|Coaching Drills & Performance Enhancement Skills in Swimming|
This article is intended to build upon the coach's knowledge of basic coaching concepts. The authors have frequently referred to the application of drills and skill development in previous articles. This article explores the conceptual nature of drills and their use.
Drills and technique work are an integral part of most swimming programs. Every coach has a favourite drill, a "special" technique, designed to enhance swimming performance. Drills also play a fundamental role in assessing the current progress of stroke development by identifying both positive and negative elements of the swimmer's individual skill level.
Typically, a drill or a series of drills are borrowed from observation of highly skilled swimmers or successful coaches. There is nothing wrong with this (i.e. we should always learn from observation of a 'model'); however there are many considerations which should be addressed. First, drills used in isolation without understanding their place in the overall learning process of the swimmer may have little value. They may even detract from the desired performance affects. How has the execution of this drill(s) developed from other movement skills, and what is the logical follow-on? Second, is the application of the drill suitable for the developmental level of the learner? Does the drill require muscular strength, swimming fitness, or range of movement at an advanced standard?
Drills need to be part of a total teaching and swimming development system which begins with an effective and technically superior learn- to-swim program and progresses to the efficient execution of strokes under competition conditions.
When teaching drills coaches need to emphasise the key elements of control, precision, rhythm and co-ordination along with the targeted movement pattern. To achieve the desired results, drills must be performed under close supervision with adequate feedback. This means the swimmer-to-coach ratio must be lower, when teaching a drill, than during routine training situations. Both coach and swimmers must remain focused on the effort; constant feedback to/from the athlete is essential.
Those coaches who would dismiss the use of drills from a training program might argue that if the ideal conditions for drills don't exist, why should the coach allocate valuable training time and resources in this way? As with all aspects of training, the 'model' comes from the ideal and the 'application' results from the commitment on the part of both coach and swimmer. Therefore, the coach must carefully construct the rationale behind each drill and use it as a prescriptive tool with purpose and precision.
The term "drill" is applied to countless variations of teaching techniques and coaching practices having a wide range of performance outcomes. The authors propose that the term should be further broken down into four categories.
Movement patterns and techniques designed to develop the stroke from the basics through to the whole stroke performed under competitive conditions. These 'drills' are basically an extension of learn-to-swim methodologies. The major focus of stroke development drills is to enhance the positive performance aspects of technique. These drills are ideally practised prior to the 'main training set' to review correct movement patterns and maximise the transfer of the stroke model in a performance setting.
The concept of stroke development is generally expressed by a series of movement progressions which build in their complexity, increase in their intensity, and maximise propulsive efficiency while minimising water resistance. The stroke progressions developed as part of the National Tip Top program (see references for examples of these drills) serve as a good example of 'stroke development drills'. During each drill sequence the swimmer must concentrate on distance per stroke and streamlining the body.
Variations on these progressions involve sensory perception and efficient application of propulsive force. For example, drills which use hand paddles or fins are used to change the level of sensory input. They stimulate neuromuscular feedback so that stroke patterns are reinforced.
However, these drills by themselves do not necessarily correct fundamental stroke faults when the whole stroke is swum. Stroke correction may require a more specific application of drills.
These drills use techniques which are designed to correct specific stroke faults (i.e. significant deviations from the stroke model). They work to correct a negative aspect of stroke that is causing the swimmer to swim with decreased efficiency. These drills should not focus on cosmetic changes (i.e. technique which only makes the swimmer look better), but they should be applied to fundamental defects which limit the swimmer's potential. For example, a slight spread of the fingers is less important to the propulsive affect of the armstroke than a major defect such as dropping the elbow during the middle of an armstroke. The essential coaching question to ask is: "Will the stroke correction drill increase speed by improving efficiency?" If the answer is no - leave it alone and concentrate your coaching efforts elsewhere.
A common example of a drill applied as a stroke correction device is the "fingertip drag" drill. In this case, if a freestyle swimmer's arm recovery is too wide, trunk rotation may be inhibited. The real problem lies with achieving the desired shoulder and hip rotation during the whole stroke.
The specific fingertip drag drill is used to program a new movement pattern which corrects the stroke fault. As with the developmental drills, a progression is used to teach the desired movement, increase the speed of that movement, and finally integrate the desired movement into the whole stroke.
