Number 5

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University


[Adapted from NSWIMMING Coaching Ssience Bulletin: Volume 1 Number 2 - September, 1992]

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Starts
  3. Turns
  4. Finishes
  5. Learning Non-swimming Skills
  6. Training Non-swimming Skills
  7. Closoure
  8. References


I was excited by what I saw at the recent age-group swimming championships. There are many areas in which improvement is possible. I thought that it would be best to indicate that the non-swimming skills of starting, turning, and finishing involved in racing are activities that can be improved quickly and with substantial impact.

In long-course races other than backstroke, at least 15% involves non-swimming skills. In backstroke that amount is 40%. In short-course races, other than backstroke, 35% involves these skills. Skill improvements are a means for improving race times.

In sprint events the magnitude of effect of erroneous or inefficient skills is dramatic. It is possible to elevate 100 m times markedly by simply maximizing the skill elements of the race. It is in every swimmer's interest to maximize the execution of starting, turning, and finishing skills because they should be performed at speeds that are faster than pure swimming.

The purpose of this Bulletin is to summarize the major teaching and application points of racing skills. They will be reviewed in depth. It is anticipated that if New South Wales swimmers set their sights on being the most skilled in the country, the elevation of their national status would be affected in a very noticeable fashion.


This discussion centers on dives for crawlstroke and butterfly. Principles can be applied equally to breaststroke, understanding that the correct underwater stroke should be executed after entry. There is a strong similarity between the principles of forward dives and those of backstroke starts (e.g., streamlined entry, streamlined position, tempo and vigor of kicking).

  1. Racing starts can affect as much as 2 m of swimming if done correctly. Starting is primarily a power skill that requires an athlete to exert as much force as quickly as possible. The vigor and intensity of a start should be the same for every event. There should be no difference between a 50 and 1500 m racing start. Being a short duration power activity, any fatigue from high exertion will be repaid almost immediately because it uses ATP from the alactacid energy system as its major energy source (Rushall & Pyke, 1990).

  2. It would be worthwhile for some swimmers to experiment with the step start. The research is not clear whether the step is superior to the double-leg (grab) start but it does seem to be preferable for relay take-offs. Available research shows some slight advantages to the step start in that it produces a faster entry speed, higher center of mass off the block, and a faster time at 10 m. However, step starts keep the swimmer on the block for a longer period (Gambrel, Blanke, Thigpen, & Mellion, 1991).

    The step start should be used for relay exchanges. The ability to anticipate when to dive and the opportunity to develop momentum over a longer distance (because of the step) mean that it will produce a longer dive. When that advantage is multiplied by three exchanges a significant benefit can be realized.

  3. The major factor involved with selecting a form of start is the length of time it has been practiced. If a swimmer has been using a particular start for a long time, it is unlikely that a change to another form will produce any significant benefit. A change to another start and its inherent inefficiencies due to lack of practice may never be overcome with practice. What needs to be determined is if a swimmer's existing start is maximally efficient. If it is not, then new starting techniques can be attempted. Since most age-group swimmers are not optimally skilled at starting, they should be encouraged to experiment and train with both forms. In the USA the most popular start for racing and relays is the step start.

  4. A start is divided into the following phases: the explosion, flight and entry, underwater kicking, and surfacing.

  5. The action of leaving the blocks will determine the power that can affect the trajectory of a dive. A swimmer should stress the following features while on and leaving the blocks.

    The major ingredient for exploding off the blocks is the violence of action of the leg drive, arm thrust, and back and neck extension.

  6. The speed developed by a well-executed start is greater than that which can be achieved in any form of swimming. It is important to maintain that benefit as long as possible after entering the water. Since a swimmer slows after entry, actions should be taken to retard that slowing as much as possible. The first important factor is body alignment at entry.

    There are a variety of flight actions that are commonly seen. The bent-leg-extension kick has little benefit for altering speed. One cannot kick themselves further forward while in free flight. This action is also dangerous because it can cause an exaggerated rotation. That would cause a swimmer to enter the water at less than an optimal angle. A pike start that bends at the hips also will cause a less than perfect entry. Some rotation is necessary in any start to produce a flight path and body orientation to prepare for the water entry. The aim of any start should be to enter the water in a maximally streamlined position that is parallel to the line of descent. That orientation will minimize frontal and eddy resistance producing as little passive drag as possible.

