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Teaching Swimmers Breaststroke for the First Time

Teaching young age group or novice high school swimmers how to swim legal and pretty breaststroke is a good challenge requiring a patient, skillful, and persistent coach – like you!

Breaststroke skills are awkward for most beginning swimmers, so you should understand that it will take time to teach the stroke well. In preparing to teach breaststroke, you should learn how the stroke feels by getting in the water and swimming the best breaststroke you can and find words to fit the movement which you may have seen swimmers doing. This way, you might find a fresh perspective for correcting errors. Even “established” coaches are advised to get in the water and stay in touch with swimming.

It is also important to learn from the swimmers. Even if you were an excellent breaststroker you should not feel you have a total grasp of the stroke until watching and learning from other good breaststrokers. Different bodies swim breaststroke differently with equal success don’t make the mistake of teaching everyone to swim the same breaststroke you swam. In addition, learn all you can from books and articles, clinics, and other coaches.

There are three topics which will be covered in this article. First, a short and basic primer on breaststroke mechanics is presented. Second, several teaching techniques are outlined. Third, a teaching progression and several drills are described.

Mechanics

This presentation on mechanics is designed for teaching basic beginning breaststroke — short and simple. I like the “row houses under construction” analogy. If you have ever seen a street of new houses under construction you may have noticed that when the frames are constructed, all the homes look essentially the same. These frames provide the structural basis of the home.

As the siding, shutters, roof, and landscaping are added each home takes on a different look according to the homeowners particular needs. With strokes, there is framework of basic mechanics which all swimmers should adhere to. Beyond the basics, individual swimmers will have their own stroke characteristics which the coach should allow, provided these characteristics aid the efficiency and speed of the stroke.

Here are four general principles to keep in mind:

  1. When a swimmer begins the stroke, she “pulls” (sculls) herself beyond the point where the hands began the stroke.
  2. The hands and feet act like wings or propeller blades creating lift and drag as they scull (pull or kick) through the water.
  3. The weight of the water over the hands and the feet is important in keeping the hands and feet from slipping.
  4. The hands and feet must be accelerated through the range of motion caring not to break the plane that they are sculling on.

The swimmer should begin the arm stroke with arms extended at a slight angle down with the hands about 6 to 8 inches under the water. Hands should be side by side or slightly overlapping with the little finger pitched slightly up. The stroke begins with the little fingers leading the way and the wrists flexing outward. The arms sweep out and down. At the widest part of the stroke the fingers point down and the hands pitch in. The elbows are high with the hands below. On the in-sweep the hands accelerate to their fastest speed with the forearms and upper arms pressing in as one unit. The hands finish the stroke in a praying position and recover at the surface of the water. The hands should not be sculled past the shoulders.

The head position is always in an up position with little up and down movement. Swimmers should look forward and slightly down during the arm recovery and kick portion of the stroke and above the water during the end of the in-sweep and breathing portion of the stroke.

There are two basic body positions, the natural style which involves more vertical movement of the shoulders with a dolphin like action of the hips, and the traditional style which is lower and flatter in the water. The style swum depends on the characteristics of the swimmer. In the 1976 Olympics, David Wilkie won the 200 meter breaststroke using a natural style while John Henden won the 100 breaststroke using a traditional style. In general, long and flexible good kickers do well with the natural style while strong upper body swimmers use the traditional style. It is best not to force a swimmer into one style or the other at first, but to concentrate more on timing, arm movements, and leg movements.

On the leg recovery, swimmers should think about bringing the feet toward the buttocks while the hips bend only slightly and the knees split apart. The feet are closer together than the knees at the top of the recovery and the toes should be pointed out. The feet sweep out, down and around. For most of the kick the knees are bent and the feet move through their pattern without the knees moving. During the last 20% of the kick, the knees are straightened and at the end of the kick the legs lift up together before the recovery of the feet.

(The whip kick with the knees held fairly close together and the feet pushed straight back is not considered to be an efficient kick.)

