If you can’t feel the subtle changes in water pressure on your body, hands and feet as you slice through the water, you will never become a truly accomplished swimmer. In fact, the greater your ability to “feel the water,” the greater your chances of becoming a very skillful and fast swimmer.
Experienced coaches and teachers can tell within the first few weeks of a person’s involvement in the sport if they have a natural feel for the water. It’s a gift as surely as the gift for music or dance. However, “feel” can be developed and improved over time with good coaching, just as musicians and dancers improve with good instruction and intelligent practice.
To be able to change the direction of one’s hand or arm to feel the water at just the right moment, at just the right angle and at exactly the right rhythm makes this sport an aesthetic experience. To be able to appreciate the ability to surge through the water without any thought of mechanical ly performing a learned skill-to put everything on “automatic” and just race or, simply, enjoy-that’s when you have become a real swimmer.
Practice Sculling Drills
I believe the fastest and most effective way to develop this proprioceptive super awareness is to practice various types of sculling drills. Sculling patterns are the basis of synchronized swimming. It makes possible all of a synchronized swimmer’s intricate moves and art. Probably the vast majority of world and Olympic champions have practiced various forms of sculling to help them become more aware of how differing ways of using their hands as blades or foils affect their propelling force.
“Feel” is not rare; it can be learned. However, it has to be learned by the swimmer playing with various drills, just as one learns to play a musical instrument. First, one learns the basic movements, then develops a style and, finally-as with an art form-“feel” and interpretation can be seen. It can never be trained mechanically or by rote.
“Feel” must be realized through experience, experiment and one’s own sensitivity. We, as coaches, can show our students what to do, but they will learn how to do it well if given the space and environment to investigate, to venture and to substantiate. Otherwise, you are trying to create artists by having them paint by the numbers.
Throughout most of my career as a coach, I have had the opportunity to work with very talented, motivated and skilled athletes. We always did some sculling drills practical ly every week of training. Looking back on my days of coaching world-class athletes, however, I believe I didn’t include enough of this type of practice into our total training plan. Drilling is first learned, then perfected and, finally interpreted to achieve masterful performance.
Since my retirement from NCAA Division I collegiate coaching, I have had the pleasure of working with many triathletes and Masters swimmers who never developed the extraordinary ability to feel the ethereal changes in water pressure.
No matter how hard you train, no matter how great your genius for cardiovascular work, you will not progress dramatically in this sport without good or great technique. Great technique is impossible without superior feeling and awareness with the water. This is a difficult concept to accept for most triathletes and even some coaches-that more is not necessarily the most effective way to improve in this sport. Technique must always be the priority at each stage of your development.
Never use your hands and arms as paddles. Use your hands and arms as if they were the blades of a propeller being swept at various angles in your stroke with power gen erated from the core strength of the torque of your torso. In order to learn to use your hands and arms in these sweeping motions, let’s take a look at a few of the many sculling techniques that create lift and, thus, propulsion:
Probably the easiest sculling drill and the most effective way to learn and become skilled is with the technique illustrated in Figs. and 2. Floating vertically with your hands at waist level and the palms facing the bottom of the pool, press the palms outward with the little finger upward and press inward with the thumb upward. Feel the water pressure in both directions and do a figure eight with the hands at approximately the same depth throughout. Feel the lift.
The second step in becoming an expert sculler is to lie on your back with the hands at your,hips again, and the palms facing backward. Scull with the same figure-eight pattern and learn just how much to change the pitch of the hands to make the best propulsion.
The sculling technique that relates most directly to the full swimming strokes is the “progressive scull.” Start floating face down with a pull buoy, with the hands and arms extended in front of the body, pressing out with the little finger elevated and in with the thumb elevated. Gradually move the arms slowly downward and backward (with at least six or seven complete sweeps), continuing the sculling figure-eight motion so that you are essentially feeling the insweep of the arms used in freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly near the line of the shoulders.
After at least six to eight complete sweeps progressing to this position, drop the elbows and continue backward until you are emphasizing the upward, backward and outward motion that would be used in finishing the freestyle or butterfly stroke. This sculling drill will give the swimmer the feel of all the various sweeps used in a well-executed stroke. Recover the arms underwater and repeat the sequence. This drill is illustrated in Figs. 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Another sculling technique that will help develop maximum pressure on the hand is floating face down and propelling feet first with the hands and arms sculling in front of the face. I have heard that this is one of Coach John Carew’s favorite ways of finishing a practice with Kieren Perkins and his teammates. The wrists must be flexed upward, and the palms should face the wall that you’re moving away from.
My coach (Ernie Vornbrock) had us do about 400 yards of this type of sculling almost daily back in the 1940s. I believe it is a terrific way to develop a very advanced awareness of body balance and sensitivity of the hands and forearms (see Figs. 7 and 8).
About the Author
Ron Johnson, former head men’s swimming coach at Arizona State University from 1975-92 and co-coach of the women’s team in 1977-78, has coached 30 Olympic finalists and 14 Olympic medalists.
Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Oct-Dec 1998
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