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Can't Coach It- Breaststroke Pullouts Part I

Everyone has heard the expression ‘you can’t coach speed’ or ‘you can’t coach height’. In the swimming context, a common one is ‘you can’t coach feel for the water’. While I disagree with latter sentiment in particular, I’d argue that you can’t ‘coach’ a lot of skills in swimming.

Of course, that doesn’t mean swimmers can’t learn just about anything.

For that to happen, a different approach is required, as simple instructions aren’t particularly effective. Instead, we need to work to remove obstacles that prevent swimmers from effective movement execution, then place them in environments where they can learn more effective ways of moving.

That is a very different conceptualization of ‘coaching’.

While I have addressed these issues in a variety of formats on the website, I’d like to bring it together by describing all of the considerations for how to ‘coach without coaching’ in the context of specific skills, followed by some example sets.

The intent is to demonstrate how creating technical change goes much deeper than the strategies we tend to employ, as well as show how technical change must be embedded in the physical development process.

The two are inextricable.

Breaststroke pullouts are an example of a skill that CAN’T be coached effectively, at least with the traditional coaching strategies of instruction and the imparting of knowledge. However, it can be learned.

Here are some ideas about how to do that.

The Breaststroke Pullout

Breaststroke pullouts, especially in short course swimming, will win and lose races. It is a skill that creates free speed and it is almost impossible to make up for a lack of pullout prowess, especially when competing against someone who has mastered it.

To get started, we need to know what the goals of great pullouts are, as well as what is required to achieve those goals. Knowing that, we can go about the process of developing this devastating skill. For great pullouts, we need to maximize effectiveness and efficiency.

Maximize Effectiveness

A great pullout is faster. With a better pullout, swimmers can complete each lap in less time. The distance that the pullout achieves doesn’t necessarily matter, it’s about how fast the swimmer can get to 15m or 25m, and whether the pullout is facilitating that process or not. It’s about speed.

Maximize Economy

Pullouts should be economical in that they allow swimmers to travel a long way with very little energy investment. Between a push off the wall, a single arm pull, and a single dolphin kick, a pullout can help swimmers cover a significant portion of a length with very little energy cost. They are efficient.

In this respect, farther is better as long as speed is preserved. In some situations, it can be worth having a slightly slower, yet longer pullout, if that allows swimmers to reduce their stroke count and delay fatigue. In contrast, as shorter pullout can be more valuable if it allows swimmers to get oxygen sooner.

Great pullouts need to be both effective (fast!) and economic (save energy). They need to be efficient.

Accomplishing these objectives and achieving great pullouts is the product of four components-

1. Force potential

2. Force application

3. Alignment potential

4. Alignment execution

Force Potential

Force potential is how much force swimmers could apply to the water. This is determined by the force the muscles can generate, as the well as the range of motion over which force can be generated. The muscles need to be strong, the joints to be mobile, and there needs to be strength throughout the entire range of motion.

If swimmers can generate a smaller force over a longer distance, they can make up for a lack of force. Conversely, if swimmers are limited in the range they can create force, those forces need to be big when they happen.

If the force potential isn’t there, pullout performance is always going to be limited.

Improving Force Potential

Improving force potential is going to take place on land. It involves three steps.

1. Improve range of motion

Swimmers need to be able to position their forearms perpendicular to the bottom of the pool for as long as possible. They need to be able to get into that position as far in front of their body as possible and hold it for as long as possible. Land-based mobility work needs to address this issue. Consult strength and conditioning and dryland resources to figure out how to do this.

The longer swimmers can create force in the right direction, the more potential they have for a great pullout.

2. Get Stronger

Push-ups, pull-ups, dips, whatever. The muscles of the chest and upper back, the adductors and extensors, need to get stronger in a general sense. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, as long as strength improves. We are seeking general strength of the upper body. Many strategies will work. The key is to choose the strategies that require the least time and energy.

3. Get stronger through full range of motion

Once adequate range of motion and general strength have been developed, we need to ensure that strength is developed throughout the available range of motion. Not only will addressing this issue improve the ability to exert force over an extended period of time, it will tend to improve the resilience of the joints.

For more detailed ideas about how to accomplish all of these tasks, please see the dryland articles series on this website.

Force Application

As above, having force potential is the pre-requisite for applying forces effectively. If the force isn’t possible, it certainly can’t be applied well. However, we’ve all seen the big, strong guy that just spins their way through the water. That’s poor force application. The potential is there, the application is not.

Swimmers need to be able to apply to as much force as possible in the right direction for as long as possible. This is a skill that needs to be learned. Once we have adequate range of motion and force production capability, we can go about learning how to apply these forces more effectively.

