Building the Complete Water Polo Player Part II: Swim better to Swim Faster! The Hard Skill of Swimming By Pete Arroyo

In my previous writing I mentioned that our aquatic athletes must find a way to overcome several training obstacles. Major issues include lack of ability to play year-round and its place as a tertiary sport for most schools. In my opinion, this combination can be a blessing in disguise. Firstly, in a broad-spectrum sense we can devote this time to developing team skills by playing other sports, as well as, improving on our lagging physical and technical skills. As we learned before about the critical skill of the eggbeater; the skill of swimming in and of itself becomes another crucial skill for those in the developmentary ranks such as the athletes I work with. The purpose of this article is to espouse the importance of improving swimming skills especially for those in the developmentary stage (high school) will build a basis of sprinting speed and technical efficiency.

For the sake of comparison, I’ll refer to a study that examined both absolute (sprint speed) and repeated sprint abilities (think conditioning here) that compared swimmers and water polo players. The researchers discovered that swimmers had the edge over water polo players in swim speed in short distances (25m) in which swimmers had the edge by over a half second (11.65s vs. 12.26s respectively); and two seconds in the long distances (800m-9.43 vs. 11.43 min) which was consistent with their initial hypothesis {1}.

Why Speed is King in the water to!
If anyone is familiar with the concepts and practices of renown track sprint coaches Tony Holler and Chris Korfist (Track and Football Consortium), you may find a parallel here. In fact, many collegiate football programs are asking recruits for their track times alongside their football resume. There is a bit of recruiting industry behind this as well with services such as trackingfootball.com, which provides analytics based on unique athletic scores based on track and field for prospective footballers {5}. Philosophically I see swim speed for a water polo player would be analogous to an athlete that improves their absolute speed during track season as a proxy to their status in a field sport such as football, lacrosse, rugby, or soccer.

Most modern track and football coaches would agree that the hard skill development involved in sprinting sets the stage for success on the football field. I would be hard pressed to find a high school polo coach that would disagree that swimming would not help their water polo players. Two of my best male water polo players not only achieved all-state and all-American status in polo but also doubled those honors in swimming. Many other of my high achieving polo players (both on the Men and Women’s side) have had comparable achievements in both sports ranging from state honorable mentions in water polo and state placers in swim.

Don’t mess with KJ!

I believe the positive effects of swimming ability and water polo is two-fold. Firstly, developing the technical skills to swim fast in the free style (front crawl) for break away, loose balls, and swim offs (which happen four times a game) will turn a polo player’s speed into a weapon.

Sean eyes the prize!

Learning the backstroke will also enhance the skills of the defensive players during transitions and spin moves. Secondly, the mental fortitude of a racer is paramount for an aggressive and confident polo player. In other words, would you want to play with someone who thrives on pressure or succumbs to it? Would you also want the other team wary of your team because you have an ace swimmer, or several of them, that can break away at any time and win every swim off? You’d be crazy to not want speed!

EC ready to Race!

Perfecting the Hard Skills
In Expanding upon the concept of developing a fast swimmer to improve polo play, we must recognize this endeavor is approached from a skills-based process. And like every skill requiring total body effort and coordination there are rules to follow in terms of position, posture, and technique. This is what is meant by a hard skill. Even casually looking at any athlete at their peak, they all have commonalities in their technique. The great thing about the study above was that it not only found the obvious of superior speed of swimmers over polo players but also inferred as to why that may be. Specifically that swimmers have technical superiority over water polo players “…These findings may indicate that the superior head-down front-crawl swimming skill previously noted for swimmers compared to water polo players (Cazorla and Montpetit, 1988)…”. {1}. The significance of this finding manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, in terms of preservation and injury reduction. “Understand that most injuries have a neuromuscular base. It is a combination of technique and strength or other physical qualities as they relate to the execution of the skills on the field.” {6} Basically the two major mechanisms of injury are lack of technique and insufficient strength (more on strength later), which should go hand in hand. If our aquatic athletes are trained in the proper mechanical execution of swimming, then they will cease to wear themselves out during sprints and have reserves for the possible extreme variations in stroke technique.

