Stroke Drills: A Personal History, Part Two–Vessel Shaping
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on May 26th, 2015

In 1988-89, after nearly two decades of coaching young club and college swimmers, I had three life-changing experiences

  • I resumed swimming after a 16-year hiatus.
  • I met Bill Boomer—a coach who saw things as no one else had.
  • I began to coach adults–most of them new to swimming.

Born-Again Swimmer

In August 1988, despite only a few months of training after a 16-year hiatus, I swam in a National Masters Championship. While my times were fairly slow, I enjoyed the convivial atmosphere, and was impressed by how fit and fast some 50-plus swimmers were, compared to me at 37.

As a college swimmer, my focus had been short-term–training to outswim rivals in the next race or meet. At 37, I was thinking more about how swimming might help me enjoy robust health for decades to come. Yet my desire to excel at swimming was as strong as ever, and I was curious about how close I might come to times I’d done 20 years earlier.

A Radical (i.e. from the roots) Re-Thinking

One month after Masters Nationals, while speaking at a coaching clinic, I heard a talk by Bill Boomer, the swim coach at the University of Rochester, a school renowned more for academic, than athletic, excellence.

In 1962, Boomer had been teaching kinesiology and coaching soccer, at U of R., when the swim coach quit. The athletic director offered Bill the position—though Bill had never even seen a swim meet.

Bill’s fresh eyes and expertise in human movement revealed a core truth about swimming that had eluded others, which he expressed in the maxim: The ‘shape of the vessel’ matters more than the size of the engine. (Translation: Reducing drag is more important than increasing propulsion.)

Though I’d spent 25 years in swimming and coaching this was the first mention I’d ever heard of the importance of drag reduction. However I’d had a similar intuition since the day, 10 years earlier, when I first watched my team training from an underwater window. I was stunned by two phenomena I’d never noticed from the pool deck:

1) Well-streamlined swimmers traveled dramatically farther and faster, after pushoff, than those who were only slightly less sleek.

2) Everyone slowed noticeably as soon as they began stroking.

It occurred to me that if I could help my swimmers minimize drag while stroking it could make an immense difference. This skill–referred to in TI as active streamlining–was unknown at the time and I couldn’t find any guidance on how to do it. In 16 years of attending coaching clinics, every talk I’d heard had focused on ‘engine-building.’ Boomer was the first person to confirm that intuition had validity.

As well, every drill I had ever been exposed to focused exclusively on increasing propulsion, and ignored drag reduction. But that was about to change.

 First Encounter with Balance

In his clinic talk, Boomer asserted that the ‘non-negotiable foundation’ of efficient, low-drag, swimming is Balance, a term I’d never heard in connection with swimming. Several weeks later I visited the University of Rochester to watch him coach. After practice, I got in the water and he led me through a drill he called “Pressing the T” (similar to the current TI ‘Torpedo’ drill).

TI Torpedo Diill

TI Torpedo Diill

He instructed me to kick with arms at sides, while aligning head and hips, and leaning on my chest. For 25 years I’d thought I had heavy legs. But after several repeats of this–totaling perhaps a minute–my legs felt ‘light’ for the first time ever. I had never experienced such a dramatic change and was stunned at how quickly it had occurred.

For six months I thought of little else, but head alignment and leaning in, while swimming. The following spring at Masters Nationals, racing for the first time with a balanced stroke, I earned medals in the 500- and 1000-yard freestyles, swimming times that surprised me. I was also surprised that my legs felt fresh the whole way. In college–despite daily kicking sets–my legs had always failed me near the end of my races.

A month later, I held the inaugural TI Camp at Colgate University. Most of our adult attendees had swum for decades–one had been on Canada’s 1948 Olympic squad. I was delighted with their enthusiasm for learning technique, and the encouraging progress they made.

Coaching Beginners

Over the next few summers, triathletes came in such growing numbers that they soon made up 70% of attendees. The sheer volume of inexperienced and unskilled swimmers (many of whom were planning to do a long distance open-water swim within months of taking up swimming) presented a challenge unlike any I’d faced in 20 years.

In 1989 and 1990, while our campers were mostly Masters swimmers, the propulsion-oriented drills I’d taught for decades, has as good an effect as they’d had on my younger charges for years before. Some people said they’d improved more in a week of rigorous drill and skill practice than in five to 10 years of training.

But, for our ‘wet behind the ears’ triathletes, these drills seemed to make things worse not better–primarily because they relied upon a relatively strong kick. They struggled to complete a single drill length, and some became so exhausted they needed several minutes to recover for another try. At first we compensated by having them wear fins. This let them complete drill repeats faster and easier, but their struggles resumed as soon as they removed the fins.

The Solution to Struggle

Recalling the transformation I’d experience with Boomer’s Balance drill, I decided to experiment with exercises that emphasized balancing, extending and aligning the body, instead of pulling and kicking. The results were a revelation.

Raw beginners were transformed literally overnight into competent swimmers—a process we’d always assumed must take months, if not years. Experienced swimmers seemed to benefit nearly as much as beginners. I and my fellow coaches—some with decades of experience—were stunned by the tremendous acceleration in learning.

Ever since then, every drill I have developed, practiced myself, or taught to others has been guided by the rule that vessel-shaping must always take precedence over propulsion. This means not only drag reduction, but even more fundamentally achieving comfort and a sense of body control in the water.

And any TI drills that do include elements of propulsion focus on active streamlining first. In other words, when focused on the pull and kick, how you use the arms and legs to reduce drag and turbulence should take precedence over how you use them to press on the water.

Realizing the absolute primacy of vessel-shaping was my second major insight into how drills should be designed and practiced. Next week’s installment in this series will describe the importance of targeted and tireless focus—both in drill practice and how drills can help you do that in whole stroke.

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One Response to “Stroke Drills: A Personal History, Part Two–Vessel Shaping”

  1. […] my last personal history installment of this series on stroke drills, I described three life-changing insights that have shaped my view […]

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