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by Chris Ritter

February 26, 2014

New or nervous swimmers, try these drills to increase your comfort level

Water is not our natural environment. Some swimmers are better at adapting to the aquatic world than others. When you don’t feel comfortable, your body will never be able to realize its full potential in any environment, much less in the pool.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best coaches in the sport of swimming: Milt Nelms and the late Richard Quick. Both were incredible teachers and they specifically were experts in helping swimmers become comfortable in the water, and therefore more efficient in their swimming.

Here are some of the best drills they used and that I recommend you try to gain more efficiency and security in your swimming.

Alligator Breathing

While holding on to the side of the pool with both hands and having either your feet on the bottom or securely on the wall, bring your face close to the surface. Open your mouth as big as possible and have the lower part underwater and the upper part of your mouth still above the surface. Calmly continue breathing with half of your mouth in the water and the other half above the surface. You may choke or swallow a few gulps, but that’s why you should be holding onto the side or standing on your feet. After a few tries, you will figure out how to breathe with water in your mouth.

Most swimmers’ biggest technical problems revolve around breathing. If you can gain confidence breathing with water in your mouth, then you will become a more proficient breather because water almost always finds its way into your mouth when trying to breath. Use this drill to teach your brain that you will survive if you get water in your mouth.

Dead Man’s Float

This drill is also sometimes referred to as your “aquatic signature.” The name pretty much sums up the drill, you float as if your limbs and body were lifeless. Your back should have a nice round curve. Let your legs and arms just dangle. When you need to breathe, simply lift your head quickly and sip some air as low to the water’s surface as possible. When you do this, make sure that only your head moves and that nothing else—no arms or legs—assist in your breathing movement.

This drill helps your body understand that you don’t need to kick or pull in order to get air. Going back to the breathing problems many swimmers have, if you can teach your mind to rely on only your head and neck for air, more of your kicking and pulling power will go into making you faster. That effort can be put toward moving your farther down the pool rather than pushing up for air.


Be sure that you have a clear lane to use when performing this drill. Swim any stroke. Somewhere in the middle of the lap, try to stop yourself as quickly as possible and come to a flat, floating position on the surface with your arms and legs spread out like a starfish.

It’s harder than it sounds, but learning how to go from swimming speed to a sudden stop, in the shortest distance possible, is a great skill to learn. Once you have the hang of stopping, try starting from the starfish position as quickly as possible. See how long it takes to get back up to speed. Just like athletes on land benefit from learning to accelerate and decelerate their bodies quickly, the same is true for swimmers in the water.

Underwater Twist Kick

Push off underwater. While staying in a streamline position begin to either dolphin or flutter kick while twisting and rotating all the way around. As you move, continue to kick down the length of the pool while staying underwater. If you can do the whole lap without breathing, that’s great! If you can’t, that’s OK, too, just take a breath as quickly as possible and go back to the underwater twist kicking.

This drill builds new body awareness that can help you hone in on having a balanced kick. It also helps you navigate your ever-changing orientation to the surface, all while traveling down the pool. Alternate twisting clockwise and counter-clockwise. You may find that your kick is imbalanced, causing you to go off course when twisting in one direction or another. Is there a big difference in your effectiveness or speed when you turn one way or the other? This is a great drill for self-experimentation that can teach you how to change your kick to make it straighter and faster.

There are just a few drills that you can use to add variety to your training while teaching your body to be more comfortable and confident in the water. And as that increases, your performance will also improve.

* Always ensure that you have proper supervision when swimming, especially when doing drills underwater.


  • Technique and Training
  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • Mental Training
  • Breathing
  • Drills