Coach Mike Parratto has been the Head Coach of the Seacoast Swimming Association since 1984. Seacoast has been one of the most successful teams in New England ad continues to place swimmers at the Junior and Senior National meets each year. One of Mike’s proudest moments as a coach was seeing Seacoast swimmer Jenny Thompson set a world record and compete in the 1992 Olympic Games. Coach Parratto was appointed as one of the Head Coaches at the 1991 Olympic Festival and was selected as an assistant coach at the 1991 International Distance Camp in Hawaii and the 1994 National Team Distance camp in Colorado Springs. He was also an assistant coach for the 1993 U.S. National Junior team in Paris. Coach Parratto has had the honor of speaking at two previous ASCA. World Clinics ‑ 1990 in Washington, D.C. and 1992 in Anaheim, CA
Freestyle can be researched in a number of ways. There are a number of books that are outstanding at breaking down the total stroke into parts. Certainly Ernie Maglischo’s books “Swimming Faster” and “Swimming Even Faster” do that in an excellent way. Tomorrow Ernie, in a major presentation in the morning, talks about propulsion and he will be talking about some great science of swimming. Today I will be speaking about in plain terms what you would say to your swimmers and keep it as simple as possible. Other sources of information that are extensive are obviously Doc Counsilman’s book, “The Science of Swimming,” or Orjan Madsen’s “Coaching the Young Swimmer” just to name a few. They can help you with freestyle drills and great freestyle technique. I have used all of these books to help me with my coaching.
I have also learned much by attending the ASCA World Clinics over the years; from video tape use and talking to other coaches about what they do with their athletes. But I think one of the most important ways to learn about great freestyle technique is just to observe great swimmers swimming freestyle. You can do it anywhere. You can do it at the local age group camps. You can do it at the Zone Camps. Certainly you have great examples in your own program that you use for other swimmers in your program. Every time I am at a meet, whether it’s an age group meet, whether it is a senior level meet or the Junior/Senior Nationals, I try to observe great swimmers in the water and what they are doing. I think the talented swimmers in your own program are a great source of information. It really helps to see somebody doing drills correctly and then putting all of the drills together to have a great freestyle technique.
So with what I have just said, it is safe to say that I’m not going to reinvent the wheel today on teaching freestyle, but we are going to go over the basics and how you can teach freestyle. The best way to do that, according to the sources I just mentioned, is to break down the main areas of the stroke.
I think it’s important to correct a freestyle stroke before the swimmer develops poor habits because then it would be hard to change. If you can develop good habits in your swimmers then those will be hard to break and that’s exactly what you want.
I think it’s very important to train correctly. Somebody that is doing a drill or technique improperly, you want to pull them out of the water and correct that as soon as you can, so that they can be more efficient swimmers.
The key areas I will be covering today are: kicking and streamlining; the arm stroke and pull patterns; head and body position; body rotation, and; breathing.
I’d like to start with kicking and streamlining, and I’ll start with our pre-competitive group which we call Age Group 2. We learn kicking out of the water before we go into the water. We’ll have the kids sit on the deck, put their body in the “V” position, put their arms back and bring their legs up and they learn to kick from their hips, slight knee bend, point their toes. Then we get them on the side of the pool and they do that in the same position. That’s one way of doing that before they even get into the water. Another way which we have all learned through various sources is getting into the pool holding onto the wall with straight arms practicing a narrow, fast kick. Once you move on to pushing off the wall, learning to streamline will eventually help with all aspects of your technique. The arms should be in line with the body squeezing the back of the ears. The hands should be flat, one on top of the other, and shoulders should extend forward. This position would be best for streamlining, I think.
We also kick with half boards, I don’t really like the full boards. I think half boards put your body in a better position than a full board where you are way up in the water. I think swimmers arch their back when their body position is too high and that would be incorrect for freestyle technique, so we use a half board.
We always do some drills for kicking and streamlining. I always think that doing drills in the beginning of practice is a great way to establish technique for each of your practices. The drills we do for kicking and streamlining are basic but we do them almost every day in all of our training groups. Now, we won’t do every single drill but we definitely do these drills:
- Streamline kick with your chin at the surface of the water. Your arms would be in streamline.
