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Coaching Controversies- High Elbow Catch Part II

In part I, we explored the vaunted high elbow catch. Heralded as technical perfection, we took a look at some of the nuance actually present in what should be considered effective pulling actions.

As a quick recap-

To pull effectively, swimmers need to-

1. Create as much propulsive surface area as possible

2. Create as much force as possible

To respect the bio-mechanical principles implied by these objectives-

· The hand should be deeper than the elbow

· The hand should be inside the elbow

· The elbow should be pointed to the side

· The elbow should be pointed to the side for as long as possible

In part II, we’re going to take a look at how to make those concepts actionable in practice, to ensure that swimmers can develop arm actions that improve performance.

Communicating the Concepts

Hopefully, the discussion above has created a clearer image of a general framework what needs to happen for effective pulling, as well as the mechanical constraints that must be satisfied. If coaches are able to appreciate what is happening and see it in action, they’re more likely to be able to aid in the process of change.

While it’s great for a coach to understand what’s happening, that’s only half of the process. Coaches need to be able to communicate these concepts to swimmers in a way that allows swimmers to quickly and easily integrate the ideas into their strokes.

To be effective, we want strategies that clearly communicate the intent of the action, while allowing for exploration.

At one extreme, ‘pull hard’ is a pretty useless guideline as it doesn’t really give any guidance to the swimmer. Conversely ‘start your pull with a 45 degree elbow bend and transition to a 75 degree elbow bend while altering hand pitch from 55 degrees to 90 degrees’ is overly constraining, confusing, and just as useless.

We need an approach that gets them close, and still lets them explore.


Swimmer need to get the hand deeper than the elbow. For those swimmers that fail to do so, they can focus on reaching towards the bottom of the pool. This can be particularly useful for those swimmers that tend to start applying force immediately upon entry.

In contrast, for those swimmers that tend to excessively and prematurely drive the hand down, they can focus on reaching towards the other end of the pool. While this reach may or may not facilitate extension in the front of the stroke, it can delay a premature descent into the catch position.

Again, the idea is to provide swimmers with a target and let them figure out the best way to achieve the goal. Depending on what the outcome is, coaches can shift that goal to help swimmers lock in on productive actions.

Pop the elbow

Once the swimmer reaches forward and down, or as they do so, they can just think about popping the elbow out. This is a fairly passive movement as it almost feels like the joint just releases. It’s a very simple way to get the elbow out and open the arm pit. Rather than trying to get the forearm vertical, swimming with the arm around a barrel, or anything else, swimmers can just pop the elbow.

Wrap the water

A combination of getting deep and popping the elbow is think about ‘wrapping the water’ and building pressure. Swimmers can think about wrapping cotton candy. The rotational emphasis serves to get the hand deep and the elbow up. It also allows swimmers to be patient with the stroke, while having a sensory goal to achieve. This sensory goal gives the swimmer real-time feedback as to what they’re doing.

This focus achieves the correct positions, and as importantly, it allows swimmers to achieve those positions in a patient manner that they can use their own feedback to adjust. The sensation applies to ALL of the strokes.


These three ideas should get swimmers in the ball park. From that point, coaches and swimmers can adjust to help lock in on what works best for each individual. When performed in conjunction with appropriate learning environments, getting in the ball park is sometimes all is takes.

Creating Learning Environments

As has been explored before on this website, creating an effective learning environment is the best strategy for helping swimmers learn skills. Appropriate tasks place swimmers in situations where the task provides high levels of feedback about their actions, guiding swimmers towards more functional solutions.

This guidance reduces the amount of instruction that coaches will need to use, and makes the instructions they do use more effective. Below are several strategies that coaches can use to help build great learning environments, specific to the skill of improving propulsive actions.

Use resistance

Resistance enhances the feedback swimmers receive from the water about their actions. They feel more pressure, which creates better insight into how they are using their limbs to create propulsion. Resistance also provides very clear feedback about ineffective pulling patterns because swimmers simply won’t move forward if they are using appropriate patterns.

