Stroke Drills: A Personal History, Part One 1971-1983
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on May 19th, 2015

I swam in high school and college from 1965 to 1972. In high school, our primitive one-hour weekly workouts consisted mainly of short sprints. In college, pulling and kicking sets became part of the daily training diet, but no drills. I first learned about drills in a swimming magazine and experimented with single-arm and catchup (which–43 years later–remain standards for most swimmers and coaches) during free time in the pool.

After I began to coach swimming at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point) in August 1972, I sought more information on drills and became familiar with more of the standard drills of the time. I regularly included a stroke drill set in our practices.

My instincts led me to focus increasingly on technique, extremely rare at the time (and still relatively rare today.) As I began to pay closer attention to form during swim sets, I also watched closely, gave feedback, and demanded crisp form during drill repeats.

Coaches then and now often assign drills as part of warm-up. Common examples include 800 as (200 swim, 200 Kick, 200 pull, 200 drill) or 400 as (50 swim, 25 kick, 25 drill). When done this way, drills almost inevitably become another just-get-through-it activity, given no more attention than the pull or kick laps, which are virtually always done on ‘autopilot.’

In the early 80s, as I gained more experience and exposure—and more of the swimmers I was coaching began to approach elite standards—I learned new and more complex drills, that demanded greater coordination and addressed finer points of stroke timing and integration. Paul Bergen, coach of Nashville Aquatic Club where he produced a string of world champions, and considered the finest technique coach of the 1970s and 80s, was a key influence.

Each time I learned a new drill, I would study it carefully. For instance, at meets I would watch closely as Tracy Caulkins, Paul’s best swimmer (and the only swimmer ever to hold world or American records in every stroke plus individual medley) performed drills during warmups—drills later recorded on commercial videos, which I studied like the Rosetta Stone of technique.

I would practice the drill myself, trying to intuit what Tracey might be thinking or feeling as she performed it, so I could give better instruction and guidance, particularly in kinesthetic terms–what you should feel, as much as what you should do–to my swimmers.

We always treated drills as a high-value activity. I demanded focus and quality execution. As well, I often integrated drills into the most important sets, rather than doing them briefly at the beginning or end of workout. We used drills to heighten awareness at the beginning of a demanding set, and as a form of recovery between fast repeats.

I increasingly refrained from a practice that remains as common now as it was then—treating drills as just one more conditioning exercise. I.E. Drills are often performed (like swimming repeats) on timed intervals–often too fast to allow real care—or used to bulk up the yardage total.

I regularly ‘stole’ time from conditioning repeats, to choose a key technique point for one of the strokes, and lead my swimmers through a series of 50-meter repeats (I was coaching in a 50-meter pool at the time, so this was the shortest repeat possible.)

For 30 or more minutes, we would do a single length–some drill, some whole stroke–then stop so I could give feedback and further direction. I would change focal points every few lengths, and frequently pulled everyone out of the pool to observe a teammate, who was executing an aspect of technique particularly well. Whenever possible, I tried to choose a less-heralded member of the team for these demonstrations–showing that, while not everyone could swim exceptionally fast, anyone could excel in technique.

As we devoted more of our training to ‘beauty contests,’ it became clear that whole stroke repeats could often effect even greater mastery of form than drills because:

  1. While drills were great for highlighting one part of the stroke, whole stroke practice was essential for making the parts work in seamless coordination; and
  2. After all, the whole point of drill practice was to optimize fluency and efficiency in the whole stroke.

I began to supplant more of the time formerly devoted to drills to whole stroke sets with ‘efficiency challenges. ’ These included exercises in stroke-count control (swim 100m in a particular stroke total) and I introduced Swim Golf sets (total strokes + seconds for a particular distance, most often 50 meters). I set personalized targets for stroke counts and challenging goals for Swim Golf scores in all strokes.

In July 1982, I told a 15-year old girl that I felt that when she “broke 60” for a 50-meter length of Swim Golf, she would be prepared to make the Senior National qualifying time for 100-meter breaststroke (a relatively rare accomplishment for a swimmer of that age)

For two months, she would regularly stay for a few extra minutes after practice, asking me to time her as she made an attempt. One Friday afternoon, following our second practice (probably totaling 10,000 meters for the day) , she swam 50 meters in 39 seconds and 20 strokes, for a score of 59. The next morning we swam a dual meet with another club in our fairly slow (shallow water, no gutters) pool, During the meet, without the taper and shave-down most swimmers require to make their first Senior National standard, she won the 100 Breaststroke in a time faster than the Senior National standard.

Was this an example of coaching prescience or the power of suggestion? Probably a little of both, but it conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of whole stroke repeats that include an efficiency factor just as measurable (mathematically) as the ubiquitous factor of time.

During an 18-month period after I introduced these changes to our training, our young swimmers (mostly age 12 to 16) achieved an unprecedented number of National Age Group and Junior National titles.

In next week’s installment I’ll explain how my introduction to triathletes and ‘adult-onset’ swimmers led to transformative insights into the use and design of stroke drills.

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