Swimming, Freestyle

The water is your friend… You don’t have to fight it… It will help you move.  

– Alexandr Popov

In my time doing underwater video analysis (which has spanned over 13 years) I have found that the majority of competitive swimmers, irrespective of age or level, make similar mistakes. They don’t necessarily make all of them, or exactly the same ones, but I usually sound like a stuck record in my feedback sessions. I can fully understand why coaches often become desensitised to certain errors which they see every day, choosing rather to focus on other areas to find speed improvements.

But improving stroke technique minimises drag and improves propulsion – making it a win-win situation for any swimmer to get faster and swim more efficiently. Don’t fight the water, work with it!

Here are some of the most common mistakes I see when looking at FREESTYLE. Do you make these? If so, ask your coach for drills to improve it.

Poor Head Position

  • The head position is often the key that unlocks the rest of the stroke.
  • Improper positioning results in compensations that limit the stroke, increase drag and cause the swimmer to waste energy fighting the water.
  • On the other hand, moving the head into the correct position neutralises these negatives and allows for efficiency and power in the stroke.
  • The spine should always be neutral – good posture is vital in swimming.

Swim tall, with a neutral and elongated spine, and open shoulders.

Swimming, Freestyle

Swimming, Freestyle

Body Over-Rotation

  • Over-rotation can be the cause of many other issues in the stroke, and lead to increased injury risk.
  • Rotation should be somewhere between 25 and 35 degrees.
  • If it is more than 45 degrees, the swimmer has to compensate using the arm stroke or kick to maintain balance in the water.

Rotate forwards from the core instead of side to side from the pull.

Swimming, Freestyle

Knee-Driven Kick

  • Your kick can either be a big asset or a big problem.
  • Too much knee bend and kicking too hard and too big from the knees, all increase drag and decrease propulsion – limiting your speed.
  • The kick should be driven from the more powerful hip muscles so that the length of the legs can be used to kick in both the upwards and downwards direction – small and fast.

You should be able to kick with the same technique with, and without, fins on.

Swimming, freestyle


Weak Catch

  • Getting the hand and forearm angled to be able to pull water backwards is the key to swimming fast.
  • Developing a good catch is like using a bladed oar when rowing instead of just a pole.
  • Pushing water downwards, allowing the elbow to sink lower than the wrist and leading the stroke with the elbow are all fundamental errors which limit the catch – and ultimately your speed.

Sink the hand fingertips first and set up high elbow position to pull water backwards using both the forearm and the hand.

Swimming, freestyle

Mastering good technique takes time, patience, and conscious effort. Maintaining good technique takes commitment and dedication. Take advantage of warm-ups and cool downs to slow down and get the movements right before adding power and speed. The potential gains will be worth the effort!

Do you want to swim faster? Read here.

How important are turns in swimming? Read here.

Amy Bathgate
About the Author
Amy Bathgate is the Operations Manager at VS Sports, playing an integral role in product development, innovation, and design, and heading up a team of enthusiastic analysts working towards transforming the way sport is analyzed, scouted, and experienced. With over a decade of expertise in consulting, biomechanics, and performance analysis across various disciplines and levels, she understands that the little details make a big difference. One of her passions and specialties is swimming, and she assists and drives athletes and coaches to achieve their performance potentials using stroke and race analysis to better their understanding of the complexities of the sport in order to go faster and train and perform more efficiently. Amy is also a Dartfish Certified Instructor, certified in Functional Movement Screening, and a former lecturer at the University of Pretoria.