Keeping things simple is often the key to learning new skills and creating change. This is the approach Australian coach Brenton Ford has taken when working with swimmers of all ages to help improve their freestyle efficiency.
Each year Ford helps guide anywhere from 12-1400 athletes through the process of becoming more effective and efficient swimmers. At his Effortless Swimming Camps and Clinics he works on a specific hierarchy of foundational skills in freestyle:
- Breathing (nothing else matters until that is sorted)
- Balance and body position
- Catch and pull
- Rhythm and timing
When moving through this hierarchy with swimmers the most common errors he sees are:
- Breathing position
- Crossing over
- An ineffective catch
“The most common errors I see originate from breathing,” says Ford. “That is probably the number one cause of most of the faults I see.”
Two of the biggest are, “Turning the head too far and over rotating to the breathing side.”
There are three ways he instructs swimmers to visual their breathing technique to create more effective alignment.
To help correct excessive roll he has swimmers think about the rotation in freestyle as a rock not a roll, “That rock is to a 45° angle instead of 90°. That helps keep you balanced as you breath.”
To understand the simplicity of the movement needed to get a breath he has swimmers visualize their spine as a rigid pole, “I get them to imagine that they have a pole that runs through their head, neck and spine. When they turn their head to they should not lift it up to breath. It should not move off that line of the pole.”
Teaching swimmers to ride higher in the water is another way he has athletes create the balance needed to achieve an effective breathing position, “When it comes to taking the breath if your shoulder drops too far below the surface of the water that will cause over rotation, because there is nothing out in front to give you stability.”
“A good way to think of it is to keep the shoulders close to the surface of the water. Obviously not right up, but riding the water.”
A drill he uses to work on what he calls a split vision breath (one goggle in and one goggle out) in freestyle is the front kick breath drill.
“You kick with one arm at the side and one arm out front in the water with fins on. When you need a breath you breath right to the side with as little rotation as possible and come straight back down.”
“It can shows you can get the breath without looking up to the sky. It isolates that movement and slows the exhale in the water.”
“The second most common error is the cross over,” explains Ford. “Where a swimmer enters and then crosses the midline of the body.”
A cross over in freestyle effects technical efficiency in many ways, the most significant being alignment, “If you are crossing over the center it impacts what is happening under the body with the catch and the pull. It can then impact the legs causing them to come outside of the body line when kicking.”
Understanding the path the arms needs to travel when entering the water is key, “I like to use an image of train tracks,” says Ford. “The lines run parallel with peoples shoulders and ears. Every time their hand enters the water we want them to go straight on those train tracks. Obviously the pull follows a different path, but just on their entry and extension.”
Drills for Correcting the Cross Over
When correcting a cross over in freestyle Ford uses strategies where the swimmers can self-correct, “We do the front kick drill with both hands in front. We get them to kick for 50 meters focusing on keeping the hands in line with the shoulders and then swim 50 meters swim.”
“We then get them to look forward so that they can make sure that they are not coming in.”
With this skill he emphasizes that feeling an overcorrection may be needed to actually make a change, “Anyone who is crossing over a lot 9 times out of 10 they need to make it feel extremely wide.”
“There are quite a lot of things in swimming that need to feel exaggerated to be changed crossing over is one of them. I would say half of the people going through our clinics each year are crossing over. With nearly all of them we have to get them to feel like they are well outside of the train tracks.”
Alignment sets the foundation for a great stroke both by decreasing resistance as well as providing a strong platform to create power. Once alignment issues are addressed one of the biggest things Ford concentrates on is getting swimmers to catch the water more effectively in their freestyle.
Being able to create the greatest amount of surface area with the hand and forearm is one of the keys to a great catch. One aspect he focuses on is a swimmers wrist position, “Part of it is getting them to start their catch in the right position.”
“At the point when they are at their full extension we have them make sure that they have a firm and elevated wrist position, which is how I heard it taught by Bill Sweetenham.”
“We see a lot of swimmers dropping their wrists so their hand comes back from their forearm or they bend the wrists too much where they are really only using their hand to pull through.”
“Maintaining a firm and elevated wrist helps with this. That elevated position you just want to pop that wrist up slightly to create that angle that is best to maintain that surface area.”
Stroke timing is another significant factor that effects the effectiveness of your catch. Ford sees many swimmers pull straight through rather than sliding their hand forward to set up their catch, “The analogy I like is watching someone ice skating.”
“They skate from their left foot to their right foot and from their right foot to their left foot. They are not just moving back and forth quickly with their feet.”
“That is the same thing you want to do with your arms. Think about skating forward from your left arm to your right arm. It gives you a sense of balance from left to right and gives you that time to travel forward when one arm is extending and the other is traveling past your hip.”
Remember when making change keep it simple.