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

The feel for the water.

Often spoken about with great reverence by coaches around the world, the idea of feel for the water is as central to fast swimming as it is difficult to describe, much less develop. Coaches know what they’re talking about, but they can’t really explain it.

  • How exactly does one go about teaching a swimmer a great feel for the water?

  • How would you describe that process?

  • What would you have someone do?

If you’re at a loss for words, or hesitant about your answers, that’s because it CAN’T be taught. There are no words that even come close to describing everything that goes into possessing a great feel for the water, let alone how to do it.

As has been discussed previously HERE and HERE, there are many skills critical for fast swimming that defy verbal description, thus rendering teaching through verbal description an ineffective tool. Fortunately, just because coaches can’t teach a great feel for the water, it doesn’t mean that swimmers can’t learn a great feel for the water.

Let’s explore how.

What IS feel for the water?

From an outcome-based perspective, it’s the ability to manipulate the water to create propulsion. Swimmers with a better feel for the water can create more propulsion which ultimately helps them to go faster. This is the outcome we want as coaches and swimmers.

From a sensory-based perspective, it’s probably(?) related to the ability to sense pressure differences across the hand. By feeling these pressure differences, swimmers can manipulate the water to create propulsion. When large pressure differences are created across the hand, water is flows at different rates to equalize those pressure differences. When done skillfully, these pressure differences can be manipulated in a way that we want.

A fascinatingly simple and practical description of the phenomenon is available HERE.

For those with interest, a more detailed yet equally understandable and practical account is available HERE.

Both are HIGHLY recommended reading.

The Critical Skills

The idea of pressure differences is a bit nebulous, as is the concept of creating propulsion. While they make sense abstractly, we can’t really see phenomenon either, we can only see the outcomes that they produce. To move forward, we need something a little more concrete.

There are two main skills that comprise ‘the feel for the water’-

1. Getting water moving, and then change the direction of the water to a backwards one.

2. Direct force application to move keep water backwards.

Cecil Colwin has discussed the concept of wrapping the water in his books. This is similar to the first skill where the swimmer must gradually change the direction that the water is moving. This is literally a wrapping motion that is synonymous with the catch.

Traditionally the catch was thought of as a re-positioning of the limbs to allow for direct force application.

I now believe that while it does serve this function, it is also involves a re-direction of the flow of the water so that MORE water can be moved backwards when force is ultimately directed backwards. Movement into the catch is as much about re-direction of water flows as it is about biomechanical preparation for the main propulsive phases.

This wrapping action must be patient. If it occurs too fast, a swimmer will lose control of the water they are moving, ultimately compromising the latter propulsive phases. This is why we see a patient catch in elite swimmers, even at very fast speeds. If the catch was only about re-positioning, swimmers would use a much more abrupt action as anything else would simply be a waste of time. Conversely, we often see this abrupt action in novice swimmers.

If this wrapping action is executed effectively and we’re moving water backwards, we need to make sure it still moves backwards, as too much sculling or abrupt motions will lose the flow. There’s less nuance here. It’s more about maintaining pressure. The challenge is doing so through changing joint angles, leverage points, and muscular involvement. Failure to do so can lead to ‘dead spots. It’s more than just ‘straight back’ action, even if it can feel that way.

It’s SIMPLE. While it may not be easy to do, the tasks before us are simple.

Let’s take a look at what we can do about it.

Creating Change

To improve a swimmer’s feel for the water, we have two main approaches, which are complementary.

The first approach is to focus on manipulating the water and improving the ability to feel the water. By providing a series of activities that provide a wide variety of sensory experiences, we can help swimmers learn to sense the subtle pressure differences that can be exploited to improve propulsion. This approach is more effective when a large contrast in the sensory information is experienced.

Here, we’re changing inputs.

In the second case, we can focus on outcomes. If we consistently focus on improving how fast swimmers are going and how effectively they are swimming across a variety of tasks, we will likely improve their ability to manipulate water. If times are improving and stroke counts are dropping, something good is happening.

By focusing on these two outcomes alone, the process of manipulating water must improve to allow for these performances to improve. By measuring performance, we can ensure that swimmers are improving their effectiveness. Better sensory perception is a means to a performance end. That must be remembered.

With this strategy, we’re changing outputs.

I understand that reducing drag is a large part of the performance improvement process. However, most swimmers are going to focus on the propulsion side of the equation unless specifically directed to focus on the resistance side. They SHOULD be directed to the drag aspect of fast swimming, and that is a separate article.