Teaching Techniques

Four very important principles of teaching stroke are:

  1. The verbal – physical connection
  2. Kinesthetic teaching
  3. Over correction
  4. Weird stories and other fairy tales

The verbal – physical connection. When a swimmer can verbalize a movement, there is a better chance that the swimmer can perform that movement. Use a common language to describe stroke skills to all swimmers including swim school swimmers through pre-team and novice to age group and senior. Describe the strokes with simple questions and simple answers. Type up your questions and answers and glue to 3 x 5 cards and cover with clear plastic contact paper to protect from water. These are handy to carry on the deck and to pass around to the swimmers. You can pull a small group of swimmers out of the water and ask the stroke questions, giving rewards for correct answers. When swimmers give answers, ask them to use words, not standing demonstrations. Listed below is a question-answer set I like to use.

Where do the hands begin the stroke? (Use the word stroke, not pull.)
▶ Arms extended, six inches deep.
What begins the stroke?
▶ Little finger turns up
Where does the first part of your stroke go?
▶ Out
How wide do you go?
▶ Until you can’t see your hands anymore
Then?
▶ Thumb turns up, hand sweep in
Where do your hands point on the sweep in?
▶ Down
When do you breathe?
▶ When your hands sweep in
Do your hands travel faster out or in?
▶ In
How do you kick:
▶ Out, around, and down.

There are several “key words” you should use when describing the whole stroke. You should have the swimmers say the words. Use the key words in sequence:

  • OUT, to describe the outsweep of hands
  • UP, to describe three things that happen at about the same time
  • The hands sweep in and up.
  • The head and shoulders come up, and
  • The feet begin the recovery by lifting up
  • KICK
  • GLIDE

In reality, the legs do not recover during the UP motion described above. The legs recover AND kick closer to the recovery of the arms. However, it is much easier to teach newer swimmers to recover their legs during the UP motion. This is an over-correction technique which usually brings about a good result.

GLIDE is a key word that may be revised to REACH or EXTEND as the swimmer becomes more advanced

The purpose of using GLIDE is to slow the swimmer down and take one stroke at a time during the teaching process.

The verbal cadence and relative accent of each key word is important to learning the timing of the stroke. The OUT is deliberate, but not over-rushed. Swimmers must not press out too fast or their hands will slip. The UP is quick and accented. The hands must accelerate through the insweep. KICK is deliberate. GLIDE is pronounced G-L-I-I-I-I-D-E in a relaxed voice.

Two other key words that are helpful are SLO-O-O-O-W, QUICK. SLOW describes the outsweep and QUICK describes the UP motion explained above.

For describing the kick use:

OUT, AROUND AND DOWN

Kinesthetic Teaching

The coach must sometimes physically hold and move the swimmers hands, arms, legs, or feet, through the range of motion desired for proper stroke. This is done in the water, standing on the deck, or lying on a bench or table.

One method for teaching the timing of the stroke is to bring the swimmer out of the water and standing face to face with you. The swimmer bends at the waist toward you with arms outstretched and head resting on the arms. You hold the swimmers hands and move them through the arm stroke pattern while you say the key words. As you say OUT and press the swimmer’s hands out and down, make sure the head stays down. At the widest part of the stroke, make sure the elbows of the swimmer are up. When you say UP bring the hands in and up to just below the chin quickly using pressure to bring the elbows in and you make sure the swimmer lifts their head and looks you in the eye. Emphasize quickness. Sometimes use the words SLOW, QUICK interchangeably with OUT, UP. At the same time the swimmer bends a knee and lifts a foot to their butt. Ask the question, “what three things come up on UP?” The answers are “head, hands, and feet.” Next, you say KICK, GLIDE and you pull the hands forward and watch for the head to lower and rest on the arms. Use this method while the swimmer says the words. Then allow the swimmer to go through the motions without our help.

Kicking can also be taught kinesthetically. You can kneel or lie at pool side or get in the water. The swimmer holds a kick board out front while he is on his stomach and you hold the feet. Hold the feet with your thumbs on the bottom of the feet and your fingers on the top of the feet. Hold on tight as you ask the swimmer to recover and then kick. As they recover you are holding the feet still while their butt comes to you. When they kick you hold the toes out and move the feet out and around as the swimmer extends their legs. With swimmers who have illegal kicks, repeat this kick sequence for three or four kicks then let them go on their own. They will kick fairly well for one kick, then kick poorly for a kick or two, then it will fall apart entirely. It is important to repeat this drill many times.

