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Terry demos the “Skating” drill to hone balance and streamlining


This post was originally published by Terry Laughlin on Nov. 4, 2016.


Stroke drills have been an important part of TI methodology since our first adult swim camp in June 1989. The drills we teach have undergone continuous evolution since then, as have the ways we practice drills. Thus, it will probably surprise you to learn that I rarely do drills myself. Other than demonstrating them when I teach, I’d estimate that drills currently make up no more than 1% of my overall practice volume.

If they are so central to TI methodology, why are they such a small part of my own practice? It comes down to understanding the purpose of drills, when it’s right to do them, and when whole stroke is more valuable.

Why Do Drills

Stroke drills are ideal when your priorities or opportunities include any of the following:

  1. To Break Habits When Bill Boomer taught me my first balance drill, I’d been swimming unbalanced for nearly 25 years. Since I’d never experienced balance, heavy legs felt ‘normal’ and I’d developed several habits to compensate for that. It would have been difficult to tweak my deeply ingrained stroke to make a difference. But in about 10 seconds performing a balance drill, my legs felt so thrillingly different, that I could soon maintain that in whole stroke for a short distance. Not perfectly or permanently, but the new sensation was so welcome I knew I wanted to make it permanent. That small taste was all it took to commit me to intensive drill practice for the next 10 years.
  2. To Deconstruct and Pinpoint An efficient stroke—especially freestyle—is one of the most complex movements in sport, compounded by the difficulty of executing a high level skill in water. TI makes learning easier by deconstructing the whole stroke into critical mini-skills. Drills pinpoint those deconstructed mini-skills in the way Torpedo highlights head position, allowing you to detect and correct errors far more quickly.
  3. To Heighten Perception In the example above, Torpedo drill dramatically enhances your perception of head position. Is it slightly elevated, slightly depressed, or neutral and weightless? You quickly become aware of the difference in Torpedo—and should just as quickly take that heightened perception into whole stroke.

How to Maximize

Want to get more out of your drill practice? To use the right drill in the most effective way for precisely the skill that needs improving? Want to avoid wasted time and effort? Do the following:

  1. Start with the End in Mind Before deciding to practice a drill, consider the kind of stroke you wish to end up with. Any drill you choose should imprint an aspect or quality you hope to see in the whole stroke. If it imprints any position, movement, or quality you don’t wish to see in whole stroke, you’re better off not doing it. For instance, you should neither practice flutter kicking flat on the breast, flat on the back, nor on your side (with shoulders and hips stacked) unless you intend to swim in those inefficient positions.
  2. Clear Purpose Similar to the above, be crystal clear on the purpose of any drill you practice—because the main point of the drill is to imprint an efficient quality, position, or movement in the whole stroke. I often observe competitive swimmers (including Masters) and triathletes going through the motions in drill practice, seemingly more concerned with getting it done, than getting it right. Any time spent practicing a drill that fails to imprint a high quality, high efficiency movement is wasted time.
  3. Find Right Sequence When you plan to combine several drills, practicing them in the right sequence makes all the difference. If working on propulsion, using a drill designed to improve the Catch-and-Press, or 2-Beat Kick, the propulsion-oriented drill will work better if you precede it with drills to balance the body and stabilize the core—so arms or legs are not occupied with correcting body position errors. This principle and application is covered in detail in the 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Self-Coaching Course.

What to Avoid

  1. Unfocused Practice Swim teams often fit in drills as a part of sets like this (often given as part of warmup): 200 Swim 200 Pull 200 Kick 200 Drill. Apart from the fact that I don’t favor sets that isolate the kick or pull, there’s this: How much clear-eyed focus do you suppose the swimmers will bring to the 200s of kick or pull? Not much. They’ll be more focused on getting them done, not getting them right. And when it comes to the 200 Drill, is it likely they’ll suddenly find focus. Not very. If you do even a single length of a drill without complete clarity on what it’s designed to improve, and what sensations will affirm that it’s accomplishing its purpose, you’re wasting your time.
  2. Too Much/Too Long Never do a drill by rote. Never do it simply out of habit, or as part of an ‘autopilot’ routine. (See above.) And don’t continue doing a drill which targets a skill you already perform at a high level in whole stroke. You’ll be wasting time if you do. Also never continue a drill to the point where (a) it’s become more of a kicking exercise, or (b) you’re more focused on getting to the other end of the pool than on super-high quality movement. You’ll be imprinting the wrong thing if you do. This is why most TI drills are now designed to be done in repeats of 10 yards or less. Including all those in our Self Coaching Courses.
  3. No Closure Never follow a drill with something unrelated. Always follow a drill with some short repeats of whole-stroke–and same focal point–to immediately bring the new position/movement/sensation into the stroke. This ensures closure of the stroke-improvement loop.

How TI Drills Have Evolved

  1. Drills we’ve dropped and why

These three drills were formerly an essential part of the TI freestyle sequence (with the approx. date they were replaced in parentheses).

Press the Buoy (1994) I learned this drill from Bill Boomer. In fact, it was the one that rocked my world by showing me I could have light legs. Unfortunately, its leg-lifting effect only worked flat on the breast, and became quite elusive when you rotated—as in whole stroke. Through experimentation we learned that a weightless head (1995) and slicing the hand below the bodyline after entry (1999) were even more successful at lifting the legs, and maintained that effect as you rotated.

Balance on Back (1998) This drill was very good at helping a student experience the support of the water, without interrupting that balance to take a breath. But it taught a body and breathing position that had no application to freestyle. We replaced it first with Sweet Spot, then by separating breathing exercises from those for body position (2008).

‘Zipper’ Drills (2008)  These drills were part of the recovery sequence. We instructed students to draw the thumb up the side, as if pulling up a zipper. They produced a compact, even elegant recovery. But they also tended to cause over-rotation and instability in the core. Consequently, we replaced them with Rag Doll and Paint a Line drills which teach a more relaxed recovery, while preserving a stable core and promoting healthy shoulders.

  1. Fewer Drills, More Rehearsals

In every stroke, we strive to teach the foundational skills (Balance, Stability, Streamlining, Integrated Propulsive Movements) in just three to four steps. For two reasons: (1) Fewer drills allow for more clarity on their purpose and essentials, and more quality and consistency in execution. (2) We want to prepare the student to swim a smoothly integrated, comfortable whole stroke—one well suited to further refinement–as quickly as possible. Our 1.0 Effortless Endurance Self-Coaching Course applies this principle as will our soon-to-be released Self Coaching Courses for Butterfly, Backstroke, and Breaststroke.

  1. More Whole Stroke

In the 1990s, it was typical at a TI workshop to do some 6 hours of stroke drills before putting it all together in whole stroke for perhaps 10 minutes. Now we do several short reps of whole stroke within 10 to 15 minutes of the start of a workshop or lesson. Why? To immediately apply a new mini-skill (in this case a weightless head) as soon as possible after heightening awareness of that skill (in Torpedo.) And we continue with that approach throughout the workshop. Five to 10 minutes of a drill to heighten a sensation, followed by a similar amount of time testing that sensation in whole stroke. The proportion of drill to whole stroke is pretty close to 50:50.

This brings me to why I barely ever do stroke drills any more. I did intensive drill practice (and sometimes a full hour or more of nothing but drills) for most of the 1990s. During that time, I completely remade my stroke, dramatically increasing my efficiency. This followed a 25-year period in which there was virtually no change in my swimming.

However several things changed in the early 2000’s that led me to gradually reduce the stroke drill portion of my practice:

  1. My improvement opportunities changed. Following 10 years focus on the vessel-shaping aspects of technique, there remained relatively little upside. I consequently shifted my focus to skills I’d relatively neglected during the 90s–Catch-and-Press and 2-Beat Kick. While there are several drills with value in learning them, most of the refinement potential comes from whole stroke practice with focal points.
  2. I adopted new training aids. During this period I was introduced to Fistgloves and the Tempo Trainer. While the Fistgloves can be useful in some drill practice, both tools yield their greatest value in whole stroke practice. I discovered many new stroke refinement, and awareness-heightening, opportunities in whole stroke practice with one or the other.
  3. I began racing more. Training for a certain level of speed can only be done with whole stroke. You acquire a high efficiency stroke at lower speeds, and with a mix of drill and whole stroke. You must then learn to maintain it while swimming at higher tempos, muscle loads, and heart rates. That’s whole stroke.

If you’ve been doing the same stroke drills for more than three years, it may be time to evaluate whether they are still creating improvement or simply ingraining a kind of status quo in your stroke. Is it time to change to drills for more advanced skills? Perhaps you’re ready for Mastery Skills. A visit to a TI Coach, or a video analysis by an expert TI coach can help determine.

Take Your Swimming to the Next Level!

Learn the Habits of Mastery and develop expert-level skills with Total Immersion’s 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Complete Self-Coaching Course. Do you love learning, practicing, and swimming the TI Way? Are you excited about attaining personal mastery in the most efficient and exacting skills available in freestyle? Have you mastered the TI Foundations in prior videos or the Effortless Endurance (formerly Ultra Efficient Freestyle) Self-Coaching Course? If yes, the 2.0 Freestyle Mastery Course is for you.

2.0 Freestyle Mastery course