Good afternoon, fellow age group coaches. I am here this afternoon to talk about teaching freestyle. But mainly I am here because I think that coaching kids is a noble profession. And I am here on behalf of every senior coach in America, to tell you how desperately your expertise is needed. I have coached senior swimmers, and I can tell you without hesitation that if the kids have not learned good fundamentals by the time they reach the senior level, it may almost be too late. So never doubt for an instant, that entrusted to you, the age-group coach, and to your ability as teacher of aquatic skill, is the destiny of American swimming.
While I was preparing this talk, I remembered reading something that Johnny Weissmuller once said, when asked the secret to his powerful stroke. I was reminded of it because, as an age-group coach, I am always having to simplify. I am always trying to put things into simple terms that the kids can relate to. Johnny, who had a reputation for simplicity, said, 'I just reach out and grab a handful of water, pull it under my body, and push it back to my hips.' That was it. No long discourse on pulling patterns, 'S' sweeps, and all that. Just, 'grab a handful of water.' It can't be so simple, of course. But think for a moment how a bird would reply if asked the secret of flight. Something like, 'I just reach up and flap my wings.' You see, that's what it actually feels like to a bird. And to a great, natural freestyler, it feels like grabbing a handful of water.
So, this afternoon, we are going to look at the front end of freestyle, at something we call the 'catch.' And we are going to ask ourselves, 'How in the world do you teach kids to grab a handful of water)' And once they've grabbed it, how do you teach them to hang onto it.) How do you teach them to anchor their hands in the water? And what about the famous high elbow that we hear so much about? What is the high elbow, really? Well, we're going to get into that this afternoon, too, because grabbing and hanging onto water is what the high elbow is all about. Yes, the front end is where the action is, if state of the art freestyle is what we're after. To borrow a phrase, 'It's what's up front that counts.' Our pools are just full of swimmers with good rear end mechanics whose front ends could use a major overhaul.
But first, what about the kids whose front ends require the least attention? Remember the movie, The Natural? Robert Redford starred as a kid born with a gift, a beautifully natural baseball swing. You get that in swimming too, don't you) And you hear the phrase whispered at meets, with just a hint of envy coming through in the voice. 'So and so is such a natural So and so has such a natural stroke.' You may have had a few of these kids come through your own programs. If you haven't yet, you will. It's just a matter of time. And I'm sure that you. as I am, are tempted to judge the success of your programs based on the achievements of these naturally talented athletes. After all, they're the ones who bring home the glory. They're the ones who can make you look very good. The truth is, these kids are going to do well, more or less, in anyone's program.
Of course, coaching naturals to their ultimate potential is a singular coaching skill. It's what the big name coaches do best. At the Olympic Games it determines Gold, Silver, and Bronze. But as age-group coaches, whose duty is more to teach than to train, the stark reality is that these naturally endowed swimmers are the ones who least reflect our ability as teachers of aquatic skill.
So, why do I bring up the subject of naturals, anyway, in a discussion of what it is going to take to teach the other 99% of the kids in your programs? I do so because what we have to learn to teach is exactly those things that the naturals do naturally that the bulk of our swimmers do not. We have to look long and hard at these natural athletes. We have to ask, "What is it that the naturals do by instinct that the others do not?" This is the question we have to begin with. And then we have figure out how to teach those things to rest of our kids. Can we teach young swimmers to do what the naturals do naturally) As age group coaches, we must keep the faith that we can.
[By the way, being natural is hardly the same thing as being smart. Mr. Redford got himself mixed up with the wrong woman, and his career as the next Ted Williams went sailing down the tubes.]
My own introduction to these natural swimmers came when I first began to train for Masters competition. I hadn't got wet, except in the shower, for seventeen years. Back in the pool for the first time, I found that I had actually forgotten how to swim, so remote was the memory. Even my previous bad habits had been wiped clean. The only way I could think of to make use of this predicament was to re-teach myself how to swim, using current stroke techniques. So, I needed to find out what it was that today's top swimmers were doing, technically, that made them so much faster than my generation of the 1960s.
