SWIMNEWS ONLINE: October 1996 Magazine Articles

Shopping Media Kit Trial Issue Swim Camp Directory


Cecil M. Colwin

The following article is adapted from the talk given by Cecil M. Colwin at the ASCA World Swimming Coaches' Clinic, San Diego, California, September 4 - 8.

"Learning about Learning Freestyle," what does it mean? "Learning about learning" is about forming new concepts, and "freestyle" means that, in large measure, you are free of restricting rules, free to do your own thing. There is a freedom about freestyle, and I prefer the term to "crawl," although at first it was called the crawl because in the beginning the stroke was similar to crawling.

Crawl events were designated as "freestyle" because there was no set way of swimming the stroke, no strict laws stating precisely how the stroke should be swum, particularly as no one could be sure what new discoveries there might be in this new and unique form of swimming. This challenge is still always there.

The advent of freestyle, and the story of its development by various generations of swimmers, in a philosophical sense, typifies the nature of our sport, and the spirit of striving for improvement. Freestyle swimming epitomizes so much about the sport of swimming, and the ingenuity, and talent of superb athletes, who contributed so much to the knowledge of speed swimming. From every nation they came, swimming different styles, but all trying to observe the same fundamentals of the action we call 'freestyle,' free to do your own thing. What a free and wonderful variety of techniques there are, if you study them very carefully.

There's nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a great freestyler on the way to a world record, riding so comfortably in a beautiful curving, flowing bow wave, one smooth movement flowing into the other, with never a sign of visible effort. Visible effort is unproductive effort; it is effort a swimmer uses against himself.

Although it is really a pity to single out any one person for special attention, whenever I think of the finest freestylers I've ever seen, there's one image that will always remain with me of freestyle at its highest peak of development. One sunny afternoon, while standing on a hillock overlooking the Mission Viejo pool, I saw Matt Biondi breaking the world 100 record, eating up the distance with a few long, loping strokes, and looking almost completely as if he wasn't trying. That's one sight I'll never forget.

And then I think of our great world swimmer, and he does belong to all of us, Alex Popov, whom the media call the shark, and his young rival and friend, that big, relaxed, wonderful kid, Gary Hall, Junior, alias the dolphin. It does something to me to see the flow of their movements, and their effortless, facile mastery of the stroke. Their uncanny talent is something that creates a permanent image in my mind. Their conquest over the water is a tribute to human ingenuity, and to all the pioneers of the stroke who showed the way early in this century.

I get almost the same thrill when I see a youngster starting to get the hang of freestyle for the first time. Each time it is a unique new experience for me to see a pair of pipe stem arms starting to master the stroke's characteristic, fluent, free - flowing, continuous movements. And I wonder what the future may hold for yet another new talent, and it makes me remember many another kid who set out years ago in exactly the same fashion.

For larger 64k photo click on image. Artwork © Cecil Colwin


We form concepts, I should imagine, by trial and error, through experience, by progressing from the truth we know today to the next truth, and this is the empirical method. In short, all of us have learned the freestyle by developing different concepts about it as we go along. We work with swimmers of varying physique, of different movement patterns, and from all of them we learn a little at a time, of what we do, or what to do.

When I think about concepts, I believe this to be a very important aspect of coaching. I can remember when I was about seven years old, splashing around next to the wall at the shallow end of the pool with a bunch of other kids, all of us thrashing away, spasmodically trying to project our bodies onto the surface of the water. We would progress with a wild lunging motion of our hands for a few feet, and then stand up breathless while we wiped the water off our faces. You've seen this around many a pool.

One day, I spotted a boy swimming further out from the wall, who seemed to be going quite well. I asked the kid standing next to me "What is he doing?" The reply was, "Oh, that's overarm. It's very hard because you've got to lift your arms out of the water," he explained wisely.

