Now that we have talked about what you should do on deck, we can start talking about what your swimmers should be doing in the water! In Part 3 we will talk about a systematic way of teaching dives, turns and the strokes. In Part 4 we will talk about how to write workouts and structure a weekly and seasonal plan.
Obviously, every coach out there has their own method and style to these concepts. We are no different. We have our way that we think works well. The goal in the remaining parts of the book is not to prove our way is better. Rather, we want to break down all these concepts and give you a way of thinking like a coach. Use these concepts as a starting guideline and then you can start to build your own method and coaching style that works for you and your team.
The big learning point in medical school is that medicine is not a “gut” feeling like it is on a TV show. In real life, no one walks into a room, takes one look at the patient and magically knows everything that’s going on. Instead, there is a very systematic way of approaching the diagnosis and treatment of patients where the complex problem is broken down into parts and dissected one component at a time. We can do the same thing with swimming.
Tangent: These are the basics behind the approach to a patient: Chief complaint, history of present illness, review of systems, family/social/past medical history, drugs/allergies, physical exam, imaging, assessment (the diagnosis part) and the plan.
By the time we coaches ended our swimming careers and became swammers, swimming was intuitive to us. We didn’t have to put much conscious thought into our swimming. Like walking, it became automated. Unfortunately, no one is born an instinctual swimmer and the competitive strokes are extremely complicated bodily motions that require a lot of “unnatural” movements and coordination.
Tangent: I once asked a division one swimmer from Auburn how he swam so fast. On the surface, he looked like a regular 6 foot tall skinny boy you see down the street. He replied “I have no idea. I just jump in and it happens. It’s talent.” He wasn’t being arrogant. He was being truthful! He followed up by saying “I could never be a good coach. I don't know how to fix anything for someone else because I wouldn't know what is broken.” By his stage of swimming career he would have to re-learn everything it takes to swim properly in order to be a good coach, and that’s our goal too.
We need to take a step backwards and like a complex patient, break down each stroke into its essential components. Once we have our components laid out, we are going to use a limited number of drills to work on each component separately. Each drill only has a single focus! We don’t want to give the brain too much to think about at any one time. These drills build on one another up to the full stroke. This way, we don’t just jump into a complex swimming stroke and try to do too much at once. The best part of using dedicated drills to help teach the strokes is that we can use these tools throughout the season to teach, reinforce and train better and better strokes. More to explore in Part 4 (hey that rhymed)
One last thing before we jump into the strokes. Obviously, our goal with any of the strokes is to go faster. No matter the stroke, all the advice and training we do and give our swimmers falls into one of two categories: increase power or decrease drag. All of our drills work towards improving the power to drag ratio and these will look a little differently for each stroke. It is essential to teach and reteach your swimmers all these concepts so they know what to focus on for each drill and each stroke.
Now, let’s start as all races start… with a great looking dive!
We tell our swimmers they need a good dive for one simple reason: At every swim meet, there will be a photographer and as you go off the blocks you want to give the best wall poster picture perfect dive everyone can OOO and AHHH at! The speed thing comes later ;)
For real, let’s break down a good dive:
We will go through these steps and associated drills one by one, but first let’s take a quick peek at a great dive. Pictured is Brad Tandy, an Olympic swimmer generally regarded as having one of the best dives of all time. We like to sum up the entire sequence of a dive into this one picture. The goal, as Brad is showing, is to create a smiley face for a split second when coming off the blocks. By getting the eyes, head, arms and chest up we force ourselves to jump out and get as much “air time” as we can manage before belly flopping. Moving through the air is 800 times more efficient than moving through the water, so the farther out we can enter the water, the faster we will get to the other side of the pool.
By getting the back leg up to complete the smiley face, we set up our entry angle for a clean entry. If we don’t do this part with the lower half of our bodies, we are going to hit the water in a leg flop position. In order to have a clean entry, everything from the tips of the fingers to the tips of the toes should go into one small imaginary hula hoop. The fingers are easy, just point down. The legs are hard and won’t follow through unless they are already set up for it, hence the elevated back leg when leaving the blocks.
Now let’s go through each drill that helps us build and focus on each component of the dive. For all these drills, hold the streamline for a good while after the entry without dolphin kicking. This way we can just focus on the dive, entry and glide portions without worrying about the breakout just yet.
Swing Dive- Jump Looking Forward
The swing dive is just as simple as it sounds. Stand on the blocks with both feet at the edge. Swing your arms and focus on jumping OUT. As you jump keep your eyes, head and chest up as you swing your arms out to join them. Don’t worry yet about the back leg coming up. If you belly flop, you are doing it right! This is an especially critical drill for young swimmers to keep them from diving straight down.
