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International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, 2014, 8, 5-8
© 2014 Human Kinetics, Inc.
Which Stroke First? No Stroke First!
Robert Keig Stallman, Guest Editor
Our editor-in-chief eloquently addressed the question above in his editorial in the
November 2013 issue [7(4)] of the International Journal of Aquatic Research and
Education. He was asked whether he had an opinion, and he certainly did! Thank
you very much, Professor Langendorfer. I also have an opinion (equally long and
abiding as Professor Langendorfer). I share my opinion with our readers to support
the previous editorial. But, I also feel the need to add several comments to those
of the previous editorial. In spite of the fact that this may be the most often asked
question related to the teaching of swimming, I consider it to be long-outdated,
unnecessary, and irrelevant – in other words, not only is it the wrong question, but
it ought to be a non-question!
No Stroke First! – All Strokes First!
This subtitle is taken from an article I wrote some years ago in which I rst char-
acterized this issue as outdated. Not only do I believe this is an irrelevant question,
it is usually approached from the naïve assumption that the choice is between
breaststroke and front crawl. In fact, both are extremely poor choices of a rst
stroke for inexperienced, novice swimmers. Less experienced instructors might
then ask, “Well, is it back stroke [meaning back crawl], or is it buttery?” Again,
in their innocence, many instructors today know only four strokes. They forget
that before 1956, in fact, there were only three competitive strokes. A generation
before, there had been only two recognized competitive strokes, and in 1896 in
Athens at the very rst Games of the modern era, there was only one. That today
we have four competitive strokes is merely an historical accident and not relevant
for helping learners to achieve a broad repertoire of skills and to become safer in,
on, and around the water.
Why No Stroke First?
The rationale for arguing metaphorically that no stroke should be taught rst is
simply that, although swimming strokes are important, other aquatic skills are so
much more important that they should come rst. This is, of course, exactly the point
of the previous editorial. Breath control and buoyancy control are the foundation
for all other aquatic or swimming skills. No stroke can possibly succeed without
these rmly in place rst. Unfortunately, many who engage in this debate think
of swimming as what one does with arms and legs and start virtually immediately
with propulsion. They then proceed to build a structure on an incredibly weak
foundation. Exaggerated use of articial otation devices prevents learners from
6 Stallman
becoming acquainted with a key principle of our good friend, Archimedes. Over
250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote that the recognition that the water will
hold one up is the turning point in learning to swim. And later, when ready for a
(any) stroke, we obviously select the easiest. This will result in different solutions
for different learners, often including differing combinations of arm, leg, and breath
control patterns.
What Is a Stroke?
We must not only accept that other skills must come rst, but we must also address
the question of what is a stroke. As implied above, many instructors today only
know four strokes. Some may have vague familiarity with one or two others (e.g.,
sidestroke or elementary backstroke). I suggest that an acceptable description of
any identiably unique (i.e., named) stroke is that it is a specic coordination of
movements of the limbs plus the whole body (movement of the limbs is usually
the cause – movement of the body is the effect and usually the goal) plus the inte-
gration of effective breathing which promotes effective movement, according to
the task at hand.
I once challenged swimming instructor candidates-in-training to list all of the
leg strokes (i.e., kicks) they could think of. For argument’s sake, let’s say there are
5 (i.e., utter kick, breaststroke kick, scissors kick, dolphin kick, egg beater kick).
Then, if moving on the front (i.e., prone position), how many ways can you use
the arms? Again, let’s say 5 for the sake of the discussion (i.e., alternating with
over water recovery, alternating with underwater recovery, simultaneous with
over water recovery, simultaneous with underwater recovery, and alternating with
one arm recovering over water, the other underwater). We agreed that this should
represent 25 different strokes. Repeat this on the back and now we have 50, and
on the side and we have perhaps 150! Can the arms and legs be coordinated in 2–3
different ways? Over 300! Can we regulate breathing at 2–3 different places and
directions? Over 600!
In fact, performing all named swimming strokes which may provide a unique
contribution to water competence should be included in any comprehensive aquatic
education program. At present, there are between 10–15 named strokes, each of
which may be a single best solution in some given situation; these have survived
the test of time. All of these ought to have equal value, each in its own way. The
tendency to devalue some compared to others is regrettable. These three examples
among many others ought to sufce to illustrate my point: It is easier to see where
you are going on the front; it is easier to breathe on the back; and swimming on
the side sometimes offers the best of both!
Why All Strokes First?
Again, this notion echoes the words of our editor in his previous editorial when he
argued for introducing several strokes at the same time. Most simply stated, back
crawl is only crawl upside down (or vice versa). This is enough for many learners
(and with a demonstration, more than enough). Surely we benet from introducing
both front and back crawl at approximately the same time. There are other possibili-
Which Stroke First? No Stroke First! 7
ties, for example. Once comfortable on the back, from a beginner stroke on the back
(crawl utter kick + nning or sculling with the hands and arms), the elementary
backstroke arm movement is logical and natural. This could be combined with
either the utter or breaststroke kicks. Arguments for all strokes rst then might be:
• Even when ready for a stroke (perhaps any), no stroke suits all. The easiest for
one, may not be the easiest for another. Individualized teaching requires us to
teach several simultaneously.
