Brent S. Rushall, February, 1997. Reply to question asking what are the best drills to be used to promote swimming excellence.

One of the commonest activities in training programs in some sports (e.g., swimming, rowing, kayaking) is the performance of drills, activities that are purported to train in isolation aspects of a total movement pattern. Drills are repetitive training activities which do or do not use equipment. They are intended to stimulate a part of a complex movement (e.g., an upper arm movement) or an elemental segment of a movement chain (e.g., the transition from a take-off to a jump). They train activity parts out-of-context. When equipment such as paddles in swimming, parachutes in running, and "trailing buckets" in rowing are used, the activity elements are distorted because of the requirement to accommodate the non-competition-related equipment. Drills are inappropriate training content for serious or highly-trained athletes. The only exception to "no drills" is when they are part of learning progressions prior to the attainment and practice of some terminal (final) skill.

Each drill that is practiced should be considered to be a discrete activity. The greater the similarity between a total competitive skill and a restricted practiced drill, the greater is the likelihood of negative transfer between the two. The learned drill will compete with and disrupt the competitive skill. The following are known about skill training.

Drills originally were only meant to be preliminary activities to be used as a step in a progression on the way through to learning a "terminal behavior." But now they have become training items which means that athletes' progress is halted at a less than terminal stage of skill development and competing patterns of movement are established.

When athletes develop faults, they need to be re-taught the element in question and the steps that follow that element. It is teaching the element in context of the preceding movements that is important. Instructing the element in isolation ("correction drills") is poor pedagogy.

Any device ("training aid") that is used in a drill alters neuromuscular patterning to form a unique movement skill. A device artificially trains competing movement patterns and introduces inefficiencies. Many devices have no acceptable data to support their claims of benefit. Most respectable research shows them to have no value or negative benefits. Since the form to be used in a competition is what should be trained, why would one adulterate that form through distortional (device) training?

Except at very low levels of performance (e.g., when learning a skill) movement elements learned in one activity do not transfer with any benefit to another.

The body does not have the capacity to determine the intention of some training activity. For example, an activity which requires an athlete's posture to be different to that which will be employed in a competition, although it is "meant" to be beneficial, does not benefit the competition performance. The body learns the incorrect posture for the trained activity and depending upon the strength of specific/relevant training will sustain correct or incorrect postures in a contest.

Since most high level performers are discriminated from each other on the basis of skill efficiency, one of the most important factors for differentiating medalists from non-medalists, the level of performer skill should be maximized. Drill practices and the use of training devices work contrarily to that aim.

Many proponents of "drills" argue that the changes in technique they produce are only minor and are therefore, relatively inconsequential. That might be acceptable for individuals in the early stages of skill learning, but it is not acceptable for highly-trained individuals. Any competing movement pattern or disruption to a highly-refined skill has detrimental consequences. This is why the following coaching lore exists:

"If serious athletes change techniques they have to be prepared to perform worse for a period of time before they have a chance to improve."

The situation is even more critical for very experienced (senior) athletes when it may be of no value to attempt to alter a technique flaw, the impact of the existing flaw possibly being minimized through years of training. There comes a time in every athlete's development when skill errors have been performed for so long that attempts to change them would never be effective enough to elevate the performance further. This is particularly so in highly-repetitive cyclic activities such as running, swimming, and sculling.

There is a movement instruction science, in this context it is called "sport pedagogy." There are principles that are known to be beneficial and others which are known to be detrimental to performance development and change. It is necessary that knowledge of these principles be a prerequisite for any individual partaking in a coaching activity. Ignorance or a lack of knowledge of those principles is unethical and cannot be overlooked in an expedient decision to hire or appoint a coach.

Swimming is perhaps the sport which advocates training with drills (what coach does not have his/her own special activities?) and the use of training devices (special bags are now marketed to carry all the paraphernalia onto the pool deck) more than any other sport. Since swimming is the one "world sport" in which its top performers are regressing rather than improving, it could be argued that this decline has somewhat matched the increased growth in drill training and the use training devices. Most top swim teams in the USA do very little swimming but much finning, paddling, drills, and whatever. It is a mystery why the importance of training competitive movement patterns is so popularly disdained.

One cannot beat the principle of specificity for training when getting ready to perform in a serious high-level competition. If the best performance is desired, then a lot of training had better give the body the opportunity to practice and improve in the activities it will be asked to perform in the competitive setting. Drills and training with artificial devices work against that purpose.


There are no references listed to this description. The knowledge has been around for at least 40 and more like 50 years. It has not changed since then. It is so well accepted in the psychological literature that no one experiments with it any more. There are likely to be no new discoveries. What is amazing is that so many coaches are ignorant of this information! It should be part of the core-knowledge of coaching education and is so basic that it should be known by any coach, particularly one who derives income from coaching as a professional capacity. Any individual who persists with large amounts of training using drills and training devices should be charged with MAL-practice.

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