    Entry into the water must be as streamlined as possible and aligned with the angle of descent. Any action that jeopardizes these two factors will increase resistance and slow the swimmer unnecessarily.

    There is no value in making a big splash on entry. All that shows is that the swimmer has incurred a great amount of resistance at initial contact. A swimmer should attempt to "spear" into the water.

  7. Upon entering the water, the swimmer should attempt to maintain the dive's momentum as long as possible. This can be done by using an exaggerated kick. A double-leg kick (the erroneous term "dolphin kick" is deliberately avoided), is preferable. Since the swimmer is deep it is possible to kick with a higher tempo and greater magnitude than is done while swimming on the surface. The reasons for this are twofold.

    The kick after a racing dive is different to that used in swimming strokes because it should be faster, bigger, and double-legged. It needs to be coached and practiced as a separate skill element.

  8. The swimmer should attempt to maintain dive speed as long as possible. A common problem with dive starts is surfacing too early. Swimmers have to learn to feel the speed after the entry and the contribution an appropriate form of kicking can make to maintaining it. It is important to learn to discriminate between the speed of swimming and the speed of a dive entry. Slowing at the end of a dive to a speed that is less than that required for swimming is an error to be avoided.

    Learning the sensations associated with decelerating from dive to swimming velocity is an important skill.

  9. Maintaining the best streamline possible while engaging in kicking is important to reduce frontal resistance and both active and passive drag. This feature is governed by the position of the head, arms, and torso. Effort will be required to hold an appropriate posture.

    The head, body, and arms should be maximally streamlined while kicking under the water.

  10. A dive does not end on the surface. There is a tendency for the body to automatically rise toward the surface because of buoyancy and the hydroplane effect. Swimmers have to judge the rate of their ascent together with their speed so that they initiate swimming when about 36 cm from the surface. The underwater pull segment of an arm cycle should be used to finally raise the swimmer to the surface. This allows dive-style exaggerated kicks to be continued right until the first arm recovery is made over the water. This principle is not appropriate for breaststroke.

  11. For crawlstroke, some swimmers are starting to use an exaggerated double-leg kick after the dive and turns. Some individuals call this a butterfly kick but it is mechanically very different to that used for that stroke. This form of kicking appears to maintain dive speed longer. There is no research available that has evaluated this practice. Coaches are advised to experiment with it. There are several features to be emphasized when attempting to use this form of kicking.

    Experiment with using an exaggerated and violent double-leg kick off crawlstroke and butterfly dives and turns. Do not confuse this form of kicking with butterfly kicking.

  12. If an alternating kick is preferred, the following features should be instructed to develop the correct motion.

    A point that is worthwhile emphasizing again is that kicking off dives and turns does not employ the same form of kicking as that used in a stroke. The frequency or tempo is much greater, the effort used should be nothing short of violent, and the range of lower leg and foot movements is also greater. These features require swimmers to recognize the difference between a dive/turn kick and a swimming kick. It is misleading for coaches to use the same terminology for and to refer to the two as if they were similar.

Teaching Starts

  1. To teach the effort required and the streamlined position to be held underwater, swimmers should do the following;

    This is the position and effort level to be achieved entering and while under water in a racing dive.

  2. Practice vertical jumps. Pay attention to the amount of knee bend and have both hands touch the ground during the preparatory phase. In the explosion phase of the jump both arms should be raised together as fast as possible to achieve the streamlined position and effort displayed in the previous exercise. This activity should allow the athlete to appreciate the focus and effort required for an effective and explosive dive.

  3. Practice dives attempting to kick the block backward and blasting the arms forward. The major effort should come from the leg drive. Repeat this several times attempting to contact the water with the hands as far from the block as possible. Swimmers should attempt to dive straight out. There should be sufficient rotation caused by the leg drive and the falling center of gravity to produce an angled entry.

    When the effort exerted in this powerful action is satisfactory, the next exercise should be attempted.