Improving Force Application

How do we improve force application? We could look at some technical models and then describe these models to our swimmers.

We could instruct them.

Or we could put them in situations where they have to figure out how to have great pullouts. Here are some ideas about how to do that.

Measure Everything

Whenever you’re doing pullouts, keep track of how far they go for a given number of pullouts and how fast they get there. Do this regardless of the situation. The swimmers have TWO goals. Get further and go faster. There are NO rules, just a task that needs to be accomplished.

Whatever they have to do to get farther and go faster is fair game. Let the swimmers come up with their own solutions. Because you are measuring improvement, you know whatever improvements you make will directly transfer to better effectiveness or efficiency. Swimmers are moving faster and/or farther.

Importantly, this allows for tangible measured progress over time.

Use Resistance

Resistance of any type is a great way for breaststrokers to improve their pullouts. It doesn’t matter if you use stretch cords, power racks, parachutes, sponges, power towers, sox, t-shirts, drag sox, shoes, or whatever else you come up with. Not only will resistance help swimmers develop their strength, it will aid in learning how to apply forces more effectively.

Resistance amplifies the feedback swimmers receive. It makes the consequences of their movements more obvious. If swimmers don’t apply forces well, they simply won’t go anywhere and/or they won’t be able to do so with any sort of speed. When you time their efforts and measure their distances, effective strategies quickly become obvious.

Beyond the feedback that swimmers receive about performance, the resistance magnifies the feedback they receive from the water. They will feel more pressure on their hands and forearms. With this heightened awareness, they can look to create more pressure, try to apply pressure over a greater range of motion, and try to apply a consistently high level of pressure. As resistance increases, the water provides more feedback about opportunities for better force application.

Change Surface Area

Swimmers can also learn about how to apply force effectively through consistently changing the propulsive surface area. This can be accomplished by changing paddle size, paddle type, holding tennis balls, or using different hand postures. The latter can be accomplished by performing pullouts with closed fist, making a peace sign, using only the index finger, or any other combination.

It’s also very valuable to perform pullouts with different surface areas on different limbs at the same time. For instance, you could perform pullouts with a paddle on one hand and hold a tennis ball in the other. The instruction would be to try to create as much pressure as possible, as equally as possible, on both sides. This is obviously challenging for the limb with the tennis ball.

This forces the swimmers to apply force more effectively with the disadvantaged limb. Because swimmers are receiving feedback at the same time on both sides, they can try to match the feedback and make both sides feel the same. Swimmers will teach themselves by using their own feedback. Importantly, once they’ve tuned in, they can learn to RACE using this feedback as they can feel their way through swims.

Another strategy would be to measure performance with an advantageous surface area, such as paddles. Then take the paddles off and find a way to match performance with just the hands. This will be hard to do. However, the more swimmers can close the gap between the two performance standards, the more their pullouts will be enhanced.

The contrasting surface areas provides swimmers with a lot of information about force application, as well as heightening their awareness of what they are doing. This awareness of their own feedback is critical for learning how to manipulate their skills. It can transfer over to all different strokes. It is the contrast which makes this strategy effective.

This strategy is particularly effective when used in combination with resistance. The magnitude of feedback is enhanced and swimmers will learn more about applying force effectively. Swimmers will receive more kinesthetic feedback through increased pressure from the water, as well as receive more substantial feedback about speed and distance. Errors will be punished by the increased resistance.

As you can see, these strategies are less about instruction and more about providing problems for swimmers to solve. It is less about coaches coaching and more about swimmers learning. Swimmers are not provided with answers. They are presented with questions.

When the tasks are well designed, the answers swimmers find will transfer to improved performance. There are no rules. Simply place swimmers in situations where they get a lot of practice with relevant tasks, with ever-changing performance requirements. When they improve in these tasks, their pullouts will be better.


While creating large amounts of effective force through a great pull is central to superior pullouts, the shape of the vessel is equally as important as the size of the engine. Swimmer must have the ability to organize their spine and limbs in a manner that reduces resistance as they pass through the water. Failure to do so will result in swimmers prematurely slowing while gliding off the wall and after the pullout. These speed losses add up.

While there is a skill in doing so, swimmers must have the available range of motion, as well as the necessary torso strength, to achieve and sustain these positions. If the joints lack the capacity to move in the required manner, no amount of skill work will ever resolve the problem. This work is best performed outside of the water.

