Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Volume 2, Number 3: December 17, 1995


Questions from Mark Ward, Forbes and Ursula Carlile Swimming Organization, Cross Street Pool, of Dr. Brent Rushall, Professor of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, San Diego State University.

Mark Ward: If you would be willing I'd like to hear your views and receive some advice on the following topics.

Question 1. What are the important points that should be taught to junior stroke correction classes about the freestyle stroke?

Answer 1. My recommendations are for junior swimmers who are training at least once a day. Therefore, they would have had a reasonable grounding in all strokes and could cover distances in a repeated training set. I also assume that they are growing children who are mainly pre-pubertal. Teach the following:

(a) Flat body alignment -- look for head down, eyes to the bottom of the pool (swim blind), bottom up, and feet trailing in the shadow of the hips. This should be a position of maximum streamline and should mimic a position of lying face down on a floor.

(b) Even symmetrical stroking -- do not allow one side of the body to do anything different to the other. Therefore, teach bi-lateral breathing and the mirroring of movements on either side of the body.

(c) Breathe low -- no lifting movements should occur. Breathing should be achieved by rolling the head along a true, horizontal axis. Any lift will require a counter-balancing downward movement which will slow the swimmer.

(d) Small kick -- a big kick feels like work, but more often than not, it is a useless waste of energy. The primary role of the kick is to react to what the arms do. Other than in sprints, a kick just does not create much, if any, propulsion.

(e) Body roll -- both shoulders and hips should roll the same amount, no less than 45 degrees and not much more. This facilitates streamlining and puts the arm work under the body (where it will do most good) as well as distribute the muscular work between the shoulder's internal and external rotator muscle groups. Any less roll, emphasizes internal rotator work which eventually will produce over-use shoulder injuries.

Question 2. Should the hand stretch forward to a natural arm extension or should the body roll to increase the forward stretch?

Answer 2. These are the features of a good entry.

(a) Stretch the arm forward over the water -- this will produce a more constant stroke and simple rhythm. If it slides under the water, swimmers develop a "rest" which means there will be a deceleration of forward momentum in the stroke cycle.

(b) Enter finger tips first with a flat (level) hand -- this allows the water to be caught immediately upon entering. Sliding in sideways (thumb first) does not allow any propulsion to be developed until the hand is turned. It also predisposes the swimmer to push to the side which is incorrect.

(c) Bend the elbow immediately upon entering -- A straight arm press delays propulsion and overloads the shoulder which could result in the injury called "swimmer's shoulder."

Question 3. What emphasis, if any, should be placed on a bent elbow recovery? Is there any real benefit to this as opposed to the straight arm recovery?

Answer 3. There are so many benefits to recovering with a very bent elbow that it would be too technical and boring for this forum. Some of the more obvious benefits and features are listed below.

(a) In the bent elbow recovery, the hand should always be lower than the elbow, and the fingers even lower, because it reduces both vertical and lateral movements (and their resulting unnecessary and detrimental forces).

(b) It allows an almost direct movement forward which usually will be counter-balanced by a direct pull backward. A straight body alignment should be able to be maintained.

(c) A wide, partially bent or straight arm produces lateral forces that must be counter-balanced. Those reactions are detrimental for they create extra resistance. Faults such as hip sway, wide and dragging kick (the foot usually is not streamlined), or the other arm pulling partly to the side rather than being directly backward, often are observable.

(d) A straight arm recovery usually is performed to the side which stifles body and hip roll, resulting in a predisposition to shoulder injury. If it recovers high, then a counteracting pull has to be excessively deep, rather than propulsively backwards.

Question 4. One of my catch cries is "Long and Slow". My swimmers can quote my speeches verbatim (time to make something new up I know) but if I can only have them slow down then they will actually swim faster. I use this for all my stroke teaching. Essentially I want them to feel the water and as a result become aware of the effects of their strokes. How can I build on this to provide some variety and importantly to emphasize the importance of feeling the water.

Answer 4.

(a) I think you have the correct idea but may not be communicating it appropriately. Getting a swimmer to reduce the number of strokes per lap will achieve better swimming economy. It is propulsive economy that is important, and so by swimming fewer strokes and maintaining normal speed, economy will be improved.

(b) The single, most-related, stroke aspect for performance excellence is stroke length, which is achieved by performing fewer strokes while maintaining speed.

(c) Preaching slow is antithetical to fast, so you may be undermining your credibility by this confusing demand.

(d) To help the swimmers feel the water have them:

(e) Do not let the swimmers "slip" at any stage in the underwater action, even during the relatively useless downward dig (with bending elbow, not straight arm) and the extraction (also with a bent arm so that the elbow exits first). If the arm comes out straight then it usually means hyperextension has been achieved and the arm's propulsion has ceased underwater. That is the end-of-stroke equivalent to stretching forward under water on entry.

(f) Better concepts for teaching youngsters are : (i) swim "splashless", which provokes a deliberate feel for the entry and stroke, (ii) keep "controlled" so that there are no sudden changes of hand/arm position in or out of the water, and (iii) move the arms in an even constant manner as if there was no water -- "make the water respond to you, not you to the water."

Question 5. For the freestyle entry I teach my swimmers to place the hand in flat with all the fingers pointed down the line of travel. There has been discussion on the benefits of this. For me it enables the swimmer to catch the water with the whole hand and provide a lifting force, similar to that achieved when one lifts themselves over a wall. Others have opined that the hand entry should be thumb first with the hand turned out, whilst others claim that the hand should enter pinky first with the hand turned in slightly. What are the merits of these techniques. My thinking is that I wouldn't want to lift myself over a wall using just my pinky or thumb.

Answer 5.

(a) Your thinking is correct and analogy acceptable. However, do not lose sight of the fact that some parts of the stroke do not create propulsion. It is only when forces are being created in a mainly backwards direction that a swimmer accelerates and moves forward.

(b) For too long, coaches have been teaching cosmetic movements which are unrelated to force production. That has been evidenced on the Bulletin Board on the INTERNET with the argumentative and opinionated concepts of how the hand enters the water in crawl stroke. It is such a trivial feature of the overall stroke, but since all great crawl strokers have a fingers first, level hand entry, it should be taught as such. Then get on to the more important features of propelling forward and reducing resistance.

(c) A beneficial effect usually will result if you get swimmers to propel themselves through the water past anchored arms. That establishes the perception that swimming is moving the total system forward and minimizing anything that slips backward.

General Implication

You will note that I have avoided talking exact movements. Developmental psychology and physiology has shown clearly that teaching intricate technical skill elements is a waste of time in growing children and adolescents. A sudden growth in a limb will change movement positions and sensations. What is relevant before a growth spurt often is irrelevant after it. Coaching juniors is one long series of adjusting new body proportions to achieve overall effects, that is, forward propulsion, while accommodating the new dimensions of arms, legs, hands, and body. Intricate instruction is a waste of time because it could well be irrelevant a very short time later.

Nothing can beat streamlining, and force production that will propel a swimmer in the direction in which they intend to go which, in speed swimming, should be directly forward.

I hope this is helpful.

Brent S. Rushall, Ph.D., R.Psy. []

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