Introduction: Swimming and Skills:

improvementThere isn’t a swimming coach on the planet who doesn’t think that swimming technique is important.

There wouldn’t be a swimming coach anywhere – in any pool, in any swim centre, in any aquatic facility – not one – who would tell you that they don’t believe that the most important aspect of swimming successfully is to master the skills and techniques of the sport.

So, if every swimming coach believes that swimming is fundamentally about skills and technique, it is essential that workouts and training sessions are designed to optimise the opportunity for learning and mastering the movements of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.


So what are Swimming Skills?

 For the purpose of this article, let’s define Swimming Skills as:

The ability to perform swimming skills consistently well at speed, under fatigue and pressure conditions in a competition environment”.

Coaches talk a lot about skills in swimming. “It’s all about the fundamentals” some say.

Others insist, “Skills are everything”.

It is hard to disagree but……there is a huge difference between learning a skill and learning to perform the skill consistently well at speed, when you are fatigued, under pressure and trying to execute the skill in front of thousands of people in an important competition.


Practice vs. Performance Practice.

Just learning and mastering swimming skills is not enough: it is no longer a matter of “Practice Makes Perfect” or “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”.  Coaches and swimmers must spend as much time, energy and effort learning to perform the fundamental skills of the sport in competition conditions as they do to learning and mastering the basic skills. This is called Performance Practice.


The 7 Skills Steps of Performance Practice:

Skills Step 1: Perform the Skill. This is the first, and unfortunately for many swimmers, the last step in their skills learning program. Coaches introduce a drill or skill, swimmers copy it, try it and learn it.

Skills Step 2: Perform the Skill very well. Skills mastery comes from regular practice combined with quality feedback from coaches and may incorporate the use of video and other performance analysis technologies – including the best one of all…the coach’s eye!

It is about here that most coaches stop coaching the skill, believing that if the swimmer can perform the skill really well, and it looks like it does in the coaching textbooks then they have done their job.


The skills learning job is not even 30% complete.

Skills Step 3: Perform the Skill very well and at speed. Can you name any situation where the ability to perform swimming skills really slow is a winning strategy? Technical perfection at slow speed may look great for the text books, but unless the skill can withstand competition level speed then the skill is not competition ready.

Skills Step 4: Perform the Skill very well, at speed and under fatigue. Think of the “danger zones” in competitive swimming. The last 20 metres of a 100 metres freestyle. The final 50 metres of a 200 fly. The last 100 of any 400 metre event. Many swimming competition performances come down to the quality of skills execution during the last 10-20% of race time and being able to perform fundamental swimming skills when tired, fatigue and in a little pain is a winning advantage in competitive swimming at all levels.

Skills Step 5: Perform the Skill very well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure. How many times do you see swimmer’s stroke techniques “break-down” at critical moments – “danger-zones” in competitions? There is no doubt that emotional stress and mental pressure impact on the ability of swimmers to perform skills with quality and accuracy.

It is essential that coaches incorporate the element of pressure in skills practices in training and ensure that training is more challenging and more demanding than the competition environment you are preparing for.

Skills Step 6:  Perform the Skill very well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently. Being able to perform the skill under competition conditions once could be luck, but being able to do it consistently well under competition conditions is the sign of a real champion. Consistency in skills execution in competition comes from consistency of training standards. Adopting a “no-compromise” approach to the quality of skills execution at training is a sure way to develop a consistent quality of skills execution in competition conditions.

Unfortunately many swimmers have two brains:

Training brain– i.e. the “brain” they use in training and preparation. “Training brain” accepts laziness, inaccuracy, sloppiness and poor skills execution believing that “it will be OK on the day” and everything will somehow magically be right at the competition;

Competition brain – i.e. the “brain” they use in competition.

The secret to competition success is to use “competition brain” in every training session.

Skills Step 7: Perform the Skill very well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently in competition conditions. This is what it competitive swimming is all about. The real factor in what makes a champion swimmer is their capacity to perform consistently in competition conditions.

Performing a basic skill well is not difficult.

But add the fatigue of two days of hard competition, the pressure of knowing that a national title is on the line with one swim, the expectations of the coach, the manager, your team-mates and the fans and all of sudden that basic skill is not so basic: it becomes the equivalent of juggling six sticks of dynamite while blindfolded and only using your toes!.

“Internet” Athletes: “Internet” Coaching.

Generation Y and I swimmers (I as I for Internet, I for IPod and I for “it’s all about what I want”) do not respond to repetition in any learning environment – at home, at school and certainly not in the pool.

