The coach of Indiana's national champions sees no reason why adults shouldn't learn to swim without all that thrashing about
July 19, 1970

I find it curious that although an increasing number of middle-aged people are going into the water these days for the joy of it few of them ever try to swim well. Despite their obvious love of water, they struggle through it like runaway Percherons. A weekend golfer with no more regard for technique than many swimmers I have seen would be lucky if he broke 130.

I think many people resign themselves to a lifetime of hard labor in the water in the belief that they simply do not have the natural aptitude to swim well or are not in good enough condition. In the past 15 years, above and below water, I have studied the strokes of more than 1,000 swimmers of all ages and varying degrees of competence. On the basis of these observations I am sure that efficient swimming seldom comes naturally but, rather, is a learned skill that can be fairly mastered by anyone willing to devote a little time to it.

A few years back, to satisfy my curiosity about the relevance of natural ability and learning, I went underwater to study the swimming techniques of a dozen puppies, a 2-year-old alligator and a brood of half-grown ducks, none of which had swum a stroke prior to my observations. Although the puppies managed well enough on their first venture in the water, it was obvious that their technique improved in subsequent workouts. Most notably, they began to rely increasingly on their forepaws for propulsion and to minimize the action of their hind legs, using them principally as steering devices. On their first try the ducks tended to list to one side or the other and to swim irregular courses. Although it took the ducks only a few days to become accomplished, there was no doubt that they were learning by the simple process of trial and error. The alligator—the creature one might suspect as being the most naturally endowed—failed completely. On its first attempt, after a few futile movements of its tail and legs, the alligator sank to the bottom of the pool and drowned.

For most land animals, learning to swim is a relatively simple process. Because of the way their limbs are jointed, most of them have no choice but to make their way through the water by "dog paddling" as efficiently as possible. By contrast, because of the greater flexibility of our joints, we humans are able to swim effectively in a number of ways: on our backs, on our sides, or prone. Unfortunately, even when swimming our most efficient stroke, the front crawl, because of the freedom of action we enjoy we are apt to commit a variety of errors. We are liable, for example, to swing our arms too stiffly during one part of the stroke cycle, and we are equally apt to flex our wrists, elbows, shoulders or knees at the wrong moment and in wasteful ways. To put it simply, since there are many things we can do wrong, we have to work harder than other land creatures to get in the right groove.

For those who would like to improve their crawl stroke, the best service I can do by the remote means of the printed page is to point out the most common mistakes and offer ways of correcting them. Although it is possible for you to diagnose your own faults to some extent, to make the most of my advice you should have someone observe your actions. It helps if two swimmers work together, analyzing each other's stroke.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of errors that affect a swimmer's efficiency: 1) those that increase resistance in the water unnecessarily, and 2) those that use energy without contributing sufficient propulsive force. Even when the body is in its most streamlined posture, a racing dive, it encounters resistance of several sorts. Then skin friction itself disturbs the laminar flow of the water. Although such friction has a great deal of effect on fast-moving objects, it is a minor consideration even for the fastest sprint swimmers. In moving through the water, the body is also subject to frontal resistance as well as to drag, or eddy resistance, both of which are deterrents.

Crawl swimming is essentially an integration of four distinct actions: the cyclical stroking of the arms, the flutter kick, the rotating of the head to one side for air and a necessary rolling of the whole body on its long axis to facilitate the recovery of the arms out of water. The swimmer who makes these actions with little side-to-side movement of the body and with little deviation of the body from the horizontal plane is minimizing both frontal resistance and drag.

Most of the excessive resistance that inept swimmers create is the result of faulty stroking or breathing technique. One of the most common faults I find among casual swimmers is the extravagant way they recover their arms out of water. Instead of lifting the elbow up and letting the hand and forearm come forward fairly close to the body as each arm completes the propulsive phase of the stroke underwater, many strugglers barely bend their elbows at all, swinging their arms forward in a flat, wide arc (see drawing above left). Although the arm itself encounters little resistance as it swings through the air in this manner, the effect is still detrimental. As Isaac Newton first propounded, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The wide swing of the arm to one side tends to throw the legs or hips (or both) out of line on the opposite side. The wiggling hips and the legs create resistance, but the wide-swinging arm is the real culprit.

Many swimmers who recover their arms in a flat arc compound the error. At the end of the recovery, instead of entering their hand in the water directly forward, in line with the shoulder, or slightly inward toward the center line of the body, the wide swingers tend to bend the elbow and sweep the hand across the center line of the body. When the arm crosses over this way, the swimmer must straighten his elbow to properly start the press of the hand downward and backward through the propulsive phase of the stroke. In so doing, rather than pushing downward and back in a direct line in the first part of the propulsive action, he is actually executing somewhat of a lateral motion, thus diminishing the force of the stroke as well as moving the body slightly out of line in the opposite direction.

Untutored swimmers who have fairly good recoveries often commit a different sort of error: at the end of the recovery they overreach, extending the shoulder excessively. You can appreciate the effect of this error by standing erect and holding one arm overhead, then bringing it down in front of you. If you do this without extending the shoulder, you will find that the action has almost no effect on the rest of the body. Then, if you assume the same position but extend the shoulder upward to get a few more inches of reach before lowering the arm, you will feel your whole torso being pulled out of line.

Although some competitive crawl swimmers have remarkable shoulder flexibility, not one can recover his arms properly over the water without rolling his body to some extent. (In underwater motion studies I have made, I have found that good competitors roll at least 30°—and some as much as 45°—off the vertical plane.) Ideally, as the arm on one side starts the recovery, the body should roll to the opposite side as if impaled on a spit. Many casual swimmers do not roll enough to permit proper recovery with a bent elbow.

Naturally, the roll of the body on its long axis also makes breathing easier on one side or the other. Although proper breathing is something that any swimmer with a reasonably correct stroke can learn in a week or so, few strugglers ever concern themselves with it.

If he hopes to hold himself in a good horizontal plane, a swimmer must keep as much of his head as possible in the water at all times. An efficient swimmer maintains a slight posterior flexion of the neck so that the waterline comes somewhere between the middle of the forehead and the crown of the head. To breathe, an efficient swimmer rotates his head on the longitudinal axis of the body as the elbow on his breathing side is emerging from the water and his body rolls upward on that side. (Because there is a slight trough behind the bow wave created by his head, a good swimmer actually gets his air slightly below the normal waterline.)

Anyone without a specific disability can rotate his head at the neck nearly 90°, but, alas, instead of simply rotating, most strugglers get their mouth above water by lifting the whole head up to one side or to the front. The worst thrashers lunge upward as if each gulp of air might be their last—some of them so violently that the whole head and part of one shoulder come out of the water. As a consequence, their hips drop a good foot below the surface and their legs ride still lower. Obviously, in a medium as dense as water, such a departure from the horizontal creates a great deal of frontal resistance and drag.

The swimmer who lunges up to breathe pays a high price. To help get his head above water, he is obliged to press down, rather than back, against the water with the arm on the opposite side, thus losing propulsion. The swimmer who applies propulsive force most evenly through the stroke cycle moves through the water at the steadiest rate and with the least effort. A swimmer who lunges upward for each breath and then sinks back into the water cannot possibly move through it at a steady rate. As a result of his bobbing action, he must use quite a bit of energy in each stroke cycle to overcome inertia.

Even for the best of crawl swimmers the flutter kick is a very minor source of propulsion. For all swimmers—particularly noncompetitors who merely want to swim easily at a modest speed—the prime value of the kick is to stabilize the body, keeping it in a horizontal plane and minimizing lateral movement. Although incorrect kicking is rarely as detrimental as improper stroking and breathing, some inexpert swimmers waste energy and induce resistance by using too wide a kick—that is, by letting their legs move too far apart in the vertical plane. A more common and serious error is excessive flexing of the knee. Overflexion allows the upper leg to swing too far out of the horizontal plane, creating frontal resistance and drag without serving any purpose.

There are a few serious errors that decrease a swimmer's efficiency by simply wasting his power, notably the misapplication of hands and arms during the propulsive phase of the stroke. Twenty-five years ago, when the science of swimming was a quagmire of unchallenged dogma and misconceptions, some coaches advocated cupping the hand during the propulsive phase. Some still do, theorizing, I suppose, that if the hand is shaped like a little bucket, it will hold water better. During the propulsive phase of the stroke we are, in effect, trying to hold our hand as nearly as possible in one spot in the water while our bodies travel through it. The amount of holding power depends not only on the frontal resistance created by the palm side of the hand but equally, if not more, on the amount of drag created by the back side of the hand. When we cup the hand, we reduce the area, thus lessening frontal resistance. By cupping the hand we also are streamlining the back side of it somewhat, thereby reducing drag and allowing the hand to slip ineffectually through the water.

From hydrodynamic and wind-tunnel tests I have conducted, I am sure that the most effective and restful hold a swimmer can get on the water is with his hand flat and fingers together. Quite a few competitors swim with their fingers slightly spread, and from my tests I feel that such an application is efficient. However, I recommend that casual swimmers hold the fingers together. By so doing they are able to maintain better control of the hand with slightly less effort.

Even though he recovers his arms almost perfectly, during the propulsive phase an inept swimmer is still apt to commit two errors that diminish his power. The first is a posterior flexion of the wrist—a collapsing of the wrist, you might say—that obviously permits the hand to slip through the water rather than press squarely against it. Ideally, the hand should be bent slightly downward as it enters the water and starts the propulsive phase. As the hand moves downward and backward under the body, the wrist should be straightened so that the hand is in line with the forearm. Then in the final part of the press, as the arm comes up alongside the hip, the hand should be flexed posteriorly so that it is still affording some backward thrust even when the arm is moving upward.

By far the worst mistake committed during the propulsive phase is what I call the "dropped elbow." Until the 1950s, when we began going underwater in earnest to study stroke mechanics, I do not think anyone in the coaching profession realized how many novices and moderately competent swimmers were committing this wasteful error. If the elbow is bent in such a way that it leads the forearm and hand through the propulsive phase, the forearm and hand do not begin to press squarely back against the water until they have completed more than half of the propulsive phase. A "dropped elbow" swimmer simply does not get an adequate hold on the water. He is, in effect, propelling himself with a broken paddle. A good swimmer keeps his elbow slightly up as the hand enters the water and begins to press. During the first part of the press, the arm should be almost straight. Then as the arm travels back under the body, the elbow should bend slightly, but with the upper arm slightly rotated out so that the inner side of it is facing to the rear. When the upper arm is rotated in this way, the slightly bent elbow does not lead the arm but remains fairly well in the same plane as the forearm and hand. When the stroke is executed properly, as the arm passes under the body in the most productive part of the stroke, the upper arm is nearly at a right angle to the shoulder line, the elbow is facing outward and the forearm is canted inward so that the hand actually passes just about underneath the center line of the body. As the arm moves back into the final part of the propulsive phase, the elbow is straightened so that the hand comes up almost alongside the hip.

If it were possible for you to climb out of your skin and observe your own actions in the water, you could learn to swim efficiently in a short time. There is no better way of learning a neuromuscular skill than by immediate association of the visual impression with the feel of the muscular action. The best substitute is a friend who has some knowledge of stroke mechanics or is interested in improving his technique. You can observe your own actions by means of a few training aids. I recommend the movie camera and the Polaroid still camera, the former because you can see yourself in motion, the latter because you can at least see some aspects of your above-water action within a minute after executing them. A face mask—or still better, swimming goggles that have less resistance—will enable you to observe part of your underwater stroke as you practice it.

To improve your crawl technique, first work on the kick, then add the arm action (including the roll of the body to facilitate the recovery) and finally incorporate the breathing action. Although your kick can do you little wrong, relatively speaking, you should examine it to be sure you are actually doing what you feel you are doing. Because of the different indices of refraction of air and water, the exact characteristics of the flutter kick are difficult to assess when viewed from above water. Hang on the side of the pool and practice the kick while your teammate—your co-coach—observes the action underwater through a face mask. Competitive swimmers separate their feet in the vertical plane anywhere from 10 to 16 inches. For casual swimming I recommend a separation of about 12 inches. Under the supervision of your co-coaching partner, kick while hanging onto the side of a pool—or preferably, while using a kickboard—until you have a feel of the proper kick. To minimize excessive bending of the knee, concentrate on keeping some tension on the knee joint so that the movement of the legs in the water derives more from the flexion of the hips.