The third, and best(!) approach is to combine the two as you don’t have to choose between the two. Not only can you do both at the same time, but by combining the two we can create even better outcomes.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific strategies that can be used to aid in the development of feel for the water across all age groups and ability levels. First will focus on changing the inputs.

The Inputs

Here, we’re focused on changing what swimmers feel when they swim. Having performed countless repetitions in the pool, what swimmers are feeling isn’t particularly exciting any more. It’s not going to get their attention, and it’s going to be really difficult for them to pick up on nuance because the sensations are so familiar.

To create change, we need to get their attention. We need to create novel sensations so that they are forced to pay attention, and forced to find solutions. When swimmers first started the sport, everything was new and there was a lot for the explore. As a result, learning occurred. We need to construct that environment again.

Manipulate and Re-Direct the Water

Sculling is often suggested as a means to improve the feel for the water. It typically turns into a kick set with some intermittent hand waving. It’s not particularly effective at accomplishing much of anything. (As an aside, I once coached an Australian who referred to the scull/kick combination as ‘American Scull’).

To separate swimmers from what they think is sculling, I suggest they start performing some sculling while standing in medium height water. Simply practice moving the arms out with the palms turned out, reversing the motion while turning the palms in, and then sweeping the arm back towards the midline, and repeat. Strive for rounded, gradual transitions in direction as opposed to abrupt changes in hand path.

The focus is on moving large amounts of water and feeling large amounts of pressure on the forearms. What is critical is that pressure is retaining the amount of pressure on the arm through the transitions in direction. This will feel more like ‘pulling’ with directional changes than ‘sculling’.

The focus is on wrapping and re-directing the water.

The key skill is moving water, and then changing the direction the water is moving. It should involve the whole arm, not just the hands. As swimmers gain some skill in this action, you can start to change body positions and start to include locomotion. However, swimmers must retain the ability to maintain large amounts of pressure while changing the direction of the arm.

Manipulate the hands

The hands are the main source of propulsion, and they are also the main source of sensory information. A simple way to enhance the ability to use this information is to change the input. Swimmers are used to the same sensations they feel every day in the pool. Because of this consistent input, there is little stimulus for different output. To move differently, swimmers need to feel differently.

Changing what swimmers feel on their limbs is a great way to bring awareness to what they are feeling. Simply asking swimmers to pay closer attention is much less effective than changing what they are paying attention to. The change will get them to pay attention, whether they want to or not!

By manipulating the hands, we are also indirectly manipulating the use of the forearm. When the hands are taken away, the forearm becomes the primary source of propulsion. Due to an over-reliance on the hands, the forearms can become ‘deaf’. By removing the hands, we can wake them back up, as swimmers will learn how to feel and manipulate the water with the forearm. When the hands are reintroduced, swimmers will have access to all sources of propulsion.

Any consistent change will be useful. Swimmers can use different types of paddles, even paddles that they don’t ‘like’. The key is not effectiveness, but difference. Swimmers can swim with different hand postures such as closed fists, an OK sign, #1 sign, swimming with a tennis ball, or any other combination you can think of.

It’s equally valuable to use different paddles and hand postures on opposite limbs. For instance, a swimmer could have a large paddle on one hand and hold a tennis ball in the other. This will definitely get their attention, and perception about flow management will be definitely be altered. There aren’t better or worse ways to create variety; it is the variety itself that is valuable.

Performing these activities across a spectrum of training activities, not just slow swimming, is critical to developing a skilled ability to use the hands and forearm to sense pressure differences and create propulsion.

Manipulate resistance

Resistance magnifies feedback. Whatever information a swimmer is perceiving without the use of resistance, that information becomes much ‘louder’ when resistance is used. For those swimmers that fail to adequately tune in to what they are feeling, resistance is a terrific solution. It makes sensation clear and this clarity can help to bring about change.

Further, using resistance makes the consequences of poor force application much more evident. Not only is it easier to sense pressure differences, the effect of poor force application is MUCH more evident. Swimmers simply won’t move! Worse still, they’ll move much slower than their peers, and that will certainly get their attention.

The type of resistance isn’t as important. Whatever is available will work. Cords, parachutes, power towers, buckets, or anything you can think off.

Use all the strokes

Each stroke engages the water differently at the beginning of the stroke, and moves water backwards in a different manner. There are absolutely similarities between the strokes. However, significant differences exist as well. While this is visually obvious, it’s useful to examine how these differences manifest themselves.