• Again in the interest of individualizing, we might introduce two types of arm
strokes at more or less the same time (e.g., perhaps one alternating, crawl-like,
the other symmetric, breaststroke-like). Each learner will quickly show us
instructors the way that is best for them (at that point in time). This will provide
added motivation both because the (1) learner has been involved in making
the choice (probably subconsciously), and (2) having made an appropriate
choice, progress will be more rapid, and no learner is left behind, waiting for
what is appropriate for them at that point in time. When offering two choices
in such a situation, if we later repeat the process, asking all now to work on
the one they have not chosen rst, they will soon become procient at both.
• Starting with several skills/strokes at the same time gives the learner a head
start in acquiring a variety of skills as a broad aquatic skill repertoire. It also
opens the way for possible transfer of learning from one to another skill or
setting. Another common example here is oating on the front and oating
on the back. While several studies suggest that most learn to oat rst on the
front, those who oat rst on the back are very normal, just not as common.
Introducing both at roughly the same time prevents any from having to wait
for what suits them best.
So – What Really Comes First?
The editor and I have agreed that foundational skills come rst, including breath
and buoyancy control along with a certain amount of postural and rotational con-
trol. Even if the wise instructor has carefully helped to lay the strongest possible
foundation of “readiness” skills rst, when the learner is ready for propulsive skills,
some choices need to be made. Ideally, we guide the learners using a degree of
individualized exibility, allowing each some choice. But this instructional process
need not be intimidating to instructors. At these points in the learner’s progress,
there are rarely more than two choices. One who has begun to get a feeling for a
particular leg stroke such as the utter kick could be introduced to two potential
arm movements at the same time. For example, on the front, a crawl-like arm stroke
and a breaststroke-like arm movement could both be used with a utter kick. Some
will naturally choose one, some the other. Again, no one has to wait for what suits
them best; the learner shows the way!
The so-called beginner strokes in fact are real strokes. They are as old if not
older than the named “traditional” competitive strokes. When adhering to the prin-
ciple of progressing from known to unknown, such as crawling before walking,
the easiest (for each individual) is what comes rst. The crawl (i.e., utter) kick
combined with either nning or sculling with the hands may be the absolute easiest
8 Stallman
of choices on the back. On the front, it may be a more crawl-like stroke, but with
an underwater arm recovery. By the way, the human stroke, named in the previous
editorial is not the same as the so-called “dog paddle.” In the human stroke, the face
is in the water and the arm strokes are longer, with the beginnings of both a pull
and a push phase. This is for many a useful step on the way to acquiring the front
crawl stroke with its out-of-water arm recovery. And many learn rotary breathing
more easily when coupled with an underwater recovery. But, some learners may
choose a symmetric arm stroke rst with a utter kick. Both of these also are real
strokes. Hopefully readers can discern that using this approach the novice learner
may have acquired 3–4 different strokes, none of which are among the four tradi-
tional competitive strokes. By the time a learner has managed to swim at least 200
meters, my experience is that they certainly should have acquired 4–5 different
strokes, especially if we include these beginning strokes.
It’s time to put this age-old question to rest. No single stroke should always
come rst!
Junge, M. (1984). Beginning swimming, Unpublished Masters Thesis, The Norwegian School
of Sport Science, Oslo, Norway.
Langendorfer, S.J., & Bruya, L.D. (1995). Aquatic readiness: Developing water competence
in young children. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Lanoue, F. (1963). Drownproong. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentiss-Hall.
Sinclair, A., & Henry, H. (1893). Swimming. London, UK: Longmans.
Smith, M. (1971). Motor learning and swimming. Proceedings of the International Sympo-
sium on the Art & Science of Coaching. Toronto, Canada: The Coaching Association
of Canada & The Canadian Olympic Committee, F.I. Productions.
Stallman, R., Junge, M., & Blixt, T. (2008). The teaching of swimming based on a model
derived from the causes of drowning. International Journal of Aquatic Research and
Education, 2(4), 372–382.
Thomas, R. (1904). Swimming. London, UK: Sampson, Low, Marston.
Whiting, H.T.A. (1971). The persistent non-swimmer. London, UK: Museum Press.
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... Learning to float can be negatively impacted by a competitive atmosphere, but it emerges best from being at ease and relaxed. Humanity's fascination with all forms of elite technology and the outcome of pushing past feelings in the water leads many to expect and have a fight with water from the outset of their learning (Langendorfer, 2013;Stallman, 2014). Organisations focused on elite competition will always garner most of our collective resources and will continue to erode the interest of whole populations in learning floating skills until aquatic professionals recognise the problem and choose to inform learners directly about these negative effects. ...