Improving Alignment Potential

1. Stabilize the torso

Swimmers must be able to control their spine. If they are unable to do so, they will be unable to maintain a rigid posture that resists deformation while traveling under the surface. Many of the considerations for training these abilities have been discussed HERE. If swimmers cannot stabilize their spine, it will also become difficult to achieve full range of motion through other joints, as the body will seek stability somewhere.

2. Mobilize required joints

To achieve a great streamline, swimmers must have the necessary mobility to maintain aligned posture. Limitations can reside in the neck, shoulders, spine, hips, or ankles that prevent swimmers from achieving the required positions. These limitations need to be addressed on land in a progressive manner. Some ideas about how to do so are available HERE. If mobility limitations are not addressed on land, they will manifest in poor alignment off the wall.

3. Provide strength through full range of motion

While it is critical to have full range of motion, swimmers must also have strength throughout those ranges of motion. They must be able to quickly and confidently move into those ranges of motion. Once range of motion has been achieved, strength work at end range of motion should be included to ensure that swimmers can actively achieve and control full range of motion.

Range of motion is only relevant if swimmers can quickly achieve it through their own movements. If swimmers can consistently do so on land, they have physical resources to assume the appropriate positions in the pool.

Improving Alignment Execution

Once swimmers have the physical prerequisites to achieve optimal body alignment during pullouts, they need to learn how to realize that potential while performing pullouts. As with creating force, swimmer must learn how to feel what optimal alignment is. While instruction can be useful, putting swimmers in situations where they can FEEL

Measure Everything

As with force application, time everything and measure distances. If you want performance progress, you need to measure performance. It creates engagement, it creates change, it creates progress. Most importantly, it creates speed.

Use overspeed

As drag is magnified with increases in velocity, we can move through pullouts at higher velocities to exaggerate the drag swimmers feel as they move through the water. With this exaggerated feedback, swimmers can then learn which positions are more conducive to effective streamline.

With more speed, swimmers can feel their ‘speed bumps’, or areas of exaggerated drag. They can work to find different positions that eliminate these velocity losses, or find a way to reduce the duration of exposure. Many of these positions are subtle and coaches aren’t going to be able to see them. Swimmers need to FEEL them.

So how do we create these situations? We can tow swimmers underwater, through the use of stretch cords or mechanical reels. We can tow them for extended periods in streamline, as well as in brief streamlines followed by moving into a pullout.

Swimmers can also use fins. They can push off the wall, perform several fast dolphin kicks to get up to speed, perform their pullout, and glide after that, paying attention to where they are losing speed over the body. Swimmers can also push off the wall, perform several fast dolphin kicks, and then glide, paying attention to speed losses.

These tasks can be performed from a dive, from a push, and from a turn. Once swimmers have found a better strategy, they need to learn how to apply it in all situation, eventually moving toward race relevant contexts. If they can’t do it then, it doesn’t matter. Progression is key, starting with exploration and moving towards training.

The key ideas is to provide a relatively high volume of practice at high velocity. More exposure equals more learning opportunities. The more swimmers can be provided with the chance to learn, the more likely they will be to figure it out.

Exaggerate drag

A second strategy is to exaggerate areas of drag over the body. This can be done by wearing t-shirt, shorts, shoes, or weight belts. In these situations, swimmers will be punished by moving out of streamline. When wearing a t-shirt, the swimmer will become more aware of the drag that is being produced by the shoulders and chest. When wearing short, the swimmer will be more aware of the drag coming across the hips. When wearing shoes, the swimmer will become aware of the drag caused by the feet. A weight belt will pull the hips and spine out of alignment, letting the swimmer know what that feels like.

Beyond the benefit of creating awareness while wearing the equipment, swimmers have a heightened awareness when the gear comes off. It is the CONTRAST, that is particularly valuable. Covering the skin and reducing exposure to the flow of the water can heighten kinesthetic awareness once the skin is re-exposed to the water.

By manipulating the flow of the water around the body, and how the body is slowed as it moves through the water, we can influence what swimmers feel. What they feel will influence how they move, and this all happens without direct instruction.

Coaching By Not Coaching

As you can see, there are a lot of components that go into developing great pullouts. All of these considerations, all of the planning, and all of the implementation are definitely part of ‘coaching’. However, it’s not about telling a swimmer where to put their dolphin kick, or how to shape their pull. At no point did we discuss the intricate details of the pulling pattern, or any other nuance.

That’s not going to work, and it’s certainly not going to work optimally.

More so than instruction, coaching is about understanding what goes into performance, reverse engineering the process, taking all of the considerations, and developing a plan for improving performance. Getting better at pullouts is one example of the process.

In part II, we’ll get practical with specific sets to apply these concepts.


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