An Ode to Kicking Part VI
We’ve explored the rationale for including kick training, and we examined ideas for improving the fitness of the legs here. Of course, there’s more to kicking than just fitness. SKILL matters as well. Unfortunately, there has been VERY little attention given to HOW swimmers kick. The intention of this article is to provide some insight into how kicking can be taught with the same focus as full stroke swimming.
If the importance of ankle flexibility is often ignored, then timing and skill are not even considered. Fortunately, improving in these areas is not that complicated if coaches are willing to take the time and effort to facilitate change. If coaches believe it is important, they will convince their swimmers it is important, and change will happen.
There are two critical components to kicking effectiveness-
1. Kicking with a whip-like action
2. Timing to facilitate hip rotation.
If swimmers can accomplish both of these goals, their swimming is going to get a lot better by integrating effective kicking actions.
A quick explanation
We’re exploring timing and skill AFTER training and flexibility for a reason. It’s important that training and flexibility are addressed in conjunction with kicking skill and timing. Fit and strong legs are going to be better able to make technical changes. More importantly, the legs are going to need to be fit to withstand the amount of practice that’s required for change.
Further, the muscular component of kick training is also a great context for creating technical change. The feedback swimmers get will be magnified AND we can speed the development of the strength changes that will be needed to kick in better ways. The muscular contributions will be different with new kicking styles.
All of these changes will be easier with more flexible ankles. If swimmers do not have any flexibility in their ankles, it’s much more difficult to kick with a whipping action. Instead, swimmers are forced to kick through the knees. Take a look at any struggling triathlete, and you’ll see this play out.
With better physical function, we’ll get smoother skill acquisition.
Learn the Whip
Many swimmers simply bend the knee and kick from the knee. In both flutter and dolphin kicking, a great kicking action is going to start from the hip and whip or wave through the leg down to the ankle. Helping swimmers learn how to do this can have a tremendous impact on the leg contribution to swimming.
Here are some ideas about how to do this. Some may click right away, some might click after some practice, and some might never click. Know what you’re looking for and figure out what gets the change from the swimmer. All of the concepts below apply to both flutter kicking and dolphin kicking.
In general, practicing these skills in isolation (i.e. while kicking) is going to be more effective than immediate trying to make changes within the context of full stroke swimming. Once they get the hang of it while kicking, start introducing it into full stroke contexts. It’s particularly effective to do this while teaching kick timing, which we’ll explore in a forthcoming installment.
One of the most effective ways to create change is to find the right environment.
For those learning to change their kicking style, changing the context can be an extremely effective start to the process. Most swimmers have a pre-conceived notion of what kicking is, especially on a board or within the context of a stroke. However, this is not the case with vertical kicking. As most swimmers have had little or no experience with vertical kicking, there is much less technical baggage to ‘undo’.
One of the great aspects of vertical kicking is that the resistance is equal in both directions. This can allow swimmers to feel moving the legs with similar range of motion during the downkick and the upkick. Most swimmers fail to kick backwards from the hip, and instead bend and kick from the knee. This prevents swimmers from kicking from the hip and the kick needs to start from the hip to create the desired kicking action.
The extra resistance on the backwards kick can also serve to preferentially strengthen these muscles, which helps build the capacity to execute these skills.
When vertical kicking, swimmers can literally watch their legs to get a better sense of what they’re actually doing. This can bridge the gap between perception and reality. They can learn how they’re feelings and awareness correlate with their actions.
All of the technical ideas explored below are more effective when first introduced in a vertical context. Once understood, they can be applied to more traditional contexts.
Kicking on the back
Similar to vertical kicking, kicking on the back can put an emphasis on the kick behind the body. If the swimmer is excessively bending the knees, they’re going to feel the knees breaking the surface. It’s also very easy for coaches, and potentially swimmers, to see the problem.
Like vertical kicking, kicking on the back also puts an emphasis on kicking behind the body. These muscles are underused and underdeveloped. It also is an easier context to figure out how to kick from the hips as compared to learning the skill on the stomach.
When communicating with swimmers, all of the ideas below are different variations of the same concept. The intention is to provide different ways for swimmers to conceptualize what they need to be doing. They shouldn’t necessarily incorporate all of the ideas below; it’s more about figuring out what creates the desired change.
Kick from the hip
For many swimmers this may feel like a straight-leg kick. This is especially true of the kick behind the body. Kicking backwards from the hip with a relatively straight leg is like loading the whip action. If there is no load, there is no explode. This leads into the next idea.
Beyond kicking from the hip, focusing specifically on kicking specifically with a straight up kick. This action sets up the effective whip action that we’re looking for. If the hip isn’t extended, it can’t flex, and the swimmer will have to resort to a knee action.
Pretend you’re kicking with stilts
There should be a knee bend in the kick as a result of the wave action. However, for those individuals that kick predominantly from the knees, a whipping kick is going to FEEL like a straight leg kick. To help them appreciate what it’s going to feel like, have them pretend to kick like they’re wearing stilts. This will reduce the ability to kick through the knee and require a bigger hip action.
A bigger hip action and a tighter knee action will contribute to the whipping action we’re looking for.
Wave like a ribbon
Ultimately, we’re looking for a wave action that starts at the hip and travels down to the ankles. For some of your swimmers, this simple concept will be enough for them to get moving in the right direction. They’ll be able to feel the wave, and the image of a ribbon can be very useful in guiding them towards more effective actions.
Whip through the surface
Some swimmers might struggle with the concept of a wave, and respond better to the analogy of a whip. The biggest difference would be the idea that there is an aggressive finish to each kick. It’s important to add the idea that the whip should happen through the surface to prevent swimmers from bringing the feet too high out of the, or kicking too deeply. ‘Whipping’ tends to promote a better integration of the hip, knee, and ankle, as opposed to a knee dominant kicking pattern.
Snap the transitions
Another way to conceptualize the whipping action is to have swimmers try to snap through the transition. This snapping aspect is a critical component of creating propulsion, and it can also help to create the rotational torque that’s critical to timing. As it’s difficult to snap the transitions with a knee-dominant kick, this concept tends to move swimmers towards a kick that starts from the hips.
Boil the surface
Boiling the surface tends to steer swimmers towards keeping the kick tight and from the hips. It controls the amplitude of the kick and prevents swimmers from using a knee-dominant action that just slaps the surface. In order to really boil the water, swimmers will need to kick in both direction.
All of these options might work for your swimmers. Or one might work. It’s important to be prepared with multiple options because you never know what you’ll need to get the desired change.
Skill matters, and it can be taught. By providing swimmers with the required concepts and environments, they can absolutely achieve better kicking performances. Importantly, because these improvements are the result of better skills, they’re more likely to result in improved swimming performance.
It may require a shift in perspective to spend more time and energy on the SKILL of kicking as opposed to just the development of leg fitness. However, the investment is worth it. As we’ll see in part VII, better kicking skill can have a big impact on the effectiveness of kick timing, which will certainly enhance swimming performance.