Secondly, this study also examined the work capacity and energy system abilities for water polo players and their swim counterparts. At first thought the researchers favored water polo players over swimmers in respect to a repeated high-speed sprint effort test. Given that the sport itself (scrimmage practice included) has a mix of intense efforts (racing to the goal or a loose ball) and less intense efforts (treading/ eggbeater) versus swimmers who compete in single efforts (usually with large rest times between events) one can see how this may play out. To the surprise of the researchers, swimmers outperformed water polo players in repeat sprint efforts. “However, in contrast to our second hypothesis, water polo players exhibited poorer RSA compared to the swimmers (Figure 1).” {1}  

Repeated sprint test indices among elite water polo players and elite swimmers. IS = Ideal Sprint Time; TS = Total Sprint Time; PD = Performance Decrement.
*NOTE THE PD WHICH IS A MEASURE OF DROP IN SPEED PERFORMNACE IN THE RSA TEST

In this case the technical superiority of the swimmer allowed for a better stroke economy per sprint effort. Specifically, the superior posture and position of the swimmers in the “front crawl” allowed better stroke precision and kick coordination.

One can certainly make the argument that more chaotic stroke patterns will occur during a polo match (much like sprinting in field athletes where varying patterns and degrees of freedom of technique will occur with deviations from linear. While it is true that no one movement will truly look the same as the previous, it does not give us a free pass to bypass technical development {2}.

Agile Swimmers

Without a base standard of swim technique and mechanics; our varying degrees of stroke patterns will suffer. If our body and brains do not know what optimal and efficient patterns are, then the variations will not be as powerful nor efficient. In this case, the less technically swim trained polo player will have less margin for error and may fatigue at a faster rate, offering themselves to more injurious situation. This is something we obviously want to avoid when not in contact with an opponent. Up and coming water polo players should realize the importance of this concept and take initiative in developing the hard skill of optimal swimming technique. Swimming competitively on a team in short course season or seeking out a qualified coach are viable options to garner the competent hard skills of swimming.

Well that sounds great…but what can we do outside of the pool? Again. I can’t stress enough my role as a physical preparation/ athletic development coach. My objective is to help PREPARE athletes for the demands of their water sports, not BE the water sport. The following will cover how I attempt to develop and bridge the gap to the hard skills of swimming through strength without ‘bringing the water to the weight room’ or wherever else you may train.

Key Movements Concepts: The front crawl

Reach and recovery

Here I’ll borrow concepts from how I train a swimmer. We’ll begin with the front crawl. Examining this in a basic sense we can see that the athlete in lying prone over the top of the water reaching over the head with one arm and retracting the other; cycling in a crawling motion in the attempt to “grab water” to propel the body forward. The legs are also working in opposition in the kicking motion to enhance this propulsion via a rudder effect. Essentially, we have a prone cross crawl pattern to produce horizontal movement; most of which is produced by the upper body.

Parts…Part I: The Plank aka “getting long”
Firstly, we must examine posture and position. In my opinion the alignment of the trunk (via the spine) is of paramount importance. As this will determine how well the athlete is able to keep their torso over the surface of the water to have the best position to propel the body forward. Any type of slumped posture while attempting to get long, will limit overhead reach and any hyper-lordodic posture will limit the ability to kick effectively. Think Janda lower/ upper cross postures to an extent here. (***We must not deny the flexion/ extension moments of the spine that happen during the dolphin kick action.) For us this begins with a robust plank position from head to toe. Head in line with shoulders, in line with hips, in line with ankles; this is our base posture. If our athletes are unable to at least hold this for the duration of a swim event (twenty seconds to five minutes) then they may exhibit a performance bleed at the shoulders or hips somewhere along the line. We use the planking drills as living diagnostic in which we can encourage proper positions while correcting faulty ones. The beauty of holding positions and most isometric drills is that kids learn by “thinking their way” through the drill. They learn what optimal and non-optimal positions feel like. In this case we cue a glute squeeze opposed to a stomach brace. If you’ve recently attended a clinic where Cal Dietz has presented, you probably know why. {4} What we’ve consistently found was that overly bracing the abdominal region waters down (pun intended) performance about the appendages. On the other hand, a squeeze of the butt allows a stable alignment and allows for the spine to move properly during strokes. You do want some rotation here rotation to happen here when swimming.

