Teaching Breaststroke by Mike Chasson (1994)      


Coach Chasson is the Head Coach of the Harvard Men’s Swim Team. Prior to  coming to  Harvard, Coach Chasson was the Women’s Assistant Coach at Stanford University. He was all associate coach for the 1988 Olympic Team, Head Coach for the 1993 Macabean Team, and the Assistant Women’s Coach for the 1993 Pall Pac Team. His achievements include NCAA Champions, USS National Team Swimmers, and Olympic Swimmers.


Thank you, Nort. Working in Nort’s program got me started on using stroke drills for teaching stroke and developing technique. I’ve continued to use that for the last 20-plus years in coaching and I thank him for that.


I’m talking about Developmental Breaststroke, but the things I’ll be talking about, I use with our Olympic caliber athletes as well as our age group program at Harvard. We do the same things with the youngest kids up through the college swimmers and those I’ve been fortunate enough to coach at the national level.


Drills are the basis of how I teach strokes to kids. I like them because they “force” good technique. If you can teach the kids to do drills properly, get them to continue to do them on a daily basis, they’ll develop the correct habits. I’ve found that to be a lot more effective than me either demonstrating the stroke from the deck or describing it verbally.


I’ll still show video’s or have swimmers demonstrate the stroke or the drills, but by them practicing the drills, we can break down the stroke or put it back together, depending on the drills you’re using. Eventually, depending on the talent level of the swimmer, they develop the stroke you’re looking for. How long it takes depends on the individual.


I use them in the warmup and warm down phase of practice to start the practice with an emphasis on technique and finish it by reemphasizing it. We also use drills on more demanding intervals as part of sets, but  not  as much as others might. We use intervals that are comfort­ able enough  that  people can  keep  working on  the skill properly and hold their stroke. If some people can do them on a faster pace. I’ll let them, but generally our emphasis is on doing them correctly not fast.


Drills are real good to add variety to a practice. I have quite a few drills for each of the strokes. We try to mix it up and work on different skills. It helps to keep the swimmers interested but you’re still giving them valuable work on skills. I’d  rather have them work on a drill as part of warmup or warm down than to just have  them swim easier.


I’ve had breaststrokers be successful with a number of different styles. Jill Johnson, who made the 1992 Olympic team had a completely different style than Rich Schroeder, who made it in 84 and 88. Totally different but both successful. One year at Stanford I had 5 different girls who scored at NCAA’s and each had their own distinct style. There are certain basic things they all did well. I don’t have anyone try to swim with a particular style, because it may not work well for every swimmer, but I try to maximize certain things  that  I’ll  explain when I go over the drills on the video. These things will apply to any style. Work on the basics first and as they become successful at doing them, build on that by adjusting what they already do. A lot of them  will do that on their own because of their physical attributes. It won’t have anything to do with how we coach them; they’ll take the things they know they do right and adapt it to their body style. Try to individualize as much  as you can because there’s a lot of ways to be fast with this stroke.


I’ll be showing a boy and a girl doing the drills on this video. The boy is Joe Sheehan who is a national qualifier in breaststroke, just graduated from Purdue and came to our program this past summer. Many of these drills he’s never done before and he does them with a varying degree of success. The girl is Jill Johnson, the 1992 Olympian. This video was made a couple of weeks ago and Jill has not been swimming for a while. But she did drills very well when she was swimming. She doesn’t have all the power she did, but she still performs them with the kind of precision I like to see. You’ll also see a contrast in styles. Jill is a more leg dominant breaststroker. Joe uses his arms more and has a less patient stroke. We’ve been  trying to get him to use his legs  more.


These drills can be used at any level of swimming and once they know how to do the basics of breaststroke, we’ll start them on the drills. The first set of drills are kick-oriented, then pulling, then timing and distance per stroke on the third set.


(Runs video and comments)


We start teaching the kick motion on the pool  deck so they can’t bring their knees forward. The particular style  of kick matters Jess than that they bring their heels  up  and turn their feet out. We have someone stand  behind and put pressure on the inside of their feet to give them the idea that they can  be propulsive.


