Tips and tools for teaching technique
Stroke drills are a fundamental part of a coach’s toolkit. Proper drill execution fine tunes the senses, skills, and strengths that swimmers need to maximize our aquatic performance. A well-designed drill will:
- Isolate a portion of the stroke, allowing (or perhaps forcing) the swimmer to focus on an individual technique component
- Teach the swimmer how to perform the movement properly
- Make sense to the swimmer, and
- Be possible for the swimmer to accomplish.
Even the most supercalifragilistic drill in the world will fail completely, though, without your coaching expertise conscientiously applied to ensure its success. Here are suggestions for preventing the common pitfalls that occur during drills.
Understand the Drill’s Purpose
“I saw a lap swimmer doing it and it looked cool,” is NOT sufficient motivation for incorporating a drill into your workout. You must understand exactly how the drill promotes improved technique—or you risk having your swimmers learn bad habits.
Swimming technology is in constant flux. The drills you did as an age-grouper have most likely been superseded. Stay up to date with the latest USMS technique videos and the articles in SWIMMER Magazine.
Explain the Drill’s Purpose
Simply giving the drill’s name is insufficient; you’d be amazed at how many ways people can interpret vague descriptions. I have seen people contorting themselves into a pretzel because they heard a “high elbow” was a good thing, and figured that meant that they had to touch their scapula during each arm recovery. And even though the purpose of the “fingertip drag” drill is to teach how to enter the water cleanly, I have seen swimmers who have only learned to constantly drag their fingers. These are not examples of productive drill results.
I’ve also heard coaches say to “drill down, swim back” or other such ambiguous instructions to people who have never learned any proper drills. Avoid such vagueness; make sure every swimmer understands what you mean. Be very specific about how to perform the drill, and what it is designed to accomplish.
Give Immediate and Continual Feedback
Drills only teach proper technique if they are done correctly, and it’s really hard for some Masters swimmers to accurately perceive whether they’ve succeeded. Watch every drill carefully, and stop swimmers to provide feedback and corrective advice as soon as you notice a problem. (Be particularly vigilant for body-position distortions that disrupt alignment and stability, especially during breathing motions.)
If you aren’t able to physically observe your athletes doing their drills, you might be able to exchange videos to ensure they understand and perform the drill correctly. If you can’t do that, then just make sure that your swimmers are aware of the risks in swimming without a coach’s feedback. Despite the popular opinion that “any drill is a good drill,” the fact is that practicing poor form builds a habit of swimming with rotten technique.
Provide Individual Adaptations
Each Masters swimmer is unique. We don’t all have the same flexibility, balance, or strength. Drills that elite college swimmers perform with ease may be completely impossible for our more seasoned athletes. When you see people struggling with drills, offer them some help. For example, you may allow fins to help maintain body position in one-arm drills, or offer a “no kickboards” solution to folks whose shoulders hurt when grasping a really buoyant board.
It’s perfectly OK for a drill to be difficult and challenging, but if it’s so hard that the swimmer is struggling to stay afloat, it’s a pretty good bet that the drill is not achieving its intended outcome. Come up with an alternative that they can perform.
The Zen of Drills
Make “drill thinking” a part of your coaching mindset. There is no rule that says a drill must be some one-armed or kick-centric mutation of regular swimming; a drill orientation can be a part of any swim, including warmup and cooldown. For example, remind swimmers to focus on their early vertical forearm during an easy 100 between hard work sets, or swim an easy 500 concentrating on perfect breathing motion with every third arm stroke. What makes anything an effective drill is that you have explained the purpose and given feedback until everyone is swimming perfectly.
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