I’m an advocate of teaching skills the correct way from the get-go, so it does my head in when I see or hear young swimmers being taught a technique that will undoubtedly need to be undone in the future. We’ve all overheard instructors who encourage kids to keep their hair dry during breaststroke, or to lift their head and look at their toes during backstroke, but one instruction that often goes unnoticed is the S pull in freestyle.
Because it happens underwater, it can take a long time to notice and even longer to fix. Young swimmers are told to “draw a big letter S” with their hand during every stroke, but that instruction goes against one of the fundamental rules of competitive swimming: Always take the path of least resistance!
Why waste time, energy, and streamline just to trace an arbitrary path through the water? 20 years ago we thought the S pull was beneficial because it added an outsweep and an insweep, supposedly increasing momentum by allowing for a “longer” pull. Luckily, physiology and biomechanics have taught us that the S pull actually causes more problems than advantages. Early vertical forearm, high elbow recovery, and straight-line pulls are scientifically more advantageous than the S pull, so we should all be taking steps to move to this method. Here are some suggestions for eliminating the S pull:
This one is simple. When you wear a snorkel, you can watch the path of your pull. Your hands should never be under your chest, and they should never cross over the midline of your body. Instead, the fingertips should plunge into the water in alignment with your shoulder and draw a straight line along the bottom of the pool until they reach past your hips. For young swimmers, it helps to use some fun imagery, like “paint the pool bottom with your hand.”
Have swimmers lie on the deck parallel to the pool edge with one arm in the water. They can then do repeated single arm pulls, aiming not to touch the wall with their working hand. This drill is great because it allows for constant feedback, and swimmers get a bit of a rest while they focus their attention on the drill.
If space allows, another good option is to swim down the middle of the lane while making sure your arms stay on their respective sides of the black line. Swim teams can even turn this into a game by pairing up the athletes and having one partner in the water while the other is on deck deducting points each time a hand crosses onto the black line!
The easiest way to eliminate the S pull is by not teaching it in the first place. I realize that this advice will not reach the majority of swimming instructors and coaches, but little by little, I have faith that we can improve this skill on a grand scale. Do not teach any skill that you or another coach will have to change in the future – teach little swimmers to pull in a straight line and eliminate the need to undo a future bad habit! Spread the word to other coaches, or offer to run a clinic for your facility’s lesson instructors! There are countless ways to affect change in this sport. I’ve done my part by relaying this information to you, now it’s your turn to pass it along to other swimming professionals!