How to Improve Your Movement Through the Water

My fascination with sculling began in a high school lifeguard class. My teacher taught us many different types of sculls and as the only girl in the class I took it upon myself to be the best in the class at the skill.  Most of the boys were faster swimmers than I but I could scull forwards, backwards, spin, and even hold my legs straight out of the water upside down. As I started teaching and coaching swimming I spent many years sculling forwards and backwards along with my swimmers. It was not only useful for teaching but I also got faster and stronger as well. I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to scull with my little hands until a chance encounter with a turtle while scuba diving in the Cayman Islands. A couple flicks of his flippers and the ungainly land animal was twenty feet away from me. I was left yards behind and as hard as I tried could not catch him. After all these years what was I doing wrong and how could I do it better?

What is sculling?

Sculling is a back and forth motion with your hand, like you are drawing a figure eight. Your elbows should stay relaxed and there is minimal movement from the shoulders. What is most important is that you keep your palm slightly oriented in the direction that you would like to travel as you apply pressure to the water. The most common mistake that people make when sculling is making a circular motion – very similar to a small breaststroke pull – instead of the figure eight.

Why do we scull?

The greatest of swimmers use their hands like an anchor in the water and ‘catch’ or ‘hold’ the water while swimming. Instead of moving their hand through the water what they do is keep their hand in place and their body moves through the water. Think of elementary school gym class and pulling yourself hand over hand to the top of the gym ceiling by climbing the rope using only your hands. Beginner swimmers, or inefficient swimmers, may not have as good of an anchor or what many coaches call ‘Feel for the Water’. Their hands slip through the water more than holding it. By adding sculling to our workout we increase our sensitivity to the water on our palms. We learn how to feel where to apply pressure during the catch and pull so that it becomes more instinctive when we swim.

How to do it effectively

Start by bringing the right tools with you to the pool. A snorkel is a great tool for any set of sculling drills. It allows you to keep your head in the water and keep your body position horizontal the length of the pool. If you tend to sink in the water then use a pull buoy as well. I prefer not to have my swimmers kick when sculling so that they can feel any movement coming from their hands.

Keep your shoulders relaxed and elbow movement minimal. The faster you do the figure eight motion with your hands and wrists and ‘flick’ or ‘press’ the water towards your feet with your palms the faster you will move towards the other end of the pool.

If you find you are bouncing a lot slow down a little and pay attention to your palms. Your palms are sending more energy towards the bottom of the pool than towards your feet and making you bounce. A slight change in orientation will help to fix the problem. If you are moving slowly you may only be applying pressure on your palms on the out-sweep and not the in-sweep or vice versa. Both propel you forward so take a little time to focus and

When you add a new sculling drill into your workout you are using new muscles. Start with a few twenty-fives and then rest so that you can do them correctly and with proper technique. Mix it up with a long swim in between and then a few more twenty-fives of a different type of scull to build up your strength. Sculling is a great recovery after a hard set, a good part of a warm-up to get a feel for the water, or even for a cool down to reset your strokes after a long workout.

Having trouble grasping the skill or moving through the water?

If everyone at practice seems to be leaving you yards behind them and you’re struggling to move there’s an at home drill you can practice before you head back to the pool. Take an 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of white paper and stand in front of a mirror and try your sculling again. Standing in front of the mirror put the paper on your palm and scull back and forth using a figure eight motion. Remember that the motion should be from your hand and wrist, not your elbow and shoulder. If you’re having trouble at first, try getting your fingertips wet or folding the paper in half. Start with your dominant hand and then move on to the other side. Once you have mastered both sides then take it back to the pool to see your improvement!

Challenge yourself

We often do the same three or four sculling drills in practice: front scull, windshield wiper or 90 degrees scull, finish or hip scull, and backstroke scull with hands at our hips. Our body and hands are in good position when we do those sculls so they are easy to master and move through the water. If you want to get stronger and more efficient you need to try different sculls and different body positions. Try sculling feet first with hands above your head lying both on your front and on your back. Depending on your body type a pull buoy is a necessity with this scull! For backstroke you can scull on your side one arm at a time. Do you feel the difference between your dominant arm and non-dominant arm? My favorite scull is one that I call the Travelling Scull. I start at the catch position for freestyle and scull all the way from the catch to the finish. I do both hands at the same time and go slowly. If there’s a spot where I feel like I’m not holding the water as well that day I may stay there for six to eight sculls before moving on. When I get to the finish I recover underwater like breaststroke and start over again.

At the start of my sculling career I was good at the normal sculling drills. After challenging myself with different sculls in different body positions, I am faster and stronger in both my sculling and my swimming. If I ever run into that turtle again I probably still won’t keep up but I have learned a lot since our encounter!