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One of the variables that influence motor learning is the learner’s previous experience, which may provide perceptual and motor elements to be transferred to a novel motor skill. For swimming skills, several motor experiences may prove effective. Purpose. The aim was to analyse the influence of previous experience in playing in water, swimming lessons, and music or dance lessons on learning the breaststroke kick. Methods. The study involved 39 Physical Education students possessing basic swimming skills, but not the breaststroke, who performed 400 acquisition trials followed by 50 retention and 50 transfer trials, during which stroke index as well as rhythmic and spatial configuration indices were mapped, and answered a yes/no questionnaire regarding previous experience. Data were analysed by ANOVA (p = 0.05) and the effect size (Cohen’s d ≥0.8 indicating large effect size). Results. The whole sample improved their stroke index and spatial configuration index, but not their rhythmic configuration index. Although differences between groups were not significant, two types of experience showed large practical effects on learning: childhood water playing experience only showed major practically relevant positive effects, and no experience in any of the three fields hampered the learning process. Conclusions. The results point towards diverse impact of previous experience regarding rhythmic activities, swimming lessons, and especially with playing in water during childhood, on learning the breaststroke kick.
More than 400,000 people drown every year. Many of these episodes are avoidable. The lack of basic attitudes, knowledge and skills are often behind the tragedy. The causes of drowning should dictate the way we teach swimming, what children should learn. Yet the way we teach swimming has varied dramatically over time and still today there are many philosophies and methods that enjoy popularity. A post WWII phenomenon has been the commercialisation of the teaching of swimming. Here the variety is even greater and an unfortunate number of teachers or schools emphasize that which is popular with parents (the paying client). While some research has been conducted, conclusions are vague and are not popularly known. After all, reason many, learning to swim is really quite simple, we all know what it means to swim or to be able to swim. But do we? Yes, it is simple. In the !930's the eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead, while studying the Manus people of New Guinea, observed that it was as uncommon for a Manus child of four to be unable to swim as it was for a western child of four to be unable to walk. But what was the ingredient that dictated success? Again, simple. These children, of people who lived by fishing, were in the water every day, all day. No one tried to teach them to swim, it happened naturally. It never occurred to any one that it would not happen and therefore was not an issue. Some modern researchers and educators even classify swimming as a "basic movement", like walking, something that is not learned but is part of development. In the 1970's the Canadian swimming educator and motor learning researcher Prof. Murray Smith, reflected on Margaret Meads observation. In the developed countries, where admittedly we can not all swim outdoors all year round, we have swimming pools, swimming lessons, swimming instructors, agencies that train instructors, ad infinitum. Yet we are happy with less than 100% success. Some are slow, some just don't seem to get it. Smith asked rhetorically, "why do we not reach 100% success when we put so much effort into it, when people like the Manus achieve 100% with no effort"? Insightfully he concluded, "The way we teach often runs counter to the way people learn". We still argue about which stroke should be taught first, about the part vs whole issue, massed vs distributed learning, which if any teaching aids should be used, floatation devices or not, which methodology, by which criteria do we judge that the child can swim, etc. Wilbur Longfellow, the American swimming and life saving pioneer of pre-WWI days had much of the solution when he said, "we must entertain them mightily and teach them carefully". In the 1750's Benjamin Franklin had observed that the turning point in learning to swim is the recognition that "the water holds me up"! Today, fortunes are made by producers of a variety of devices designed to prevent the child from experiencing his or her own natural buoyancy. Shades of yore! The relationship between movement economy and survival is overlooked. Swimming is learned indoors while drowning happens primarily outdoors. How many children have the opportunity to experience swimming while clothed or the discomfort of cold water? For all too many, swimming is a matter only of performing the correct movements. We believe it is much more. It is not the purpose of this paper to discuss methodology, although much has yet to be discussed and investigated. We admit that there is need for innovation and variety in method, especially given the concern of modern pedagogy for individualised teaching. At the same time, this must not be at the cost of essential content. It is our contention that there is content
Aquatic readiness: Developing water competence in young children
  • S J Langendorfer
  • L D Bruya
Langendorfer, S.J., & Bruya, L.D. (1995). Aquatic readiness: Developing water competence in young children. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Motor learning and swimming
  • M Smith
Smith, M. (1971). Motor learning and swimming. Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Art & Science of Coaching. Toronto, Canada: The Coaching Association of Canada & The Canadian Olympic Committee, F.I. Productions.
The persistent non-swimmer
  • H T A Whiting
Whiting, H.T.A. (1971). The persistent non-swimmer. London, UK: Museum Press.
The persistent non-swimmer
  • R Thomas
  • Swimming
  • London
  • Sampson
  • Marston Low
  • H T A Whiting
Thomas, R. (1904). Swimming. London, UK: Sampson, Low, Marston. Whiting, H.T.A. (1971). The persistent non-swimmer. London, UK: Museum Press.