Before trying to correct your stroke in the water, practice it while bending over at the waist in front of a full-length mirror. When you hold your head properly, without rolling your eyeballs upward, you will actually be looking downward at about a 45° angle. By casting your eyes up, you will be able to see your action in the mirror. Practice the recovery and the propulsive phase of the stroke with both arms, occasionally closing your eyes for several strokes, then opening them to observe whether you are still in the proper groove.

Then go into water slightly deeper than your waist, lean over and practice both the stroke and the breathing action. Because you are almost weightless when you lean over in this manner, with each stroke you will tend to pull yourself forward off your feet. You can offset this by planting one foot slightly ahead of the other. Better yet, put on a scuba diver's weight belt with eight or 10 pounds of lead. Practice in this manner while wearing goggles that permit you to see part of the underwater action—specifically, the first part of the propulsive phase when you are apt to drop the elbow and lose power. Also practice the stroke without goggles so that you get a blind feel for it.

When you have been accustomed to the arm action, incorporate the breathing action into the stroke cycle, concentrating on rotating the neck so that the mouth barely clears the surface to get air. After each inhalation, when the mouth is returned underwater, prolong the exhalation by letting the air trickle out of the mouth and nose, so that you have not exhausted that breath completely until the head has almost rolled back up to get more air. (This is not as difficult as it may seem: when breathing on land, exhalation normally takes longer than inhalation.)

Although this kind of stabilized practice—with feet planted on the bottom of the pool—is helpful, don't overdo it, for it is, at best, a mediocre substitute for actual swimming. When you are standing in one spot, of necessity your hands must slip through the water. In a static drill of this sort, you cannot get the proper feel of the pressure of the water against the hands as they hold the water and the body travels forward.

To practice the arm action by actually swimming, push off from the side of a pool, or from a waist-deep bottom, and get your body in a proper horizontal plane. As the momentum of the push-off carries you through the water, kick and then try one or two strokes with each arm. Do this both with goggles and without. You will be helped if your co-coaching teammate observes both the underwater and above-water phases of your stroke. After each push-off, do only as many strokes as you can without losing form. Don't rest too long between each push-off; in fact, I recommend pausing for an interval no longer than the duration of each practice attempt. In other words, if you push off, start to kick, then take, say, three strokes with each arm in 10 seconds, you should try again in 10 seconds. You will get yourself into a good neuromuscular groove much more easily if you keep the interval short between practice runs.

While practicing the arm stroke without taking a breath, concentrate on rolling the body to each side so that, even without rotating the neck, first one, then the other ear comes out of the water.

When you can do six or seven strokes with each arm without losing form, try to incorporate the correct breathing action. Here again, after each practice push-off, only swim as far as you can without losing form. Although the exact number of strokes varies, depending upon the size of the individual and other factors, anyone swimming with reasonable efficiency should be able to push off from one end of a 25-yard pool and reach the other end in 25 seconds, using 22 strokes or less. (Since in a good push-off you will cover about five yards before taking your first stroke, this means you are moving about a yard on each stroke.) When you can swim 25 yards without losing form, rest no more than 15 seconds between each attempt. You should not feel satisfied until you can swim 100 yards without losing form and without any appreciable sense of fatigue. If you practice for an hour two or three times a week, within a month I guarantee that you will find you can swim several hundred yards without expending much more energy than it would take to walk the same distance.

ILLUSTRATIONFRANK MULLINS ILLUSTRATIONFRANK MULLINSImproper arm recovery ILLUSTRATIONFRANK MULLINSCorrect arm recovery ILLUSTRATIONFRANK MULLINSAn efficient stroke (shown in numbered drawings here and on following pages) features body roll, elbow up and wrist bent downward as hand enters Water.