Teaching Triathletes to Catch
We can get quicker results by increasing feedback
Triathletes offer an interesting combination of challenges for masters swim coaches. We must always coach the individual in front of us, but, as a group, triathletes share some common characteristics. Many triathletes believe that more effort will lead to more speed, which works on land but in the water, is not always true. In addition, they often come to us with good lungs, low shoulder and ankle flexibility, a preconceived notion of what swimming looks like, little to no “feel” for the water, and an impending goal race where they want to be ready to attack the swim. How can we, as coaches, overcome previous misconceptions and accelerate technique development? We can get quicker results by increasing feedback.
I know you give feedback. Good coaches give specific, constructive verbal feedback to athletes every practice. Visual cues, such as demonstrations, are also offered as models for learning. Verbal and visual information are both critical to learning. I have found more rapid adjustments in my athletes when adding kinesthetic feedback as well, particularly kinesthetic feedback during movements in the water.
Kinesthetic feedback is knowledge a person has about joint and muscle movements from within, you could also say nervous system feedback, or, taking a little liberty, proprioception. Increasing the strength and frequency of the feedback a triathlete gets from his or her own body will offer pretty convincing information for what is working and what isn’t working. Stuff that works, sticks.
What are some ways to teach freestyle technique with awareness on the neuromuscular feedback? Start with what you want to teach. One of the aspects of technique that I find challenging to teach to triathletes is high elbow catch. Typically, triathletes think swimming should be shoulder driven, based on what they can see when they watch swimming. A high elbow catch (early vertical forearm) initiates the first move from the elbow, contrary to what they “think” and, therefore, contrary to what they do.
I’m a pretty decent coach and it bothered me that I couldn’t teach my athletes to “get” the catch as quickly as I wanted them to learn it. Teaching the catch, I would use demonstrations, descriptions, and physically assist an athlete to make the target movement on the deck. My athletes did pretty well, but there were always a few that couldn’t quite coordinate the high elbow catch the way I was targeting. Could I do it better if they could somehow feel when they got it right in the water?
I finally came up with two ways of teaching high elbow catch by increasing muscular and joint neurofeedback in the water.
Noodle Kick & Pull
The athlete pushes off the wall in an almost streamline position. Instead of a hand-over-hand tight streamline, the athlete holds a noodle horizontally at the surface of the water with hands shoulder width apart—think of a superhero flying with the noodle crossing at the front like a “T.” Maintaining a flutter kick throughout, the athletes bend their elbows and bring the noodle to touch their nose, chest, belly, all the way until the elbows straighten out and the noodle is touching their thighs. The athlete then lifts his or her elbows and cheats the noodle back up along their body to the starting position.
I give this drill 100 meters at a time, with more advanced athletes cued to accelerate the noodle through the down portion. The movement and touch of the noodle provides tactile feedback when it is correctly brought down the body. The only way to get the noodle to touch the body is by bending the elbows and keeping them relatively high. The motor pattern of the high elbow position is then reinforced during the reverse movement as the noodle is brought back along the body to the starting position.
You, the coach, have to lie down on the deck. (Yup, I know, but it’s worth it!) You need an ankle-pulling band (a flat, wide elastic band about 8 inches long, 1 inch wide). Lie perpendicular to the pool at the shallow end. Put a pull buoy on the gutter and rest one elbow on the buoy with your forearm in the water, perpendicular to the wall, holding the ankle band in your hand.
Ask your athlete to float parallel to the wall, arm closest to the wall extended in front of the body (position after the hand entry/extension in the freestyle stroke). The athlete will put the extended hand in the circle of the elastic while stationary, then engage the catch, anchoring against the band, and pull past the elastic and past you. Athletes that push the arm down towards the bottom, without bending the elbow and anchoring first, don’t go anywhere. When the athlete gets it right, s/he feels the elastic against the hand and feels it stretch behind them as s/he pulls past.
For athletes who are dropping the elbow, you can use your hand (the one without the band in it) to “stop” the elbow in a high forward position. Athletes that drop the elbow never feel the resistance of the water that anchoring properly provides. Your hand against the elbow teaches what anchoring the arm properly feels like. My arms have to work pretty hard during this exercise, but the light bulb goes on for athletes really quickly. Feeling the difference in forward movement, and engaging the large muscles of the back and chest, offers feedback directly to the athlete’s brain and the connection is made between the new motor pattern being taught and the less effective pull used before.
Teaching the underwater components of freestyle is a huge challenge for coaches and typically takes a lot of time in the water for a less experienced triathlete swimmer to feel what is effective. Increasing feedback is a powerful way to reduce learning time. The more ways a coach can offer feedback increases the possibility of an athlete adopting the motor pattern we are targeting. Increasing kinesthetic feedback in the water is one more tool for promoting that change. You might have to get a little wet, or watch some painfully slow noodle kicking, but seeing athletes in the pool master freestyle is worth it.
Sue Sotir has been coaching Masters swimmers for a long, long time, including the past 10 years with Minuteman Masters in Bedford, Mass. She is currently collecting research data for her dissertation, as she works towards finishing her doctorate in sport and exercise psychology at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass.