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The 4 Toughest Swimming Skills to Teach at Every Level

04/27/2016, 5:00am PDT
By Kelvin Cech


Most sports include a range of skills that naturally improve with time. Truth be told, a common strategy of coaches in many sports is to just stick with the same athlete for years. That way, there’s no way they won’t improve, right?

When it comes to swimming, however, lazy coaches have nowhere to hide. Swimming plunges athletes of all ages into a completely foreign world beneath the water. Age means nothing for swim coaches. Sure, the body matures and grows stronger, but that just means there’s more weight to push around. 

With that in mind, I asked the NSWC’s new Marlins head swimming coach Patrick Sheppard about some of the toughest skills to teach swimmers of any age. 

1. The Butterfly Stroke

The Challenge: the butterfly stroke is not only the most taxing stroke for young children to learn, but it’s also a challenge for older athletes because of the degree of technical difficulty. 

Patrick: “First you have to learn how to dolphin kick properly. Using the hips is one thing, but then you add arms at the same time and you have to figure out how to time the kicks properly.”

Some young athletes pick up on the coordination right away, others take longer. But for Patrick, no matter how old you are, the butterfly is one of the most difficult strokes to wrap your mind around. 

2. The Breast Stroke

The Challenge: Similar to the butterfly, the breast stroke forces you to learn how to use the whip kick properly and nail the timing while using both arms and legs. 

Patrick: “I’m a breast stoker myself. It’s tricky to time your limbs so you can nail the glide. It’s tough for swimmers, whether they’re young or just new, but it’s also difficult as you get older because everyone else improves as well.”

The butterfly and the breast stroke represent a significant challenge for swimmers because they don’t always come naturally. However, for Patrick, finding success with these two strokes is an achievement that will pay off significantly down the road. 

3. The Patience 

The Challenge: There’s nothing quite like the sights and sounds of an outdoor pool. Everyone wants to knife into the water and take off like a cannon. It’s a big challenge to take your time and learn the nuances of specific strokes so you can perform them properly. 

Patrick: “It seems like a lot of young swimmers want to get to the other end of the pool as fast as they can no matter what. Sometimes the result isn’t pretty. Swimmers at every level need to learn to slow things down and focus on the small details. You have to go slow before you go fast, and that’s often tricky for new swimmers to learn.”

4. The Organization

The Challenge: Patrick was hesitant to talk about any of the difficulties associated with his new position as the Marlins’ head coach, but I was able to coax out of him the realities of his new role. It’s a lot of work to keep the athletes and coaches of a summer swim team spread out across multiple levels organized. However, at the end of the day, there’s a significant reward for those who push themselves to be just a little bit faster, a little stronger, and a little bit better, both in and out of the water.

Patrick: “I think the toughest part about the role of head coach, but also for the other coaches in general, is not necessarily the 2 to 4 hours you spend at the pool every day coaching and helping the swimmers but it’s the stuff that’s required off the pool deck, the organization that it takes to make sure there’s coaches at all these different practices, going to the meets, dealing with the entries for meets, and speaking with different parents about concerns.”

For Patrick Sheppard, his battle is split into two spheres, that of the technically proficient swim coach and that of the young administrator and leader. It’s a valuable role as I’m sure we can all agree, and it’s one Patrick is looking forward to. 


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