Parts…Part II: Bear Crawling
Next, we extend the idea of the front crawl by doing exactly that…CRAWLING!!! Athletic development and training experts from Vern Gambetta to Jay DeMayo to Donnie Thompson are advocates of some form of walking on the hands to not only load the shoulder joint but also to connect the upper and lower body. I hold this philosophy to be true as it helps us apply rhythm and coordination while maintaining this “planked” posture as they will in the water. We’ll typically incorporate bear crawling variations in our warmups. Five yards seems to be a good distance and we’ll go forward, backward, to the left, then the right, and do the same while crossing the hands over. Once, our kids are no longer challenged by normal bear crawls we’ll load it by condensing the breaks, adding into a “medley,” or a mini-band around the wrists. As well as these variations
Forward/ Backward Bear Crawl:

 

Lateral Bear Crawl:

 

Lateral carioca:

The connection: Croc Walk progressions
Once regular planking and bear crawling become easy then we join these parts into a whole movement of sorts. We have our kids put their feet on furniture sliders and crawl forward and backward. For us the croc walk is way we bring “life” to the basic plank. The technique here resembles the front crawl as seen in swimming, sans the kicking. Our athletes are instructed to grab the ground as they would grab the water while maintaining the plank position with the rest of torso. The hips may twist a little but don’t let them sway. This proves to be quite challenging for most at first but give this a try for a few weeks and they’ll be able to do the cycle croc walks before you know it. The cycle crocs are another part of the progression in which the athlete work their arms through the catch, pull, exit, and recovery cycle. The next progression is a loaded cycle croc in which we attach a load at the hips. We’ve done these with bands, a sled, and even an Exergenie sprint trainer. DO NOT rush to get to this point, it is imperative that your athlete must earn their progression by mastering planking, the basic crawls, and possess a surplus of upper body strength at least (10 plus strict pull-ups) in the general exercises. This will come into play as when we use this drill as a “compete” exercise and time a ten-yard croc. Important exercises here are the body weight drills such as the pullup and various versions of the push-up as they form the base of shoulder extension and resisting a force in front of the body.

Forward Cycle Croc

 

Backward Cycle Croc

 

More Parts
In my opinion good programs include a blend of specialized and broad-spectrum exercises (general). We can also refer to them as part exercises as joint actions with these drills may include “part” of the whole movement, the front crawl in this case. I’ll use the phases of the arm cycle as reference points for the exercises and the muscles involved.

The free style catch involves the arm reaching overhead with the hand entering the water with slight internal rotation of the shoulder. Exercises we use are overhead pressing with dumbbells (single arm preferred) and pushup variations using sliders, rings, or straps. We use these drills to improve the reach. More recently we have found that employing a Coiling Core Concept ™ during alternating arm patterns allows our aquatic athletes to bridge the gap between general and specific in their effort to “get longer.” This concept can aid in teaching the coordination of the reach, spinal movement, and contraction of the opposite latissimus dorsi which loads the recovery arm for subsequent strokes. {3}

Reaching Pushups Y Pattern

Reaching Pushups I Pattern

 

