The best answer is neither comes first. Drill-refinement, and transitioning new skills to whole stroke, is seldom a linear
process -- first I master Step A, then I master Step B.
It's more typically a circular
process: I get a bit better at Step A, which allows me to make modest progress in Step B. Then I return to Step A to improve it a bit more, which then allows me to make similar progress in Step B, and make an initial stab at Step C! Each time I repeat the cycle, every step gets a bit stronger, strengthening the foundation for Continual Improvement.
In the case of breathing and drills, everyone understands it's impossible to perform physical tasks unless your muscles are supplied with O2. You also realize that a breathless sensation becomes so emotionally overwhelming -- particularly to a new swimmer -- that you find it impossible to devote the keen attention required to learning a series of exacting skills.
But in the earliest stages of learning -- and when you find yourself at a sticking point, a mini-skill that's sufficiently challenging as to require undivided attention -- it's often helpful to separate the "skill of breathing" from the "coordination of limb movements."
That's why the teaching process we follow in Workshops
, and the self-teaching
process illustrated on the Easy Freestyle DVD
sometimes separate breathing-improvement, from movement-improvement.
To illustrate. It's best not to breathe while practicing Superman Glide/Flutter -- indeed most of the activities in Lesson One -- as any breathing movement would just be awkward and unbalanced, completely undermining the purpose of the drills. So you practice those in short stretches, standing whenever you need to take a breath. But that practice should produce both comfort and balance-awareness that provide a critical foundation for introducing breathing in subsequent drills.
When you move from a prone
position (SG/F) to a rotated position --
Core Balance in Lesson One, and Skating in Lesson Two -- you can now learn to rotate, for the purpose of breathing, in a way that's (1) not awkward; (2) balanced; and (3) directly teaches a foundation for how you'll want to eventually breathe in whole-stroke.
Core Balance is a "head-lead" skill. Skating is a "hand-lead" skill. Each imparts a distinct bit of skill and awareness that will later be consequential in both Switch drills and whole stroke. CB gives you a better sense of how uncontrolled and independent
head movement undermines core-balance and alignment. It's also an unsurpassed way to "educate" your spinal-stabilizer
muscles, which will be essential to low-drag swimming and core-driven propulsion. Skating reinforces and extends those lessons, while teaching you to maintain the "long vessel" that helps minimize wave drag
in whole stroke.
HOWEVER, at least initially -- particularly if you're an inexperienced swimmer, the breathing
part of this action will take ALL of your attention, as will the movement
part (how to rotate, how to keep laser pointed forward, how to initiate rotation in the core and follow with the head a moment later). So you devote some laps to thinking about exchanging air, and other laps primarily to controlling rotation. The Sweet Spot version of breathing is intended to make this phase a bit more manageable.
This circular process of improving breathing skills, then movement skills, then breathing skills, etc, will be repeated at virtually every step in six of the seven lessons in Easy Freestyle. However what you learn in Lesson Two (where breathing skills are first introduced) should ease the more exacting challenges faced in Lesson Three (because the movements you need to combine with breathing are more complex) and so on as you progress through the lessons.
This is also why we urge improvement-minded TI swimmers to continue practicing the drills for the long term, which I fear is not the norm. Rather than be abandoned, drill practice should evolve gradually, to focus on more complex, subtle and exacting skill challenges over time.