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by Emmett Hines

March 18, 2014

Applying the lessons of “The Karate Kid” to swimming

“My coach often has us do drills or other activities that don’t involve swimming. My training time is limited. Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time swimming instead?”

Great question! Hold that thought while we take in a picture show...

Wax On, Wax Off

In the 1984 movie, “The Karate Kid,” teenager Daniel LaRusso implores his apartment’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate. Daniel arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s home expecting to learn standard karate moves (how to punch and kick) but is confused when Mr. Miyagi has him doing nothing but repetitive household chores, such as waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences.

Over the course of numerous such “lessons,” Mr. Miyagi offers instructions only about the chores themselves: “Left hand, right hand.” “Up, down.” “Wax on, wax off.” “Breathe in, breathe out.” It's clear that Mr. Miyagi has his teaching motives and, over time, is pleased with Daniel's progress. Daniel, however, eventually becomes frustrated, complains about all of the pointless scut work and threatens to quit. 

“Not everything is as seem,” says Mr. Miyagi to his pupil. He then demonstrates how the mundane chores translate to karate skills. Mr. Miyagi punches high and Daniel blocks using the arm motion from waxing. Mr. Miyagi punches low and Daniel blocks using the painting motion. Daniel uses his practice sanding motions to block Mr. Miyagi’s kicks. In this way it becomes clear to Daniel that each chore had a purpose—teaching defensive arm movements—and that unending repetition had created strongly ingrained habits of those movements. From this point on, Daniel trusts Mr. Miyagi’s coaching, and eventually becomes a karate champion.

Though simplified for dramatic effect, Mr. Miyagi’s coaching style was to develop Daniel’s fundamental martial arts skills and habits before teaching their context and application. This can be an effective method where the willful application of a newly learned but not yet habitual skill (say, blocking a punch to the solar plexus) in the context of a much more complex set of motions (say, a street fight) is wholly beyond the current ability of the athlete.   

Waxing Aquatic

The same concept is often applied in swim coaching. Coaches often assign drills that don't always appear to the swimmer to be directly applicable to full-stroke swimming. The coach wants to create visceral knowledge and precise habits for some foundational skill, without the added distraction of more complex motions. Once the skill is well honed, it can be incorporated into higher-level motion sets.

One example of this approach is the use of sculling skills and drills. Highly effective swimmers unconsciously employ subtle sculling motions throughout their strokes in order to get a “grip” on the water, such that they move along as if finding invisible, firmly anchored handholds for every stroke. This grip is the oft alluded-to “feel for the water” that proves frustratingly elusive to the majority of nonelite swimmers.

In order to develop aquatic grip, coaches often employ a variety of sculling drills in different positions. Then, over time, they gradually increase the complexity of the motion sets through which those sculling skills are applied. Such a problem-solving progression results in improved general aquatic grip dexterity—the ability to achieve and maintain a grip on the water while engaged in a variety of complex motions. The result of such training is an increased ability to find those invisible, firmly anchored handholds for every stroke and an improved feel for the water at any speed.

So the next time your coach asks you to do something for which the swimming application isn’t immediately apparent, remember, “Not everything is as seem.”

(For more on this topic see Don’t Be a Grup and Get A Better Grip at


  • Technique and Training


  • Drills