The first meet I attended was an NCAA championships at the Texas Swimming Center. My first impression, having not witnessed swimming for close to two decades, was that today's great swimmers were made, not of flesh and bone, but of rubber! It was astonishing to me, the great extension in their strokes, the way they stretched so far out front to catch water. It looked impossible for a real human being to do.
Of course I was determined figure out how they did it. I studied every piece of swimming literature I could get my hands on, including a musty stack of World Clinic yearbooks. But I found nothing that could really put a finger on the mechanics of what was going on. So I bought an entire library of video tapes that I could not afford and proceeded to wear out a perfectly good VCR. Coach Reese even let me down in the Swimming Center dungeon to observe his great team through the viewing windows. Very slowly, I began to understand what the modern front end was all about. Then, by process of trial and error, I experimented with methods to rebuild the front end of my own stroke. It was a painstaking process. I went down a number of blind alleys along the way. But within my own genetic limitations, I succeeded in retooling my stroke. And I'm sure that's the reason I am faster now than I was in college. It's also the reason. two dozen years later, that I can put some scare into the genuinely natural swimmers of my own peer group. What I had really done, though, was to make myself the guinea pig for teaching tools I would use in the Age Group Program at Texas Aquatics. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.
At my first Masters Nationals, I saw something fascinating that confirmed to me that I was on the right track (in my obsession with front end technique. Each event at Nationals begins with the most senior age-group, usually the 85-89 year olds and moves down, through the ages. to the young studs in the 19-24 year-old bracket. For the most part, the top swimmers in each age group exhibit the same stroke technique they used in their primes, when many of them were among America's best. Watching these natural swimmers of years gone by, you are struck with the realization that you are observing nothing less than a living history of competitive swimming! Passing before your very eyes is an eighty year span in the evolution of stroke technique.
A lot of things change as the heats march on. But there is one phenomenon that, to me, stands out most dramatically. It's a sort of visual illusion. Moving down the age groups, you notice that the swimmers begin to look taller in the water than they really are when they emerge from the pool. They swim taller in the water. And it isn't only because they get younger. They are doing something different with the water. They are doing it with ever greater proficiency as the heats go by, the 45-49 year-olds better then the 55-59s, but not so well as the 35-39s. What they are doing is the very same thing that i had seen in those rubber-shouldered swimmers at the NCAAs. They are catching water in an ever more extended, stretched out position of the arms and shoulders. They are doing it with more authority, and in the process they are gaining more and more distance per stroke.
The same observation applies in reverse if you have ever had the chance to watch lap swimmers. In the Texas Swimming Center, half the pool is occupied by something called Open Recreational Swim. Now, I don't wish to sound superior, but it is instructive to sit there sometimes and try to figure out what makes these people go so slow. You begin to realize that they represent the flip side, the diametric opposite, of your most natural freestylers. They exhibit in high relief the very stroke problems that the non-natural 99% of your kids have trouble with. It's just a matter of degree. And the main thing you notice is that they swim short in the water. They appear to be shorter when they swim than they are when standing on deck. Again, it goes to the front end of the stroke. Their front ends have very little extension, and they do not know how to grab water. The most obvious trait they demonstrate is the dropped elbow. And, as we all know, the dreaded dropped elbow is the antithesis of what it takes to have a great front end in freestyle.
Yes, it really is what's up front that counts. That's where the big action is. A great front end is what the natural swimmers of past eras pioneered for us. Its opposite is what the lap swimmers demonstrate for us. And it's what today's great freestylers do naturally that their less than natural teammates do not.
After hand entry, the arm reaches forward under water. This is a true reaching movement. It feels as though you are stretching to reach for something just beyond your grasp. To illustrate, imagine that you are standing on deck and reaching upward to try to touch the ceiling. You are straining upward to gain every last bit of extension, because the ceiling is just beyond your fingertips. Two things will happen initially. First, you will hyperextend your shoulder. That is, you will push the shoulder upward from its resting position on the chest. Next, you will rotate your body forward to the same side. These movements are common, everyday movements that everyone can relate to.