Arm Slap Dive- Drive Chest Up
Here, we will start in the typical down position, but instead of having both hands on the blocks, one arm will be lifted up and pointing forward. As we jump, lift up the other arm and slap it up against the already raised arm. This again forces us to lift our upper bodies and swing our arms to try and help us jump out instead of down. Try to re-create that smile...better than is shown of course!
Thumbs-Up Dive- Swing Arms Out
This is especially popular with the 10-year-olds. Start like a normal dive, but as you go off the block, try to give the other end of the pool a double thumbs up before aiming down for the entry. This again focuses on jumping out and making a smiley face. We focus a lot on this part of the dive because it is the most difficult to train. Instinct wants us to protect ourselves and keep our heads down, but we have to fight instinct.
At this point, you can transition into regular full on dives with dolphin kicks and a breakout. When practicing dives, many swimmers make the mistake of jumping and entering the water and immediately cutting off and coming to the surface wondering if they had a good dive. The jump and entry are only half of a dive. We consider the underwaters and breakout all part of a good dive as well. How many dolphin kicks is right for you needs to be worked out with your coach and developed over time.
Another common mistake kids make on their dives is to start dolphin kicking too early. You want to hold the angle of entry until the hips are in the water before pulling up and leveling out. This will do several things:
Tangent: Wave drag is the actual energy in the waves sloshing around and it is by far the biggest source of drag swimmers encounter. Wave drag is highest at the surface of the water and is lower the deeper you go. About 4-5 feet under the surface of the water is a good target for a dive to eliminate most wave drag.
We have a lot to work on every day with our swimmers and many times we don’t set aside dedicated time to work on these techniques. Instead, we relegate the practice of dives and turns to be performed during each set during a regular workout. Yes, swimmers should be responsible for owning their training and working on dives and turns at every opportunity, but we should also realize there is only so much a person can do at any one time. Just like any drill, the point of setting aside dedicated time for practicing dives and turns is to break down these complicated motions and dedicate more brain power to help us improve them. Especially for younger swimmers, schedule dedicated time to work on these progressions and build a great dive from the start of a swimming career.
Summary of Drills:
If you include the approach to the wall starting from the flags, the turn itself, the push off, underwaters and the breakout then a flip or open turn accounts for about 25% of the race in a short course pool. For those with good underwaters who breakout at the 12.5 to 15m mark, a turn can account for up to 60% of a race! That’s a big part of every race that can be won or lost at the wall. Let’s make sure we win every time by building up our turns correctly.
Tangent: So… why don’t we spend at least 25% of our time working on turns? We tell ourselves it’s because every wall is a chance to practice our turns, but in all likelihood we all need to set more time aside for dedicated turn training.
Before we go through the individual components and drills for both flip and open turns, let’s just review a few basic goals that apply to both flip and open turns. Again, the approach from about the flags in is crucial, especially for open turns where we want to hit the wall as soon as possible. The further you swim in, the further you have to swim out and the longer you make the race for yourself. Next, both flip and open turns involve a summersault. One forward, the other backward. More on this later.
Lastly, the most crucial part of the turn is the push off. There is a wave of water being pulled behind you as you approach the wall. When you push off, you either have to go through that wave or under it. In either case, we want our push off streamlined position to be as straight as possible. Many young swimmers (especially those circle swimming) gain the bad habit of pushing off at an angle. This decreases the power off the wall, increases the distance we swim, and of course creates more drag which slows us down. We want to go through the smallest imaginary hula-hoop we can to cut through the upcoming wave. A good, patient glide after the push off also helps to maintain as much speed off the wall as possible.
Here are the essential components of the flip turn:
Most kids try to rush the flip turn. Instead of setting it up right and getting a good, solid, powerful streamlined push off, they want to spin around as fast as possible and start swimming right away. We need to make kids slow down and flip the right way, starting with a straight over summersault. As much as possible, we don’t want kids to twist as they flip. In a race, they naturally will twist as they flip because they will feel rushed, but in training and during these drills we want to exaggerate the focus on a good summersault without simultaneous twisting.
The goal of this straight over summersault is to land on the wall with the eyes looking up to the ceiling, back flat and horizontal with the bottom of the pool (assuming it’s a flat bottomed pool of course) and the arms in a tight streamline. It is actually very helpful for swimmers to separate the upper and lower body motions in order to attain the position on the wall. The upper body can flip first and get into its “ready to launch” position while the legs are still flipping over. This way, the millisecond the feet hit the wall, the swimmers are ready to launch and push off the wall.