- Streamline kick with your eyes just above the surface of the water.
- The next progression would be somewhere between your eyebrow and the top of your forehead or right above the goggles is where we ask our swimmers to do that drill.
- Streamline kick with your arms straight in front of your shoulders.
- Kicking on your side and I think this is a great drill. In order to do it correctly you have to make sure that your shoulder is up on one side and one eye is in the water. One shoulder is out of the water and you should be directly on your side. Your lower arm should be extended, the other arm should be on your side and one eye should be in the water.
- Underwater streamline kick with short, fast kicks or narrow kicks.
- Vertical kicking in streamline and I think this really helps with some power in your kicking. The kick must be fast and narrow or the swimmer will sink. A lot of times when we do this drill we may do it 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off. They have to have their arms in a streamline. We put a clock in front of them. They might be in the diving well. If they need to breathe all they have to do is kick a little harder and they come up and then they’ll drop down. They will kind of go back and forth, but we want them to stay in a streamline position and work on their legs.
Kicking should always include the following points:
- There should always be some slight bend in the knee and also flexible ankles. If you notice those people that have a good kick, their feet seem to be turned in a little bit. I don’t know anybody that kind of kicks straight out like that. Their feet are turned in just a little bit. You notice that if you have breaststrokers who really have their toes pointed out or they have a hard time kicking freestyle, every time you want them to do a freestyle kicking set you see them sneaking in some breaststroke kicks because they can’t hold that position. So they need to sit on their ankles a little bit and learn how to point their toes.
- Try to kick from the hips. Sometimes they have a kick where they are kicking too much from their knees and they have to bring it all the way up to their hips, keeping the kick steady and narrow.
All the drills we do in freestyle should have a very consistent kick. We spend a lot of time in the beginning of our seasons and then throughout our season practicing strong kicking. It really helps maintain proper body position in the water and I think it balances out your stroke. Some seasons, we don’t do it every season, but sometimes we will put on tennis shoes in the beginning of the season and we will kick with tennis shoes. I think that really helps strengthens their legs. We also kick with fins at every level in our program, from the age group junior to the senior level and our older swimmers also use Zoomers. We really swim more with those and I think that helps with the steady kick, but sometimes we do some kicking sets also.
The next area is arm and pull patterns. One of the first things to do when looking at the arm stroke is to identify the specific areas you want to work on. I think this might be starting a little bit backwards, but I prefer to do it this way. We want to work on the arm recovery, the hand entry, and the arm pull pattern itself.
The arm recovery should start with the swimmer’s elbow leaving the water first. Now we all have had those swimmers that insist on having their hands leave the water first, but you want to be able to have their elbow leave the water first. We always want the elbow higher than the hand in the recovery phase of the stroke. Once the elbow is in the recovery phase the arm from the elbow to the fingertips should be relaxed. A lot of times we’ll see kids really tense up their forearms and their hands. Of course they’ll be tired very quickly if they do that so it’s called the recovery because you want that part of their arm to be relaxed. The swimmer’s shoulder should also lift during the recovery phase not just their elbow, their shoulder and their elbow.
If a swimmer is having a problem bending his or her elbow, we take them out of the water. One of the things we do, quite frankly, we get a stopwatch cord and just put it underneath their elbow. A lot of times you take them out and you want to hold on to their arms and move their hand into the position you want. We just kind of stick that cord underneath their arm, their elbow, and we bring it forward so they can feel that easy recovery and bring it right in front of their shoulder.
We also have them do some mirror work. We have a little bit of a water circuit in the beginning of our seasons and one of the drills is they get in front of a mirror and they look at themselves do technique outside of the water. I think that is a real good thing for them to see exactly where their elbow position is, their hand position, all the things that they do with their arm recovery.
Some of the drills we do for the arm recovery are very familiar to all of you, but they are still very effective if you do them correctly. The first one we do, probably every day, is the “fingertip drag drill”. You all know about that one. Bring your hands out in front of the shoulders when you do it and drag your fingertips across the surface of the water.
The second one, which is a very, very good one for a high elbow position, is the “thumb up the side drill”. I know there are other names for these but this is what we use. When you do this drill and you bring your thumb right up your side, your elbow has to be out of the water first.
