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Technique and Training

Why Sculling Drills Matter

All strokes benefit from finding a feel for the water

Scott Bay | October 10, 2016

When sculling, you create high- and low-pressure areas by changing the pitch and shape of your hand. Much the way an airplane wing or a propeller works, the movement of water around your hand during sculling creates high pressure on the palm and low pressure on the back of the hand. That pressure difference creates movement.

Sculling drills teach you to take advantage of those pressure differences in the water and they help you develop a sense of how the water moves around you, also commonly referred to as “feel” for the water.

New Thinking On Sculling

Years ago, when the S-type pull was all the rage, coaches asked swimmers to practice a lot of sculling drills. Fast-forward a few decades, the S-type pull is no longer the preferred hand path, and many sculling drills have gone away. But we can still learn a lot about feel for the water by doing some fairly simple sculling drills. Getting in touch with your feel for the water will help you with every stroke, not just freestyle.

Sculling Drills

These drills are a less like swimming and more like a workout all on their own.

  • Seated sculling. Masters and kids alike love this one. Lie on the water, face up, with your feet facing down the lane and your hands at your sides. Gently bend slightly at your waist and bring your toes and face out of the water, almost as if you’re sitting in a recliner. Begin a sweeping out and in motion with your hands slightly cupped and fingers pitched downward. You’ll start to move forward feet-first if you’re doing it right. Note that this is not a breaststroke pull, but rather a true sculling motion, small and close to your sides.
  • Sculling with a pull buoy. This is a variant on a classic sculling drill. Coaches used to have swimmers kick while doing this drill and the good kickers got very little out of it. Instead, use a pull buoy to keep your legs afloat and lie on the water, face down, with arms extended out in front. (A snorkel is helpful on this drill.) Begin the small sculling motion, not large like a breaststroke pull, while keeping your arms straight. This is a slow drill but, with the hands slightly cupped, you should be able to move forward.
  • Surf sculling. This is a swimmer favorite! Stand on a kickboard as if it’s a surfboard, only under the surface of the water. With your hands out front and slightly cupped, begin a small sculling motion while remaining standing on the board. This takes some practice and you can sit on the kickboard instead of standing. (Don’t do this drill too close to your lanemates; when you fall off the board, it can shoot to the surface and bang someone in the chin).

Developing the Feel

It won’t take you long to figure out which swimming muscles are being worked here. All of these drills require you to keep tension in the core and develop some strength there. Additionally, as you become better at sculling, you’ll become more aware of where the water slips off your hands. You’ll learn how to manipulate the pitch of your hands to make yourself go faster.

In all of these drills, you’re essentially trying to hold the water rather than having your hand slice through it. The drills can be frustrating and will take some time to master. Remember, the important thing is to feel the water, not to win a sculling race. Sculling, done properly, will translate to better swimming in all of your strokes.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.

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