Resistance of any type can be used, choosing loads that are appropriate for the strength and skill level of each swimmer. When experimenting with the concepts discussed above, swimmers can play with using ineffective strategies to feel the difference between success and failure. They can use this information to help determine which strategies are most effective within the range of options available.

Beyond the technical benefits, resistance helps to develop the force required to swim fast. To overcome the resistance created by the water, swimmers need to create force. Not only does resistance teach swimmers how to apply force, it helps them develop the physical resources to do so.

Change surface area

Different propulsive surface areas provide swimmers with differing information about effective propulsive strategies. By taking away the hands when closing the fists, holding tennis balls, or using other hand postures, swimmers are forced to learn how to manipulate the water without a ‘normal’ feel for the water. They must also learn how to position the forearm to create propulsion in the absence of propulsion derived from the hands.

Different paddle sizes can also be used to further explore differences in hand size and surface area. For those without access to different paddles, a single set of paddles can be manipulated by holding it in different positions. It can be held sideways, upside down, or with a pinch grip. All of these different positions will provide different sensations to the swimmer which can inform them about how effectively they are pulling.

Rotating surface area throughout a set will provide swimmers with a lot of great feedback. To further enhance the information received, swimmers can swim with a different hand position or paddle size/orientation in each hand. This creates contrasting sensations that are occurring simultaneously, as one arm will feel very different than the other. As one side will likely be more effective, the swimmer can then be tasked with trying to make the sides feel equivalent, even if one side has less surface area. The only way to do so is to make better use of the available surface areas

Combine resistance and changing surface area

The impact of using resistance while modifying surface area can be greater than using each piece individually. The feedback swimmers receive from the water is magnified in both cases, and it also provides more opportunity to create contrasting feedback. Swimmers can learn faster when they receive better feedback, and this is a great way to do so.

Track performance

Performance changes behavior. Swimmers want to get better, and information about their performance will help to shape how they use their skills. Once armed with a concept of how to swim, swimmers can compare their performances to judge the effectiveness of their actions. If swimmers are improving their performances, and working to continue to find solutions to better swimming, they will indirectly change their skills.

Count strokes

Stroke count is an effective measure of efficiency. Consistently monitoring efficiency, or requiring increases in efficiency, will force swimmers to discover more effective ways of moving through the water. With the concepts explored above in mind, they’ll have the tools to problem solve. By measuring stroke count, they’ll be presented with a specific problem to solve that simultaneously provides real time feedback about how well they are solving the problem.

As with resistance, stroke count awareness tends to help swimmers lock in on effective strategies with minimal instruction from the coach. Solving the problem creates a functional solution as the task teaches itself.

Get times

Technical changes are only productive if they improve performance. If performance doesn’t improve over time, the changes aren’t productive. When given performance feedback, swimmers will use that information in conjunction with the technical parameters to make effective changes. When performance is paired with resistance, stroke counts, and different surfaces areas, swimmers are required to find solutions that work.

Performance times help make all of the other constraints used above work better. It focuses swimmers on speed and making sure their actions are working toward the ultimate goal of practice, more speed.


Effective pulling actions are a focus of many coaching resources, yet our efforts to change skills that improve performance often fall short. In this article, we’ve taken a look at what’s required to improve skills. Above all, there’s been an attempt to keep it simple so that coaches can solve problems and communicate concepts to swimmers.

To pull effectively, swimmers need to-

1. Create as much propulsive surface area as possible

2. Create as much force as possible

If swimmers can accomplish these goals, they will pull effectively and swim fast. There are multiple strategies that can be effective. Each swimmer needs to find their own best way of swimming.

To respect biomechanical principles-

· The hand should be deeper than the elbow

· The hand should be inside the elbow

· The elbow should be pointed to the side

· The elbow should be pointed to the side for as long as possible

These principles allow a lot of flexibility for different physiques and different events. If swimmers are within these constraints, they’re likely pulling effectively. Importantly, coaches can see these actions from the pool deck.

To communicate goals to swimmers, have them-

· Reach!

· Pop the elbow

· Wrap the water

These ideas help swimmers achieve effective positions. It might be necessary to tell them to reach MORE.

To help swimmers ensure their changes are functional-

· Use resistance

· Change surface area

· Count strokes

· Get times



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