The pull initially involves almost pure internal rotation with the humerus abducted at ninety degrees (the popular 90/90 position). To work this action the rubber band rehab/ PT type of exercises that involve the internal rotation may serve a purpose here in initial stages of training. Med ball throws of the repeated and single effort type will add a power component to this as well as training the muscles and pattern to throw with more velocity.
The pull will transition to the arm drawing downward (shoulder depression/ arm lateral adduction) toward the hip as in a bent arm pullover movement then into pure arm extension as it enters the “exit” phase. The key is keeping the “high elbow” (toward the head and toward the water). For us this is where having a strong pullup in all grips come into play. The wide grips strengthen shoulder depression in lateral adduction while the neutral grip allows us to use pure latissimus dorsi work as the arm goes into extension as in the transition to the exit. Another key exercise would be a pullover with straight elbows. You may use a light barbell here, but I prefer to use bands or a flywheel device that allows us greater range of motion.

flywheel pullover

repeat front slam

 

The exit phase (finish) resembles what meatheads may know as a kick back. Keep in mind that this action follows the for mentioned pullover action. The elbow and arm extension act as a finisher of projection before the hand reaches the surface of the water. Here we can use dumbbell kick-backs with a pronated wrist, old school barbell triceps extensions, and full pullovers for general development. If we want to get closer to the specificity spectrum we can use the flywheel device (adding a decelerative component via eccentric force) and we have recently discovered a unique drill for flyers and breaastrokers using a basic dolley.  Here we can train the full stroke so to speak in the manner and contractile regime in which it happens.

Flywheel Kickback

 

Flyer Crawl

https://youtu.be/FzHdYQ1cQkg

 

 

The exit phase then leads to the recovery phase in which the arm shortens close to the body as it is pulled up out of the water before reaching to enter for the catch. The muscles of the posterior shoulder girdle, deltoids, and trapezius are put to work in this action. Basically, every muscle that moves the scapula in every angle is worked in swimming. While most strength and physical prep (many of whom have been influenced by well-meaning PTs) only opt for scapular depression and retraction exercises and technique. Emphasis on the basic rowing exercises will only serve us so much, we must not neglect EVERY movement of the scapula. Protraction and upward rotation must be at equilibrium in terms of strength; with the afore mentioned movements. In other words, don’t be afraid to shrug, don’t’ be afraid to reach horizontally, and certainly don’t be afraid to go overhead. Our programs do include Olympic lifts and pulling variations that link scapular coordination from toe to head. We also employ isolated scapula actions in our pullups and pushups that cover depression, retraction, and upward rotation/ elevation.

Much like their field athlete counterparts, our aquatic athletes must prepare with emphasis of skill as well as strength and conditioning. As physical preparation coaches our duty is to not only cover the strength and work capacity components of their development but also bridge the gap to skill. This may seem like a difficult task in working with aquatic athletes but if we can give them what the water isn’t, we are on the right track. In my experience I’ve never seen young women and men that are as dedicated and loyal to training as my aquatic athletes. I hope the concepts and drills above were easy to grasp and will allow other physical prep coaches the opportunity to diversify and connect with their aquatic athletes to have the same rewarding exercises I’ve had.

Owner of Legacy Strength Systems (LSS), Pete provides athletic physical preparation services to some of the Naperville area’s finest athletes. Specializing in the preparation of driven grade school and high school athletes in their quest to get to the next level. LSS is the training choice for Naperville Central High Schools women’s and men’s swim team as well as the Naperville North women’s and men’s swim and women’s aquatic athletic programs.

{1} Repeated Sprint Ability in Elite Water Polo Players and Swimmers and its Relationship to Aerobic and Anaerobic Performance (Meckel, Y1, Bishop, D. Rabinovich, M1, Kaufman, L. 1, Nemet, D3,, and Eliakim, Alon)

{2} The Paradox of a Hammer—Cracking Motor Pathways to Hard & Soft Skills
By Jeff Moyer https://simplifaster.com/articles/hammer-paradox-motor-pathways/; 2018
{3} Coiling Core, Concept Weck Method. David Weck.
{4} https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKq4EKysrNw Bracing Your Core – Cal Dietz & Dr. Andy Galpin on Episode 217
{5} https://www.trackingfootball.com/
{6} Yessis, Dr. Micheal. https://www.elitefts.com/education/are-injuries-due-mainly-to-conditioning-or-lack-of-conditioning/

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