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by Kris Goodrich

June 16, 2020

Try these drills to help improve your feel for the water

My fascination with sculling began in a high school lifeguard class.

My teacher taught us many different types of sculls, and as the only girl in the class, I took it upon myself to be the best in the class at the skill. Most of the boys were faster swimmers than I was, but I could scull forward, backward, spin, and even hold my legs straight out of the water upside down.

As I started teaching and coaching swimming, I spent many years sculling forward and backward along with my swimmers. It was not only useful for teaching, but I also got faster and stronger as well. I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to scull until a chance encounter with a turtle while scuba diving in the Cayman Islands. A couple flicks of his flippers and the ungainly animal was 20 feet away from me. I was left yards behind and as hard as I tried could not catch him.

After all these years, what was I doing wrong and how could I do it better?

What is Sculling?

Sculling is a back-and-forth motion with your hands, like you’re drawing a figure eight. Your elbows should stay relaxed, and you should have minimal shoulder movement. Keep your palms slightly oriented in the direction that you would like to travel as you apply pressure to the water. The most common mistake people make when sculling is making a circular motion similar to a small breaststroke pull instead of the figure eight.

Why Sculling?

The greatest swimmers use their hands like an anchor in the water to catch and hold the water while swimming. Instead of moving their hands through the water, they keep their hands in place as their body moves past them. Think of elementary school gym class and pulling yourself hand over hand to the gym ceiling by climbing the rope using only your hands.

Beginner swimmers, or inefficient swimmers, may not have as good of an anchor, or what many coaches call “feel for the water.” Their hands slip through the water more than hold onto it. By adding sculling to your workout, you can increase your sensitivity to the water on your palms. You’ll learn how to feel where to apply pressure during the catch and pull so that it becomes more instinctive when you swim.

How to Scull Effectively

Start by bringing the right tools with you to the pool. A snorkel is a great tool for any set of sculling drills. It allows you to keep your head in the water and keep your body position horizontal the length of the pool. If you tend to sink in the water, use a pull buoy as well. I prefer not to have my swimmers kick when sculling so that they can feel any movement coming from their hands.

Keep your shoulders relaxed and elbow movement minimal. The faster you do the figure eight motion with your hands and wrists and flick, or “press,” the water toward your feet with your palms, the faster you'll move toward the other end of the pool.

If you find you’re bouncing a lot, slow down a little and pay attention to your palms. Your palms are sending more energy toward the bottom of the pool than toward your feet and making you bounce. A slight change in orientation will help to fix the problem.

If you’re moving slowly, you may only be applying pressure on your palms on the out-sweep and not the in-sweep or vice versa. Both propel you forward so take a little time to focus on both.

When you add a new sculling drill into your workout, you’re using muscles you haven’t trained much. Start with a few 25s and then rest so that you can do them correctly and with proper technique. Mix it up with a long swim in between and then a few more 25s of a different type of scull to build up your strength. Sculling is a great recovery after a hard set, a good part of a warm-up to get a feel for the water, or even for a cool-down to reset your strokes after a long workout.

Having Trouble?

If everyone at practice seems to be leaving you yards behind and you’re struggling to move, there’s an at-home drill you can do.

Take an 8½ x 11 sheet of white paper, and stand in front of a mirror and try your sculling again. While standing in front of the mirror, put the paper on your palm, and scull back and forth using a figure eight motion. Remember that the motion should be from your hand and wrist, not your elbow and shoulder.

If you’re having trouble at first, try getting your fingertips wet or folding the paper in half. Start with your dominant hand and then move on to the other side. Once you have mastered both sides, go back to the pool to see your improvement.

Challenge Yourself

You might do the same few sculling drills in practice: front scull, windshield wiper scull (also called 90 degrees scull), finish scull (also called hip scull), and backstroke scull with hands at your hips. Your body and hands are in good position when you do those sculls, so they’re easy to master and move you through the water.

If you want to get stronger and more efficient, you need to try different sculls and different body positions. Try sculling feet first with your hands above your head lying both on your front and on your back. Depending on your skill level, you may need a pull buoy.

For backstroke, you can scull on your side one arm at a time. Do you feel the difference between your dominant arm and nondominant arm?

My favorite scull is one that I call the travelling scull. I start at the catch position for freestyle and scull all the way from the catch to the finish. I do both hands at the same time and go slowly. If there’s a spot where I feel like I’m not holding the water as well that day, I may stay there for six to eight sculls before moving on. When I get to the finish, I recover underwater like breaststroke and start over again.

At the start of my sculling career, I was good at the normal sculling drills. After challenging myself with different sculls in different body positions, I’m faster and stronger in both my sculling and my swimming. If I ever run into that turtle again, I probably still won’t keep up, but I have learned a lot since our encounter.

Looking for more great information about swimming? Check out our Swimming 101 guide featuring swimming pool and stroke basics, how to start swim training as an adult, and more.


  • Technique and Training


  • Drills