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Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer

Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer, published in May 1999, addresses age-group swimming coaches, yet swimmers of all ages and parents of swimmers will find the information contained in its pages instructive and useful.

The 208 page text includes: coaching characteristics, factors, and responsibilities; swimmer, team, and parent; practice, safety, equipment, teaching and learning, and goal setting; stroke, start, and turn techniques; training factors and concepts, workout components, and health considerations; and competition.

Following is an excerpt from the chapter entitled "Technique".

Click on any section title to open and view the text for that section.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

To swim gracefully, a swimmer must make water his or her element, must spend long periods of time immersed, practicing techniques learned from teachers, adapting them to his or her particular body--in other words, developing a style. Once strokes are mastered per the different sizes and shapes of bodies moving through the water, what distinguishes one swimmer from another is style. Just as we all walk differently, we move differently in the water.

We often teach technique as though there is only one right way, yet as one generation unfolds into another, ideas of what is right or best change. There will always be a swimmer who comes along with a technique that doesn't fit the mold, who will win. Therefore, coaches should teach stroke mechanics with the idea that all swimmers need to internalize what we reason to be the most efficient stroking, kicking, and breathing patterns; but we should also apply the standards of form to each individual's body and mind, and allow for the development of style. I am not talking about breaking a mold, but rather about enhancing each person's technique by considering differences.

As for the swimmer, he or she needs to develop and mature before truly understanding this concept, and thus it becomes the coach's responsibility to guide him or her to that point, not by creating a robot and closing off possibilities, but by making a swimmer adaptable to continual refinement. Thus, as the swimmer ages and becomes more and more responsible for his or her workout, the learning can continue.

The art of swimming is the perfection of movement. Having a winning technique means fine- tuning the details of each stroke, which is definitely possible. This doesn't mean a swimmer is fast, but he or she has all the necessary components to be as fast as possible. The swimmer needs stroke efficiency first, and builds upon that, through training. It takes years to master a feeling for perfection. It takes consistent training to be "the best you can be." A swimmer can only realize this if he or she puts heart and soul into the sport and allows himself the time, energy, and work it takes to get there.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

When a swimmer rests on the water, he or she sinks into it, becoming part of its space. The displaced water has a certain weight, as does the swimmer. If the swimmer weighs less than the water displaced, he or she will float; if the swimmer weighs more, he or she won't. Buoyancy depends on the bone density, muscle, and fat composition of a swimmer. While a light-boned person floats more easily and fat is more buoyant than muscle, you need to look at all three elements in relation to a particular swimmer to truly determine what is affecting his or her buoyancy.

Buoyancy is a factor that all swimmers deal with; thus, a coach needs to educate his or her swimmers about it, so they better understand the relationship between their bodies and the water. Take into consideration that as they grow buoyancy can change. You may want to divide your swimmers into Sinkers, Floaters, and a range in-between. None of these is bad, but considering body types will help you teach swimmers more effectively.

Swimmers can find their buoyancy levels by hanging vertically in the deep end, with their arms glued to their sides and their legs together. They will sink at first, but then their body, acting as a cork in the water, will pop up. They will then continue to bob up and down, until stopping. If they allow this action to take place, when their body comes to a rest, they can find their vertical buoyancy point. Swimmers with deeper buoyancy levels can wear snorkels, so they can breathe under water while waiting for their bodies to come to a rest. Swimmers will find that the more stretched and compact they are, the higher they will ride in the water.

If I choose to demonstrate this drill to my swimmers, they will see the Floater in action. When at rest, the waterline will fall between the bottom of my nose and the top of my lip. I can lay my head back and without moving my arms or legs can breathe for hours. I can find a Sinker to demonstrate the other extreme, and I can find someone who falls in-between; for in a group of students, there will be all types. I tell them that whatever the result, they can all be good swimmers.