Next we have them go through streamline and pulldown. Jill had excellent  turns and I  want to give an idea of that. I want them to get underneath their body much like a butterfly pulldown, coming off  their streamline.


I don’t like using a board for kicking.  I’d  rather  have them learn to use their legs for support  and  kick  with their arms streamlined in front, then  they  put  their head up which puts more stress on their  legs, They’ll  either have to pick up their kick tempo or work their legs harder to stay up on the water. Then I’ll have them kick with their arms back, bringing their heels up to their finger­ tips, stressing not to bring their knees forward on the kick, also keeping the head  up.


Try to have them breathe where they would normally breathe in the whole stroke. Try to accelerate your kick; your feet should get faster as they close out the kick;  make sure they finish the kick by snapping the legs and feet together.


A few years ago, Jill had a knee injury  and  when she came back she had a wider kick. It  improved  her distance per kick so we left it the way it was. Jill is known  for having one of the longest strokes; in the Olympic trials, she took 15 strokes on the first  length,  splitting  34 flat on the way to a 2:27 breaststroke. That’s legs more than anything else.


It’s much easier to start kids on the habit of not using kickboards in the developmental stages, than to take them off the boards when they get to college. But I think. it’s better to work the legs without them.


Next  we’re seeing  vertical  kick. Try  to keep  the kick tempo high and squeeze the last bit of water out from between the legs. Just by finishing their kick better, breaststrokers can take off a stroke per 50 meters. The more streamlined you can get them the better. The higher they can get out of the water, the better. Try to have them keep it close to their natural  kick.


The next series of drills relate to the pull. We emphasize the inward sweep of the stroke the most. We’re looking  for excellent acceleration where the press out  is slower and you accelerate your hands in and forward. We want fast hands with their elbows out in front of their shoulders and holding water, not just moving their hands quickly. Joe’s hands have gotten faster, but we want him to learn to hold water better  also.


We start pulling breast with a flutter kick so they can work on the hands moving fast without worrying about the timing of the stroke. We have them do it with  the head up because it makes them keep their elbows out in front of the shoulders  more. This is more advanced.


Then we switch to a dolphin kick. We do a lot of this to work the pull more and to save  their  knees.  We  start with this then build them into the kick over the season.  We can keep the rhythm of the stroke with the dolphin kick. We emphasize the upward part more than the downbeat of the kick. If they develop a dolphin action in the stroke, that’s even better. Breaststrokers with good lower back flexibility can get that action. Then I  try to  get the dolphin action integrated into the  breaststroke kick. So we do two dolphins to one breast kick with a breast pull, trying to fit the dolphin into  their  stroke. They emphasize the upbeat on the  dolphin.


Watching Jill, you can see quick  hands, elbows in front  of her shoulders, trying to accelerate her hands forward. You can’t just move the hands quick, you’ve got to hold water on the in sweep. Keep the elbows above your hand on the pull, so  you’re going to press down.


Jill put fins on here. Fins allow you  to do it faster and with a bit more undulation.


I haven’t worried  about  whether  they’re  recovering above or below the water. If it’s below, I  leave  them alone. If it looks like they can benefit by recovering above, then I  have them  try it, but I don’t  teach every  kid to do it. If we have any doubt, we have them recover under and streamline the recovery to minimize resistance on the arms. Some kids on my college  team come  to me with over water recoveries. If it looks like they’re going up and down and not forward, then I have them change it, but if it looks effortless  and  effective,  I  have them continue.


If you have someone who’s not a strong  breaststroker and you want to help their IM, you might be willing to experiment more than if you have a world-class breaststroker and you’re just trying to move them along a little bit. You’ll move more cautiously and with the knowledge that it’s going to be more effective. You’ll make subtle changes, not some big sweeping change just because you saw some other breaststroker doing some­ thing that worked well for them. In Jill’s case, she used to swim with her head up and chin forward. At the 91 World Championships, a lot of the breaststrokers were swimming face down and streamlining their head between their arms. We switched to having her do that. At first she didn’t like it at all, but as she practiced it more, she became more effective with it. Now I have all breaststrokers look at the bottom of the pool as they recover their arms. I think they get more distance per stroke.


