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Creative Coaching on a Shoestring Budget

This article was originally written for Swimming World Magazine in October, 2006.

It’s the start of a new season, and you’re trying to decide what equipment your team will need.  The options are endless:  paddles, kickboards, fins, pull buoys, tethers, and even snorkels.  The trouble is…budget.  There’s never enough money to supply everyone with everything you need.  Here are three solutions that allow you to be a creative coach on a shoestring budget.  For literally pennies a day, you can engage your swimmers and help them learn good technique together as a group, rather than lane-by-lane with limited equipment.

Backstroke Head Position

Visit your local grocery store and pick up a package of plastic cups.  For $1.99 (plus tax), you’ll get 50 cups that won’t deteriorate when they get wet, and won’t break into pieces when your swimmers chew on them between swims.  With 50 (or 100) cups, your entire team can work on head stabilization at the same time.

Fill the cup to a level that gives it some weight — too full and it’s top heavy; too empty and any little splash will knock it off.

The goal of this drill is to swim backstroke while keeping the cup balanced on your forehead.

As you get into position to push off, lay your head on the water and place the cup just above your goggles.

Push off gently and start swimming a slow, steady backstroke.  You’ll discover immediately whether you swim with a steady head…or whether you rock from side to side.  To keep the cup on your forehead, your head has to be rock steady, and your stroke has to be super smooth.  You also need to focus.

In your set, use a 10-second separation between swimmers to give each swimmer calm water.

Once you get the hang of it, you can pick up the pace, and even have water-cup relays.  As a coach, let your swimmers figure out how to push off and turn, and watch the team-building begin.

Freestyle Catch

Swimming with closed fists is an excellent way to build awareness of the catch.  But swimmers quickly learn that if they open the hand just a bit, it’s almost the same as swimming with an open hand…and coach can rarely tell the difference.

Rather than yelling at your swimmers to do as they’re told, give them something they want: money!  Toss each swimmer four pennies and have them place two in each hand.  Why two?  Because one is really easy to hide, and you’re back to the same old song and dance.  With two, if they try to slide one up between their fingers, knuckles or wherever, there’s a much better chance that the second penny will drop to the bottom.

At the end of the set, the swimmers give their “deposit” back to the coach.  Those swimmers who don’t reimburse the coach with the proper amount, have to pay for those pennies with pushups!  You can determine just how many pushups a penny is worth.  And don’t forget that any swimmer handing in three pennies must retrieve the fourth one prior to the end of practice.  You don’t want your facility to end up looking like a wishing well.

Underwater Dolphins

With the rule change in breaststroke pulldown, the unifying move in swimming is  now the underwater dolphin kick.  Working on this move is a must for all swimmers.

How can you effectively, simply, and cheaply require that every swimmer on your team is developing this skill?  First, make it simple.  Second, make it checkable.

Go online and search for bulk tubing.  Look for tubing that stretches a bit and is not rigid.  This will be the most expensive item in your bag of cheap pool tools, but you can find 25-foot sections of tubing for as little as $15.

A 25-foot section of tubing will stretch across four to five lanes without too much tension.  Or you can double it across one or two lanes.  Place the cord at the halfway point in the pool and now you’ve got your target for swimmers coming from both ends.

Develop a set based on the ability level of your swimmers.  A set of 25s is nice, but you can challenge your better swimmers with more than just a single push off.  Try a pyramid set of 25, then 50, then 75, requiring that they make it past the cord on each push off.  Adjust the interval so that they’re not just clearing the cord, but also breaking out with a good, smooth transition to swimming.

The cord makes it easy to identify those swimmers who aren’t quite making it.  If you see their recovering arm stop, then they caught the cord.  This is why you should use thin tubing rather than a nylon rope.  If they come up short, it’s not a big deal.  No rope burns is a good thing.  For those who don’t clear the cord each time, there’s always pushups (although repeating the set might be tough enough).

Let’s Add It Up:

50 swimmers doing backstroke head-stabilization drills @ 4 cents per swimmer:  $2.00

40 swimmers doing fist drill @ 4 cents per swimmer:  $1.60

30 swimmers doing underwater dolphins (6 per lane in 5 lanes) @50 cents per swimmer:  $15.00

Total outlay:  $20 for a reasonable-size team.

Money left over for coffee and a paper (to read after practice):  Priceless