Now experiment with buoyancy in the prone and supine positions, adjusting the body to maintain a surface-level float. For the Floater, this will be easy--but be on the lookout for lazy Floaters. They float leisurely on the surface, forgetting to stretch their bodies, squeeze in their muscles, or keep all body parts in line with the spine. The Sinker, on the other hand, needs these key concepts to accomplish the head-to-heel (prone) or head-to-toe (supine) surface position.

Sinkers typically struggle to keep their hips and legs on the surface. One problem may be their form, so that needs to be corrected first. For example, if a swimmer's head is raised above the hairline in the crawl stroke, the feet often sink, and then the swimmer is swimming at an angle. But while Floaters will be able to keep their feet near the surface when they swim with their heads in at the hairline, Sinkers will need to lower their heads further. Because the body needs to stay in line with the spine, when they press their heads down, they will have to press their upper torsos down, too. Sinkers need to imagine a weight pressing the upper torso down, against the water's resistance. The lungs, filled with air and framed by the upper torso, are like any flotation device. When the upper torso and water meet, both pushing against each other, the hips and legs (where muscle is concentrated) pop up. Sinkers also need to relax in the water, for then the body is lighter and floats more easily.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

A swimmer moves beyond buoyancy to core control, which means just what it says: being in control of the core. The core is where the center of mass and the center of gravity meet. This changes and is determined by whether a swimmer is on his or her front, side, or back; whether he or she is streamlined, arched, or tucked; and whether he or she is stationary or moving. In order for a swimmer to be stable in the water, his or her center of mass has to be balanced.

You can observe this principle of balance in a learn-to-swim program. For example, watch youngsters in an American Red Cross Level II class achieve balance on their backs, while floating. Add the kick, and balance changes, as they apply movement to a skill that was stationary. The goal will be to establish core control with a properly executed flutter kick. I have seen children with bicycle kicks on their backs who seem to be in control of their core--until they have to undo the bicycle and move to the flutter. The principle of core control involves maintaining balance when adding limb movements that are correct.

Controlling the core means maintaining balance throughout a stroke (or a start, or a turn). Balanced strokes are more efficient, and efficient strokes are faster. Core control involves maximizing linear movement and minimizing the width of the stroke. A swimmer stretches his or her body lengthwise while becoming as compact as possible. He or she squeezes all the muscles towards the core, thus centering the body from head to toe. In all strokes, the head acts as an anchor, holding the rest of the body in line.

Many swimmers, especially in the past, have put too much energy into moving the limbs of the body and have not focused enough on the power that emulates from the core itself. They need to begin with the core and move the limbs in conjunction with that. This means the body acts as one, with all parts in sync with one another, the core being the center of the action as well as the point of balance.

You can see this concept in all four strokes. In the crawl and the backstroke, the body-roll from side to side empowers both the flutter kick and the power phase of the arm stroke. The more powerful the body-roll, the more powerful the stroke, the more powerful the swimmer. In the breaststroke, you have the wave-like motion of the body; in the butterfly, the body undulates. These strokes reap power from what the core is doing.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

The most common flaw in all of the competitive strokes is lack of stretch. In my opinion, age- group swimmers can never stretch enough. There's a big difference between being loose and tight and between being stretched and really stretched. By stretching the arm at the catch (in the butterfly, backstroke, and freestyle), a swimmer can apply more force to the underwater pull-push. The breaststroker stretches at the end of the recovery, when streamlining, and then is able to apply more force to the outsweep. Stretching at these points involves not only the arms, but the whole body.

Streamlining means just what it says--to be in-line with the stream. As a stream cuts through land, a swimmer's body cuts a linear path through the water. In order for this body to cut efficiently through water, it must eliminate the resistance that is created when one body meets another-in this case, a solid body meeting a fluid one. The solid body must shrink itself, by compacting its width and stretching its length; thus, we return to the concept of core control.