So, that was my first exposure to the crawl, or freestyle: it was "overarm." To a seven year old, the concept of freestyle was simply that it was "overarm." Concepts about something will necessarily vary according to one's age and learning experience. The young child doesn't have a great deal of organized ability to think logically about concrete objects, let alone cope with abstract concepts. Later a coach can start to talk to youngsters in detail about concepts of stroke and how to perform freestyle. Progression through the learning process involves coaching as much of the whole stroke as possible, without too much explanation, without too much analysis. You know the old saying: "paralysis by analysis."

You nudge the youngster in the desired direction. You look at the youngster, and you try to understand the youngster's individual natural movement inclination, the youngster's natural neuro - muscular pattern. And then, later, you teach movement accuracy as the swimmer's skill develops.

If coaches were asked to give a brief description of the most important points in freestyle, I am sure there would be a wide variety of concepts, opinions and views on what constitutes the ideal form of freestyle.

Our concepts are of necessity based on our own experiences, and on what we each consider to be the present truth.

Throughout this century, we have always seemed to be busy "learning about learning" the freestyle. We learn the hard way. We learn by our mistakes. You know the saying: "Experience is the name we give our mistakes." And, if we make a lot of mistakes, eventually we'll have a lot of experience. We've learned about learning the freestyle by making mistakes, by experimenting.

And then we learn from the great talents. Always respect talent, because, very often, talent will teach coaches much more than coaches teach the great talented athletes. Probably all coaches who were freestylers in their competitive years, remember how they went about developing their ability to swim freestyle, and how they formed their early concepts on the subject.


Coaches remember the various adjustments they made to their stroke while they were learning, and how they may have copied the techniques of leading swimmers. For those, like me, who have been caught up in observing and studying the many variations in technique between freestyle swimmers, this can easily become an intriguing, not to mention never - ending, lifetime challenge.

It has often been said (by those who should know better) that freestyle "is a difficult stroke to teach." I think that this misunderstanding arises out of a failure to recognize that, although there are basic fundamentals that should be observed, there is no one way to swim freestyle. Many coaches have one concept of freestyle. And that's a bit sad, because it's important to realize that there are many ways of swimming freestyle while still observing the fundamentals.

Those who have a fixed idea that there is only one way to swim freestyle are probably more than 80 years behind the times in their thinking. Way back in 1912, Frank Sachs wrote: "The characteristics and powers of thought that individuals draft into the stroke impart the continuous charm of variety, and it is now generally agreed that the best stroke is the one that gets one home first." Well, I don't entirely agree with the last part of that statement, but it may be true to the extent that sometimes, when a swimmer is obtaining good results with a certain technique, it might well be foolhardy to attempt to change it. "If you're riding on the piggy's back stay right where you are!"

It is rare that we see two swimmers using exactly the same freestyle technique pattern, yet they are all, to some extent, trying to observe the main fundamentals of the stroke. In a long career, I have seen a case of "doubles" on exactly two occasions only.

Throughout the history of the stroke, freestyle has been swum with as many variations as there are individuals who swim it. It is important to recognize the differences between faulty technique and idiosyncrasy, and how to nudge a swimmer gently into the technique that seems to best suit that particular individual's natural way of moving. This I suppose is what is meant by the art of coaching, as opposed to the science of it.

There was a time when the freestyle stroke was similar to crawling but today, when you see top swimmers in action, it is a more fish - like action than that of a child crawling. Look at the stature of these athletes too: generally, they're tall, lean, and slinky, and they slip through the water with a 'ghost - like glide.'

Even the ideal build for a swimmer has changed from the big stout barrel - chested person with stocky legs, the "steam boat" type. Always there is change, sometimes slow and imperceptible. I believe this development will continue. It will continue to be a slow but gradual progression, yet, human propulsion through water will eventually become even more facile.


How far have we advanced and where could we be heading? The early pioneers of the freestyle were trying to achieve continuity of movement. The crawl stroke, albeit very rough and ready in its early stages, eventually became fluent enough to eliminate the stop - start movements inherent in breaststroke, side stroke, and trudgen. All three of these latter strokes were leg - dominated. The crawl was the first stroke in which the arms provided most of the propulsive power.