Over-Correction

Every good teacher knows the power of over-correction. If you want the swimmer to pull narrower, tell them to pretend they have hand cuffs on. If you want them to get up higher, tell them to come up until their elbows pop out of the water. Over-correction works and works great. Your imagination is the only limit to the ways you use over-correction to fix stroke faults. There is one caution. Use over-correction on a one-to-one basis only. The words you use to over-correct one swimmer may be exactly the opposite words needed to correct another swimmer.

Weird Stories

It is fun, motivating, and interesting to make up little stories to help explain a stroke concept to the younger children. Here is one story that works: (I am describing the breaststroke pull.) “Imagine a huge cake, covered with frosting on the table in front of you. You want a big piece of cake so you lean over and reach way out. If you don’t dig your fingers in, you’re just going to move the frosting around. Dig your fingers in, cut out a big piece by pressing your hands out to the sides. Then turn your hands in, keep your elbows up, and press that big piece of cake right up to your mouth.” The cake story may not be your idea of a weird story, so you should develop your own stories and use them frequently with your swimmers.

Progression & Drills

In breaststroke there are no rules that say a swimmer must learn one skill before moving on to the next skill. In reality, swimmers will be learning all the skills that comprise the whole stroke over a period of time which is the length of the swimmer’s career. Within that period of time parts of the stroke will be isolated and worked on and placed back into the whole stroke. This process, which is referred to as the “whole-part-whole” teaching method, will be repeated hundreds of times.

There are certain priorities, however, in deciding what skills the swimmer should acquire earliest in the career. Timing is the most important skill. Legal and efficient kicking and pulling can be worked on concurrently with the timing, but need to be added to a framework of good timing. There are two good ways to teach timing. Both require you to do one very important thing – slow the swimmer down and work on one stroke at a time.

One way of teaching timing is to use the dryland sequence described above. The other method is done in the water. Hand the swimmer a kick board and give the following instructions: “Hold the board out front and float with your face in the water. When I say UP, lift your head to take a breath and lift your feet to recover for the kick. When I say KICK-GLIDE, kick and put your face back in the water and glide.”

When the swimmer is floating shout UP, KICK-GLIDE, then pause and make sure the swimmer glides. It is important to keep the swimmer from doing “kick-ups” where they use their legs to propel themselves up to take a breath. Slowing the swimmer down to one stroke at a time is the key to curing kick-ups.

The next step is to do the same drill without a kick board. The swimmer begins with a prone float in the water. The words you use are now OUT, UP, KICK-GLIDE as described above. The OUT portion of this drill should be kept narrow at first. Most novice breaststrokers tend to pull too wide and/or too far back. A small sculling motion is good arm movement for this drill.

A good drill to use for teaching arm movement is to have the swimmer sit on a kickboard in the water. The body is upright and the hands are out front for balance. Demonstrate to the swimmers the sculling motion and have them try to move forward through the water without “pulling,” only out and in motions are allowed. Sometimes they lose their balances and pop upside down like bobbers which is fun and helps the learning experience. Learning this requires time for the swimmer to explore, and you need to be patient. At some point, races will be fun using this drill.

There are many other drills for the arms. The handcuff drill, described briefly above, gives the swimmer an opportunity to work on the wrists and hand quickness. It is also a good over correction drill for swimmers who pull too wide. The crescendo drill is where the swimmer begins with a one inch wide stroke and progressively works up to a normal width arm stroke. In the cobra drill, the swimmer comes up as high as possible on the in-sweep. To help swimmers who take a short breath and crash their heads back into the water too fast have them say “hi coach” every time they come UP for a breath. Fifteen 10 and unders going down the pool saying “hi coach” sounds like peepers in a swamp on a rainy night.

Some swimmers can kick breaststroke quite naturally, others need lots of work. The swimmers who need lots of work should not be held back from working on the whole stroke until they learn the kick. Here is a good progression for teaching the kick: Have the swimmer sit on the side of the pool, as close to the edge as possible. Knees are apart and the outside edge of each foot from the little toe to the heel are pressed against the wall. Big toe is up. You say the words AROUND, TOGETHER and motion with your arms. The swimmer kicks feeling the pressure on the inside of the foot and lower leg. It may be necessary to manipulate the swimmer’s feet into the correct starting position. Then you can use the words UP (meaning recover their feet to the wall), OUT (meaning to turn the toes out), AROUND, TOGETHER. I usually tell the swimmer to do 5000 of these while I go on and work with the next swimmer. Naturally, I am just kidding about the number, but the idea is to do a lot of them.

