This is a topic that I get fired up about, because I see it as a subject of safety for our youth swimmers. I was recently involved in a spirited discussion amongst youth swim coaches who insisted on an outward sweep at the top of the key within the swim stroke. They claim that this assists propulsion by widening reach, and allowing the swimmer to engage the pectorals. This is indeed true, and youth swimmers are often core weak because they are being literally stretched to their limits due to continuous growth. This means that they don’t swim core reliant, and when there is weakness in the core there is a much greater chance of stroke flaws as we compensate for imbalance by widening the stroke pattern.
The coaches made valid points, and in return I made the following because I’m generally working with a Masters swimmer. Much of the time the older swimmer will be in the same stroke pattern, or worse had previously dropped out of swimming in High school or College. When I ask those who dropped out why they quit, they all say the same thing. “I had a shoulder injury that I just could not recover from”, or worse, “I had a shoulder injury, and my coach couldn’t help”. I then follow-up with a question about what stroke pattern they used, and they all make the same motion. An “S curve” with their hand, with an outward sweep starting at the top of their key. I’ve said it at least a thousand times, an “S curve” is dangerous, and will lead to injury. When speaking with the coaches this was all summarized and I ended with; “If the goal is to create a lifetime swimmer, then we should not be teaching an “S curve stroke”.
Here’s the trouble: humans are poorly designed for swimming to say the least. We are lanky, weak, and generally don’t balance on a strong core. To walk around and sit we don’t really need a strong core, so it goes unnoticed until we make a change, and need it. In swimming it’s absolutely necessary. As mentioned before, when weak in the core, we get wide in the water. This is because it helps us balance. As juniors we are left with little choice and since the name of the game is speed, we are for the most part unchecked if fast. This allows us to build strength around flaws in a wide stroke pattern, and little is done to focus on strong core, because if a shoulder or leg driven swimmer you can be fast without it. If we are able to maintain a high turnover rate, and stay atop the water speed is not a problem. This all goes on just fine, until the inevitable shoulder injury.
Why is the shoulder injury inevitable?
Primarily for the reason that we are poorly designed for the task of swimming. When I do get a chance to coach kids and see a lanky kick, I’ll get them thinking by asking; “Have you ever seen a fish with knees?”. Insert giggles; “A fish with Arms”?, no response… Most aquatic animals that we can think of move from center, from core. Our dominant muscles are also in the core of our body. So why are we so reliant on an outside movement for swimming, when we are the only ones in the water that think it’s a good way? Because we consider what is fast in our youth to be appropriate? It’s doesn’t make sense in any other sport, poor form that will lead to injury is squashed in all other youth sports. For example youth football coaches take specialized training to teach their children appropriate ways to tackle. Furthermore the intent behind pads, and tape in general as used in other sports is to prevent injury. So why is poor form ok in swimming? Poor form lead to injury, and swimming with poor form for the sake of speed is not sustainable, and irresponsible.
The solution is to build a youth swimmer on a strong core that maintains through the inevitable growth that the student is subject to. This can be done through swimming in correct form.
There are also a series of kick drills that I’ve utilized with a smaller board (as an adult use a larger board), that they can utilize under the water. The base drill I call wedge: submerge the board about six inches under water, slightly in front of you and exert equal pressure on either side of the board with both hands to keep it submerged. If you are unable to keep pressure well enough wrap your thumbs over the top of the board to keep it submerged until you can. Utilizing the board in this fashion and kicking behind it puts pressure on the core, and pectoral muscles primarily but also engages the deltoids and lats. This is a great and easy drill to use to develop a balanced and strong swimmer, and is also good for a junior swimmer with a smaller than standard board.
Another tool that will assist in developing a strong core is sculling. I’ve heard sculling referred to lifting weights in the water and I think that is accurate. The point of sculling is not to go fast but rather shape the water for maximum gain in strength. Another by product is that you are holding frame, and this frame is controlled by your core. There are many sculls, but the most basic is called Bathtub. It is what it sounds like. Think about yourself laying in a small bathtub, where your legs need to be at the same level as your head and your butt is submerged. Now tread water so that you are moving backwards, head first. Keep this position so that your toes and head are the only things out of the water. This scull works hand position, shoulder driven propulsion, and core.
A third and a dryland option is planks. Planks are a yoga position where you position yourself balanced on your toes and arms like a bridge keeping your core and buttock tight. This puts pressure on your core, lower back pectorals.
As you can see these are drills that focus on core strength, balance, and stability. Weakness in any of these three areas are the cause for nearly all stroke flaws. If we are no diligent with teaching and building our youth swimmer along the push to become a faster swimmer we inevitably put them at risk for injury. These are the most basic tools that I’ve used to encourage a strong junior swimmer to become not only fast, but also have a lifetime of swimming ahead of them. I thank you for your consideration of this article if you are of the belief that an (S) curve stroke is a positive for a junior swimmer. I truly believe that if the goal is to build a lifetime swimmer, then an (S) curve stoke is dangerous. Much love, and happy swimming!
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