However, before introducing stroke correction drills, get all the facts - question why the swimmer's stroke is not allowing for effective fast swimming. Is the real problem poor joint flexibility? Is the real problem poor muscular strength? Is the real problem injury? Is the real problem a skill learning one (i.e. some individuals may have a co-ordination problem that must be addressed first)? Is the real problem motivational? Designing stroke correction drills requires both analytical skill from the coach as well as an element of artistry. The coach must have a stroke 'model' to work from, but also be aware of the individual characteristics of the swimmer. In the above example (i.e. the fingertip drag drill) if shoulder flexibility as well as abdominal and lower back strength are poor, this drill may not successfully correct the stroke fault.
Stroke correction drills are best utilised after the main training set and should target the current limitations of the swimmer. Elements of stroke technique (and don't forget other racing skills, such as: push-offs, turns, and finishes) which do not hold up under the stress of a main training set represent a fundamental fault. When the swimmer is under pressure during a race, he/she will inevitably revert back to the technique most often used during training. Unlike the great variety of stroke development drills a coach may have in his/her coaching repertoire, the number of effective stroke correction drills a coach may use is usually limited to a few for each stroke.
Drills in these first two categories must be linked to performance and often an intermediate step is required. In some ways this third category of drill could be referred to as 'reminder drills'; however we have chosen to 'link' them to full stroke development and will refer to them as 'linking drills'.
These drills and techniques are designed to link the performance of basic movements to the execution of the whole stroke sequence under race conditions.
One of the great dilemmas of coaching is when to make a stroke correction and when to concentrate on other training priorities. Certainly, when swimming technique is incorrectly applied then physiological benefits of training are not fully realised. However, if the continuity of training is always broken to redefine technique (i.e. make a major stroke correction), then the affect of the training is reduced. The authors feel there is good reason not to stop swimmers (for the purpose of making a correction) during a main training set. We are certainly not saying that constant feedback from the coach to the swimmer regarding the application of stroke technique is unwarranted. The coach should be constantly monitoring technique during training sets, but interaction with the swimmer usually takes the form of giving verbal or visual cues to help the swimmer re-focus his/her attention.
If there is a need to repeatedly stop swimmers to correct technique during a main training set, it could be argued that the swimmer was not adequately prepared to undertake the training set in the first place. This is where drills have their greatest impact, as an adjunct to total stroke preparation and maintenance. Swimmers must be prepared to train using an efficient technique and must be able to use that technique under pressure situations. Linking drills allow the coach to apply the elements of both reinforcement and correction to performance.
As noted in the article by Sweetenham and Goldsmith, "Stroke drills have absolutely nothing to do with easy swimming, but are about doing less strokes with a maximum of effort and concentration and eventually under demanding pressure to speed and perfection." Linking sets should include the key elements of pace, stroke-count and stroke-rate as well as the skill elements of the drill. These drill progressions usually serve a duel purpose as a physiological training stimulus (i.e. normally aerobic energy demands, but sometimes high anaerobic energy demands for powerful muscular actions are called for) as well as neuromuscular patterning. Because these drills have a performance component, the results over time (i.e. from beginning to end of season) indicate the collective improvements in both fitness and stroke efficiency. In fact, Sweetenham suggests that these drills should be incorporated into certain test sets.
In addition to using linking drills before main training sets or test sets, they can be used following a training set. In this case the purpose of the linking set is not to prepare the swimmer, but to reinforce a movement skill under fatigue conditions. Ultimately, the coach wants to achieve stroke technique that does not break down during competition when the swimmer experiences fatigue.
These drills are performed faster than race pace or focus on the stroke components of hand speed and acceleration. They highlight the interaction between the variables of stroke-rate and stroke-length at different swimming paces. The goal is to develop stroke efficiency at speeds used during competition.
Sometimes paddles or fins are used in conjunction with speed drills. Because the speed of movement is the critical variable in these drills (unlike stroke development drills where paddles/fins are used for sensory input) the training outcome becomes muscular overload. Speed drills may be used as one way of translating strength gains from land based training into specific power gains in the water. However, there is a danger of over-use or excessive loading (specifically if very large paddles or fins are used) if the drills are prescribed indiscriminately. There is also an element of readiness to successfully using speed drills, as Sweetenham suggests, "Swimmers who tend to drop elbows, have immature strength or pull out short on their strokes must use great care when using paddles as either a stroking or training aid and they should be used with great caution.