They become engaged with learning activities which are rapidly changing, challenging, entertaining and stimulating and they are quickly bored with anything which involves doing the same thing over and over.

Swimming coaches working with young swimmers must create exciting, interesting, challenging, problem based learning environments which are dynamic and most importantly relevant to improving swimming competition performance if they want the total focus and complete engagement of their athletes.

Next time you get the opportunity, observe a young swimmer engage with the on-line world. They are excited and engaged by interacting with multiple on-line environments at once. It is not unusual for young swimmers to be on the Internet, Tweeting, using Facebook, texting and Skyping all at once and never missing any detail of the six on line discussions they are involved with. They get immediate feedback, instant gratification and are learning, collaborating and sharing ideas and information with several friends on-line simultaneously.

Now contrast that with the traditional swimming skills learning environment….

The same drill. Repeated over and over and over and over.

Feedback limited to once a lap (if that).

Then the introduction of a fitness set with the instructions “now apply what you learnt in the skills practice to the main set”.

And coaches wonder why skill levels don’t improve!


Three strategies for enhancing skills instruction in swimming coaching:

Internet coaching. Internet coaching is not about coaching using YouTube or Twitter or Facebook…it’s about making the skills learning environment as stimulating, engaging and as exciting as the on-line environment for your swimmers. Instead of doing 20 repeats of the same thing, change something in every repeat which provides a challenge or a problem to solve or a new stimulus to maximising the swimmer’s engagement with the workout. Keep them thinking!!!

Inskills practices. “Inskills” practices incorporate skills practice into training (main) sets. Swimmers are becoming increasingly curious and interested in the rationale behind swimming coaching activities. It is important therefore to demonstrate a clear link – or relevance – between skills practices and the execution of the skill in enhancing competition performance. For example:

Traditional training set: 20 x 100 on 1:45

Inskills training set: 20 x 100 on 1:45 where the first six strokes each lap are drill – i.e. the drill that was introduced / learnt during the early stages of the workout.

Performance Practices. Performance Practices evolve the basic swimming skill through the Seven Skills learning stages (above) to help the swimmer learn how to apply the skill in a performance situation. For example:

  • Skills Step 1: Maximum distance per stroke (long glide) breaststroke (MDSB) drill introduced (LEARNING);
  • Skills Step 2: MDSB drill practiced and refined (MASTERING);
  • Skills Step 3: MDSB drill performed with a speed element, e.g. maintain the drill quality but add a goal time (SPEED);
  • Skills Step 4: MDSB drill performed with a goal time over a set (i.e. maintain technical excellence at speed with the onset of fatigue) (FATIGUE);
  • Skills Step 5: MDSB drill performed with a goal time over a set while competing against another swimmer who is swimming whole stroke breaststroke (PRESSURE).
  • Skills Step 6: MDSB drill performed with a goal time over a set where the swimmer has to achieve the same stroke count / distance per stroke over the full set (CONSISTENCY);
  • Skills Step 7:  Swimmer performs a time trial at the end of the MDSB drill set at target competition speed with the coach noting stroke count / distance per stroke (COMPETITION CONDITIONS)


 It’s not them….it’s us.

One of the most common complaints heard from swimming coaches (and for that matter coaches in many other high work ethic sports like tennis, rowing, cycling, diving and gymnastics) is that “kids these days don’t want to learn, they don’t listen and they don’t want to work hard”.

The rationale behind these comments is that kids “these-days” are unable to pay attention or stay focused on the task at hand and therefore the assumption is that they are lazy and somehow disengaged with swimming practice.

In reality, this generation is capable of learning very fast. They are capable of absorbing incredible amounts of information quickly. And they are just as capable of working hard as any previous generation.

What they will not do is engage with dull, boring, unimaginative, unnecessarily repetitive practice sessions – practice sessions which do not form part of a stimulating, engaging and exciting learning environment.

This generation of swimmers and those who come next are unlikely to change the way they learn and interact with the world to suit the needs of swimming coaches……..maybe it’s time we all thought about our practices and created more effective learning environments designed to help swimmers get the most out of every training session.



  • The development of skills in swimming is an integral aspect of every swimming coach’s program.
  • Training time is precious: it is important that coaches and swimmers optimise training time through the efficient use of learning opportunities, skills development and training activities.
  • In a world which demands “more with less” – i.e. better results in a shorter time, the onus is on swimming coaches to create effective learning environments and practice situations which engage the hearts and minds of swimmers so that no lap is wasted – so that no stroke is unrewarded.



Wayne Goldsmith