When a swimmer streamlines, he or she is in either the front or supine position with the arms extended forward, pressing the head just behind the ears. One hand is placed on top of the other, with the thumb of the top hand wrapped around the wrist of the lower hand. This helps to squeeze the arms together. The swimmer stretches his or her arms, as well as the whole body, and looks at the bottom of the pool. A string could run through the core, from the top of the head to the tip of the (pointed) toes, and be pulled at each end, stretching and aligning the body. In addition to that, the swimmer squeezes all of his or her muscles towards the core, creating a compact position.

Swimmers can practice streamlining on the deck. They stand straight, place both arms in the air, then press their head between their arms, placing one hand on top of the other. Make sure their arms press the head in the right spot, and check the hand position. Emphasize the importance of squeezing tightly, as that creates less drag. Now ask your swimmers to practice streamlining in both the prone and supine positions by pushing off the wall, stretching, and traveling as far as possible without arm or leg movement. The more stretched they are, the farther they will glide.

After the push-off, they glide so far before needing some movement. The idea is, yes, they need to move, but in doing so they want to stay as close to the streamline as possible (to minimize drag). Any movement outside of the streamline should be brief, close to and in line with the body, and should create propulsion or lift.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

Drag is the appropriate term for what happens when the body meets the resistance of the water; it drags, or slows down. You can move your arm through the air, and then through the water, and feel the difference. Drag commonly refers to a situation where resistance is maximized, and the result is a loss of force. The goal is to eliminate resistance (as much as possible) and increase force. Of the two, many coaches believe that eliminating resistance is the most important. Thus, we need to look at the three types of drag--friction, form, and wave--and determine how they can be reduced.

Friction drag results when water passes over a rough surface. The rough surface creates friction, which slows down the swimmer. Sources of friction drag are: rough skin, hair, and swim suit fabric. Swimmers reduce friction drag by wearing thin caps and skimpy, thinly textured swim suits with few seams. They shed anything extra--jewelry, for example--that they have on their bodies. They don't need to carry the weight and deal with the added friction. Goggles worn while racing should be small and light. Elite swimmers shave hair off their bodies and legs (but not forearms), but in my opinion this is not necessary for age-group swimmers. I would never encourage it unless the swimmer was at the collegiate or Olympic level and chose to do it.

Friction drag is passive, because it affects speed in a minor way. Yet it is important, for the more you can eliminate any kind of resistance, the better. Cut the corners and they add up. As speed increases (and decreases), drag forces do, too; thus, consistent speed is best.

Form drag relates to the resistance that the form of a swimmer's body creates when it moves through the water. All swimmers, no matter their size or shape, will encounter some drag simply due to the fact that they are a body moving through water. This type of drag is passive, because it is common to all swimmers. Form drag becomes active when it results from improper technique. Something about the swimmer's form is slowing him or her down. Correct the form, and the swimmer will experience less drag and be faster. Streamlining is the best way to reduce form drag. The thinner and longer the shape, the less resistance. Movement of the limbs must occur at or close to the streamline. Thus, minimize vertical and lateral movements; focus on a horizontal path.

Also, consider core control in reducing drag. Swimmers use the body roll (crawl, back), the wave (breast), and undulating (fly) so that they do not swim flat through the water. In the crawl and backstroke, by rolling continually from side to side a narrower shape moves forward through the water. In the butterfly and breaststroke, while the width of the body remains the same, the swimmer travels over and under the surface rather than confronting the surface head on.

Wave drag results when a swimmer swims in turbulent water. He or she can experience the two extremes when swimming in an ocean and when swimming in a pool. Obviously, swimming in a pool will be easier. Yet when in a pool, water can be more or less turbulent, and the less turbulent it is the easier it is to swim through. Wave drag is active, because it affects a swimmer's speed in a major way. Wave drag also results when improper technique causes turbulence, although there are times when the pool water is moving for other reasons--such as waves created by other swimmers, lack of lane lines, or certain gutter systems. Technique-related movements that cause wave drag:

· Too much vertical movement. An example: lifting too high out of the water in the fly. A swimmer only needs to lift high enough for the mouth to clear the water. In all strokes, he or she should think long and avoid bouncing.