  4. In order to practice the entry angle have swimmers dive for maximum streamline and see how far they glide while holding that streamlined position. Lane markers or pool side-markings can be used as convenient measurements. No movements should be allowed underwater, only the stretched streamline position should be held.

  5. Once a correct angle of entry is achieved and consistently performed, kicking should be added. The different aspects of underwater kicking to that required when swimming should be emphasized. Each athlete should be questioned to assure those features are being implemented.

    Have swimmers experiment with the number of kicks. Eight alternating or four double-leg kicks for crawlstroke and five double-leg kicks for butterfly is a good number for initial attempts.

    The exercise for evaluation is to dive, enter, streamline, kick a set number of times, and then glide for distance in the streamlined position. The kicks should be completed just below the surface (so that if an underwater pull was done, the swimmer would rise to the surface). The type and ferocity of kicking should be experimented with to produce the longest resulting glide possible. The longest glide will indicate the most efficient form of kicking for maintaining the propulsion generated by the dive.

    While doing this exercise swimmers should be encouraged to feel the speed through the water. It is that sensation that can be used as the criterion for whether a dive or turn is being used correctly in a race. Have the swimmers see if they can sense changes in speed with different forms of kicking.

    Eventually, the number of kicks will have to be individualized. Swimmers with good flexibility will kick more, those with poor flexibility less. The determination of the final number of kicks will have to be a combined coach and swimmer decision made only after considerable testing.

  6. When the underwater kick for a stroke is learned, add the first underwater pull to bring the athlete to the surface to complete the start. Once that pull is initiated swimming should be continuous. The aim is to get to the surface swimming as fast as possible but having maintained the dive's hyper speed for as long as possible.

    The coach and swimmer together should decide when this exercise is being done correctly. Sometimes it is valuable to time a swimmer for 15 m to see if the transition from dive to swimming is efficient. The shorter the time, the better the transition.

  7. When the coach is confident that the new dive, kicking, and surfacing are executed correctly, a series of time trials should be conducted over 25 m. The "old" start and underwater activity should be alternated with the new for several trials. Times should be recorded and compared. One should expect to see over one second advantage with the new start in relatively older age-group swimmers. It most probably will be even greater for younger swimmers.

Backstroke Starts

The principles and practices that have been explained above are also appropriate for backstroke. The major differences are in the errors that are usually made.

When initiating a start, backstrokers commonly drive upwards and then have to hyper extend their backs to enter the water. This produces a looping type trajectory and is accompanied by great splash and an exaggerated downward entry angle. Correcting that angle results in unnecessary slowing. While athletes starting in this manner are going up and coming down others are advantaged by driving out and propelling themselves forward. Sufficient height is obtained with a driving out over the water orientation. Rotation inherent in this action will produce an appropriate reverse dive angle of entry.

  1. The foot placement on the wall should be at least hip width apart but not necessarily level.

  2. The leg drive and arm throw should be as violent and powerful as possible.

  3. A double-leg kick should be exploited fully. The rules allow 15 m of underwater backstroke swimming. While a swimmer is kicking in this manner at a speed equivalent to that achieved by swimming, the arms are being rested. Swimming which follows for the next 30 meters can be executed at a higher than "normal" effort level because of that rest. These two factors and the new turn, which consumes the final 5 m of each lap, means that only 60 percent of a backstroke race is swimming, the rest being skills.

    Skills are very influential in determining success in backstroke swimming.

  4. The backstroke underwater double-leg kick is not upside down butterfly kick. It employs the same elements as the front double-leg kick.

  5. Any fatigue that is experienced in extended kicking will be repaid rapidly once surface swimming commences.

  6. Prior to these extended periods under water, the swimmer has to take a larger than normal breath. During the activity, the breath should be let out slowly and consistently. The breath should not be held for any unnecessary length of time because unnecessary tension would develop in the chest.

  7. While kicking, the head position should be one of looking directly up or slightly ahead down the pool. It is important to maintain depth and direction.

  8. The value of underwater kicking will be determined by a swimmer's strength and flexibility. Flexible athletes will use a slower tempo but a bigger kick. Less flexible athletes will have to use smaller kicks, more body involvement, a very high tempo, and greater strength.

