There is a strange phrase swimmers use after being out of the water for long periods of time: “I seem to have lost my feel for the water”. To most this may seem ambiguous, but to swimmers it simply means that they are trying to get their grip on the water. One of the most common ways to work on your feel of the water is sculling. Sculling is simple motion of moving your hand in a figure eight motion. This is often one of the first things taught to new swimmers, as it is the simplest way to control and move your body through the water.
So why is sculling important? Sculling translates to all four of the competitive swimming strokes and is essential to setting up and maximizing the amount of water you are able to catch with your hands. Some people think that thrashing your hands as fast as you can through the water will maximize forward propulsion, but it is the amount of water you can catch with your pull that is the hallmark of true speed.
One of the first steps to learning how to scull is to go to the deep end of a pool and with a vertical body position move your hands back and forth, following a figure eight to keep pressure along the hand, and attempting to stay in place in the water. The most important thing to focus on is the angle of your hands and arms as you scull them back and forth. Imagine you are sticking your hand outside of a fast moving vehicle. The amount of resistance you feel against the wind is highly dependent on the angle of your hand position. Your hand should move no more than 8 to 10 inches laterally. The goal of this exercise is to feel yourself moving the water against your hand, creating continuous propulsion in the direction you choose. Once you begin to feel more comfortable, move to a horizontal position and attempt to stay afloat. In order to prevent your feet from sinking, you can do a small flutter or dolphin kick or wear a pull buoy. Practice different angles and hand positioning in order to familiarize yourself further with sculling. During these exercises, you want your body to be stable and not bobbing up and down. The FINIS Sculling Finger Paddles are a great tool emphasize the catch and get a better grip on the water.
Here are a few stroke specific sculling drills:
Butterfly: The main catch of your butterfly stroke is up front after placing the hands in the water. To work on this, have your arms extended straight above your head and scull back and forth with a high elbow position. Focus on feeling the water move fast not only your hands but the surface of your forearms. Accompany this motion with a small dolphin kick.
Backstroke: Lay flat on your back in the water. Anchor your elbows to your sides, close to you hip, and extend your hands outward in an L-shape. Scull your hands back and forth, focusing on the final thrust of your backstroke catch. You can extend your hands above your head, and scull in that position to work on an early catch.
Breaststroke: The catch of a great breaststroker is characterised by the outward sweeping motion at the initial stage of the stroke. To practice this, scull with your arms stretched out above your head, keeping your elbows straight. Use either a small dolphin or flutter kick to keep your legs afloat, whichever is more comfortable.
Freestyle: Sculling for freestyle can be segmented into three distinct positions. The front catch is very similar to the fly drill above; focus on a high elbow position as you scull back and forth above your head. Second, you can try moving your sculling motion level with your ribcage, with your forearm and upper arm making a 90 degree angle. Lastly, move your hands back to your side, and work on the last final push of your freestyle stroke, sculling down by your hips.
As with all things practice makes perfect. Remember to take your time and not to rush your scull. If you are persistent, you will find true value in sculling, regardless of age or experience. Have a great weekend!