The next step is to let the swimmer get in the water with their back to the wall and hold on to the gutter with their arms. They do the same kick drill using the same words, UP, OUT, AROUND, TOGETHER. Then hand the swimmer a kick board and have him kick on his back. Take care to instruct the swimmer to bring the feet to the butt while keeping hips and thighs nearly straight rather than over bending at the hips and bringing the knees to the chest. Most swimmers can do this drill well with both legs turned out beautifully. I don’t know why, but when you ask the swimmer to flip over and try the same kick on their belly, one leg or the other will turn in and the kick is illegal. It is good to have the swimmer do 3 kicks on their back, then three on their belly, and repeat. Typically, the first kick on the belly is ok, the second begins to turn in, and the third is very bad. Repeating this drill, however, will eventually solve the illegal kick problem.

Another good method for teaching kick was describe above, where the swimmer holds on to a kick board while you hold the feet. A combination of the two methods is very effective.

Since the pullouts are such an important part of the breaststroke event, you should spend quality time on teaching good pullouts. With the swimmers standing on the deck before you, they follow your motions as you demonstrate the pullout while standing up.

Good streamlining with one hand on top of the other hand, head tucked under the arms with no space between the back of the ears and the arms, and the legs together with the ball of one foot resting on the top of the other foot. Then tell the swimmers, “Count three large animals, like rhinoceros.” So they say “One rhinoceros, two rhinoceros, three rhinoceros.” (As opposed to small animals “one ant, two ants, three ants”). The point is to hold the streamline off the start or the tu5264rn. For the pullout, hands go OUT, ELBOWS UP, IN-SWEEP, CLOSE (together) DOWN and OUT. Then the swimmer should count two large animals. On the recovery the elbows stay in close to the sides while the hands cross and stay close to the body. As the hands move through the recovery, the feet also begin their recovery. Tell the swimmers it is like having a string tied from the hands to the feet — when the hands move up, so do the feet. When the feet are fully recovered they kick and break the string as the hands reach forward in a streamlined position. Then count one large animal before beginning the first stroke. Most new breaststrokers want to take the first regular stroke immediately after the kick, and sometimes even before the kick is finished. Learning to Stop in the streamlined position and count one large animal is important. When the swimmers can do the pullout on dryland well, they have a good chance of doing it in the water well.

The animal counting method is a short term method for new breaststrokers. In the long run, you want swimmers to understand the differences between the pullout timing on 50, 100 and 200 yard/meter breaststroke events. You also want the swimmers to use their own senses for judging the best time to pullout, recover, and kick. The “bicycle down a hill” story is a good analogy to use. “If you ride your bike down the hill, peddling is useless.” Just streamline and go. In the pool, when you push off the wall, you are going faster than you can when you use your arms and legs. When you get to the bottom of the hill your speed will begin to fall off. If you peddle too soon you will waste energy, break your streamlining, and lose speed too rapidly. If you wait too long, you will slow too much and it will take more energy to get back up to your best peddling speed. The trick is to begin peddling at the point when you can match the speed of the bike coming off the hill. In the pool, take your pullout when you can match your speed off the wall.”

There are many drills to use for teaching breaststroke pullouts. Pushing off for distance with arms wide, then with arms streamlined teaches the effect of good streamlining. My favorite drill is the “breaststroke pullout contest.” Make two teams and send one team to the other side of the pool. It is fun to allow the swimmers to choose their own order. This is not a race for time, but a contest for distance. The first swimmer dives in from the end of the pool and does a pullout for distance. A spot marked on the side of the pool, even with where the first swimmer’s head finally stops, is the point where the second swimmer gets to dive in and do his/her pullout. The teams alternate turns on opposite sides of the pool. When the wall comes into play, strategy becomes important. If a swimmer can make the wall with one pullout-recover-kick-glide, the swimmer can turn around under water, push off, and do another pullout. Teams will place one of the older, more accomplished swimmers next in order to make the wall. If the swimmer fails to make the wall by a couple of feet, the next swimmer must dive in from a safe distance away, usually by the backstroke flags. When the contest comes down to the last few swimmers the excitement and yelling, “stay down! GLI-I-I-IDE!” from the teammates is fun and encourages nice long streamlined pullouts.

Take the Time

Take the time to teach good breaststroke. It is fun, and the rewards of accomplishment for the swimmers and you are great.