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Can't Coach It III- The Feel for the Water Part II

In part I, we explored the idea of the feel for the water, and how difficult it is for coaches to teach it to swimmers. Rather than giving up, I proposed that a change in perspective can allow for progress to be made. Rather than trying to teach this skill, it makes more sense to provide swimmers the opportunity to LEARN it.

We examined how changing sensory inputs and requiring swimmers to increase their outputs in specific tasks can help swimmers learn a better ‘feel for the water’ that is functional. In this article, we’ll explore how to combine input and output strategies in practical sets that improve performance.

Inputs and Outputs

When we provide a variety of inputs, and then measure the outputs, we can facilitate major change. The inputs create greater awareness, and focusing on outputs requires swimmers to focus on using the enhanced awareness to create performance. By developing the ability to perform across many contexts, swimmers can learn to manipulate the water to produce speed.

Below are some simple examples, although the possibilities are endless.

Measure often. Regardless of the context, when you measure stroke count and speed, these values will improve. Further it gives swimmers a goal towards which they can orient their efforts.

Use resistance and manipulate the hands. Resistance enhances feedback and increases the requirement to produce propulsion. Manipulating the hands forces swimmers to create propulsion through different means. By combining the two, swimmers can quickly learn how to move more water with the entire propelling surface.

Use resistance and stroke counts. Using resistance requires swimmers to create more force to move forwards. However, using resistance alone allows for multiple possible solutions. One solution is simply to increase the stroke rate excessively. This is somewhat common. This will create more average force because the swimmer is pulling more often, yet it’s not a strategy that will work once returning to regular swimming.

However, by limiting the number of strokes a swimmer can take, you remove this option. The only way to improve average force is to create more force per stroke, rather than taking more strokes. The only way to do this is to ‘hold more water’ and this will require an enhanced ability to manipulate the water, or feel the water.

Alternatively, you could place a tempo trainer on the swimmer that limits how their stroke rate. It will have a similar effect.

Pull while manipulating the hands. If you take away the legs, swimmers are forced to create propulsion with the arms alone. If you start to manipulate the surface area they have access to, there is nowhere to hide. They must learn to feel the water and create propulsion, regardless of the propelling surface they have to work with. If you require speed as well, it puts swimmers in a position where they are left with no option but to learn.

Getting Practical

Having explored the conceptual framework for enhancing a swimmer’s feel for the water, as well as looking at specific strategies for doing so, it’s time to see what it looks like in an actual practice environment.

Let’s look at some sets that demonstrate the principles described.

The sets below are relatively simple in their construction to illustrate the principles above. You can certainly create much more variety in terms of the distances used, types of work, and changes in velocity within a set. The purpose of simplicity is to make the intent more obvious.

There are limitless combinations. You can use any type of distance, any type of speed, and simultaneously target any type of physiological system. It’s possible to include this type of work in all aspects of training. It is an added benefit.

Set #1

3 rounds through

3x50@1 Maintain same # of dolphin kicks (DK) and same stroke count (SC); #1 Paddles #2 Hands #3 Tennis balls

3x50@1 Maintain same velocity; #1 Paddles #2 Hands #3 Tennis balls

3x50@1 Maintain DK#, SC#, and same velocity; #1 Paddles #2 Hands #3 Tennis balls

Swimmers are tasked with maintaining efficiency and effectiveness while experiencing a loss of propulsive surface area. How will they do so? Learn to manipulate the water more effectively. With the challenge of maintaining distance per stroke, speed, and then both, swimmers must solve different problems which can lead to different learning outcomes.

Initially, this set can be used with conservative velocities. As swimmers improve, they can be required to swim faster. Swimmers may not be able to completely prevent a loss of efficiency or effectiveness. However, the goal is to minimize that loss. Improvements in maintaining these attributes over time is indicative of learning. We’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking for progress.

Set #2

2 times through

6x25@1 ~100 pace effort; heavy resistance* #1/2 1 TB^ in one hand (switch at 25); #3/4 1 TB/1 pad; #5/6 1 pad

6x25@1 ~100 pace effort; medium resistance* #1/2 1 TB^ in one hand (switch at 25); #3/4 1 TB/1 pad; #5/6 1 pad

6x25@1 ~100 pace effort; Low resistance* #1/2 1 TB^ in one hand (switch at 25); #3/4 1 TB/1 pad; #5/6 1 pad

*Whatever resistance options you have, try to decrease the resistance across the rounds. If you only have one resistance option, go resistance/no resistance/fins by round.