But now comes the tricky part. The tricky part involves the swiveling movements of the arm in the socket joint of the shoulder, movements governed by the muscles of the infamous rotator-cuff tendon. From your perspective, using the right arm, you can swivel the arm clockwise or counterclockwise. If this were anatomy class, you would be told that the clockwise swivel is termed external rotation and that the reverse, counterclockwise swivel is termed internal rotation. The crucial point is this. When the hand reaches to full extension, the upper arm swivels automatically in the clockwise direction. Mother nature designed the human shoulder to swivel internally so that our forbears could reach overhead to grab solid objects like the branches of trees. In this position, if you reach around to feel where the tip of your elbow is, you will feel that it is pointing forward. If you were swimming, the elbow would be pointing downward. Flex the elbow just a little, and suddenly you find yourself in the classic dropped elbow position. So you see, mother nature's natural inclination is toward the dropped elbow. All of those short-strokers in the lap swimming section of the pool are actually performing what is a very natural movement for the human shoulder. But swimmers, of course, are not trying to grab solid objects. Swimmers are trying to grab a fluid medium called water. And trying to grab water is a whole different proposition. It simply cannot be done with a dropped elbow. The reason is that in the dropped-elbow position the arm cannot act on the hand to create leverage against the water. Just watch the great, natural freestylers. As their hands slice into the water and reach toward full extension, they swivel their arms, not clockwise, as the lap swimmers do, but counterclockwise, to the high-elbow position. This is a beautiful, ingenious little maneuver. Its effect is to bring the powerful latissimus muscle into play early in the stroke, even before the elbow begins to flex. Unlike the smaller muscles that work the shoulder, the latissimus is strong enough to lever the hand forcefully against the water. This is the secret of the rubber-shouldered swimmers! This is the technique they use to engage a lot of water at the very front end of the stroke, when the hand is at full extension, just beneath the surface of the water. If performed briskly, it produces an almost solid feel of water pressure against the hand. That sensation can be described by a champion freestyler, or by an age-group coach searching for a good sound bite, as... "grabbing a handful of water." So there you have it! That's how Johnny Weismuller did it. That's how Rowdy Gaines did it. And Alex Popov is but an improved version of the same, fundamental mechanism. Now I don't pretend to understand the physics of just how the hand creates pressure against the water. I'm not sure anyone really does, whether it occurs by means of lift force, drag force, vortex trapping, or what have you. The thing is, in order to teach the kids, I don't need to possess an Einsteinian knowledge of fluid mechanics. All I need to know, really, is that the movement patterns I have described to you are what the great, natural freestylers do naturally that the rest of us do not. To recapitulate, those movements are... shoulder hyperextension, body rotation. and most critical, internal rotation of the arm to the high-elbow position. OK. To this point, we have uncovered the secret of how the skilled, rubber-shouldered freestyler grabs a handful of water. But the front end of freestyle does not end here. Having grabbed water, the swimmer must hang onto it. The swimmer must keep the hand anchored firmly against the pressure of the water until the power phase of the stroke takes over to drive the hand in and back to the hip. Hanging on to water is accomplished by a second part of the freestyle catch mechanism. It is a twofold movement, involving flexion (bending) of the elbow and something called protrusion of the shoulder. Elbow flexion causes the forearm and hand to swing downward, and shoulder protrusion causes the shoulder to roll forward to a position alongside the jaw. Operating together, these two movements create a pivoting mechanism centered at the elbow. It is important to understand the immense distinction between a pivoting movement and a pulling movement. A pulling movement draws the elbow backward. A pivoting movement freezes the position of the elbow. The beauty of a pivoting maneuver is that it can get the hand pitched backward against the water while keeping the elbow fixed in a high, stationary position. Why is this so important? Because pulling the elbow backward wastes the strong pulling action of the latissimus muscle. the main propulsive muscle in swimming. Watch the great, natural freestylers, and you will see that they use a pivoting movement to anchor