Remember, the swimmer is weakest at the extremities of the stroke and will tend to take the line of least resistance and not necessarily the most propulsive line of resistance, so as a coach you must observe constantly."
Speed drills, with or without the use of training aids, are performed over short distances (usually 25m) at a very high energy output; therefore, sufficient rest between repeats must be a consideration. These drills may be performed either at the start of a training session, when the swimmer is fresh; or at the end of a training session, when the swimmer is fatigued. In each case the training outcomes are slightly different. Drills performed when 'fresh' place the emphasis on the desired energy production. Drills performed when 'fatigued' place the emphasis on muscle fibre recruitment.
Swimmers succeed according to their strengths and fall short due to their weakness. Build a technically superior and invincible (skill wise) athlete.
Adding Value and Variety to Drills
A useful variation on practising stroke drills is to have swimmers perform the drills from flags to flags. From the start (i.e. wall to flags), during the turn (i.e. flags to wall and return), and during the finish (i.e. flags to wall) swimmers should resume normal swimming strokes and legal turning technique and streamlining.
Drills are often performed at a reduced frequency of breathing. By controlling the rate of breathing as part of the drill protocol (i.e. one breath every 5-8 seconds) the swimmer will experience a condition known as 'hypercapnia'. This is characterised by an increase of the partial pressure of CO2 and a decrease in the partial pressure of O2 in the lungs. The result is a mild increase in heart rate in relation to the level of energy expenditure. There is evidence that this produces a beneficial training response.
Because many stroke development drills rely on kicking to stabilise the body and provide propulsion, the drill progressions themselves can be an effective alternative to kicking laps on a kickboard. Using drills to strengthen and condition the legs has the added benefits of reinforcing a body position which is streamline and forcing swimmers to co-ordinate their breathing.
Another coaching hint is to ask swimmers to practise one skill while evaluating another. When a first skill is mastered, teach a second skill and ask swimmers to perform the second skill. Whilst you focus your evaluation on the performance of both skills, the swimmers will usually perform the second skill better than the first because of their immediate contact with it. This gives you the opportunity to examine the effectiveness of your drill progression (i.e. are all skills learned and retained, so they can be built upon?).
Drills are given added value if completed in a progression of teaching body position, body position with kick, feel of the arm stroke, hand acceleration, control of kick, distance per stroke and stroke count. A combination of all of the above is repeated at progressively faster speeds and under race pressure.
Observing young or less skilled swimmers usually reveals a desire to swim faster is translated into faster arm and leg movements. The benefit of intelligently constructed drills is that young swimmers gain a better 'feel of the water' and understand that fast swimming is an application of good swimming technique.
To incorporate the basic principles of motor learning and neuromuscular adaptation drills must be applied in a progressive sequence. This is a total swimming progression which combines all the skills taught to the swimmer throughout their career . The progression is designed in a logical, methodical manner, to build from stroke basics to stroke refinements. These progressions must also incorporate the co-ordination of movements, timing, and fitness of the upper body and the lower body musculature. Too many freestyle and backstroke swimmers are upper body dependent; while breaststrokers may tend to become lower body dependent. Drills should have the capacity to strengthen areas of weakness and maximise the strengths, whilst co - ordinating the effective interaction between upper and lower body.
The value of drills does not diminish as a swimmer's career progresses. Coaches at the senior level must take the time, through one-on-one coaching contact, to "fine tune" a swimmer's stroke. Formula one racing cars do not come off an assembly line; precision and attention to detail, refinement, and evaluation are all components of a long-term strategy for stroke development.
The coach must also pay close attention to the precision of drill application. Because drills tend to focus attention on components of the total stroke, it's possible to target inherently weak points of the stroke pattern; such as the hand entry or exit (i.e. extremities of the stroke). As with any movement, if the start is made correctly (i.e. movement pattern plus correct positioning of the body) there is a better chance that the continuation of the movement will be correct. The coach must never overlook the integration of movements (i.e. for efficient propulsion) and positioning of all segments of the body (i.e. for reduction of resistance) when evaluating the effectiveness of a drill.
Regardless of type of drill, these ten guidelines can be applied:
Drills are about performing fewer strokes with precise effort and concentration in each stroke. Drills have nothing to do with easy swimming.
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