Teaching the Backstroke Underwater Action

  1. To teach the effort required to hold a streamlined position underwater, have swimmers do the following;

    This is the position and effort level to be achieved during and while under water after a backstroke start.

  2. The amount of distance that a swimmer will be able to cover under water is related to a swimmer's age and experience. Younger swimmers usually will not be able to cover the full 15 m.

    It is advisable to establish pool rules for age groups with regard to this activity.

  3. Each start and turn at practice should fully exploit a long under water sequence of double-leg kicking. This requires the coach to stress that this activity is as important as surface swimming. It will prove to be particularly beneficial in 200 m races.

  4. Repeat 25 m time trials. Alternate 15 m kicking on one trial with mainly arm swimming on the other. Record and compare the average times for several of the repetitions. Every attempt should be made to increase speed through underwater kicking.


This section stresses the requirements for good turns. Some have already been mentioned in the discussion on starts. A turn is divided into the following phases: the approach, the turn, underwater kicking, and surfacing.

Basic Principles

  1. The activities involved in turning require the use of specific muscle groups at high levels of intensity for short periods of time. The energy for these actions is ATP derived from the alactacid energy system. The energy costs will be repaid during the continuous swimming that occurs after the turn is completed. This means that turns should be executed with an intensity that is higher than that applied to race pace swimming.

  2. The vigor of swimming should increase about 5 m from the wall to initiate the approach phase of a turn. It should be each swimmer's aim to accelerate into a turn. The increased energy cost in this brief arm stroking effort will be repaid during the turning and underwater kicking phases of the skill. Kicking during this set of amplified strokes should also be stressed at a level that would be appropriate for a short sprint effort (this is supported by the old coaching adage of "kick in and out of turns").

    Swimmers should be prepared to raise the level of effort above that maintained for continuous swimming when approaching and executing a turn.

  3. The breath that is taken when going into a turn is different to normal. Since vigor and time under water will be increased, a normal swimming breath may not be sufficient to sustain an appropriate level of application. It is advisable to teach swimmers to take an extra large breath as their last when going into a turn. After the turning motion has been executed, the swimmer should exhale at a speed that avoids undue tension in the chest (if this is not done then the effort of holding the breath can become a distracting factor).

  4. The movement of the actual change of direction should stress speed. Attempts to develop faster turning should be experimented with. The mechanical principles applied to competitive diving (e.g., shortening the radius of the turn) are useful. A fast turn is only valuable when it allows the swimmer to be positioned to do a maximum explosive action off the wall. A swimmer can be too close or too far away from the wall when turning. The result of an incorrect position is that although a fast turn may have been achieved the all-important fast and explosive drive off the wall cannot occur.

    The speed of rotation in a turn should be maximized but the positioning of the swimmer on the wall is all-important. The most advantageous drive off the wall has to be achieved to exploit the possible benefits of good turns.

  5. Turns should emphasize moving at a speed that is faster than normal racing speed for the swimming stroke. This should be possible because the leg drive off the wall, as in the start, should propel the swimmer faster than swimming speed. The foot position on the wall will govern the effectiveness of the drive. Usually, feet should be about shoulder width apart as opposed to being close together. The actual position should be that preferred in the vertical jump exercise used to teach the elements of this action. The underwater kick after the leg drive should attempt to maintain that elevated speed for as long as possible.

    Effort and speed should be increased going into turns because of the use of alternate muscle groups, movement patterns, and energy systems to those used in paced swimming. This will not interfere with the ensuing swimming because while the turning action is activated the swimming muscles rest.

  6. The same technique elements for surfacing after a dive are appropriate for after a turn. The termination of kicking in the acceleration phase should occur when speed has slowed to match normal swimming pace and the swimmer is positioned under the water about 36 cm. The first underwater part of the arm pull should be used to bring the swimmer to the surface. This principle does not apply to breaststroke.

  7. Since a swimmer will stroke into a turn, the kick used on the approach will be that of the sprint swimming stroke. However, after coming off the wall when the swimmer is deeper, the kick will be the underwater kick discussed in the start section. This means that two types of kicks will be used when turning. The coach needs to emphasize this difference.