This leads into the next drills-swimming underwater breaststroke with both breast and flutter kick, forcing them to keep their head down and streamlined so they can go further on each stroke. Secondly you can build strength on the inward hand acceleration because you’re pushing a lot more water. We do a lot of 25’s and 50’s, holding their breath as much as they can: They may use fins on this. When they do this with breast kick, they have to be more conscious of their timing. If the timing  is a little bit off, we don’t worry about it as long as they come back and work on it later in practice.


The other timing drills we do are 3 kicks to one pull. With their arms out in front, they’ll take  3  complete kicks before they take a pull. Then we do two kicks per pull. The second kick will have a pull with it. I  have them breathe only when they use their arms. It works breath control a little bit and ties in the timing of the stroke at little better. It makes you think about where your pull should fit into your kick. I can talk about the timing and it may not get through. I may show a video and they may still not understand, but if I can get them  to do these drills correctly, it takes care of their timing. With Jill in 92, I would time her for a lot of underwater 25’s to see if she could get her kick faster.


The first part of the pull sets up your timing. You want your legs starting to recover and you want your kick, kicking your hands forward. These drills, 3 kicks per  pull and 2 kicks per pull, emphasize that. We use these as much as any.


If you  have  an IM’er  who doesn’t  have  a great  breast kick and can’t be considered a true  breaststroker,  yet you can get their timing down so they have good distance per stroke, it will help their IM a lot.


Tied in with the timing drills are an efficiency drill that also works on timing; that is swimming a 25 with as few strokes as possible, just short of stopping altogether on the glide. I also have them do it with a 3-count glide on each stroke, which is a lot closer to swim tempo. If I do a 3-count, how few strokes can I take in a lap? They  both stress being extremely efficient on your streamline, your glide, your pulldown, finishing your kick, and putting your head down on your arm recovery.


Joe’s got his head buried a bit too much there; it doesn’t need to be down underneath his arms, it should be more in line with his arms.


It’s important to build speed in training by  changing gears and pick up your tempo without slipping water. You could think you’re going faster, but not gain any speed, if you slip water when you increase tempo. Buildup 25’s are a good way to work on that. I stress them a lot because I want to see them hold their stroke at the end of races. So many breaststrokers lose their timing and work harder to go slower when they try to pick   it up at the end of races.


We finished up with several turns. We try to get them to look up at the ceiling while they’re rotating, bring the hand behind the head, and push off in the most streamlined possible position.


When we’re teaching breaststroke drills and skills  to kids, we’ll show them video’s and get someone who knows how to do them to demonstrate. It’s important to stress doing them correctly from the first day, first minute they learn it because it’s harder later to change bad habits. Quite often, we assign drills because we’ve evaluated them and feel they need more work on a particular aspect. We tell them they should always choose from one or a few drills.


Other drills we do include breast kick on your back, keeping your knees beneath the surface, just like we teach on deck at the beginning.


(Opens floor to questions)


I was asked if I had a drill to keep them from flexing the wrist as they press out in front. I don’t, but I emphasize that they should keep their hand in line with their arms and show them other swimmers doing it correctly. I have lots of video of other Olympic  breaststrokers, collected over the years.


I was asked if we work on ankle flexibility.  We spend 15 to 20 minutes before practice on stretching. Probably 5 to 10 minutes of that is ankle stretching and rotations.


Two questions. Should a swimmer with a weaker kick still put their head down on arm recovery and second, how do I get them to keep their elbows up when they’re doing that? If they have a weaker kick, you need to get more out of the stroke. If you can streamline your head, your kick will get you that much farther even if it isn’t that strong. To keep the elbows up I have them pull breast with a buoy and do lots of 25’s and 50’s so they’ll do it right. If I had them pull 500’s, they’d probably drop their elbows. I combine that with use of a VASA trainer, swim bench or surgical tubing to strengthen that.


I was asked if it’s necessary to keep your head underwater all the way through the triple kick drill, especially if it’s a younger kid whose breath control may not be that good. I don’t think it’s necessary. If they can’t hold their breath, I’d try to get them to hold their body position anyway, like it would be in the race.

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