The push off here is also an opportunity to slow things down and do them right. Most swimmers want to get on their stomachs right away but all that rushed twisting gets them out of alignment and out of a good tight streamlined position. For that reason, we are going to practice a lot of pushing off and gliding on our backs first. The twist can slowly be incorporated as the prior elements of the flip turn are mastered. In addition, we are going to exaggerate the slow twisting motion in training with the expectation that it will speed up during a race as swimmers feel more rushed.
Finally, just like how a dive ends at the actual breakout, so does the flip and open turn. After a good glide off the wall and a slow twist to the stomach, swimmers can now attack towards the surface of the water with their dolphin kicks and breakout with their heads down. Avoiding a breath on the first stroke and breaking out with the feet first and with the body in a “downhill” swimming position can differentiate between a good and great turn!
Tangent: On a backstroke breakout, swimmers often make the mistake of thinking the head is the first thing to break the surface of the water. In reality, it is the shoulder of the arm that takes the first stroke that breaks the surface. So if you take your first stroke with the right arm, the right shoulder should breakout first. This also means during the first stroke, the body stays underwater until the very last moment.
Lane Line Flips = Straight over summersault
In order to prevent kids from twisting side to side as they do the straight over summersault, use lane line flips to force good technique. Start in the position we want to approach the wall with arms straight, head down and legs kicking lightly at the surface.
Next, pull into the lane line while keeping the head tucked and the chest “scraping” over the lane line. We don’t want to go up and then down, we want to go forward staying low in the water as we start our flip turn.
Finally the flip. The lane line will prevent twisting side to side so you just have to flip straight over and target your landing position: Knees bent at 90ish degrees, back flat and horizontal with the bottom of the pool and eyes looking up towards the ceiling underwater.
You will be surprised how many kids struggle with this simple procedure. Most tuck in too early getting their thighs caught on the lane line. Here we can teach kids to flip with their upper bodies first keeping their legs straight out behind them. Then they can whip the legs around to follow the upper body. Next, you will notice kids over-rotating and not forcing themselves to stop in the proper position. Lastly, kids will try to push down on the lane line to lift themselves up and then dive down into the flip. We don’t want that. We want them to learn to keep their heads down and eyes on the wall as they approach. Speaking of the approach...
Two Arm Kick in and Pause = The approach and land flat
For the next several drills, we are only working on the first half of the flip turn. For each, kids will approach the wall in a progressive manner and stop at the “landed” position without pushing off. This is the most important part of a flip turn! If you don’t set it up right, you can’t salvage it later. So let’s slow it waaaaaay down and take it one baby step at a time.
First is kicking in with both arms out in front, taking a double arm stroke to accelerate into the wall, flipping and finally landing in the upside down seated position we have been practicing. The key here is just to focus on the approach and landing flat. We just want to do exactly what we did before, but adding the actual wall.
The arms are added because it is much easier to flip when you are going a little faster. It also helps kids get started working on the timing of the last stroke into the wall (but don’t tell them that, this is subconscious training). Don’t move on until the components here are as close to perfect as possible!
One Arm Kick in and Pause = Turn timing
This drill is just like the previous one, but with just one arm out in front instead of two. In all our turns we want to “swim into” the wall. We never glide into the wall, ever. We want to attack the wall and bounce off of it. Getting the timing of that last stroke is critical and trying to work on it during training is too much to handle for kids who are not experts already. Again, no push off yet! Just land in a controlled manner.
Slow-Mo Turn and Plant = Practice!
Now we can add in the second arm and the full stroke. But we are still just practicing the first half of the flip turn: approach, timing and landing. Go slow and go back to earlier drills if kids start to falter.
Wall Push Off = Take off
Now we can work on the second half of the flip turn: take-off, twist, dolphin kick, breakout. Sounds like a lot, but it’s all stuff kids do all the time, just a matter of perfection. The most important and difficult is the take-off.
For this drill, we are going to skip the swimming in component and start on the wall itself. Kids drop down underwater, get into the upside down seated position as pictured with arms in a tight streamline, eyes looking up to the ceiling, back flat horizontally with the surface and feet on the wall with knees around 90 degrees (have we said this before)?