    A swimmer uses two types of kick when turning: i) on the approach the kick is that used at sprint speeds, and ii) coming off the wall the special underwater kick is used.

  8. A critical feature of effective turns is the timing of the approach, turn, and completion phases. If a turn is initiated incorrectly, the remaining phases also will be affected adversely. It is usual to suggest to swimmers that they orient themselves to pool-bottom markings to judge turns. However, standardized markings are too close to the wall to effect a modern accelerated turn. It is better for swimmers to use the 5 m color change on the lane dividers as a cue. It has been found to be advantageous to refer to the 5 m region next to the wall as the "turning zone" as a means of stressing the importance of initiating this skill correctly.

    The length of the "turning zone" for the completion of kicking and surfacing will depend upon the stroke, all being longer than 5 m in elite swimmers. Backstroke and breaststroke turns warrant particular attention because of the great value in being able to accelerate off the wall with the correct underwater stroke/kick.

Teaching Turns

  1. As with all non-swimming skills, the ability to hold an exact streamlined position underwater is essential. Revision and stress of its importance cannot be overdone. With every major skill element, the practice of standing on deck and revising the sensations of streamlining and its required effort has to be repeated. Have the swimmers do the following:

  2. Repeat vertical jumps in the same manner as described for starts. The explosive action off the wall determines the speed that is achieved in the kicking phase of the turn. Without this explosion, turns will lose their performance benefit.

    Pay attention to the amount of knee bend and have both hands touch the ground during the preparatory phase of the jump. In the explosive action both arms should be raised together as fast as possible to achieve the streamlined position and effort displayed in the previous exercise. This activity should allow the athlete to appreciate the focus and effort required for an effective drive to a streamlined position.

  3. One of the most difficult features of turning is the timing of the approach phase. Given the various speeds that swimmers achieve with different strokes and distances, turns will have to be started at different distances from the wall if a perfect position on the wall is to be achieved. It normally is impractical to teach this in a precise manner. The best approach is to institute "pool rules" that require all turns to be accelerated in the approach phase with an emphasis on achieving the best possible foot placement on the wall after a fast rotation. The myriad of trials of turns adhering to this rule should develop a sense of timing for various swimming speeds purely by trial and error learning. This rule should never vary, even though there are different training phases in the periodized schedule.

    Estimating when to initiate an approach in a turn zone is a difficult sense to develop. It needs to be emphasized at all times.

  4. If some swimmers appear not to be gaining benefits with the kick off the wall evaluate their ankle flexibility. Stiff ankles limit effectiveness. Before concluding that inflexible swimmers do not benefit from concentrated kicking in the acceleration phase, have them attempt a double-leg kick. If that fails too, then do not require as long a period underwater.

  5. The willingness of swimmers to persevere with attention to excellence in this skill will determine its value. Most swimmers in "hard" training use turns as an opportunity to rest. That is counterproductive to what needs to be executed in a race. It is almost impossible to inspire swimmers to increase effort for effective turns in fatiguing work at practice. To combat this problem, it is necessary to practice turns under two conditions.


Olympic gold medals are won and lost solely by the action used to activate the touch pad at the finish of a race. It is amazing to see the finest swimmers in the world come to the wall and place more importance on raising their heads to see how they placed or what their time was as opposed to completing the race in the shortest time possible.

The purpose of a finish should be to stop the timer as quickly as possible. Only when that is completed is the race finished and the time and placing completed.

A race is not completed until the timer is stopped as quickly as possible. This should be the focus of a race finish.

Finishing is as important for distance races as sprints. In higher levels of competitions, the difference between the color of medals won is often 1/100th of a second, in distance equivalents, the length of a finger nail. If skills can be learned to stretch a swimmer two finger-nail distances further, success in swimming could be viewed differently.

Finishing a race effectively can alter the placing achieved.

Modern swimming requires attention to all details. Finishing a race in the best manner possible is important. This leads to the concept of a "finish skill."

  1. No breathing should be done when finishing a race. The physiological requirements of swimming make this possible. Every time a breath is taken, either to the side or forward, the movements created have to be counterbalanced. Those extra actions increase resistance and slow the swimmer. The distance from the wall that breathing ceases should be determined.

