Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Written By: Rebecca Westfall
Howdy y’all! Technique is a hot topic in the swimming world and there are MANY different ways to think about it. No one way is the right way, and I’ve found a system that works for me. My coaching upbring is different and thus my brain works a little differently. I’d like to provide you a little window into the inner madness that is my method.
My coaching resume says I’ve been on deck for 12 years. In reality, I’ve been learning the ropes of technique since I was 10. My dad played basketball and baseball so when his oldest daughter turned to the water, he was out of his depth. Pun intended. Being a supportive parent, he signed himself up for a stroke technique clinic so he could understand swimming and what the coaches were trying to teach me. And it wasn’t just any stroke clinic. It was run by USA Swimming at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. My dad was THAT dad. Cue the groans. Turns out, a lot of what was taught in the 90’s didn’t jive with what he knew to be true in his engineering background.
When he came back, he discreetly asked me to try a small change: pull straight through the freestyle stroke; no s curve pull pattern. I went faster. Thus began a 12-year relationship in which he told me to change something, and I resisted until he could prove with physics and math that it would be faster (no matter there was no way I could actually understand said math). He was the puppet master, and I was the guinea pig. The older I got, the more I was able to provide feedback and suggest things of my own based on what I was feeling in the water. It became a partnership of trial and error in which we bucked the trends and didn’t hesitate to think outside the box. The weirder, the better. Eventually, we were put in touch with Bill Boomer and Milt Nelms because much of what we were doing was paralleling their teachings. A lot of how I think is influenced by them.
Since moving to the coaching ranks myself, I’ve had to challenge a lot of long held beliefs while learning from some of the best in this sport. Despite always saying, there is no one way to do things, I really had to open my mind to techniques I had discarded previously when taking into account athletes from a much different background than my own. During my 12 years on deck, four things remain the same: 1) symptoms are usually not the problem, 2) core and body alignment fix almost everything, 3) the water will speak to you and 4) everyone is different and require individualized fixes.
1. Symptoms vs. Problems
Many times, I find myself referring to the question: “is this a symptom or is it a problem?” When looking at a particular stroke issue and making a fix, I try to first determine if what I’m seeing is the actual issue or the symptom of a larger issue. Oftentimes, we stick band aids on symptoms rather than fix the root of the problem.
Watch the issue and try to track it back through the pattern of movement. For instance, if you see feet coming out of the water on butterfly, the feet are the symptom. Diagnose backwards. Are the knees bending too much? If not, what’s going on with the hips? Are they traveling up and down too much? No? How about the timing of the hips within the stroke? Most of the time, I find that the timing of the hips is the actual issue and that the swimmer is pulling then dragging the hips through. Once corrected, the feet stay right under the surface at the top of the kick, the pull strengthens, the line lengthens and the distance per stroke goes up, usually with less perceived effort.
2. It All Comes Back to the Core and Alignment
When we see a technique issue, it’s usually on the periphery: the hands/arms and the feet/legs. The connected swimmer swims from the inside out with the core driving the movement of the arms and legs. It’s the same for problems and symptoms. The problem almost always comes back to an issue of core strength/timing and body alignment. Fix those issues first. If that still hasn’t fixed the issue, work your way out and correct forwards. Core, shoulders/hips, arms/legs, hands/feet, fingers/toes.
If you find you’re layering correction after correction, you’re fixing symptoms not problems. Stop, wipe the slate clean with the athlete and start over. Fixing a problem usually requires one simple fix. Solving a problem will probably fix other issues you thought were unrelated. Some problems require major changes, usually to the connection and timing of the body and arms. Some are minor tweaks that fix big things.
3. Watch the Water
The easiest way to measure the success of a change is to measure stroke count and time. If the time reduces and the stroke count remains the same, obviously, that’s a win. The same is true of constant time and reduced stroke count. You know they’re killing it when both the time and stroke count come down.