Kids should take as much time as they need to get into this perfect position before launching off the wall. For the start of this drill, kids should jump off the wall and stay on their backs and just glide. At this point, you will see all kinds of uncontrollable directions of take-off kids are capable of. Just shake your head in disappointment and have them keep practicing while giving constant feedback, of course. You will need to be their eyes because this is a very unnatural movement for a human being.
The goal is to push off and get the whole body from finger tips to toes to slide through an imaginary hula hoop. This forces kids to cut through the water and decrease their drag.
Once kids start mastering control over their bodies (granted this may take some time), next we can add in the twisting component. As they push off on their back, they can now start to twist onto their stomachs. The twist should occur just as or after they leave the wall. Again, kids will struggle to maintain their line through the imaginary hula hoops and start to wobble all over the place. Practice, practice practice until they can push off, twist and glide without kicking all the way to the flags (for 9 and unders) and to the 10m mark (for 10+ kiddos).
Tangent: Obviously skip the “twist” component for backstroke turns and just stay on your back!
After that, we can add in the dolphin kicks which start after a good glide/twisting phase and when the kids are on their stomachs. At least in practice, we want kids to do all these components separately. Even as we add the dolphin kicks, kids should still push off first, twist as they glide and then dolphin kick. At no point should these components mix and overlap. They will meld together during a race as kids rush through the motions, but during the initial learning phases you (the coach) should be able to see all these individual components play out from the side of the pool.
Feet Breakout = Body position during breakout
Once kids have the first half and the second half of the flip turn mastered, we can start putting everything together. This is nothing more than the combination of elements we discussed before. The addition we have here is the actual breakout.
The only special comment we have on breakouts is to get kids to try and breakout with their feet first. Kids tend to want to get to the surface quickly. This means angling their bodies upwards towards the surface of the water. Obviously this creates a lot of drag and is why a lot of kids who do this come to a near stop in the water at the breakout.
By challenging kids to break the surface of the water with their feet first, it forces their upper bodies to maintain a downhill swimming position and to carry their speed forward without giving it up in a rushed turn and breakout. This will help maintain low drag through the surface of the water and helps kids win every wall they turn on!
Summary of Drills:
The open turn is a strict series of events that follows the same exact pattern every time, kind of like the pullout. It’s a little easier to understand if we break it all down into the individual steps:
It looks like a lot, but we can separate them out into phase one and phase two. Phase one are steps 1-4 while phase two is 5-10. Just like in training the pullout, we are not going to do all steps all the time. We need to break it down, start from the beginning, slowly add more steps and make sure we are doing things properly all along the way.
The biggest mistake kids make with open turns is thinking it is a touch and twist around movement. This is not true! An open turn is a touch and FALL BACK movement. It is a reverse somersault. Other than the two-hand touch, the open turn concepts are exactly the same as a flip turn, just on your back.
Just like a flip turn, the approach starts at the flags with the goal of reaching the wall with both hands in a fully extended position. Timing the strokes to hit that wall at just the right moment takes practice and may not be mastered for years, but at least we should all consciously understand the ideal goal from the beginning. We want to touch that wall as soon as we can so we can get started on turning around and going the other way as soon as we can.
When the two-hand touch occurs, that means we are done with that length of the pool and we need to start going the opposite direction to hit the other end of the pool’s wall. Many kids “collapse” into the wall or grab the edge and pull themselves up and into the wall they just touched. That’s a big no-no! In fact, kids should be pushing themselves AWAY from the wall after they touch.
Once the touch occurs, we need to start getting into position to push off. The best way is to bring the knees straight up to the chest while pushing one elbow back. The goal is to land on the wall ready to fall backwards into the water. The key here is the eyes. The body follows the head and the head follows the eyes. As kids bring their knees up and elbow back, their eyes should look FORWARD, not sideways. This forces the body to rotate backwards instead of twisting to the side. Just like in the flip turn, the twist happens later during the push off, not during the somersault.
Now that we have our feet on the wall, elbow back and eyes forward we can start the falling back phase of the turn. At this point, the eyes should look UP towards the ceiling as the upper body falls backwards into the water being pulled down by the arm that is in the water. As the kids fall back, the second arm that is still on the wall lets go and follows the body down to get in a streamline. By the time the kids are in a streamline, they have not pushed off the wall yet, but are in the “ready” position just before launch. At this point in the open turn, the body will have started to twist, but during the practice and learning phases, we want kids to still be looking up to the ceiling with their eyes up, backs flat and horizontal with the bottom of the pool and arms in a tight streamline. Sounds familiar!?