The third drill that we do is a “catch-up freestyle drill”. It’s a great kicking drill also. It’s really great for shoulder lift as well. Finish your stroke, lift your shoulder and your elbow, and get your hands out in front.
The fourth one that we do is called an “elbow drill” or a “touch drill”. I learned this drill from Frank McElroy from the New Jersey Wave and I really, really like this drill. It’s done with the elbow in a high position throughout the entire drill. You have one arm out in front; finish your stroke on the other side; high elbow recovery; touch the water out in front of your shoulder; keep your elbow higher than your hand all the way through; bring your elbow back; and then go out in front again. Then you start the pull on the other side. I think that’s a great drill for high elbow position.
The fifth drill that we do is something I just call “1, 2, 3 drill”. All they do is say one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, and then they finish their stroke. You really have to kick during this drill or you’ll sink. Once your elbow is at a high point, hold it there for a thousand one, a thousand two, a thousand three and extend. It’s really an exaggeration of the catch-up drill.
The next area is the hand entry and the hand entry should be in front of the shoulder with the fingertips entering the water first. the thumb should be in a down position with the palm of the hand turned slightly out. So you’re going to enter this way out in front of the shoulder, fingertips first and the thumb slightly down. I think in the books they might say a 45 degree angle although I don’t know if you would actually tell that to an age group athlete. Just tell them to slightly turn their palm out and their thumb down.
The drill that we do for the hand entry position is a simple one. It’s a “head out of the water drill”. I like this one because they can actually see their hands enter the water. Their chin might be at the surface, or a little bit higher, and they’re looking at their hands enter, so their head position should be straight. The arm pull pattern should begin right after the hand entry. Once your hand enters, I don’t think there’s any initial power in that part of the stroke once you’re going to start pulling. So what we have our swimmers do is extend their arm and drop their hand just a little bit. What that does is it kind of releases the bubbles or the air. Let their hand drop a little bit and then they can start their pull pattern. So there’s a slight sculling pattern out and back in towards the center of the body. We really want a high elbow position underneath the water also and at that point, it’s just like the recovery phase only you’re doing this underneath the water. We tell them to put their arms over the barrel so that gives them a good visual image of what they want to do (high elbow position and have their hand just like this right over a barrel). That really ensures that they have a high elbow position under the surface of the water. Then they sweep their hand in toward their body, or the mid-line of the body, and finish their stroke down by their thighs. With someone who may not be finishing their stroke correctly, we ask them to have their thumb touch their thighs as they finish the stroke. I think it is very important to accelerate at the end of the pull pattern. You can almost say that you do that in thirds. So you’re going fast, faster, and fastest as you finish the stroke. Some of the arm pull pattern drills that we do would include these.
There are many, many drills and I know many of you are creative in how you design the drills. I’m just kind of giving you the ones we would do. We do “one right arm, one left arm drill” and we do that by 25’s. The opposite arm is out in front of the shoulder and they just concentrate on pulling and doing that “S” pull pattern (scull out, scull in, elbow up underneath) and then finish their stroke and we do just that one arm right one arm left.
The next two are very similar and one’s done with some equipment and the other is not. Number two is a “catch-up drill”. The one that they do with equipment is a “pipe drill”. They hold on to a plastic pipe that we’ve cut out and it’s real inexpensive. You just go to the hardware store and cut them up a foot long I believe. It really makes the swimmer catch-up before the next stroke because they have to or else they’ll drop the pipe. So they have to grab the pipe. They can practice their arm pull pattern in that particular way.
The next one that I really like for the pull pattern is the “fist drill”. This really makes the swimmer use their wrists and their forearm to have a feel in the water. They are still practicing the sculling out, the sculling in, the high elbow position, finishing their stroke, all the things we talked about but they’re closing their fists and they have to do it with their forearm instead of having their hand open. I think it makes them feel the water better.
The fifth one we would do is “paddle drill” with no strap and they have to hold on to the paddle and that way they get a feel for that sculling motion. Any sculling drills at all for feel I think are great for pull patterns. I think those are very valuable especially when you are on your back and your toes are forward and you’re sculling that way. There’s a slight movement and you are using your wrist and your forearm, and your hands a little bit or on your stomach out in front.
