THE USE OF DRILLS AND THE TRANSFER PARADOX IN COMPETITIVE SWIMMING
The theoretical bases for performing swimming drills are varied and usually encompass the following:
Unfortunately, the value of drills are dressed in hope as opposed to verified knowledge. Christina (1996) reviewed the motor learning literature and developed conclusions for coaches. The implications of those conclusions follow.
Swimming skills at training need to be contextually, biomechanically, and cognitively the same as in races. The value of drill activities decreases the greater the departure of these three characteristics from what is required in races. The belief that irrelevant practice activities actually will be beneficial for swimmers in races will be counterproductive for subsequent race performances. The added belief that poorly developed skill elements can be executed in competitions because of mental application (i.e., attempting to alter a segment in a movement chain purely by concentrating without sufficient whole-skill practices) is also counterproductive. There is no substitute or variation for the Principle of Specificity in skill training if skill is to be an important part of a competitive performance. Most drills that contain a greater proportion of irrelevant skill elements than relevant ones will lead to poor and incorrect swimming in races because of the erroneous elements that have been practiced and transferred into the various race actions.
Abernethy (1991) emphasized that within a sport, it would be incorrect to assume that movement patterns that would never arise in a competitive performance, such as those developed by "drills", contribute to race improvements.
"The more specific the practice or training drills can be to the sport [competitive settings and demands], the more effective they will be in enhancing competitive performances. If transfer of learning from the practice session to the [race] or competitive situations is to be maximized, the demands of the practice session should mimic as closely as possible the demands of the sport itself (not only in terms of the movement execution requirements but also in terms of the perceptual and decision-making aspects of the performance). . . In general, motor skills are highly specific and transfer of learning between different motor skills is quite small. The best means of enhancing transfer is to maximize the similarity between the practice and competition ('practice as you play'). When practice drills that differ from competition are used, the purpose of the drills in terms of improved competitive performance should be clearly explained [justified]." (p. 95)
One of the commonest activities in training programs is the performance of drills, activities that are purported to train in isolation aspects of a total swimming movement pattern. Drills are repetitive training activities which do or do not use equipment. Usually, they are intended to stimulate a part of a complex swimming movement (e.g., the kicking). They train activity parts out-of-context. When equipment such as paddles, pull buoys, and flippers are used, the activity elements are distorted because of the requirement to accommodate the non-race-related equipment. Drills are inappropriate training content for serious or highly-trained performers. The only exception to "no drills" is when they are part of learning progressions well before the attainment and practice of some terminal (final) skill. This could be where the mistaken role of non-specific activities arose. Before a beginner can learn a complex movement, a proper teaching progression (backward shaping) should take the learner through activities that rarely will be practiced again because they will not represent exactly what happens in eventual, complex, skilled movement patterns such as the four competitive swimming strokes.
Each practice drill should be considered a discrete activity. The greater the similarity between a total competitive skill and a restricted or altered practiced drill, the greater is the likelihood of negative transfer (movement pathway confusion) 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". Drills were parts of the "Part-whole learning debate". But now, their use has been distorted and they have become training items. Overdoing them in the wrong context will delay or halt a swimmer's progress, often at a less than refined stage of skill development because irrelevant patterns of movement are incorporated into stroke patterns.
When swimmers 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 (see "Backward Progressions"). 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; one that will not exist in a race when the device is absent. 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 distorted (device) training?
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 race, although it is "meant" to be beneficial, does not benefit the race performance. The body learns the incorrect posture for the trained activity and depending upon the strength of specific or relevant training, will sustain correct or incorrect postures in a race.
Since most high level swimmers are discriminated from each other by skill efficiency (Cappaert et al., 1996; Chatard et al., 1990; D'Acquisto et al., 2004; Dutto & Cappaert, 1994), the level of performer skill should be maximized. Drill practices and the use of training devices work contrarily to that aim. 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.
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 unacceptable for highly-trained individuals. Any competing movement pattern or disruption to a highly-refined swimming 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 an extended period before they have a chance to improve."
The situation is even more critical for very experienced swimmers. It may be of no value to attempt to alter a technique flaw because the impact of the existing flaw possibly is minimized through years of training. There comes a time in every swimmer'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.
There is a science of movement instruction called "sport pedagogy". Some major principles have been listed above. There are principles that are known to be beneficial and others that are known to be detrimental to performance development and change. It is necessary that knowledge of these principles be a prerequisite for any coach. 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.
One cannot ignore the Principle of Specificity for skill 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 race settings. Drills and training with artificial devices work against that purpose.1
The Transfer Paradox
The "Transfer Paradox" exists because there is a role for non-specific activities, such as swimming drills, in developing skills. That role is restricted to raw beginners.
Any complete beginner will improve in skill performance if what is practiced is somewhat related to significant elements in the intended terminal behavior. It is in this function that drills might be viewed to have some benefit. Thus, with young children or motorically deprived individuals, drills and associated activities produce some increase in overall skill competence. For example, a young child diving underwater, dog-paddling, and paddling on a boogie board, will likely improve in the ability to play and swim in water. A variety of foundational activities is an element in good instruction with beginners.
Once an original beginner experiences sufficient related activities, the general skill of moving through water improves. That improvement continues up to a point. When that point is reached is not well explained, but for swimming, it does include performing with a variety of skilled tasks and a noted slowing or stopping of improvements in those skills. When general drill activities no longer benefit swimming performance, they have no value in the competitive swimming setting. It is at this stage where using drills becomes counterproductive.
As has been explained at length above, high-level skill performers do not benefit from volumes of exposures to partly related activities because the parts are sufficiently different that they introduce error (error by commission, omission, or confusion) into the total movement patterns that differentiate swimming skills. That leads to the Transfer Paradox: drills are appropriate for beginners and inappropriate for advanced level athletes. Further, the paradox gives rise to two coaching principles.
1There are few references listed in this description. The knowledge has been around for at least 40 and more likely 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 in 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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