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by Scott Bay

January 31, 2017

Mental cues for finishing strong in all four strokes

Push and pull: You need both.

Think about it: When you swim, the most power comes from your hands when they’re below your shoulders. The problem is, in most of the strokes, your hands are out in front or above your head for a significant portion of each swim.

Want to see what I mean? Stand with your hands above your head. Hold it there, and soon, your arms will feel heavy and tired. It’s not just gravity, either. If you do this while lying on the ground, this position isn’t terribly comfortable either.

The point is, when your hands are above your shoulders, they’re pulling. When they’re below your shoulders, they’re pushing. This is an oversimplification, of course, but you can try this simple test: In a deep pool place your hands on the deck and submerge until your head is below the water.  Try to press yourself up out of the water (no kicking). Try the same thing in shallow water with your hands about shoulder height and no pushing off the bottom. Which exit from the pool was easier? In the first instance, you’re pulling, in the second, you’re pushing. And pushing is always easier.

Passing Energy Between Muscle Groups

For the moment, let’s set aside breaststroke. With the other three strokes, as you anchor your hand, you’re really trying just to establish a firm “grip” on the water. Establishing that position as far forward as you can before you initiate the stroke is the key to a stronger pull.

The more surface area—the palms, wrists, and forearms—you get perpendicular to the direction you want to go, the firmer your grip will be. This is the catch or pull part of the stroke. If you don’t accelerate the hand and forearm through the rest of the stroke, you’ll slow down. Finishing the stroke with a flourish of energy conserves your momentum and helps you accelerate.

Below are some mental cues for how and when to accelerate your hands to a strong finish.

  • Freestyle. Think about slapping your thigh. You won’t be able to actually do it, so don’t worry about hurting yourself. But you’ll feel yourself surge forward when you apply this motion. Another cue that works well for some swimmers is thinking about pulling your hip to your hand rather than moving your arm through the water.
  • Backstroke. Think about grabbing an armful of water and throwing it to your toes. Try to feel the rush of water along the outside of your leg as you do this. You can also visualize throwing a medicine ball down really hard.
  • Butterfly. Think of brushing your thumbs past your thighs. This is similar to freestyle, but with the lack of rotation on the long axis of the body. You can also visualize pressing yourself out of the pool. Imaging doing this in such a way that you pop out of the water and land on your feet.


What about breaststroke? Yes, it’s different. If you think about the model of pull and push from the other strokes, you can tell right away how that won’t apply to breaststroke. The front end of the stroke is the catch or pull, but because the hands (except on the pull-out) never pass the shoulders, it’s hard to sense an intense push. But, here’s how it does apply:

  • The push part comes from the kick. Really good breaststrokers turn their feet out and push the water back with the surface area created by the feet, ankles, and calves. If you’re not equipped with natural flexibility in the hips, knees, and ankles to do this, you can still try and adjust within your range of motion.
  • Think of smacking your ankles together as you finish the kick. It helps you focus on the finish. Don’t worry about hurting yourself—the water can’t be compressed—it’ll squirt backward and create more propulsive force to move you forward.
  • Lastly, envision squeezing your glutes together as you finish the kick. It keeps your hips in the right place and keeps your lower body light and tight as you take advantage of the propulsion you just generated.

There’s nothing new or secret about any of this. It’s simply a new way of thinking about what swimmers naturally do in some instances and making it understandable to those to whom it doesn’t come naturally. Most coaches preach the same messages, but sometimes the messages don’t get through to every swimmer. Ask your coach for clarification, and try using these mental cues to help your body go. Like most things in swimming, it just requires patience and thoughtful practice.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle
  • Breaststroke
  • Backstroke
  • Mental Training
  • Stroke Technique