Sometimes the changes are too small to measure. Watch the water. The narrower the v-shaped wake pattern a swimmer puts out, the better (reduced frontal drag). The most detrimental form of drag is wave drag (naysayers: go check out ship building principles). The lower the wave drag (smaller amplitude) at the same speed, the less drag. The longer wavelength and fewer waves down the length of the body is also a good sign. Less splashing at the same speed = less wasted energy. The water will be your ultimate guide. Watch it. Learn from it.
4. Accounting for Different Bodies
Every body is different. Height, torso length, leg/arm length, flexibility… humans are incredibly diverse! Add in how everyone’s minds process differently and you’ve got nearly unlimited solutions to try. However, the thing to keep in mind is the biomechanical limits of each individual.
For instance, the elbow should never travel behind the scapular plane. Doing so sets the shoulder up for all sorts of issues, biceps tendonitis being the primary offender. Too much anterior tilt in the pelvis can lead to lower back issues. A lifted rib cage often masquerades as too much anterior hip tilt. Deep vs. shallow hip sockets determine how much turnout you can get in a breaststroke kick. Hyperextension in the elbows and knees and be both a blessing and a curse!
You need to keep each body’s framework and limitations in mind when making corrections. Patterns will emerge when working with similar bodies with the same issues and you’ll think you’ve got it all figured out… until the zebra comes along to prove you wrong.
One more thing: every swimmer’s background is different. Some are incredibly water intuitive. They can FEEL the water and can easily manipulate their bodies. Others struggle with it. You must tailor your coaching around these limitations as well. When in doubt, simplify.
At the end of the day technique is a balance between intuition and concrete evidence. Be innovative! Try things for sh*ts and giggles. Experiment. You’ll probably hit on something amazing a quarter of the time, but it’s worth it! Make your swimmers guinea pigs and develop a two-way communication in which you both contribute to success. NEVER let what you think you know hold you back from doing something totally wild and outside the box. You might develop the next big thing! Good luck and happy tweaking!
NC State swimming and diving added coaching veteran Rebecca Westfall to its staff as an assistant coach prior to the start of the 2021-22 season. Westfall comes to NC State following two seasons as an assistant coach at Alabama. She brings 12 years of Division I, II, III and club coaching experience with her to Raleigh, with some of her more recent coaching stints occurring at UNC Asheville, Indiana State and Pitt. While at Alabama, Westfall was tasked with a sprint/middle distance hybrid training group, and she was also responsible for all on-campus recruiting, social media promotions, equipment and team culture building. She helped lead the women's team to meteoric improvement during which the squad improved from 11th in the SEC and 34th in the NCAA to fourth in the league and fifth in the nation. Westfall also played a role in coaching Alabama to its first-ever women's relay national title in the 400-yard freestyle relay. In her first year at Alabama, Westfall saw 24 student-athletes qualify for the NCAA Championships and 22 swimmers and divers earn a total of 57 All-America honors. Most recently in 2020-21, Westfall helped lead Alabama to 12 individual finals swims and eight top-16 relay finishes in addition to the relay title at NCAAs. Prior to her time in Tuscaloosa, Westfall served as an assistant coach at Pittsburgh for two years. While with the Panthers, the team broke 29 school records and rose in the ranks of the ACC. Westfall spent the 2016-17 season as an assistant coach for the inaugural swimming and diving program at Indiana State. She also coached two seasons at UNC Asheville, helping the Bulldogs post program-best finishes in the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association Championships in both seasons. Prior to that, she was at Warren Wilson College in Swannona, N.C. for two years and served as interim head coach and aquatics director at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., in 2011-12. Westfall began her full-time coaching career at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., serving as the director of swimming and aquatics for two years. Westfall completed her collegiate swimming career at Texas A&M, where she was an eight-time All-American for the Aggies. She won a total of nine Big 12 event titles from 2003 to 2007, and she helped her team win its first Big 12 team title in 2007. Westfall spent time in College Station as a student assistant coach following her senior season. She graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor's degree in sport management and minors in history and business. Westfall specializes in biomechanics and swimming technique, and she has published a series of articles on kinetic energy and movement through water. She and her husband James have two children - a son, Wade, and a daughter, Claire.