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Drilled Down

The use of technical drills has been a central part of teaching movement and skills. As described here, there are more considerations as to what constitutes the effective use of drills than might be considered at first. In this article, I’d like to discuss the component of drill construction that I believe is most critical, yet rarely considered when designing drills, or any task aimed at enhancing skill acquisition.

Where Does Learning Originate?

For coaches, learning tends to be a visual craft. Coaches coach based upon what they see. They are looking for specific positions, certain rhythms, and certain velocities. As such, they tend to communicate about skills in visual terms. They inform swimmers that they ‘look good’.

However, swimmers tend to process information kinesthetically, or how movement feels. While visual information can be useful, ultimately swimmers guide their movements based upon how they feel. When they are racing, they are really on the sensory feedback their body is providing.

This creates a mismatch as swimmers are processing information in one manner and coaches are communicating information through a different medium and designing tasks with this medium in mind. A simple example familiar to most coaches clearly illustrates this point. When swimmers see themselves on video, they’ll often say something like, ‘I look like that?!?’ The visual information that they receive from coaches is misaligned with what they are feeling. The purpose of drills and effective coaching communication is to help swimmers align what they are feeling and what they need to do.

To move differently, they need to feel differently.

Unfortunately, many drills are created to match the mechanical, and thus visual, elements of movement as opposed to the kinesthetic elements. Just because the drill looks like a component of ideal does not mean that the ideal sensory information is being creating. To enhance learning, drills must be focused on what the swimmer is feeling.

What Then Is the Purpose of Drills?

Why are drills used? It’s often thought that drills help to teach skills by ‘programming’ the body, improving skill through repetition after repetition. From my perspective, the purpose of drills is to provide an opportunity for swimmers to calibrate or re-calibrate the sensations they believe represent effective movement. As such, the critical aspect of the drill is what the movement feels like, more so than what it looks like. Of course, drills that create the correct sensory information will often look like the desired movement. However, that is not the intention and the visual structure is not always a good indication of the usefulness of the drill.

To swim differently, swimmers need to feel differently. Typically, this requires a very dramatic shift in sensory perception. If it feels the same, it is the same. If it feels a little different, it’s probably the same. If it feels dramatically different, a change has probably happened.

For whatever reason, many swimmers struggle to significantly change the way they swim while performing full stroke swimming, perhaps because the pattern is so ingrained and they are looking for specific sensations. Drills then become valuable because swimmers have less of a pre-conceived notion of how something should feel. By creating an effective drill, swimmers can easily discover novel sensations and then move back into full stroke swimming.

The purpose of the drill is to create a kinesthetic framework that can be applied to full stroke swimming. If this application does not occur, the drill is useful. The purpose of drills is not to create repetition or directly improve technique. The purpose is to create intrinsic sensations that can use to change their strokes. Once swimmers have a new perspective on what the proposed change should feel like, it’s up to them to work to incorporate those sensations.

Drills can open the window for technical improvement, but it is through whole stroke swimming that lasting changes are realized.

What’s A Good Drill?

A good drill should retain as many elements of full stroke swimming as possible. While it is okay, and often necessary, to deviate from the actual stroke, good drills minimize this deviation as the further departure that harder it can be to transfer the impact of the drill to full stroke swimming.

A partially representative drill can be useful as a bridge so that swimmers can feel a specific portion of a skill, even if the rest of the drill doesn’t contain the appropriate information. However, swimmers should try to move on to the more complete skill as soon as possible, while retaining the novel sensory information. If required, it can be useful to move back and forth between the movements to help develop a stronger, more integrated sense of the new movement.

As described earlier, a great drill will create novel sensations that are representative of what swimmers should feel while swimming. In many cases, the drill should exaggerate the required sensations. The purpose is to get the swimmers to feel something new. Subtle does not work. Swimmers do much better with dramatic contrast in sensation. The bigger the contrast, the bigger the target and the easier it is for swimmers to ‘find’ the novel sensation. As skill improves, swimmers can become better able to make finer distinctions between subtle variations in movement. Until that occurs, dramatic contrast can be very effective.

A different drill may be required to help two different swimmers feel the appropriate sensations to move toward the same movement solution. The two swimmers may look very similar in terms of what they are doing. However, what they feel and what they have to do to create the same movement may be very different.

Designing Drills

While most coaches use drills or design drills that start with mimicking ideal technique. A more effective approach would be to identify what you want to swimmers to feel, and then design drills to reflect those sensations. In many cases, both approaches may end up with the same result. However, the intention matters and the two approaches are not the same. Further, the intention guides the communication between swimmer and coach, as well the intention of the swimmer when executing the drill. They are now focused on what they’re feeling, as opposed to simply what they’re doing.

This change in perspective creates more freedom and opportunity to design effective drills. A drill is effective if it creates sensory information that swimmers can incorporate into their full stroke swimming. As coaches have found, what works for one swimmer often fails to work with all swimmers.

There are no magical drills, simply tasks that work for specific individuals in specific situations. A few simple questions can help coaches design effective drills. What does the person in front of me need to feel to execute their skills in a more effective manner? How can I deviate as little as possible from whole stroke swimming? How can I put them in a situation where those kinesthetic sensations are easily felt?


Great swimmers are known to have ‘great feel for the water’. This is a not so subtle suggestion that skilled swimming comes down to what swimmers are feeling as a result of the sensory feedback provided by the water and their body. As such, coaches should consider whether the drills they have swimmers perform, and the feedback they provide, are helping swimmers hone these skills, or misdirecting attention to visual information swimmers struggle to understand.

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