^Tennis ball, can also be performed with a closed fist.

*RD1 is performed with a buoy and/or band; RD2 is performed swimming

We’re combining a lot of different elements here. Swimmers are swimming with different levels of resistance, they are swimming with ever changing hand positions, we’re taking away the legs during the first half of the set, and they are trying to go fast. For some individuals, they are going to struggle to go fast when you take away their hands and when you add resistance.

The resistance will enhance the pressure feedback swimmers feel on their limbs. It will also increase the performance penalty on those that hold water poorly. The use of changing hand positions forces swimmers to explore the entire propulsive surface, as well as heighten their awareness of pressure changes. Changing resistance changes the inputs as well.

Doing it all fast both increases the relevance to racing performance, while providing a clear goal around which swimmers can orient their efforts. Goals matter. Taking away the legs ensures that the accomplishment of these goals occurs through changes in upper body force application. Giving the legs back allows swimmers to incorporate those changes into full stroke swimming.

One of the key tasks is to try to feel EQUAL pressure on both arms, regardless of the equipment that is being used. This will obviously present a challenge when swimming with a tennis ball and a paddle. With the right intent, learning will occur.

Over time, performances in similar sets should improve. This indicates and improved ability to manipulate the water to increase speed. By creating so many different situations where swimmers must effectively hold water, they learn the important strategies that are universal to force application.

This set could be performed in any stroke.

Set #3

4 rounds through

60 seconds Vertical Wrap Scull

15 seconds rest

50@2:30 Wrap scull w/a buoy and light parachute

3x25+25EZ@1:30 with a resistance stretch cord + snorkel;

*Swim against the cord really focusing on wrapping the front of the stroke and re-directing the water backwards

*As the resistance increases, increase the tempo to maintain forward movement

*Start each 25 at a higher level of effort within the round

*Option to change hand configuration as you go (hands/paddles/etc)

Any type of resistance can be used here. In this particular example, I like the use of the cord because the resistance CHANGES over time, thus giving the swimmers a little bit more interesting information. Any resistance will have a similar impact. Simply build each 25, and descend them as well.

The outline of the set builds upon each prior task. The vertical scull section is simply to expose or re-orient swimmers towards manipulating and wrapping the water without the pressure to create movement or to create speed. The focus is simply on re-directing as much water as possible. The focus is on large, deliberate motions where large volumes of water are moved.

The swimmer needs to apply this sculling skill to create forward motion while sculling with the chute. The re-direction of water must now have a purpose. The parachute creates some added resistance, which should enhance the feedback swimmers feel. When there is a loss of effective action, this is more likely to be felt, either as a loss of speed of the body or a loss of pressure on the limb.

Finally, we’re swimming on the cord. Here the focus is on setting up the front of the stroke by ‘wrapping’ through the catch, the re-directing the water backwards. As the tension in the cord, increase swimmers must be more effective in setting up the stroke to maintain speed, and as well as how quickly they can set up the stroke. Further, the increased tension increases the feedback swimmers feel.

We’re working on the skill in a variety of contexts, with a variety of feedback mechanisms, ultimately working towards higher speeds and greater specificity. This should increase the likelihood that these skills show up in competition, which is what ultimately matters.



50@1 Wrap scull; move quickly!

100@1:30 Pull w/ buoy; negative split effort with the same pre-determined stroke count each 25

100@1:30 Pull w/ buoy; 25 EZ/ 25 strong with the same pre-determined stroke count each 25

100@1:30 Pull w/ buoy; take away one stroke per 25; hold the speed

100@1:30 Pull w/ buoy; Build the entire 100 with same pre-determined stroke count each 25; apply more pressure

100@ Swim w/ NO equipment; solid/strong/very strong effort by round; use the skills

RD1 Closed fist on ODD 100s pull

RD2 Closed fist on EVEN 100s pull

RD3 Single Paddle on pull ODD left EVEN right

RD4 Single Paddle on pull ODD right EVEN left

This is a simple aerobic pull set with added sensory and skill components. Intervals can reflect the ability level of the swimmers, or the challenge you want. You can choose for this set to be executed at a range of aerobic intensities.

