|This is the cover of my new book on breaststroke technique. Or, well... it might as well be.|
The breaststroke was my specialty in college. I know how fickle it can be, and as a coach it can be horribly frustrating. I have had swimmers who can't do the stroke correctly without rest. I have had others who get the timing one day and then not the next. I have even had some who have a lousy 100 and then ace the 200 the next day. It can seem random, but I have enough of an eye for the stroke and for my swimmers that I know when it is "on" and when it is not and I can often help them get on target in the warm-up pool.
I once saw an interview with Haley Spencer from Minnesota where she acknowledged something I have always felt about breaststroke: that some people practice a "different stroke" for their 100 than they do their 200. I practiced that way myself, but it is something I had never before heard verbalized. For me it was a "feel". It is a frustrating concept because it is so easy to be stuck in-between where the timing can interfere with speed, and energy that should help you move forward dissipates in all directions. Plus, we also have different types of breaststroke for different body types and so on. The kind of breaststroke you do sometimes just depends on who you are.
Some coaches do mostly drills and avoid full stroke in practice. I understand that... but I feel the opposite. I never "found" the stroke until I started doing long breaststroke sets. It forced me to get long and helped me to build a stroke where I got my head down and got my kick directly behind me. The 200 breast became my best event when I became a 5-strokes-a-length guy, and I learned that by stretching out and maximizing my kick to survive sets of 15x 200 breast. But do I coach everybody to swim breast like mine? Hell no. Like Rebecca Soni? Nope. Amanda Beard? Nope. Kitajima? Nope. Can we agree that they all are doing different strokes? Yup.
Well today I had a swimmer at NCSA's who wasn't feeling it. Even though he has been nailing it all week leading up to this and had a great meet last weekend after a week of hard work, he has felt "off" for a couple of days at juniors.. On the third day of the meet we played with the stroke in warm up to prepare for the 200 and I saw him finally get it. We changed his head position and paced a 50. It was a second and a half faster than the one he had done a few minutes before and it just looked right. Long, relaxed and clean. I was excited to see the race. I just knew it was ready...
But when the race finally began I could immediately see that he had lost the feel again. Rushed. Mis-timed. Not complete. It is so difficult to describe, and a non-swimmer or even a coach who had never been a breaststroker, probably could not have seen what I saw. His first 50 split was better than the corresponding split from his best race, but to me it looked like his first warm-up pace 50 and not the second. It was just the wrong stroke.
He had it. The feel was there... but at race time it just didn't happen. And I could tell it wasn't gonna happen, right from the dive. Nothing feels more helpless for a coach than not being able to talk them back into a good swim mid-race.
Ugh... I swear sometimes that breaststroke is one of the great puzzles of the universe. Sometimes it is more spiritual than scientific. Sometimes it is the girl you had a crush on in school who is mean to you when you smile at her. Sometimes it is the beast you tamed and caged that decides to break out of the zoo or the puppy that runs away on your birthday. Damn you breaststroke. Why can't you just show up for your damn appointments on time! We scheduled this appointment six months ago! How rude!