· Too much lateral movement. Swimmers reduce lateral movement by holding their bodies in line. The head acts as an anchor for the spine. An example: The hips sway in the crawl or backstroke when the swimmer catches the water too close to the midline. This makes it difficult for the body to roll in line and as one unit. The catch needs to occur in line with the shoulders.

· Movements outside the body's horizontal path (or the streamline). An example: catching outside shoulder width in the crawl or backstroke. The swimmer won't be able to execute a long, clean hand entry. This will result in a short, choppy stroke, which will generate waves.

· Splashing the water. Swimmers must think smooth, relaxed, and gentle throughout the recovery and especially at the catch, and try to create as few waves as possible.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

All beginning swim teamers need to feel comfortable submerging, blowing out their mouths and noses, and opening their eyes. These are pre-swim-team skills. They also need to know that swallowing water or getting it up their noses happens occasionally and is a minor discomfort that passes. Even experienced swimmers can hit a wave with their mouths open and accidentally swallow water.

When floating on the back, swimmers can maintain a normal breathing rate. Most swimmers, when floating on their front, will opt to hold their breath for longer and come up for air when necessary, and before gasping. The American Red Cross once taught a skill called survival floating, which was based on this concept. The survival float emphasized relaxing in the water and maintaining a comfortable breathing rhythm (in and out). In an aquatic emergency, a person could continue this for a long time-and survive.

When swimming, the need for oxygen increases. The survival float pace may equal that of an easy swim, but as the heart rate goes up, so does the need for oxygen. This can be compared to the breath needed when walking as opposed to the breath needed when running. When racing, a swimmer will inevitably deal with oxygen depletion. Setting a pace minimizes this hazard. The swimmer sets up a breathing pattern so that from the beginning to the end of a swim he or she has enough air. Otherwise, once the swimmer loses oxygen, he or she also loses energy--and quickly.

Breathing should be part of the movement of a stroke, and should not slow a swimmer or require any extra energy. The swimmer does not have to move a body part out of its normal path to find air. In the backstroke, the swimmer breathes in and out, as he or she regularly would when moving through air. One possible rhythm: breathe in when one arm recovers; breathe out when the other arm recovers. With the other three competitive strokes, the swimmer breathes when the body moves into a specific position. In the crawl, he or she breathes when the body rolls to the side. In the breaststroke, he or she breathes every cycle, when in the prayer position, before the lunge. In the butterfly, he or she breathes when the body lifts after the finish of the power phase. To breathe at any other than these particular spots will require added movement, which will require energy, and a swimmer will tire faster.

A common problem with young swimmers (and perhaps your eight-and-unders) is traveling too far without taking a breath, and then finally breathing and taking in too much air. Tired, they hold their bodies in a stroke's breathing spot for too long. They need to breathe more often, so they don't get into this desperate situation. It's better to breathe less air more often than to breathe too much air less times.

When breathing, swimmers need to exhale the carbon dioxide completely before taking in new oxygen. If they don't exhale completely, they won't get a full breath of air, will take in less oxygen, and thus will tire sooner. For example, if they have set up a three-stroke-and-breathe pace in the crawl stroke, they may not even make it to the third stroke. Yes, they can breathe after two, but then they have lost their breathing rhythm. Humans need oxygen to sustain their life, and when on land we breathe in and out continually, often without thinking much about it. It needs to happen this way in the water, too. Swimmers need to set a breathing and stroking rhythm that fits the distance they must travel and the amount of oxygen they need.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

In all strokes, hands play a crucial part throughout the recovery and power phase. They are either pulling, pushing, or slicing, and at all times are contributing significantly to the motion forward. As a boat needs a paddle and needs the paddle pitched at a certain angle to insure movement in a certain direction, the swimmer needs the hands. I emphasize sculling drills, to give swimmers a feel for the power that can emulate from the hand alone. The power phase of each stroke is essentially a scull; thus, sculling drills will help swimmers improve what they are doing under the water.

