Written By: Pat Rohner
Whether working with beginners, intermediates or advanced swimmers, I always evaluate and teach freestyle in a specific order. Building a solid freestyle is like building a house. You can’t put the roof on if you have not poured the foundation and built sound walls first. Swimming is the same, if a swimmer is not swimming in balance, it will impact their kick and breathing. If they can’t do a consistent recovery, they will not be able to perform a reliable pull.
Below is the order, with some explanation of why I teach in this order.
The foundational skill of swimming freestyle is balance. Balance can be described as keeping the head, shoulders, hips and feet all at the same level in the water. The most common error is lifting the head up—not above the water, just looking down the lane—often to look where you are going. As a swimmer lifts the head up, physics demands an opposite and equal reaction. In most cases, it causes the hips to drop, and the feet will be low. This creates a large amount of drag for the swimmer to combat.
To get swimmers in balance, have beginners kick on a board with their head squeezed between their arms. For more advanced swimmers, try swimming with a snorkel in a low head position.
Now that your swimmer can maintain a low head position, we need to ensure a solid kick to keep their legs near the surface. I like to use kicking on the back, or on the stomach without a board, while wearing a snorkel.
Next, add breathing while maintaining a low head position. Beginner and intermediate swimmers often tend to lift their head up when breathing. This is a natural reaction; evolution has taught us to watch where we are going. When working with adults, I often explain this tendency to them and have them pay attention to watching the line on the bottom of the pool and relaxing the neck. I like to practice low head breathing and kicking with one hand on the wall while rolling to the side. Keeping the swimmer at the wall allows me to help change their head position.
Now that you are kicking and breathing in balance, you can move to the next step. Alignment is a stroke which keeps all movements inside the shadow of the body. Alignment is not something I teach as an independent skill. It needs to be considered when evaluating each skill to ensure that appropriate alignment is maintained.
Roll plays an important part of a strong freestyle. The ability to use the large muscles of the core is dependent on getting appropriate angles. Engaging the larger muscles of the core generates more power with each pull. My favorite drill for roll is to kick on the side, drop the head, take a stroke and roll to the opposite side. This adds roll to the balance and kick work.
The foundation is now formed. Without this balanced, aligned and rolling foundation, the stroke cannot be effective.
A swimmer needs a consistent, repeatable, shoulder-healthy recovery. I prefer a high-elbow recovery that allows the fingers to define a straight line from exit point to water entry point. The high-elbow, when combined with sufficient roll, takes the pressure off of the shoulder. The straight-line aspect of the recovery promotes repeatability. Recoveries that allow for an arc are hard to remain consistent as you tire.
A high-elbow recovery starts by lifting the elbow out of the water and swinging the fingertips forward in a clean and relaxed pendulum. This won’t work unless the swimmer has rolled. If they are flat, it will be very difficult to have the fingertips clear the water. The fingertips should draw a straight line forward to the point of entry. This straight line makes for a very efficient recovery and puts the weight of the arm on the spine. A swinging recovery, however, forces muscles to hold the weight of the arm up, placing extra strain on the shoulders and can lead to shoulder pain.
As you swing the forearm forward like a pendulum to the entry point, the hand should enter fingertips first, elbow high, palm back. A precise and gentle entry will create as little turbulence as possible. Bringing air into the water creates turbulence. This air and turbulence diminish the efficiency of the pull. These three skills combined are often referred to as elbow lift, pendulum swing, and slice the hole and help define a smooth recovery.
Finally, and only after the swimmer has developed the foundation skills and a smooth and repeatable recovery, we can turn our attention to the pull.
The first skill in the pull is the catch. The catch serves to “grab” a handful of water and set the most efficient angle for delivering power with the pull. An early catch and early vertical forearm create more power through early engagement of the water and a high-elbow pull. I prefer a bent wrist catch, but consider this an advanced skill that I don’t try to address with beginner and intermediate swimmers.
Last is the pull. Once the catch sets your arm angles and gives you a ball of water, you want to push against that ball in a straight unrelenting line to drive the body forward.
Well, there is it my order of teaching freestyle.
Slice the hole
Coach Pat is a 40-plus-year coach, who has coached at every level of the sport. Pat currently serves as the Head Coach for SwimON, an online adult swimming community. For more tips and advice visit Coach Pat’s blog at swimon.com