As talented swimmers switched to the crawl stroke, it became more and more fluent. And, youngsters who had learned it as their first stroke were soon performing with an easy rhythm that had only been seen before in a few isolated cases, in such swimmers as the Australian Cecil Healy, and Barney Kieran, and the first great American, Charles Daniels.

Before underwater movie films of top swimmers were readily available, it was very difficult to form a concept of what was considered ideal form. In the late 1920s the book, Swimming the American Crawl, by Johnny Weissmuller, came out shortly after he retired from competitive swimming. It became a standard work and went to many editions. Weissmuller's technique, in which he advocated a high elbow recovery, a bent arm pull, and a stroke that went through a working phase of press, pull, push, was quickly adopted around the world.

It was the first time that the distinct component patterns, the fundamentals, of the new American crawl, as it had come to be called, were outlined in some detail for all to understand. Today you would laugh at it; it was a very rudimentary book, but, in those days, for many enthusiasts, it was a godsend, it was something wonderful. But, nevertheless, all sorts of debates continued on the exact way to swim the crawl.

For larger 64k photo click on image. Artwork © Cecil Colwin

For example, inspired by the recent invention of the motorized hydroplane, swimmers tried to increase the number of leg beats so that they could drive their bodies up higher in the water in the belief that a swimmer could hydroplane on the surface! Actually hydroplaning is only possible when a craft moves quickly enough to allow the bow wave to come under the boat. There were many other brainstorms of this nature, and this era of swimming saw many swimmers who failed to reach their potential because they adopted theories that were not effective in practice.

Speaking of hydroplaning, swimmers shouldn't attempt to force themselves into a high body position by lifting the head too high, arching the back, or entering the hands too close to the face, water - polo style. Instead, when a swimmer who is well - balanced in the water speeds up, the body will start to plane slightly due to the increased water resistance passing under the body. This effect feels as if one is moving on an invisible conveyer belt under the water, almost as if you are on a separate "shelf" of water. But this kind of planing is not to be confused with hydroplaning. Hydroplaning is a "non - event" for human swimmers!

Eventually the better coaches came to realize that a wide variety of stroke patterns exist among swimmers attempting to observe the same fundamentals.


How and where should a swimmer enter the hands: centre line, in front of the shoulder or wide of the shoulder, a short "dig - pull" type of entry, a "chop - catch" as it was called, or a long leisurely slide into the entry in which the swimmer feels, channels and manipulates the oncoming flow of the water?

For larger 64k photo click on image. Artwork © Cecil Colwin

You can feel the oncoming flow. You can feel it, and you stretch it, and you manipulate it. Think of two sailors rowing a boat back to the ship after shore leave. One is fairly sober and the other is quite drunk. One sailor enters the oar and pulls, and the boat gets a beautiful glide. The other fellow drops his oar into the water too soon and destroys the momentum of the glide. In other words, their timing is out of kilter.

And this is what happens in swimming freestyle; when you are finishing one stroke, and the other hand enters with a "dig - pull," a "chop - catch," you destroy your momentum, and this is a very important point in timing. You must have balance in the water, first of all. Once your body is balanced, you can develop good timing, and once you have that split - second timing, you can develop momentum.

Using momentum is the way to overcome resistance. First balance, then timing, then you can develop and maintain it. It is momentum that gives you that slinky, ghost - like glide, that invisible 'run' through the water. No one can see what's causing it, it's timing, split - second timing.


Can coaches teach timing? I think that you've got to be very careful because when you try to locate one part among many parts of the stroke, you can make the movements stilted. You get "paralysis by analysis," so you've got to nudge the swimmer in the right direction. Coaches must talk to the swimmer about these things, almost without instructing.