This is an example of a set where both technical skills and physiological capacities can be developed in concert. 20x100@1:30 would accomplish a similar physiological outcome. In this case, swimmers can learn how to more effectively manipulate the water at the same time.

The idea is to require swimmers to change speeds within the same stroke counts, or hold speed while reducing stroke counts. The primary way to achieve this outcome is to learn how to move more water backwards.

By taking away the legs for the majority of the set, the legs are no longer an option for creating propulsion. The arms must do the job. Throughout the set, there are modifications to the surface area of the hand, and those modifications are contrasted. This increases the sensory input and requires slightly different solutions during each swim.

It all starts with a short wrap scull repetition to the help re-acquaint swimmers with an idea of what to feel.

Set #5

2x100@1:40 Backstroke pull with/band; 25 closed fist/25 regular; Strong effort; #2 is faster

4x25@40 Backstroke swim; 200 Race effort w/ small parachute; single paddle/switch sides after 2

2x50@50 200 Race effort backstroke; hit pre-determined kick count and stroke count

50 EZ

2x75@1:15 Backstroke pull with/band; 25 hand in OK sign/50 regular; Stronger effort; #2 is faster

4x25@40 Backstroke swim; 200 Race effort w/ small parachute; single paddle/switch sides after 2

3x50@50 200 Race effort backstroke; hit pre-determined kick count and stroke count

50 EZ

2x50@50 Backstroke pull with/band; 25 hand in #1 configuration/25 regular; Strongest effort; #2 is faster

4x25@40 Backstroke swim; 200 Race effort w/ small parachute; single paddle/switch sides after 2

4x50@50 200 Race effort backstroke; hit pre-determined kick count and stroke count

50 EZ

In this set, we have a 200 backstroke focus. We’re combining pulling work, resistance work, and different hand positions to require swimmers to work on creating propulsion in different conditions. Then, we’re taking that right into some pace work where swimmers are expected to execute their swims with the precise number of dolphin kicks and strokes they intend to execute in a race.

For those unfamiliar with backstroke pulling with a band, there is not much one can do other than hold water to keep moving. It is an unforgiving teacher. Incorporating closed fists makes this more so. Any hand configuration (OK sign/using a limited number of fingers/#1/tennis balls) will create a similar effect. The contrast further helps swimmers once they return to a regular hand position.

As this is all done with speed, swimmers are required to direct these skills towards performance. As swimmers become more familiar with backstroke pulling with a band, stroke counts can be placed on this type of work as well.

The resistance work serves the purpose of creating more feedback on the arms. By using a single paddle, swimmers will be experiencing a contrast in sensation from stroke to stroke. The goal is to make the strokes feel the same, regardless of the different surface area. Symmetry is required.

Finally, swimmers will put it all together with some racing efforts. The prior work will create some fatigue (it is training!), and swimmers must then manage to execute under that pressure. They will also be operating under the influence of the previous work, and the sensations that were created. The whole set should be performed at a high level of speed and effort.


I know it when I see it.

There are many aspects of life that we remain intimately familiar, yet undefinable. ‘The feel for the water’ seems to be one of those aspects. This becomes problematic as many coaches consider it a critical component of performance, central to fast swimming.

Its ambiguous nature leads to an inability to concretely describe what it is, and as coaches traditionally rely heavily on words to facilitate change, they are at a loss as to how to influence a swimmer’s feel for the water

Fortunately, swimmers CAN improve this ability when provided with the right learning environment and the appropriate tasks. Coaches do play a central role in this process, it’s simply a role they are typically unfamiliar with. While they design performance puzzles and they guide swimmers through the problem-solving process, asking questions rather providing answers, they do not necessarily instruct.

By creating a variety of novel sensory experiences, and combining those sensory experiences with concrete performance objectives, swimmers can learn to better manipulate the water in pursuit of performance. The last part is key, as manipulating the water is a means not an end. With a consistent orientation towards performance, we achieve what we seek- performance.


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