  2. The mechanics of swimming can be made even more efficient if streamlining is maximized during the finish. One of the simplest actions to facilitate this is to bury the head in the water. The resultant raising of the hips and feet will streamline the swimmer. The burying action should also trigger the no-breathing requirement.

    In backstroke, the head should also be buried when finishing. It should even look slightly toward the wall, an action that will raise the hips and legs to facilitate streamlining.

    Ceasing to breathe and burying the head increases streamlining in the finish skill.

  3. The tempo of the arms and leg actions should be increased in a finish. However, if that is achieved while maintaining the same level of effort, stroke lengths are likely to shorten, which serves no benefit. Tempo changes have to be achieved through increased power.

    Swimmers should be fatigued at the end of a race. It is difficult for them to increase the effort level that has been maintained for the swimming sections using the same set of muscles. If other muscles can be recruited into the finish action, then it should be possible to increase tempo, and consequently speed, through power.

    Power can be increased in the finish skill be gritting the teeth, attempting to swim with the shoulders and back muscles, and increasing the vigor of the kick. These actions should result in the recruitment of extra muscles that are not specifically fatigued. Their inclusion in the action will temporarily distract the swimmer from the specific fatigue produced by continuous swimming. The realization of the finite completion of the task also makes it easier to produce extra effort.

  4. The last stroke of a race (the "lunge") should be exaggerated in length to gain every iota of extra reach possible. This is very important for the alternating arm actions in crawlstroke and backstroke as it requires a modification of the streamlined position. The posture to achieve that action should be determined on land (see the teaching section below). In the symmetrical strokes of butterfly and breaststroke, the stretch position to the wall is similar to the maximized streamline position practiced on the land for starts and turns.

  5. The speed with which the lunge is made should also be exaggerated. The faster it is done, the quicker the timer will be stopped.

  6. It is desirable to hit the timer with the fingertips, for that produces the longest reach possible. However, if this is done incorrectly, a swimmer could experience jammed fingers. Because of such injuries swimmers become hesitant to jab their finger tips at the board. That hesitancy makes the lunging action slower and less effective. The gains to be derived by stretching for a finger tip touch are lost by the reduction in speed caused by a cautious lunge.

    There is a way to effect a fingertip touch and avoid injury. If the hand is stretched forward with the fingers in an extended position with even a slight hint of flexion, particularly in the distal joints, then on contact with the timer board, the fingers will bend after exerting sufficient pressure to stop the clock. Bending at the joints will absorb some of the impact force. That hand position is different to that of a stiff hyperextended hand. Hyperextension locks the fingers and does not allow them to bend on contact. That lack of reaction causes the injuries. It becomes important to pay attention to even a fine detail as how the hand is held when touching. When compared to the more common palm touch, an extended fingertip touch will produce a distance improvement of up to 14 cm. This is a very significant margin for winning or losing medals.

    The last stroke of a race should be a lunge with the body assuming a specific position, the hand being extended, and the speed of the action being maximized.

  7. Swimmers should practice not looking for the clock or for other swimmers while doing the finish skill. Rational discussions of the futility of such actions should be held to explain that looking could worsen the position of the swimmer.

    It is difficult to have swimmers practice finish lunges in a crowded training pool. Finishing should also be part of non-swimming skill instruction and practiced at the appropriate time in training sessions.

Teaching Finishes

  1. The streamline maximum stretch position to touch the wall is the same for that held in the dive and turns for breaststroke and butterfly.

    For backstroke and crawlstroke lunges a different body posture needs to be assumed. To determine these characteristics have swimmers do the following exercise;

    The above exercise should result in the greatest reach possible. If that position is used in the lunge, then it should result in a saving of time.

  2. Have swimmers practice hitting a wall or surface with their hands in various degrees of extension. The point behind this exercise is to assuage any fears about hurting the hand when contacting the touch pad.

    If the hand is held very stiff with fingers hyperextended (if the fingers curl backward they are hyperextended) then there will be no give or bending when contact is made with the pad. There is no extra distance gained by holding the hand stiff like this over that which can be attained with a straight hand with the joints not being locked.