Finally the launch. Just like in a flip turn, we want to push off straight through our imaginary hula hoops and start twisting as we go off. By the current rules, we can’t actually push off on our backs and twist, we have to be at least on our sides and towards the belly (except in a fly to back turn during the IM obviously). Again after the push off, there should be a glide to take advantage of all the speed before working in the dolphin kicks/pullout. As always, the turn ends at the breakout and this will be incorporated last in our progression, but it won’t be left out!
As we go through these drills, we will first work on the first phase of the open turn including: approach, touch and knees up/elbow back. Then we will do the second phase: fall back, streamline, launch!
Kick/Swim in = Reaching touch (the approach)
Our goal is to land on the wall in an extended position as pictured. Arms straight out and head down reaching as far as we can to touch the wall as early as we can. It seems simple, but this is where we need to start and many kids do not get themselves to the wall in this manner during a race.
Start at the flags or beyond and just kick in (with either fly or breast kick) flat on the water with arms extended just focusing on reaching the wall correctly. If your pool has a slanted bottom on the diving end, you can use it as a jump off point to get some speed. Once the kids start to understand how to land on the wall, you can add in a few real strokes but still just stopping at the wall.
Knees up/elbow back = Landing
To practice the knees up/elbow back drill, we will actually have the kids start on the wall itself. They first need to just get in the “goal” position as pictured: both feet on the wall with knees pointed UP to the ceiling, one arm on the wall with the other back in the water, and the eyes looking forward (not sideways). This way they can feel the “end point” they are aiming for.
Next we will take a step back and just work on the knee motion. Start in the “landed” position with arms extended and the body floating on the surface as if we just swam in and reached the wall. Then have the kids practice just bringing the knees straight up and placing the feet on the wall. Don’t let go of the two-hand hold on the wall just yet. Repeat the knee drive until the kids feel like they got it nailed down. Remember to always start from the “just landed on the wall” position and to drive the knees straight up without twisting the legs side to side.
Now we will practice the elbow back part of the drill. This time, start on the wall with the feet on the wall, but still having both hands on the wall. The head at this point is looking straight forward and will not move during this part of the drill. All that is done next is to elbow back one arm into the water. Everything else stays exactly stationary. Repeat several times until the motion is perfected.
Lastly, we are going to put the two parts together. Go back to the original starting point with the hands on the wall and body extended backwards. Then perform the knees up and PAUSE. Make sure everything is where it is supposed to go. Then elbow back and PAUSE again. Repeat this process until it becomes second nature.
Once everything is relatively perfected, we can start to practice the entire sequence in one fluid motion. No matter how fast we end up performing all these motions, the big thing is to keep the eyes looking where we want them to during this part of the turn. Now, we can move on to phase two.
Fall Back = Reverse somersault
Now we can start work on phase two (steps 5-10). We are going to start where we left off at the end of phase one in the position pictured: feet on the wall, knees pointed to the ceiling, one arm on the wall, one arm down in the water and most importantly eyes looking forward.
Next, we let go of the wall with the other hand to fall backwards trying to get into our streamlined position underwater. As we fall, eyes look UP to the ceiling and not around to the side. This forces swimmers to maintain the same alignment on the way out of the open turn as they enter it.
As the swimmer falls back, a bit of twisting on the wall can start to occur since we will need to push off on our sides. The more important step though is getting into a streamline and getting the body to be relatively horizontal with the bottom of the pool. Before we push off, we need to make sure we are angled in a way to go through our imaginary hula hoops. You can’t really adjust your angles and alignment after you leave the wall, so we need to set up properly on the wall before we push off. The goal is to have a body position similar to the second picture. Repeat the steps from the wall, falling back, twisting, streamlining and just stop there. Don’t push off, just keep repeating until this is perfected.
Now that we are ready for launch, the push-off can finally happen! If we have done everything properly up to this point, all we need to do is jump. After the jump, kids tend to rush the turn and go right into their underwater. Resist this urge! The first thing to do after jumping off the wall is nothing. Just glide and maybe twist a bit more onto the stomach. We need to wait for a very solid single Mississippi at least.
Next comes the underwater and breakout. These are probably the easiest parts of the entire turn, so leave them out until the end and focus more time on the beginning portions of the turn.
Full Open Turn = Practice!
Now that we know all the steps to a great open turn, we can go all the way back to the beginning and practice them again. At first, have the kids pause for a second at these listed points:
As things start looking better and better, we can start cutting out the pauses and get to our full open turn. The open turn should be one fluid bounce in/bounce out motion. It should look and it should be effortless!
Summary of Drills: