you’re a golf player, you rotate your hips. If you throw a football, you rotate your hips. Skiing, it’s all done with hip and body balance. Almost every physical sport that we do is done with the hips except the way that we teach swimming for the most part.

Again, stand up. Here’s what you’re going to do this time, same exercise except what I want is you’re going to press down on the person’s thumb or finger that’s holding your hand up. I want you to connect to your opposite hip. So if you’re pressing down with your right arm I want you to connect to your left hip and your left lower back muscles and press down. It’s pretty easy probably to hold the person’s hand up the first time. Try it again this time pressing down.

If most of you didn’t already figure this out: you want to hold the arm over the head and rotate the hip towards the arm while maintaining good posture. Now the other thing you have to do as you’re doing this is do not sway or don’t collapse down — don’t just fall in. It’s rotate the hip towards the other person.

Let’s try something else, do it again, rotate but move your head. Now keep your head still and rotate. Do you have more power with your head still or with it moving? Okay, now one other thing, as you’re doing this what will happen if you rotate your hip in? Sometimes kid’s will do this and get their head out of alignment. When you get your head out of alignment you will lose some power.

Okay, how many of you have seen backstroke where the kids are moving their heads all over the place? They’re not keeping their head in alignment with their body. Whenever they take a breath they lose their balance in the water. Okay, that’s exactly what happens here. Then you can even show your kids and they can feel it, that as they move their head around their balance will totally change.

The next thing I would do is break them up again and do exactly what you guys just did — instructions are to rotate your hips toward the person with the arm up in the air. And again, the idea is to rotate. The idea is not to rotate the arm but to rotate the body. And it is the entire body moving as a unit not just the arm. Don’t allow the head to move, you need to use that in the water as a balancing tool. If your head has moved only a couple of degrees, your body will be out of alignment, and your body position will suffer drastically in the water.

Next thing we’re going to do is place your arm straight out from your side. Ask the kids, “Is your arm a wheel? If your arm is the wheel or the propeller what is the motor?” And most people would say it’s your shoulder. It’s not your shoulder, that’s the wrong answer. The correct answer is your lower back and your hips. By pressing down with the hand and concentrating on the extremity of the hand we’re shrinking the size of your body.

Next thing you do is you have them out, stretched on the side. You would ask them to get on their side more. Now what you would do is tell them to get connected from here down to the lower back. Now a lot of kids would do that. Now I’m going to ask you to do that, connect from here, now don’t press. Now put pressure on my hand but you can’t press on it. Okay, do it again. No, you’re still pressing on your hand. What I want to have happen is the elbow will pop up just a little bit and she will lift the scapula in the back. And then she can connect immediately from here in the lower back and hardly put any pressure on my hand. And all she’s done is turn the elbow up a little bit and raise the scapula. And now, I have a great connection between this propeller surface and the motor which is back here. This motor back here is a whole lot stronger and is a much bigger muscle group then the shoulder joint here. So we would do the same thing again where you would be working with the kids on land. All you would do is tell them to raise their elbow a little bit and then raise the scapula. And that will then connect that whole body unit together. That is a lot more powerful then the way we typically teach. You don’t use the back or the lower back at all. And again, we’re swimming way too much like this.

We need to connect the propelling system surface which is the hand to the motor, which is the hip. Most people will look to the hands to create the pressure but they need to be looking to the back to create the pressure.

Put the swimmers in the water and have them start out with a front balancing point (or a back balancing point if you’re going to be doing backstroke.) But basically right now we’ll be talking about front. Keep their balance and their posture. Rotation comes from their core body not their extremities. So the first thing I do is have them start out with a front float, hands at their sides and then they’ll start to rotate side to side using their hips.

I like them snapping from side to side — not a roll because I don’t want a roll, I want it quick and I want it a snap from side to side. Roll to most kids means leisurely. When doing this on your back you need to keep your shoulders slightly rounded forward. Make sure the athlete is snapping from side to side. You know, as Mike Parratto mentioned earlier the last place you want an athlete to be is on their stomach or else on their back in backstroke. Why? The main reason is the more surfaces you cut the water, the less your frontal resistance. Basically, your frontal resistance can be cut in half if you are on your side completely in either freestyle or backstroke. That’s a pretty significant difference, if you only have half your body in the water.

There are a number of drills then that we can use to work on this body balance. Rotate on the front from side to side then rotate completely over on to the back. And the hips must dictate the change. I don’t think it should come from the shoulders. It definitely should not come from the arms. We do a lot of kicking drills with our arms at our side. We start out with the chin forward again, on your stomach. Then you rotate from side to side and then you just rotate completely over till you’re on your back from side to side, and back and forth. The more you do that, the more the kids will get an idea of balance in the water. Or you can go from free balance to back balance. Then the freestyle swim, you know, back/free, backstroke swim, back and forth. The more they do it back and forth and the more they can stabilize their body in the water and the better off it’s going to be. Give them a lot of opportunities to change their balance and do it without using their hands.

Pull them out of the water again when you begin talking about adding in the arms and the breath on freestyle. Have one of the kids come up in front so you can demonstrate for everyone. I’m going to demonstrate this with Sherri first, then I’m going to have you guys demonstrate it or do it with each other. First thing is tell them to put one of their arms out to their side and I want you to connect from your hand to your back. The next thing you’re going to do is to take your other arm and you just swing in. Now swing your arm back and forth. What I’m going to ask her to do is tell her when she feels like her body really wants to snap to the front to do so or tell me the word, “now”. Now you will literally feel when you are in this position when the elbow is above the ear practically that you cannot wait to snap. It is a very definite feeling when you’re here and after you feel this here, your body can not wait. You’re winding a huge spring in your body and when you get to this position your body will instinctively snap to the other side. When you feel it up here your body literally cannot wait to switch to the other side.

