An Article on Drills

Here’s another long one folks, for your reading enjoyment and discussion. Check the date, in case you were thinking that Dick Mills is behind it. Rushall’s been saying this for many years.


Brent S. Rushall, February, 1997. Reply to question asking what are the best drills to be used to promote swimming excellence.

One of the commonest activities in training programs in some sports (e.g., swimming, rowing, kayaking) is the performance of drills, activities that are purported to train in isolation aspects of a total movement pattern. Drills are repetitive training activities which do or do not use equipment. They are intended to stimulate a part of a complex movement (e.g., an upper arm movement) or an elemental segment of a movement chain (e.g., the transition from a take-off to a jump). They train activity parts out-of-context. When equipment such as paddles in swimming, parachutes in running, and “trailing buckets” in rowing are used, the activity elements are distorted because of the requirement to accommodate the non-competition-related equipment. Drills are inappropriate training content for serious or highly-trained athletes. The only exception to “no drills” is when they are part of learning progressions prior to the attainment and practice of some terminal (final) skill.

Each drill that is practiced should be considered to be a discrete activity. The greater the similarity between a total competitive skill and a restricted practiced drill, the greater is the likelihood of negative transfer between the two. The learned drill will compete with and disrupt the competitive skill. The following are known about skill training.
Training resources that could be applied to developing higher levels of a competitive skill are used (squandered) on irrelevant drill activities. Thus, the level of accomplishment that is possible in a competitive skill will be reduced by “drilling.”

It is assumed by many coaches that “drill practice will improve an element imbedded in a total competitive skill.” Unfortunately, the manner in which the body learns movements does not accommodate that assumption. For example, learning how to move legs in one activity (e.g., kicking while holding one arm in the air in backstroke) does not produce high-level kicking skill in the competitive activity when the artificial posture and dynamic movement requirements are vastly different. The body constantly attempts to develop specific adaptations/learnings to particular stimuli as a basic requirement for survival.

In fatigue, the body seeks to maintain a level of functional output by recruiting extra resources. If there are movement patterns developed through drills which are either cognitively or conditionally associated with a competitive skill, the recruitment will first gravitate to those strengthened options. When fatigue starts, an athlete will start to perform with many characteristics of doing a drill rather than maintaining a high degree of competition-appropriate movement function and performance.

When extra resources are recruited in fatigue, the recruitment is not done gradually or by degree. It occurs suddenly and relatively completely so that obvious changes in performance occur. Since drills do not train total function, when a “drill movement” is recruited into a contest it should be expected that performance will deteriorate rapidly, dramatically, and obviously.

Drills originally were only meant to be preliminary activities to be used as a step in a progression on the way through to learning a “terminal behavior.” But now they have become training items which means that athletes’ progress is halted at a less than terminal stage of skill development and competing patterns of movement are established.
When athletes develop faults, they need to be re-taught the element in question and the steps that follow that element. It is teaching the element in context of the preceding movements that is important. Instructing the element in isolation (“correction drills”) is poor pedagogy.

Any device (“training aid”) that is used in a drill alters neuromuscular patterning to form a unique movement skill. A device artificially trains competing movement patterns and introduces inefficiencies. Many devices have no acceptable data to support their claims of benefit. Most respectable research shows them to have no value or negative benefits. Since the form to be used in a competition is what should be trained, why would one adulterate that form through distortional (device) training?
Except at very low levels of performance (e.g., when learning a skill) movement elements learned in one activity do not transfer with any benefit to another.

The body does not have the capacity to determine the intention of some training activity. For example, an activity which requires an athlete’s posture to be different to that which will be employed in a competition, although it is “meant” to be beneficial, does not benefit the competition performance. The body learns the incorrect posture for the trained activity and depending upon the strength of specific/relevant training will sustain correct or incorrect postures in a contest.

Since most high level performers are discriminated from each other on the basis of skill efficiency, one of the most important factors for differentiating medalists from non-medalists, the level of performer skill should be maximized. Drill practices and the use of training devices work contrarily to that aim.

Many proponents of “drills” argue that the changes in technique they produce are only minor and are therefore, relatively inconsequential. That might be acceptable for individuals in the early stages of skill learning, but it is not acceptable for highly-trained individuals. Any competing movement pattern or disruption to a highly-refined skill has detrimental consequences. This is why the following coaching lore exists:
“If serious athletes change techniques they have to be prepared to perform worse for a period of time before they have a chance to improve.”

The situation is even more critical for very experienced (senior) athletes when it may be of no value to attempt to alter a technique flaw, the impact of the existing flaw possibly being minimized through years of training. There comes a time in every athlete’s development when skill errors have been performed for so long that attempts to change them would never be effective enough to elevate the performance further. This is particularly so in highly-repetitive cyclic activities such as running, swimming, and sculling.

There is a movement instruction science, in this context it is called “sport pedagogy.” There are principles that are known to be beneficial and others which are known to be detrimental to performance development and change. It is necessary that knowledge of these principles be a prerequisite for any individual partaking in a coaching activity. Ignorance or a lack of knowledge of those principles is unethical and cannot be overlooked in an expedient decision to hire or appoint a coach.
Swimming is perhaps the sport which advocates training with drills (what coach does not have his/her own special activities?) and the use of training devices (special bags are now marketed to carry all the paraphernalia onto the pool deck) more than any other sport. Since swimming is the one “world sport” in which its top performers are regressing rather than improving, it could be argued that this decline has somewhat matched the increased growth in drill training and the use training devices. Most top swim teams in the USA do very little swimming but much finning, paddling, drills, and whatever. It is a mystery why the importance of training competitive movement patterns is so popularly disdained.

One cannot beat the principle of specificity for training when getting ready to perform in a serious high-level competition. If the best performance is desired, then a lot of training had better give the body the opportunity to practice and improve in the activities it will be asked to perform in the competitive setting. Drills and training with artificial devices work against that purpose.[/quote]

I agree with the “getting worse before getting better” statement. I have told more than one young pitcher that I’ve worked with (as well as their parents) that any time one alters their mechanics, they can expect to get worse before getting better. If nothing else, it’s just a comfort issue. It takes a number of repetitions to get comfortable with an adjustment.

But I have one big problem with the article. As Rushall mentions, the whole discussion is geared to “high-level performers”. I take that to mean world class athletes. Since I work with young kids, none of this really applies. In other words, the kids I work with are not to that level where non-specific training would actually degrade their performance instead of improve it. Or at least that’s my opinion.

[quote=“Roger”]the whole discussion is geared to “high-level performers”. I take that to mean world class athletes. Since I work with young kids, none of this really applies.[/quote]I would say that this is true, mostly. My “belief” on this is that drills will be fine with kids who haven’t learned the basic movement patterns but I also “believe” that the more “in context” or “specific” they are, the more effective they are.