When Doing The Wrong Thing Can Help You Learn The Right Thing Easier

Coach Rob Kwaaitaal in The Netherlands instructs a swimmer on how to perform the side kick drill correctly using a radio headset

One of our favourite tools to use as Swim Smooth Certified Coaches is a waterproof radio headset so that we can communicate with our swimmers whilst they perform drills, correct their strokes, and occasionally, purposefully do the wrong thing to learn how to do the right thing easier! This deliberate contrast between the swimmer's "before and after" stroke technique, can be a hugely powerful (and fun!) way to learn a new skill.

There have been various iterations of these headsets over the years (Finis make one called the Coach Communicator whilst another version is by a new company called Zygo), which work by allowing the coach to remain on pool deck whilst they speak instructions through a microphone / walkie-talkie. The swimmer typically hears these directions by way of a bone-conducting head piece which transfers audio very well in an aquatic environment. 

As a coach, you need to be super mindful not to give too much advice at once, as this can be overwhelming for the swimmer. In fact, from experience, it actually helps improve you as a coach by figuring out what to leave out of the "conversation" just as much as what to include. And by "conversation" we very much mean a one-way conversation - don't ask your swimmers any questions when their head is down in the water as there's an instinctive reaction to want to answer back and thereby suck in a load of water! The coach and swimmer learn this very quickly!

If you're relatively new to swimming, a common fault is to feel like you need to lift the head too high to take a breath in. In order to do this, the swimmer typically applies a strong downward force on the lead hand to lift their face out of the water which conversely sinks the legs low:

This lady is pushing down with her right hand to lift her head to breathe to the left


Learning to keep the head low and to trust the bow-wave that forms around the head when the right ear is held low towards the right shoulder as you breathe to your left (for example) is essential. Using the radio headset, we do this by teaching a swimmer to kick correctly on their side, aiming to keep one eye in the water and one eye out. For newer swimmers, we often get them to utilise the Finis Alignment Kick-Board to give a little reassurance to trust the extension of the lead arm in this position:

Head Coach Paul Newsome’s son, Jackson, learns to kick on his side with the Finis Alignment Kick-Board

The Alignment Kick-Board is only just a little larger than a standard hand paddle, and less buoyant than a typical kick board, but even then there’s still a tendency to want to apply pressure and push down on it to get the leverage to lift up and breathe. By using the radio headset, the coach can communicate with the swimmer and encourage them not to do this and to instead think about good posture, drawing the shoulder blades together and back. The learning process is then significantly enhanced by actively asking the swimmer to go back to doing the wrong thing so that they can instantly feel the detrimental affect it is having on their stroke. Do this back and forth a few times (correct technique vs poor technique) and the swimmer learns the correct position far easier. Of course, you can do this yourself too without a coach - there’s some extra suggestions on what you might try and experiment with in your stroke here and here.

Point 3 in the previous link refers to the fact that one of the leading causes of shoulder pain and impingement is a thumb-first entry into the water. Using a combination of video analysis and our new Swim Smooth app on Wednesday this week, Head Coach Paul Newsome was easily able to identify the biggest single concern for this swimmer who had complained about a sore left shoulder, and equally, the inability to breathe to her right:

Video footage clearly demonstrating a very pronounced thumb-first entry into the water on the left hand 

Through Stroke Insights generated from the gyroscope and accelerometer data captured by the Apple Watch, we were also able to visually represent this issue for the swimmer and be objective about it’s severity:

Stroke Insights on the Apple Watch clearly flag an issue with this swimmer’s left hand entry - her right hand is actually very good!

The benefit of using the Apple Watch with the Swim Smooth platform is that it's possible for the swimmer to use the watch in every session that they do and receive immediate objective feedback on whether they are improving. This in itself is a highly powerful learning tool. The initial video analysis session aided Coach Paul to confirm the diagnosis and educate the swimmer on how to correct it. 

During the stroke correction component of the session, Paul was able to instruct the swimmer via the radio headset to repeatedly switch between the new (improved) stroke with the old (problematic) stroke in a way which vastly empowered her learning. It also made the session fun and intuitive. Furthermore, it helped the swimmer not only understand why breathing to her right had always been an "impossibility" (because that left hand sliced through the water without making any purchase on it), but within 15 minutes be able to swim perfect bilateral breathing too due to the improvement in her left hand entry. Win-win!

Through a combination of the swimmer attending the Swim Smooth Perth Squad sessions and using the Swim Smooth app on her own Apple Watch, it will allow her to relay this data back to Paul even when he might be busy with another swimmer or setting a different lane off. What might appear to initially be a replacement for coach-led video analysis and stroke correction, is actually a massive addition to completing the feedback loop in every session between coach and swimmer.

So, as and when you're able to return to the pool, keep your first few sessions fun and light on the intensity side, practice with some of the suggested stroke contrasts to find where you need to be, or, get an accurate recording of where your stroke is currently at using one of your three (3) FREE swims on the Swim Smooth platform on your Apple Watch* to ensure that you start back on the right foot (or left hand as the case may be!).

Let us know how you get on.

Swim Smooth!


* Stroke Insights is only available with Apple Watch. You can use all the other features in the new Swim Smooth platform by connecting your Garmin or by entering your swim sessions - you don't need a wearable.
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