A swimmer must be balanced in the water before he or she can time the stroke properly. And it's a split - second timing: as the one hand is finishing, the other hands rides into the water, no faster than the hand that is going back, perhaps a little slower. In fact, you have two different speeds; you have a slow speed out front, and an accelerating speed of the hand that is pushing backwards. The entry hand should feel the oncoming flow of the water. Feel the water stretching because that's exactly what it does; the water has elasticity. But don't forget momentum, and it is balance that gives you the timing, that gives you momentum!

The amount of elbow bend? How far does the hand come under the body in mid - stroke? Right angles, or with some swimmers, less than a right angle? Across the centre line, or a pull wide of the body? Some female swimmers tend to pull quite wide because of weaker pectoral muscles than their male counterparts. When you see a wider pull in a female swimmer, or any swimmer, remember the strength may not be there to perform a textbook type of pull right in underneath the trunk.

What should be the timing of one arm in relation to the other? A 45 degrees overlap? Or "right angle timing"? Or timing well past the right angle? Experiment with the individual swimmer. Observe what the swimmer does naturally, but be careful before you adjust timing. Some swimmers quite naturally change their timing depending on the speed at which they are swimming.

Regarding the amount of elbow bend in the pull, I don't believe that you should think too much about how much you bend your elbow. In this connection I stumbled on to something about a year ago.

I tried swimming with a Watermark weight belt around my waist. It was quite hard swimming with it, but not exceptionally so, and when I took it off, and tried swimming without it, I found that my stroke placement in the water was exactly right for me. My stroke had never felt so good. I wasn't trying to observe a textbook amount of elbow bend, but I was placing the stroke differently than how I had done it before. I was getting leverage, and feeling the resistance of the water on my hands and forearms. Someone had said to me:, "If you're going to use a weight belt it will destroy your body position in the water." Anyway, I tried using this weight belt, and it helped. It works. Keep an open mind. You take the belt off and you'll find your stroke placement has improved.

Last year, In Australia, I was conducting a few clinics in Queensland, just north of Brisbane, and there was a very promising young breaststroke swimmer. I could see that she was pulling and kicking too wide. I'm a proponent of not rushing in to alter a kid's stroke without being quite sure that a correction is needed. Anyway, I had my weight belt with me. I took it all the way to Australia because it had become an essential part of my daily workouts. So I readjusted it, and this young girl tried swimming breaststroke while wearing a weight belt. Her coach was standing right next to me, and without saying a word to her, we both saw her automatically narrow both her kick and her pull. She just fell into a good pattern. It was amazing. I said, "Look what's happening!" Her coach, who had been somewhat skeptical, said, "Gosh! The thing works!"

Coaches have got to nudge swimmers into it, nudge them in the right direction. People hate change. They hate it like mad, especially when the coach is always adjusting their strokes; after a while, the kid doesn't know what his or her right stroke is anymore. So coaches must be very careful when they make changes. It may seem a minor thing to a coach, but a swimmer's natural stroke is a precious thing to that particular kid, and if you change it and it doesn't feel right, they go home, they have nightmares, they can't sleep, they get worried, their schoolwork suffers...O.K. I exaggerate a little! But I do say, be careful when you correct stroke.


How should a coach analyze a swimmer's stroke? First view the action as a whole. Does the swimmer have a constant momentum through the water as a result of proper body balance and accurate timing between the finishing arm and the entry arm. I believe that this is perhaps the most important, and by the same token, the most neglected phase of coaching freestyle technique.

The coach should look for rhythm, fluency, and smooth acceleration throughout the arm pull. Then look at body rotation, arm and head timing, the pattern of the arm pull and the recovery. Analyze the leg - action. Does it help synchronize the pull? Does it help balance the body? Does it help turn the body roll?