    When doing this exercise start with a soft fingertip push concentrating on bending as soon as a firm contact is made. Gradually increase the emphasis on bending at the finger and knuckle joints as the pressure and speed of contact is made. This should be practiced until the skill of touching and then bending to avoid injury is proficient. Practice with both hands to avoid developing a favored finish arm.

  3. When finishing lunges are practiced in the water they cannot be done just at any time. If practice has to be accomplished using a tiled or concrete wall, then it is difficult to execute the hand touch that is advocated because of the unyielding surface. However, other aspects of the lunge can be practiced except for the refined hand-touch action.

    All aspects of a finish should be practiced as separate skills as part of the non-swimming skill segment of a training session. Swimmers will have to be encouraged to practice the fingertip touch at convenient times. They need to learn to discriminate when to use it with touch pads at training or in races.

  4. At training, some repetitions should be designated to be completed with the finish skill to practice it under fatigue conditions. This should only be done after the skill elements have been successfully learned by the swimmer. The increase in swimming tempo, not breathing, and lunging should be exaggerated to racing intensity. Once the finishing skill is learned it is of no value to practice it at anything but maximum intensity.

Learning Non-swimming Skills

To improve non-swimming skills, it is necessary to instruct and have them practiced in conditions that are conducive to learning. Since fatigue inhibits learning, it is appropriate to practice these elements in the first part of a training session. The traditional procedure of practicing starts, turns, and sprinting at the end of a practice session is erroneous. Such activities need to be completed before any detrimental fatigue, particularly that which accompanies the formation of lactic acid, is experienced.

The block of time allocated to learning skills should be terminated when skill precision deteriorates. It is of no value to practice skills in other than a perfect manner.

Skill learning needs to be practiced at the start of training sessions before any fatigue is developed. It should be terminated when skill precision deteriorates.

Non-swimming racing skills are mainly power activities energized by the alactacid energy system. Their training requires maximum exertions. Each trial should attempt to increase power. This usually means that when skill training is started some fatigue is experienced with each trial and skill levels deteriorate in an obvious manner after a number of repetitions. If skills are practiced on a daily basis, detrimental fatigue will diminish gradually and will allow a sufficient number of practice trials to be performed to produce a benefit. The usual time until useful volumes of practice can be performed is two weeks.

A common error when implementing non-swimming skills is for a coach to require swimmers to accentuate the skills in a time-trial "to see if the increased effort can be done." The usual result of such a test is that swimmers are exhausted. It is concluded that this manner of skill use is incorrect. That reasoning is faulty. Do not expect miracles without training. The capacity to execute skills in the manner and with the intensity described in this paper can be trained. It is only after adequate learning, training, and practice that an evaluation of skill development and usefulness could be entertained.

The primary concerns during skill practice trials should be i) the practice of perfect form (errors or less than maximal efforts teach errors or how to perform in less than a maximum manner), and ii) the provision of very frequent positive feedback emphasizing the elements of technique that are being performed correctly. Avoid harping on errors.

A major task is to have swimmers continue to execute skills during normal training with an intensity that is specific for maintaining a benefit. That maintenance of quality execution and intensity will require consistent and frequent feedback and encouragement for a considerable period of time after dedicated skill training is completed.

Skill training needs to focus on perfect execution and maximum intensity. Such an emphasis needs to be practiced in concert with normal swimming at training.

One of the best teaching aids available is other swimmers in the squad. In non-swimming skills, most athletes communicate accurately what needs to be done as well as effective ways of execution. This is how the double-leg kick in crawlstroke dives and turns arose. One swimmer said "if it works on the back why not on the front?" After a few trials across several athletes it was concluded that for the majority of them turns looked faster and traveled further. From then on the double-leg kick was adopted for dives and turns. Thus, when teaching elements associated with non-swimming skills, have swimmers judge each other for effectiveness and results. Much of the feedback generated will be more appropriate, specific, and accurate than that which can be supplied by a coach.

Training Non-swimming Skills

  1. Specific skill practices have to be performed to develop a streamlined appropriate effort level for starts, turns, and finishes. The greater the number of perfect trials of these activities the better. They should be programmed with increasing frequency and emphasis in the specific preparatory phase of training. They should be a major practice item in the precompetition and competition phases.