their hands in the water. They have the pulling action of the latissimus to be used later, in the power phase of the stroke. It is all a matter of timing, of applying force at the proper point. The average freestyler, unable to pivot, has no choice but to pull the upper arm backward in order to maintain pressure on the water. So, this second, hanging-onto-water part of the freestyle catch mechanism is a latissimus- sparing device that anchors the hand and even begins to lever the body forward. It is this technique, this pivoting action of the hand against the water, that gives the skilled freestyler that well-known sensation of 'reaching over a barrel.' Another power movement that is often wasted in compensating for a weak catch is something called body re-roll. Body re-roll is the upward rotation of the body that reverses the motion of downward rotation. As you all know, the underlying rhythm of freestyle is a back and forth rotation of the core body along a central axis. The body rolls down, then re-rolls upward, then rolls and re-rolls again. Because body re-roll pulls the arm and shoulder backward, it gives a big boost to the power of the stroke. Where do the great freestylers use this re-roll power? If you watch them, you will see that they complete the entire catch mechanism during the downward roll of the body. They use the re-roll later, to initiate the power phase of the stroke, to boost the inward sweep of the hand. Why is this? Again, it's a matter of timing, of applying force in the proper sequence, of setting up a chain of muscle movement that maximizes the power of the stroke. The great freestylers save re-roll for the same reason they save the pulling action of the upper arm. They conserve the big muscle groups, the latissimus and the core-body rotators, to be used to best advantage in the power phase of the stroke. The average freestyler, lacking a strong, independent catch, is forced to compensate by borrowing power from the re-roll and wasting it at the front end of the stroke. How can you identify that swimmer? The telltale sign is this. The elbow will not go into the high position until re-roll of the shoulder begins. The swimmer uses re-roll to initiate the catch rather than completing the catch and then using re-roll to get the power phase going. But the big point I am trying to make with all of this is that a poor catch is not just a poor catch. It does not exist in mechanical isolation from the rest of the stroke. In fact, it drains away strength from the most propulsive part of the stroke, squandering the swimmer's most powerful muscular assets. FRONT-END TEACHING TOOLS At last, it's time to explore some of the practical methods you can use to teach the front end of freestyle. These are just drills I have come up with. You may come up with better ones yourself. once you understand the principles we've been talking about. The thing is, we must stay inventive. We must dare to be different. We must never be cowed by conventional truth. It will never do to put 200 or 300 kids in the water and then sit there waiting for 2 to 3 natural-born swimmers to rise to the top. But first, keep in mind that rotation of the arm to the high elbow position, especially when the arm is at full extension, does require a degree of laxity in the socket joint of the shoulder. Otherwise, the rotator cuff tendon rubs itself raw against the roof of the joint. In medical parlance, the condition is called 'impingement.' We coaches call it 'swimmer's shoulder.' It is true that some persons simply do not have the flexibility to prevent tendon injury, a point that became painfully clear to me when I coached Masters swimmers. But I have not encountered the problem nearly so much in children, because of the inherent plasticity of their joints. If we can teach the kids while their shoulders are still supple, before the ligaments and tendons begin to stiffen at puberty, the incidence of swimmer's shoulder on the senior level (and the demand put on the team ice machine) will drop considerably. Something else to keep in mind is that we are trying to teach what is essentially an unnatural movement for the human shoulder, one that is foreign to kids in their land-based activities. The muscles that rotate the arm to the high elbow position are normally small, weak, and tight. Those that resist the high elbow position, i.e. those that rotate the arm to the dropped elbow position, are well developed. So your first order of business is establish a balance between these competing muscle groups by increasing strength and range of motion at the high-elbow position. Our first two teaching tools, the kickboard drill and the overhead-rotator drill, are designed to accomplish just that. The kickboard drills is performed during kick sets. If you will notice, most swimmers hold their kickboards with dropped elbows. Why not zap two