What you’re trying to do is like winding a spring in your body. You’re creating this incredible tension and torque in your body and in this position it’s a whole lot easier for your body to snap from side to side. Whether you’re doing it on front or whether you’re doing it on your back, it’s the same feeling. The body will literally want to snap from side to side. Now one of the other things you want to think about in freestyle in particular, is the head part of the balance system or the power system in freestyle. It should be part of the balance system. But too often, our swimmers use it as part of the balance system by lifting it. Whenever you do that it causes the body to become unbalanced. You must rotate the head with the body as you’re taking the breath. Rotate with the body then back. The breath comes off as the body rolls and the head always has to remain a weighted object. By lifting the head it becomes an unweighted object and then the kids have to kick harder to take their breath.

Back in the water we’ll probably then start to work on freestyle breathing. We’ll start them rolling from side to side again, floating with hands down. And then, we’ll have them breath when they feel like they need to breath while still maintaining their balance. That’s the key, because most of the time the kids are not used to taking a breath in a balanced position. And you’ll be able to see it and they’ll be able to feel it. Again, this is something you might want to do with partners. Keep the head as part of the balance system, not the power system.

The key to swimming fast freestyle and backstroke is to remain weightless. And every time a swimmer takes a breath and becomes unbalanced, it takes approximately one half to three quarters of a stroke cycle to get back in alignment. So that means if you breath every stroke you’re immediately out of balance. And your heart rate goes up because you have to use energy to try and maintain some sort of balance. During the stroke cycle the hands usually go towards the bottom of the pool.

One of the things that was real interesting in looking at one the stroke analysis of what Popov was doing — in the U.S. we talk about the “S” shaped pull pattern — on the Russian swimmers, almost all of them, their hand comes in, their little finger enters first, not the thumb like we teach for the most part in the U.S.. Their little finger enters first and their hand presses almost completely down to the bottom, their fingertips are to the bottom of the pool the entire length of the pull cycle. That’s real different from what we teach. It’s a much deeper catch and a much deeper pull. And it’s entering almost always, little finger first.

In freestyle you need to keep the head connected to the weak side arm rather than the strong side arm. We’ll do a lot of breathing drills where you do some weak side breathing. Then we’ll add a drill where they can breathe on both sides right after each other. Thomas Darnyi breathed every single stroke during his freestyle leg of the 400 IM. The reason he did it is because he could. Not very many people can maintain that kind of body balance where it’s not going to affect his technique. He maintained proper body position so it didn’t cost him anything to breath that much.

When working on backstroke the swimmer needs to let the hips do the work. We’d start doing some side to side rotation with the arms at the side. Again, a lot of the same stuff we just talked about on free. Next we’ll pop the arms up and let them fall back to the side. We’ll start with rotating from here with the hips. Then do some arm pop up and then it goes back down to the side. The next progression would be to add a single arm with the snap of the hips. And we do a lot of false lifting of the arm because I think every time you snap something you get used to the idea you need to lift something at the same time. It’s just a progression then. Now is backstroke a back line or side line event. It’s a side line event so a swimmer needs to be on their side when they swim the event. Most kids swim backstroke as a back event. They’re on their back way too much of the time. They’ll use their hands as they do as if they were in a row boat. And they’ll use them like oars. What they need to do is they need to go down the side of the hip to snap the body by the hand.

Tempo never exists in the hands or the feet. Let the extremities follow. The torque comes from the core and the hips — kind of like the body is the conductor and the hand is the movement, air is the instrument.

Bill Boomer tells a story about being at a meeting at Stanford where Lea Loveless asks Brian Retterer about one of his great swims at Nationals, “What did your hands do?”. Brian’s response was, “I don’t know and I really don’t care. It was the first time I didn’t ever think about them.” A good athlete will do the right thing if they are in the proper body position. A good athlete in the wrong position isn’t going to be able to do the right thing no matter what they do. Unfortunately, as coaches in this country, I think we’re trying to correct or coach too many of an athletes’ errors as opposed to figuring out what the correct body position is.

In conclusion, I think you need to let your swimmers develop their own sense of balance in the water. They have to discover it on their own. A lot of the stuff that I’ve just given you are just the basic tools because I think it’s really important that you discover some of the advanced details on your own. And for some of you it will be a real, real different way of looking at things and a real different way of teaching stroke technique. It will take a lot to time.

I highly encourage you to get in the water and try some of the skills yourself because you may not have an idea of a good sense of balance. That was one of the best things I did was literally get in the water and play around for a while with some of these different techniques.

If a young child falls down when they’re learning to walk you don’t tell them, “Oh, don’t ever try again, you’re never going to walk.”. You have to keep doing it, over and over and over again. They’ll pick themselves up and they’ll do it again. These concepts are not very easy for kids to grasp because of our instant gratification society. They’re very dynamic movements that happen in the core of the body instead of the extremities. And it’ll be really interesting to see as people work more with Mother Nature instead of against it, how our view of teaching strokes is going to change. In our club we’re in the process of working out these things for younger swimmers. I’m really excited about the idea of working with kids that have a sense of balance when they get to my training group and more advanced groups.

I think we’ve started to see that the rest of the world has passed us by in technique in swimming. I think the Russians and some of the other countries have much, much better technique than we do. Popov practices to race. I think too often we practice to practice. We may be the best training nation in the world. I don’t know if there’s any country that can train better than swimmers do in the U.S.. However, that doesn’t win any medals and if you value racing you have to structure your practice to race.

Thank you very much!

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