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by Scott Bay

October 14, 2019

Reimagining abandoned drills to improve your stroke

For years, coaches have trotted out the same drills that they were taught as swimmers. Everyone was doing them, and the results seemed to fit the thinking about the most effective ways to swim.

As swimming evolved, it became apparent that some of the drills were reinforcing patterns of movement that are different from what’s currently known as good stroke technique. Some coaches have found ways to modify these classic drills so that they fit what we know about swimming today.

Freestyle Catch-Up Drill

A few twists put this oldie-that-can-still-be-a-goodie drill back in the lineup of stroke technique drills. It was abandoned by many coaches because swimmers were crossing over in front of their heads on the entry. This was consistent with the thinking that an S pull was the most effective. When thinking changed on the S pull, this drill started to fall away. Here’s what’s still good about it and how to modify it to make it useful again.

  • The reason we should keep it: timing. Catch-up is also an exaggeration of making sure the hands pass above the head. And it’s still a good way to work on timing. A possible exception to this timing is the sprint events, but it’s still great for even pure sprinters, especially during warm-up and cool-down.
  • The fix: It’s all in the thumbs. If you try this, it will make sense. From the normal catch position, extend your thumbs so they make an L shape and a backward L shape with the index fingers of each hand. When taking your catch-up strokes, be sure your thumbs touch. Notice the hands are now right in front of the shoulder, which fixes the crossover problem.
  • Other good things. With the idea being that just the thumb tips touch, the entry will be right in front of the shoulder. Also, the swimmers not being able to look at their thumbs helps develop kinesthetic awareness—knowing where their body parts are. And since it’s a slow drill, one has to develop a powerful kick and rotate properly. Best to have your swimmers try it with fins first.

One-Arm Freestyle Drill

This is another drill that was abandoned by many for some things it did to the stroke that just aren’t done anymore. The benefit was that swimmers could really focus on the pull with just the one arm at a time and notice differences between right side and left side. Those things are still great about it. But this drill in its original form had many swimmers getting really flat on the water and rushing through it like they were trying to paddle a surfboard with one arm. With just a few tweaks this drill could make a comeback

  • The reason we should keep it: Being aware of subtle things such as the pitch of the hand and catching with a high elbow, etc. Also, it does allow for noticing and adjusting one side versus the other. Thoughtful drill work is essential.
  • The fix: Change where the nonstroking arm is. This drill was often taught putting the nonstroking arm out front. Switching the nonstroking arm to the side allows for a few good things to happen. The first is that swimmers breathe every stroke to their nonstroking side. This helps fix their being flat, as long as they remember to rotate to their stroking side as well. It also helps with posture on the water, since they don’t have the lead hand to use for balance when breathing. It makes them aware of timing when they breathe and when they get their faces back into the water, just before the pull.
  • Other good things. Just like the catch-up drill above, it’s important to develop a good propulsive kick to do this well. Again, it’s good for your swimmers to start with fins so they don’t rush. The key skills being worked on are rotation, timing, and breathing. As their kick develops, they can eventually lose the fins.

Backstroke Hesitation Drill

This old drill needs more change than the others. During this drill, swimmers would swim backstroke and stop or hesitate the recovery at a quarter, a half, and three quarters of the way up. This taught a lot of kinesthetic awareness and definitely made good kickers. It started to lose its popularity when it became clear that it made swimmers swim flatter and pull with less effect. 

  • The reason we should keep it: It still does the good things. This drill makes swimmers strong kickers and promotes better kinesthetic awareness.
  • The fix: Skip the one quarter and three quarters and let your hands catch up at the top of the recovery only, in front of your face. This will cause swimmers to rotate and pull deeper with each stroke. They can concentrate on just the pull, one arm at a time, similar to one-arm backstroke. The added weight right over the face naturally gets swimmers over on the side a lot more for the pull.
  • Other good things. One has to be a great kicker for this, so fins are a must for starting off. The added benefit for everyone on the pool deck and in the pool is that it provides a great deal of entertainment watching someone try it for the first time. We refer to this rebooted drill as backstroke catch-up.

Final Thoughts

There are programs that, for a variety of reasons, rarely, if ever, do drills anymore. Some coaches say they have to get so much yardage in with only an hour to do it and drills take too much time, or that they don’t help, or that the swimmers do them incorrectly anyway so why bother. And since you need to slow things down and get the most out of it, they shouldn’t be done on any kind of interval, which upsets people focused on their pace. So, there is resistance.

But think on this: You’re trying to reprogram your brain to change and reinforce a pattern of movement, as well as make your swimmers more aware of where their body parts are and what they’re doing. Of course, it takes more time. But in the long run, drills improve swimming and awareness. Take time to ensure that your swimmers do them and do them correctly. Then, down the road, you can pack in more yards and your swimmers will swim them more efficiently.


  • Technique and Training


  • Drills
  • Backstroke
  • Freestyle