    During the basic preparatory phase of training, non-swimming skills are likely to be of secondary importance to swimming. However, it is advisable to demand that swimmers always perform the basics of good skills although effort and speed may not be emphasized to the degree that will be required in later training phases.

  2. An emphasis on exactness of execution and the highest level of effort should be demanded constantly in the precompetition phase of training. No swims should be performed without starts, turns, and finishes being enacted at speeds greater than swimming. It is important to develop this attitude towards skills to achieve maximum benefits in races.

  3. The single best method of training refined skills is to race swimmers of equal ability for short distances. Between 12.5 and 15 m is ideal. Typical tasks should be to execute starts and then kick with the underwater kick for the distance. This will demand that swimmers streamline and discriminate underwater kicking from the form of kicking used in swimming strokes. This activity is likely to provoke swimmers to experiment with different skill alterations and refinements in order to obtain faster speeds. Similar activities should be programmed for turns and finishes. This skill practice is important for the specific and precompetition phases of training.

    Anything less than maximum effort in training activities for starts, turns, and finishes will not stimulate the capacities and skilled movements that need to be improved.


This discussion has presented a number of principles involved with the non-swimming skills of starts, turns, and finishes. These activities are important for improving swimming times. Unfortunately, in the crowded demands of training sessions, their exact execution is often prohibited or not feasible. However, they are very influential aspects of competitive swimming that often determine places and medals won.

Most swimmers use these types of skills as opportunities to rest during training, a status that is contrary to that which should be stressed in racing. If what is practiced is carried into racing, then swimmers will never be able to achieve the best times of which they are capable. If this occurs, specific skill training will need to be incorporated into the normal training program to offset this negative phenomenon. That specific work will assist swimmers to discriminate between training and racing skill requirements.

Coaches will have to provide opportunities for swimmers to develop attitudes toward increasing effort when executing skills despite being fatigued. The specific fatigue of swimming will recover partially while skills are executed. Any fatigue accrued while performing skills will be repaid very quickly once swimming is recommenced because of the nature of the energy use and neuromuscular requirements.

When specific skill training is instituted, very noticeable and quick improvements in performance should result. Athletes readily note the differences. This has good motivational benefits for a program. On the other hand, when swimming is not going well, the coach should look at the exactness and intensity of execution of these skills in races and determine if their performance has contributed to any decline.

The inclusion of skill training in a periodized program usually requires skills to be developed in non-fatigued circumstances before being executed in training repetitions and races. That is an artifact of motor skill learning. Satisfactory results will not be obtained if a coach attempts to shorten the learning process by teaching these skills when athletes are tired from work. The body will not allow adequate skill development to occur (its priority is to overcome the more immediate problem of coping with fatigue).

At the recent Barcelona Olympic Games, many medals were won because of superior skills as opposed to dominant swimming speed. Martin Lopez-Zubero's final turn in the 200 m backstroke took him to the lead after having trailed until then. When executing that turn he stayed underwater executing a double-leg kick longer than anyone else in the race. Quite a number of medals were earned by very small amounts. The time difference in the 200 m butterfly between Susan O'Neill and Xiaohong Wang was 2/100ths of a second. Could meticulous attention to skill details have produced an improvement to offset this difference? Skill precision and emphasis in racing makes a difference. They increase in importance the higher the level of competition.

The practice and execution of non-swimming skills can be a valuable emphasis of training in precompetition, competition, and/or tapering phases of training. They do not fatigue athletes, their practice will increase their efficacy and efficiency, and the considerable time consumption that can exist through their practice could be a viable substitute for volumes of training.

An increased emphasis on the development of skills is needed for NSW swimmers. This is an easily evaluated aspect of coaching and swimming performance. Their improvement will produce gratifying results for swimmers. The added variety that is brought to training and competing by heightened attention to skills will enhance the motivational aspects of the sport of swimming.


  1. Gambrel, D. W., Blanke, D., Thigpen, K., & Mellion, M. B. (1991). A biomechanical comparison of two relay starts in swimming. Journal of Swimming Research, 7, 5-9.
  2. Rushall, B. S., & Pyke, F. S. (1990). Training for sports and fitness. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan Educational.

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