I like to do this one on the sculling: they do three on the inside of their shoulder line, three maybe at their shoulder line, and three wider and all the time they are kicking and they bring it back in here, here, and out in front and I think that really helps. Again, kicking is very important in all of your drills.
We use some other equipment when we are just working with our arms and we do use buoys for all of our groups. We also use bands, but mostly the older swimmers use bands. The ones that are just starting to use bands will use a band and a buoy and the older ones will just use the buoy. This way if they’re having proper pulling position and everything is correct underneath the surface, their legs won’t drop, and then you know that they have proper body position. So if they pull with just the band they can’t use their legs at all and there’s no flotation, they have to pull correctly in order to be in a horizontal position.
The next area is head and body position. Proper head and body position in the water allows the body to be as streamlined as possible throughout their stroke. Good head position should be somewhere between the middle of the forehead or maybe at your hairline, depending on where your hairline is, to the top of their goggles or eyebrow. It is unnecessary to have your head in any other position. We usually ask them to have it, again, at the top of their goggles.
We do some head position drills that are progressional to the position we eventually want them to have. This is a progressional one where they go “head up freestyle” where their head is excessively high. The water level is maybe at their neck, if they can do that. The second one is “chin at the surface”, then “eyes above the surface”, and the fourth one is “right at forehead level” where you want it to be. So we do that as a progressional thing and they may do 50’s like that. Twelve 50’s – one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four doing it and bringing it down to the position that we want.
Body position could be set up from the position of the head all the way down to the toes. We want our swimmers to learn by feel where they are in the water and we want a nice horizontal position. Sometimes we ask them to do an over kicking drill that forces the swimmer to ride high in the water to illustrate the difference between too much frontal resistance and then what good body position should be. We actually ask them to do an incorrect drill and I’ll talk more about that in a second.
We also do a kicking drill where they drop their chin on their chest and then they try to swim fast. They find out when they do that, and they’re coming forward, that they’re not going to go very fast doing that. So we really want them to have a full horizontal body position.
I really do not advocate doing drills improperly. I think you have to do them in the correct way, but I think sometimes with some individuals you want to illustrate a certain point and I think it’s not bad to do once in a great while. So try to do all the drills the way that will lead the swimmer to the technique you want them to have.
Body rotation — a very important point. Learning to have great hip and shoulder rotation is a key to having efficient stroke technique. Freestyle is swum from side-to-side. The only time you want them on their stomach is when they’re rotating to the other side. Some of the drills we do to help hip and shoulder rotation are these:
Drill number one is when they’re on their side and they go six kicks on their side, they rotate. They just learn to have that great shoulder and hip rotation and they kick six kicks on the other side and they do that down the pool. Now you really have to exaggerate the rotation when you do it and reach way out in front.
The second one is where we go four kicks on the side, four cycles distance per stroke, and then four cycles kick on their side again. So that way they kick one, two, three, four and then they rotate and they go right into the cycles. Now when they rotate, we want them to have the same rotation through the four cycles that they are swimming, then they rotate to the other side and they kick and they do that down the pool.
The next one that I think really helps is stroke count drills. What you are trying to have the swimmer do is swim the best freestyle technique they can. They are just trying to subtract cycles from the total. As an example, the first 50, they would count how many cycles they do. Then the next 50 they would try to subtract one cycle. So they are really learning how to rotate and use their body, not just their legs. You have to kick when you do this drill and your kick has to remain the same so you get a true count through the number of 50’s that you do. Then on the next one maybe you try to subtract two, and we always have some athletes that really exaggerate but I think it’s good though because they are actually learning to be streamlined at the same time. So they want to be real streamlined. As long as they are doing everything correctly I like to do some stroke count drills. The drill ensures that the swimmer is rotating properly and trying to get the most out of each stroke. Good distance per stroke can be established if the swimmer is aware of what their stroke count is in practice. I think that is very, very important. It’s important for all strokes I think also, but we are talking about freestyle. I think the least number of strokes you take, the more energy you’re going to have through a race. So good hip and shoulder rotation certainly helps with distance per stroke. It would be difficult to have good body position with short strokes. Extension and rolling the body will allow for good technique.