A swimmer needs to master buoyancy concepts before executing sculling drills. The body is not going to move effectively through the water with the hands alone propelling it unless the swimmer has established a surface position. Thus, first things first. Sculling also helps the swimmer to get a feel for keeping the body in line and stretched. The core of the body needs to be centered. If loose and out of line, a swimmer won't be able to propel his or her body very quickly forward. With core in control, and in a surface position (either prone or supine), the swimmer pitches the palms (which are stretched and flat) at a particular angle and pushes the water so the body moves either forward or backward.

Once swimmers master the following sculls, executing them fast (but without creating waves) will develop tremendous hand power. Prone sculls: lobster, canoe, alligator. Supine sculls: standard (head first or foot first), dolphin, or torpedo. The torpedo scull works especially well when a swimmer wants to scull fast. Sculling also makes for an excellent cool down.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

"Getting the feel" (for the freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly) is a great slogan for young swimmers. Introduce this concept to age-group swimmers by talking about it frequently; plaster it on the swim-team bulletin board.

They react. "What does it mean, coach, to feel each stroke?"

Not only do swimmers need to learn how to execute a stroke correctly, but they also need to feel power from their movements. For example, if a swimmer pitches the hand at the right angle, catches the water, and attains power, this gives him or her a sense of unequaled satisfaction. Feeling the right spot empowers a swimmer mentally as well as physically. Not only does the swimmer look good, but he or she also feels good.

A stroke can look technically correct, but not be powerful. Power results from looking beyond the surface of a particular concept, such as the six-beat kick, and actually experimenting with it enough to know that it works--and better than anything else. Once a swimmer has learned a skill, his or her attention should shift to increasing its power. A swimmer has to mentally climb inside a skill to find its power. And a coach needs to remind a swimmer that feeling is important. When a swimmer clicks with a movement, ask him, "Did that feel different?" Or, "Can you feel more power from doing it that way?"

Whatever the stroke, whatever is moving--body, arms, legs--when a swimmer feels the power once, he or she knows what to shoot for again, knows when he or she has hit it, and knows when he or she hasn't. In the process, the swimmer has developed an intelligent feel for what is working, what is not, and why or why not. A coach can help a swimmer to accomplish a particular skill by verbalizing and demonstrating it correctly, and by allowing for practice and providing feedback. A coach can be a swimmer's eyes, but cannot feel what a swimmer is feeling. This sense has to come from the swimmer.

excerpt from Coaching the Age-Group Swimmer by Lynn Hovde, 1999, Blue Horizons Publishing

A good coach must give swimmers the proper information to intellectualize the stroke. If swimmers can intellectualize how and why, they have more of a chance of success. The more they know, and the more comfortable they are with the knowledge they possess, the better swimmers they will be. Thus, they not only feel a stroke, but also think it. Thinking and feeling are related.

Think about technique during practice, not at a meet. In competition, thinking may hinder a swimmer's performance, because thinking requires energy. While thinking technique in practice is important, too much of a good thing without a break can be stressful. Just as a swimmer needs a physical rest, he or she needs a mental rest, a time to empty the mind, become one with the water and swim for the sake of swimming. Eventually all the hard work, all the concentration on technique leads to natural movement that is both accurate and beyond thought.

Drills are exercises to get a swimmer thinking about technique. They can be done while stationary or while moving, and they involve isolating parts of strokes so that swimmers can learn key concepts. They provide repetition, which is essential to learning, and they provide variety, so that if one way of learning doesn't work, maybe another way will. Drills help swimmers acquire a feel for a movement and also develop strength.

Nicole Hay demonstrates the butterfly

Nicole Hay demonstrates the butterfly.

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