Swimming Skills & Biomechanics

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Whether you are new to swimming or have a lot of experience, there is always something else to learn about the sport. This lesson contains progressions for beginning through intermediate skill levels for both sports.

Beginning Swimmer Progression

Brianna's parents have signed her up for swim lessons because they feel this is a very important skill for her to know. They inform Greg, her instructor, that their 12 year old daughter has never been in the water and has a fair amount of fear. Greg decided he can teach her the skills and biomechanics, or how to work her body, to swim.

Greg can see that Brianna is afraid of the water, but also knows the main thing to teach any new swimmer is how to be comfortable and relaxed in and around the water. All relaxed people with a lungful of air will naturally float to the surface in calm water - even those who don't know how to swim. Most drownings occur in rough water or because the swimmer panicked. How can Greg help?

There's a progression to teaching a student how to swim. Let's take a look at the basics. Greg teaches Brianna how to get in the water safely, put her face in the water, blow bubbles, briefly submerge for a short period, and then increase the amount of time she spends under water. Finally, skills like floating are introduced, including survival floating, a skill used to keep the head above water in times of trouble in the water.

Basic Leg Mechanics

After a number of sessions, Greg has gotten Brianna comfortable enough with the water that she can float reasonably well. The next step to swimming is adding in leg movements that will propel the swimmer forward. The arm movements will come later.

All of the competitive swimming strokes have the body roughly parallel with the water surface, while the arms and legs are used to move in the direction the head is pointing.

It is easiest to teach all of the kicking techniques (except backstroke) using a kickboard, a small flotation device easy to grab with the hands.

Girl with a kickboard
Girl with kickboard

The freestyle kick is the easiest kick to teach. Greg explains to Brianna that the toes should be pointed, knees straight, and hips and shoulders relatively stationary. The legs move up and down in short quick beats. Brianna learns this kick pretty quickly and is soon able to go several lengths of the pool.

Basic Arm and Breathing Mechanics

Once Brianna is moving comfortably through the water with her kicking technique, it's time to add in the arm movements. Since her face will be in the water, this also means adding in breathing techniques at the same time. Because of this added complication, it's usually easier to start practicing the movements while standing on the pool deck, progressing to shallow water with the feet on the bottom, and to water deep enough that the arms and feet are off the bottom. This last step is the first one that most people would call 'swimming'.

In freestyle, the arms move opposite of each other in sort of a windmill. The fingers of the hand are close to each other and the hand is slightly cupped. The swimmer reaches over the head with one cupped hand and then pushes the water towards the feet. While that hand and arm recover out of the water, the other cupped hand is reaching and pushing more water towards the feet.

While still on the pool deck Greg also needs to explain to Brianna about how to breathe while swimming. For most of the stroke, her face is going to be underwater facing the bottom of the pool with her mouth shut, and she'll be blowing bubbles out of the nose. There are two reasons to be constantly blowing air out of the nose: to keep water from going in the nose and to make sure the lungs are ready to take in air. To take air in, she will need to turn her head to the side - timing it so she breathes toward a recovering arm.

Taking a breath while swimming
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