birds with one stone by using the kickboard as a tool for training the high elbow position) Ask the swimmers, as they kick, to grip the front edge of the board with their hands together. Then have them rotate their elbows upward and push the board forward to full extension. Their hands will lever the front end of the board down, just under the flow of oncoming water. As a check on technique, they can keep an eye on their hands. If the elbows begin to sag, the kickboard will tilt upward. The hands will break the surface of the water, reminding the swimmer to re-position the elbows. In the overhead rotator drill, the swimmer holds a piece of surgical tubing overhead between the hands and swings the arms back and forth in a pendulum-like motion. As the arms swing behind the head, they are rolled internally to the high-elbow position. As they swing forward, the elbows are allowed to drop. The tubing is adjusted to a length that gives a feeling of stretch, but not pain. You may have to take the swimmer's arm in your own hands, initially, and roll the arm back and forth until the feel of internal rotation becomes familiar. The kids may hesitate at first, because full rotation can feel as though the shoulder is popping out of joint. But in time your swimmers will become used to the expanded range of motion. To this point, using the overhead rotator and kickboard drills, the kids have learned how to rotate their arms internally and have increased their strength and range-of-motion. Now they need to perform drills using internal rotation to mimic the actual catch mechanism. We call these our well drills, because a wall is used to provide a surface for practicing the drills. The first such drill is wall drill #1. It teaches the swimmer to coordinate the movements of the grabbing-water part of the catch. The swimmer faces a smooth wall and, in a reaching motion, slides one hand up the surface of the wall while rotating the hips forward. As the hand reaches full extension, the swimmer rotates the elbow to the high position, applying forward pressure while keeping the Palm flat against the wall. The swimmer learns shoulder hyperextension. body rotation, and the feel of using internal rotation as a levering mechanism to create pressure on the palm of the hand. Next comes wall drill #2, which goes one step further to teach the hanging-onto-water, pivoting part of the catch mechanism. The swimmers begin at the finish position of wall drill #1. As they perform the pivoting maneuver, they pull down and push away from the wall at the same time. You will have to demonstrate the drill to your swimmers and then guide each swimmer through it patiently. Now comes wall drill #3, which combines drills #1 and #2 into a single exercise that simulates the full catch mechanism. The swimmers perform drill #1 and then go directly into drill #2, trying to learn a smooth transition between both parts of the catch. The wall drills develop adequate strength for grabbing water. Our inclined sled drill develops the additional strength required for hanging onto water. Inclined sleds [Vasa Trainers] are an excellent apparatus for this because they give swimmers the feel of using the pivoting maneuver to lever themselves up the sled. If you don't have sleds, stretch cords work almost as well. The swimmer lies on the sled and performs the pivoting maneuver, one arm at a time. The muscles involved are small and weak, so the sleds are put a low incline. Even then, the swimmer may have to cheat with the other arm to get the body moving. If you have a wall mirror, the swimmer can check to see that the elbow position remains high and stationary. The final step, of course, is for the swimmer to make the adaptation from dryland to water. The best drill I have come up with for this is the one-arm-only drill, with the non-stroking arm held to the side. The same purpose that the wall served in dryland is served in the water by the use of large hand-paddles. The paddles provide the water pressure needed to practice the catch movements against. Have the kids wear fins also, to give extra forward momentum. Emphasize that both pans of the catch must take place on the downward roll of the shoulder, before the body begins to re-roll upward. Only after the kids are doing well one arm at a time should they try to put the stroke together. Once they are doing well with both arms, you can remove the paddles. When they can grab and hang onto water with their hands, you can take the fins away. Later, you can then use the different stages of the one-arm-only drill as reinforcing drills in your practices. You will find that if you can teach the swimmer a strong, independent catch, that you will spend much less time teaching rear end mechanics. Power-phase technique will almost take care of itself. Put the horse up front where it belongs and the cart is sure to follow.