The last key area in teaching freestyle is breathing. Teaching your swimmers to breathe properly in freestyle entails many of the other areas we have talked about.
Rotation, head and body position, arm stroke: they are all involved in teaching correct breathing. We start with the swimmer out of the water when we are teaching breathing. We ask them to lean over like they are in a swimming position. This is where we do some of our mirror drills. We ask them to do what we call a dry freestyle with a breathing pattern. So we look for a high elbow on the recovery, a good shoulder roll as the hand is extended forward. Again, they are looking at themselves swim. I think that is important. The swimmers need to see themselves filmed also. If you get an opportunity to do that I think that really helps. We look for that position to get their hands forward. We want our age groupers to turn their head with the rotation of their shoulders, not to turn their head without using their shoulders. Use their head, their shoulders and body all at once. Their cheek and ear on the non-breathing side should be in the water. So they should try to cut their face in two and do it that way.
A lot of the times we see the kids that are lifting and their head position is way out of the water. We want their ear and one cheek to remain in the water. They should have their eyes slightly looking forward when they turn to breathe. A lot of times we have kids who are trying to get more air and they breathe underneath their armpit and their eyes are back. If their eyes are looking slightly forward at an angle, they are probably going to breathe off to the side. I really think that if they can do that again that’s going to help with the proper head position also. Once the breath has been taken their head should return to the forward position before the arm on the breathing side takes another stroke. Their eyes are looking forward and their breath is off to the side. They should get their head back before their hand touches the water. I think sometimes they do it all at the same time. This really restricts movement in their technique and their turnover especially when they want to start going fast with the upper body. So it really allows for faster arm movement and rotation to the other side of the stroke.
One drill we try to do has a combination of arm movements and we are going to show this on the video later. It really helps with shoulder and hip rotation as well. If you decide you have an extraordinary amount of patience one day at swim practice, have your swimmers try this progression of drills. They are very challenging to the swimmers and it will be challenging to you as coaches to coach this. They are just one arm drills and they are all breathing. It really helps them to breathe to both sides.
The first one, and I have no fancy name for this, maybe somebody does, “left arm pull, right side breath, right arm at their side”. So they do this for a 25 or a 50. Their right arm is at their side and they are breathing off to the right. The next one would be a “right arm pull, left side breath, left arm at their side”. So you just go to the other side. The next one would be “left arm pull, left side breath, right arm at their side”. On the first two where you are doing this, you don’t take your breath until your hand touches the water. On the third one which is “left arm pull, left side breath, right arm at your side”, you have to take your breath as you finish your stroke. The fourth one would be “right arm pull, right side breath, left arm at your side”.
We do teach alternate breathing to all of our age group swimmers. As usual most of our swimmers have a dominant breathing side. I call that the sprinting side. It’s easier for them to get a breath and get back and turnover. So I call that the sprinting side, their dominant side, because they are trying to get a faster breath. Coach Dick Jochums said this one time at the ASCA Clinic. He thought if they slept on their stomach and they said they slept on their left cheek, then their right side would be their dominant side. Or if they slept on their right side, then their left side would be their dominant side. I think that’s very, very true.
Their dominant side may not be their best side for technique. If you switch a swimmer’s side from dominant to the other side, you might look at their technique and say, “Wow! That’s better freestyle technique. Your head position looks better.” Everything looks better about your stroke even though it feels awkward to the athlete.
I really believe that teaching freestyle should be the beginning of teaching all of the competitive strokes. There are a lot of things they have in common: obviously streamlining; body position; breathing pattern – some breathing patterns. Most of the teaching techniques and drills we talked about are basic and probably used by all of you at one time or another. I think if you can include them in the beginning of your training you’ll find that might set up the freestyle position that you want them to have throughout the practice. I think it’s very, very important that you go over these drills and try to incorporate them on a daily basis and I hope I have been able to refresh your memory anyway on some of the drills that are out there and I just wanted to tell you some of the things we do at Seacoast Swimming.
So now we are going to go look at a video and I’ll try to explain the video as we go through it. The first one are four of our junior level swimmers who are probably between twelve and thirteen years of age. The first drill you are going to see here is the “head up with the chin at the surface”. This drill should be done with the head straight and with a good kick. So you want to see some white water by their heels.