While freestyle and butterfly both include a full stroke backwards, freestyle involves a significant rotational element whereas butterfly does not. That difference must be managed. While the main propulsive phase of butterfly and breaststroke are very similar, how the water is engaged prior to this phase and how the water is released after this phase are quite different. Freestyle and backstroke both require full arm paths paired with rotation, yet one is performed on the back and one is performed on the front, resulting in very mechanically different ways of engaging and moving water backwards.

Because all of the strokes are both similar and different, by practicing all of the strokes with the intent to improve the ability to manipulate water, swimmers can learn both the commonalities and the differences. The commonalities will be the strategies that are apply to all the strokes. This is the wrapping nature and the relatively direct movement of water backwards. The differences exist when appreciating flat body positions versus rotating positions, moving on the stomach versus the back, as well as the length of the arm pull.


We learn via comparison and we learn due to differences. While all of the tools described above are valuable in their own way, they’re even more valuable when performed in conjunction. Not only are they more valuable when performed together, they’re more valuable when performed in a manner that creates contrast.

Consistently changing strokes, types and magnitudes of resistance, task goals, and hand surface area creates a constant contrast in sensation, and exposes swimmers to multiple types of sensation. With exposure to a spectrum over ever-changing sensation, swimmers will learn the commonalities of great force application that apply across all contexts. They learn the nuance, and they learn how to apply that nuance to multiple situations.

By repeating the same task over and over, the input they get becomes less and less novel. This slows learning. As there is a limited number of activities we can perform, we can retain novelty by consistently changing how these activities are sequenced and contrasted. This can greatly extend the learning curve. All it takes is a little creativity.

The Outputs

Outputs are all about performance. What are the outcomes? What are the results? What can swimmers do? Swimming is a race and the individual with the best output (speed!) is the winner, regardless of what it took to make it happen. This helps orient whatever the improved inputs towards a specific outcome. With a focus on outputs, we get where we need to go- faster.

Take Away the Legs

If the goal is to help swimmers learn to better apply force with the upper limbs, a sound strategy is to remove other options for creating propulsion. For instance, you may ask a swimmer to swim with tennis balls and they simply exaggerate their kick to compensate for the lack of propulsion from the hand. While this can be an effective strategy in some circumstances, it’s not the one we’re looking for.

However, if we throw a buoy and a band on the swimmer so that they can’t kick, the only solution available is to learn to pull more effectively. If we had some resistance and give them a stroke count restriction, THEN they’ll really be force to use the whole arm more effectively. We’ve removed all of their options and put them in a position where performance is required.

Effectively integrating the legs into the whole stroke is a critical skill. In some instances, removing the legs as a propulsive option can be a great strategy to require swimmers to use their lower body more effectively.

Use Stroke Counts

Now, we’re getting into changing outputs to facilitate a better feel for the water. Simply placing a stroke count limit on a swimmer is going to require them to change how they are interacting with the water. When faced with an efficiency challenge, most swimmers focus on improving propulsion rather than limiting drag. While this may not be the most effective strategy, it serves our purpose here. When faced with taking less strokes, most swimmers will intuitively search for more effective pulling patterns.

While stroke count awareness is an intrinsically effective strategy, its real value is that it helps may make efficiency concrete. What swimmers are feeling is nebulous and ambiguous. The number of strokes taken per lap is 100% concrete. There is no debate. This helps swimmers keep score and evaluate their swimming. This is invaluable.

Stroke counts is effective by itself. When used in conjunction with some of the other strategies described above, it becomes very effective.

Track Speed

Having a great ‘feel for the water’ and establishing a great stroke are wonderful. Unfortunately, no one is concerned about a swimmer’s feel for the water when awarding medals at the Olympics, or any other competition. All that matters is how FAST someone swims.

As such, measuring speed, and working towards constantly improving speed, the practical effect of improved feel for the water will be realized. We’re not doing it for its own sake. We’re improving feel for the water to go faster.

By placing speed requirements on many of the activities we do, we ensure that swimmers are learning to feel the water in situations that require them to use that skill to produce speed. For instance, by asking swimmers to scull for speed, they are required to manipulate the water effectively and to use that skill to produce SPEED.

Likewise, having a swimmer pull with small parachute will require swimmers to create propulsion with the arms, or they simply won’t move. By requiring them to do it FAST, they now must adapt that skill to performance, and this is what we ultimately need.


The ‘feel for the water’ can be developed. It is a skill that can be learned, even if it can’t be taught. By focusing on creating novel inputs, and requiring better outputs in specific situations, swimmers can learn how to better manipulate the water to swim fast.

In part II, we’ll explore how to combine inputs and outputs in practical sets that simultaneously develop physical abilities and a feel for the water.


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