Is it a 2 - beat kick, a 4 - beat, 6 - beat, 2 - beat with cross - over? Or some form of "broken tempo," perhaps uneven in its cadence, yet not interfering with a swimmer's balance? Sometimes you don't try to make equal kicks on each side. Sometimes some swimmers balance themselves in the water in a different way, yet not interfering with their ability to time their arm strokes. Knowing what to change and what to leave alone is an art.

Coach Scott Volkers said Susan O' Neill had one arm stronger than the other in her butterfly stroke. Is this unusual? Most of us have one arm stronger than the other. In breaststroke swimming, this may even account for asymmetrical strokes that get swimmers disqualified.

In freestyle I've often noticed that some swimmers obtain much more propulsion with one arm than the other. So I developed a little test. I measure, on the side of the pool, the distance between the entry and exit points of each hand. The stronger arm will very often have a longer distance between entry and exit points than the weaker arm, meaning the swimmer is obtaining more momentum on that side of the body. That's one way you can measure momentum.

\Suppose the left arm is the weaker arm. You will see a shorter distance than the right arm between entry and exit points. What should a coach do about this? Should you make the left arm stronger, or try to make the stronger right arm even more efficient? Something I do from time to time is to just suggest to the swimmer to try to pull a little deeper, and to pull a little more across the centre line of the body, and to get the shoulder in a little deeper on that side of the body, without upsetting balance. Sometimes it works, and the swimmer uses the stronger arm just a little more. It may surprise you to know that sometimes when the one arm is so much stronger, the weaker arm does little more than a token stroke.

Remember when correcting a stroke that there is a difference between having a shave and cutting your throat. When I say "pull a little deeper," I don't mean that you burlesque the thing until you have made a travesty of it so that you are actually swimming lopsided in the water.

View the stroke as a whole. Check for continuity of movement. What is the swimmer's rhythm pattern? Does the body rotate on its long axis? Is the start of the roll timed with the start of the arm stroke? There are some who say that the roll of the hips starts the arm movement and others who say just the opposite. I think that this is a specious argument, and one that is misleadingly attractive in appearance. Exercise physiologists tell us that, in learning skills, it is better to think of the movements involved rather than the muscular action involved.

Some coaches will not agree with what I am going to say now, but I can only speak from my own experience. There are coaches who believe that swimmers should learn to correct their strokes while swimming fast, but experience tells me just the opposite. I believe that swimmers should swim very slowly when correcting stroke, and that they should be asked to think of only one point at a time. They should swim so slowly that they make movement without effort, so slowly that they are just able to avoid sinking. In this way they can concentrate on movement rather than applying effort. When accuracy is the dominant feature of a movement, the swimmer should first strive for accuracy at a slow rate, and, only then, gradually learn to do the movement at increased speed.

A fundamental of the crawl that is often overlooked is that the eyes should look forward at the entry of each hand. The swimmer should see the hand enter the water, and then turn the head to the side for the inward breath, in time with the roll of the body to that side. If the swimmer watches the hand enter for too long, there may be a tendency to restrict the roll of the shoulder into the stroke, with the end result that the swimmer will be swimming as flat as a plank.

In addition to swimming flat, the muscular action will be restricted to the muscles of the shoulder girdle rather than the larger and more powerful trunk muscles. That is an important point of technique, and one that is often neglected. On the other hand turning the head to breathe before the hand has entered can lead to a poor placement of the hand in the water, as well as a distorted body balance as the stroke progresses. While on the topic of head position, it is important to keep the head centred in the long axis of the body throughout the complete stroke cycle, even when turning the head to breathe. On the topic of head timing with the arms, remember that accurate timing in this department is an important factor in balance, and "the finer the balance the greater the speed."

For Part II of this article click hereclick here

Home | E-Mail | Top of Page | Oct 96 Contents | Magazine
Mag Archives | Calendar | World Rankings | Meet Results | Links to Sites
Photo Library | Biographies | Forums | Shopping | Classifieds

COPYRIGHT © 1995-1998 SWIMNEWS MAGAZINE, All Rights Reserved.
URL: http://swimnews.com