They always have that tendency to want to breathe to the side and that’s okay I guess, but to really do the drill correctly they should look forward. The next one should be “eyes above the surface” and that’s what this drill is. Concentrate on the pull and make sure you have a steady kick.
Now this is supposed to be “eyes right above the surface”. Again, this young lady is a born distance kid. She already has a two beat kick going. I think we always want to teach our young swimmers to have a strong kick so they have the ability to do all kinds of kicking at different speeds.
This is “kicking at the side”. Eight kicks on one side and they swim two and a half cycles, they rotate and then they go eight kicks on their side. You can adjust it anyway you like. Make sure when they are kicking the shoulders should be up and one eye is in the water. That one shoulder is up, there she goes to her cycles. You don’t want that head position to be too high or too low. You really want to be able to cut the water line on their head right in half. Kick off to the side, arm extended in front. That’s good. We have them do eight on this particular one and two and a half cycle swimming, or five strokes.
Here is a fingertip drag drill. Their fingertips should be right across the surface of the water out in front of their shoulder. Steady kick and everything needs to be practiced here, but the main thing is high elbow and dragging their fingertips.
This one is “thumb up the side” drill. Keep your hands in line with your body and bring your hands right out in front of your shoulder. Good high elbow there and you need to really have a steady kick to keep moving forward.
There’s another drill that we do for that and it’s called “chicken wing”. Just moving your elbows and things like that. So there’s a lot of different names and drills you can do for high elbow position.
The next set of drills are that one arm different – opposite side breathing drill. This is challenging for twelve and thirteen year olds but I like this drill. You have to kick. You have to really breath to the right position. You really have to keep working on your hip and shoulder rotation also.
This is “left arm pull, right arm at your side, right side breath”. Now her head position is a little bit low. She probably should be looking forward a little bit more and keep her kick steady. She’s got that two beat kick so she kicks at certain points of her pull pattern and not all the way through. “Right arm pull, left side breath, left arm at the side”. His kick is a little too high. I think you want to keep that kick narrow and just see white water. We say “let’s see a lot of white water”, or some of us will say, “see the water boiling”, so you’ll just see bubbles. She’s really getting her arm into the stroke. I think she needs to extend a little bit more before she goes into the pull pattern.
So when you are looking at your athletes do the drills, you want to identify what they are doing right and maybe what they are not doing so right. Try to correct it right away. I think it’s really harmful to age group swimmers who have incorrect technique and when they go to train and as they get older they are training a little bit more and more and I think that’s where shoulder problems can develop and also inefficiency in technique. In order to increase their training they need to have good technique and I think that’s the most important thing about age group swimming.
When you’re explaining drills and you are trying to say to a twelve year old “left arm this, right arm that, this side breath” ,some of your athletes can get confused. But I think if they can get this down they are thinking about what they are doing and they should be working on their physical skills also.
This next drill is simply their best freestyle technique and what to look for in corrections or what you want to see is a great streamline off the wall, alternate breathing, high elbow position, proper hand entry position, the pull pattern (make sure they are pulling down the mid- line), a steady kick or kick pattern. Really look for some good hip and shoulder rotation in the stroke.
We sometimes need to put weights on their wrists so their elbows are higher.
I think if you identify the type of kick as they get older, if they are a two beat or a broken type kicker, teach them how to kick a six beat kick. So they are able to do it, even if they are a distance swimmer, show them how to do a six beat kick for the beginning of the race, for racing situations, for the sprint at the end of the race. I think it’s very important. You may have a natural kicker and you don’t have to teach them anything. They like to kick or they have good ankle flexibility.
This young lady is very good. She has made finals at the Nationals before. I really like her head position. I like her head position. I like where her hands enter. Sometimes on her left arm she’s a little flat or the elbow position is low. She has tremendous shoulder and hip rotation and I think that is what makes her the swimmer that she is other than the fact that she works very hard. Technique wise she has great hip movement and that really helps her with extension and obviously she’s a tall young lady and she does have great distance per stroke. Just because you’re tall doesn’t mean you automatically have great distance per stroke. You see how her hips are really moving side to side? She extends out in front and that’s how her shoulder rotation and body moves. I think that’s really nice technique.