A Primer on Stroke Drills
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on May 12th, 2015

I’ve published blogs infrequently and erratically for the past year, in part because of preoccupation with a family matter. I am now ready to resume regular publication. I promise a new post each Tuesday. I hope you find them interesting and valuable reading, and that you look forward to receiving them in your inbox each week.

Some weeks, I may publish a second blog—either because some interesting or compelling topic comes across my mind, or a guest post by someone else.

As I resume blogging I’ll do something new: At least at the outset, I’ll focus on a single topic fairly deeply, with a series of closely-related posts that may continue for two to three months

The topic I’ve chosen is stroke drills. I’ll give a bit of history; explain their role in stroke improvement; list drills we formerly used, then dropped from our learning sequence and why; as well as explain in how our most current drills came to be in our learning experience. You’ll also learn why our methods for practicing drills have changed fairly radically over the past 20+ years. My hope is that this series helps you make more informed choices on drills and gain more benefit from them.

What is a stroke drill and what should it accomplish?

A stroke drill is any form of practice designed primarily to change technique. It does so by isolating a component part of the stroke for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. To simplify learning a new stroke from scratch by breaking down a complex whole skill into (i) a set of foundation skills; then (ii) into a sequence of bite-size ‘mini-skills’ (and sometimes micro skills) that can be learned relatively quickly and easily. Assemble the parts in a logical sequence to work as a whole. The whole stroke may be somewhat mechanical at first, but should become more seamless and fluent over time.

My experience trying to learn the ‘skating’ (or freestyle) form of cross-country skiing in my late 40s  provides a good analogy. Skating is a significantly different and considerably more complex form than classic,. Despite 10 years of experience with classic, my first skating lesson felt like learning to ski from scratch.

During that lesson we performed five drills, the first without poles and wearing only one ski, and the next couple with two skis but still without poles, before putting it together. My form on my first try at ‘complete’ skiing was, frankly, horrible, but I continued taking lessons, occasionally learning new drills (including some for specific situations like hill-climbing).

The drills were utterly invaluable in helping me develop into a reasonably fluent skier–who occasionally experienced thrilling moments of feeling awesome. I consistently spent the first 15 to 30 minutes of every ski session ‘tuning up’ with drills before venturing onto the trails—not only because I skied better after doing so, but because I noticed that the best skiers at the Mt van Hoevenburg Olympic Ski Center in Lake Placid were also those I most often saw tuning their form with drills on the flat 200-meter long start/finish area.

  1. To improve an existing technique by heightening awareness of an aspect of form we normally overlook—by slowing, pausing, or isolating a movement–allowing us to correct or refine it.

My analogy for this is yoga practice. Vinyasa-influenced practice—in which you move from position to position, generally on each inhale and exhale–is familiar to most people. By sheer chance—not design–I exclusively took classes in the Iyengar technique for my first several years. In Iyengar, you hold each posture for five or six breaths, continuously examining and tweaking small details, releasing tension, improving alignment, etc.

When I did my first vinyasa class, I gained a deeper understanding of the relationship between positions. I also realized how much better prepared I was to achieve correct alignment, etc. when moving continuously from one posture to another.

This coincided with the early days of TI. I immediately recognized that each freestyle stroke was an aquatic vinyasa, with the swimmer passing through several critical positions so quickly that there was little time to be aware of critical errors with with great potential to undermine efficiency. Even in the continual flow of vinyasa yoga, one has three to four seconds (the duration of an inhale or exhale) to assess and correct each position.

In contrast, a freestyle stroke takes only about one second, during which we pass through four to five critical ‘moments’ (the moment at which we inhale, the moment when the elbow passes the shoulder in recovery, the moment of entry, the moment we reach full extension, the moment we begin applying pressure to the water) each in a minute fraction of a second.

That convinced me of the merits of treating those key moments like yoga asanas–to be slowed or paused to allow us to acutely sense what’s happening and find opportunities for improvement. TI drills perform that role.

  1. To provide a tool for overcoming muscle memory’s resistance to change. An additional reason it can be difficult to make significant changes to technique in whole stroke (e.g. breathing without lifting the head, stroking prematurely, or eliminating sideways movements from recovery) is that millions of strokes done a particular way can create a habit pattern that powerfully resists change. A stroke drill is sufficiently different from whole-stroke swimming that the nervous system doesn’t ‘recognize’ it and thus is unlikely to activate unthinking memorized reactions. When assembling the stroke after making several changes, it helps not to think of it as ‘swimming’ (i.e. what I already ‘know’) but to focus on sequencing the newly-learned sensations.

In next week’s installment I’ll relate my personal history with stroke drills—as both swimmer and coach, dating from 1973 to 2015.

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3 Responses to “A Primer on Stroke Drills”

  1. […] A Primer on Stroke Drills, the first post in this series, I defined a drill as “any form of practice designed to improve […]

  2. Hemant M. S. says:

    Hello Terry,
    Thanks for this primer on stroke drills. Approx. 21 months back, I had purchased TI swimming perpetual motion freestyle in 10 lessons DVD. The swimming pool where I swim is a 25 metre, 4 lane wide pool having deep end (9 ft. deep) and a shallow end (4 ft. deep). I swim breast stroke (I am told I have good technique with good balance, streamlining, stroke and kick). I am trying to learn freestyle using TI DVD. I sometimes also visit TI website blog, which has useful info. on freestyle. However I find that I am having considerable difficulty with my (2 beat) kick, and to some degree with exhalation. The drills in your TI DVD use a shallow pool with uniform depth. However I don’t have the luxury of this.
    Can you, therefore suggest how should I proceed with learning freestyle using TI way? Thanks.

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  3. The comments section of the blog isn’t the best place for technical questions. The better place is the TI Discussion Forum on TI web site. Also possibly the Total Immersion Swimming Facebook group, but I’d go with web site forum first.

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