7 Truths From World-Class Sprint Coach Brett Hawke

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Brett Hawke has dedicated his life to the art of sprint freestyle swimming. The multiple Olympian who finished 6th in the 50 m freestyle at the Athens Games, who went on to coach Beijing Olympic 50 m freestyle Champion César Cielo and now coaches sprint freestyle around the globe, shares his thoughts on the world of freestyle sprinting–and how you can keep up with it. 

1. Master Streamline

“Streamline is the number one thing that if you make improvements in that and you work on that every day it’s going to make the biggest impact in your swimming,” Hawke says. “If you're practicing perfect streamline every wall, a hundred times a day, you're learning how to be efficient, you're learning how to conserve energy, and you're gonna be a much better athlete in the long run.” See Brett's top tips for improving your streamline.

2. Find the Core Connection 

“The biggest thing everybody's getting wrong, and I'm talking worldwide, is that they think freestyle swimming is either with our arms or our legs or a combination of the two. What people are misunderstanding is there's a middle connection there. There's a core connection,” Hawke says. 

“There’s this cross-sectional connection between the left arm and the right leg—they work in sync and unison. So what I try to do is raise awareness in the core and the rotation, so that when you are taking your strokes and your kicks, those two things are connected to each other and they're not working separately. I think that's the biggest thing that people continue to get wrong.”

Hawke says he uses a series of drills to raise awareness of a swimmer’s core muscles and stability. For example, swimming with one arm extended under the water and the other up in the air. “With one arm up in the air, they have to engage their core and hold in order to keep their body position high in the water.” Using drills to emphasize the core muscles, progressing into drills that incorporate and focus on rotation, swimming becomes a more effective synchronized full body motion.

3. Sprint Freestyle is Leg Driven

“Sprint freestyle should be driven by the back, by the legs,” Hawke says. It might seem counterintuitive but, as someone who has competed himself and coached with the best sprinters in the world, Hawke says the best sprinters in the world show control in their rhythm up front and drive from the back. 

"What sprinters get wrong about sprinting is that you sprint from the back. Your legs are your engine—they’re your biggest muscle group in the body—so you have to use your legs. I’m always trying to get swimmers to change from an arm driving freestyle to a leg driven freestyle.”

4. The Most Effective Freestyle 

“Not everybody should be swimming the same way,” Hawke says. In long distance triathlon, for example, Hawke says swimming can be driven by the front with a two or four beat kick which is completely opposite to sprint freestyle technique. How a swimmer should be swimming comes down to what they are trying to accomplish.

“There are some people that certainly should be understanding straight arm freestyle and then there are others that should be understanding more of the bent arm freestyle and how that applies. There's different types of freestyle and they apply to different people and I don't think there's a lot of people utilizing the most effective freestyle for what they're trying to do.”

Whether it’s a leg-driven sprint, a gallop stroke, or two-beat arm driven endurance freestyle, figuring out what stroke mechanics will be the most effective for your body and your goal is essential. 

5. Strength Training for Specialization

“We're putting a lot more emphasis on strength training in the water. A lot of people think that the only way you can build strength is outside on dry land in the gym. I'm putting a lot of emphasis on building strength from the water as well,” Hawke says. 

From paddles to parachutes and PowerTowers, Hawke says strength training in the world of sprinting is becoming more important and more common. Hawke says the increased necessity of strength training is a product of specialization. 

“You're getting different types of athletes for different types of events now. Your 100 freestylers don't even look like your 50 freestylers anymore. In the 50 freestyle, what you're seeing is much more of a power athlete now. The natural look of a female swimmer is much stronger and much more powerful because I think they're incorporating strength into their swimming and they're becoming much more athletic. I think 30 years ago you'd probably say that person was a drug cheat whereas now it's just a common look for female swimmers. It’s the same on the men's side: bigger, stronger, lankier, taller. So, you're getting different types of athletes that are specialized to perfect different events.”

6. Quality Over Volume 

“I think the mistake that swimming has made up until now is that we've looked at volume in the pool as the only measure of work. I think what we've learned now is that quality is much more important. People are starting to put a lot more emphasis on how you are doing things rather than the amount of things you're doing.”

Hawke mentions a lot of top coaches aren’t even putting total distance at the bottom of workouts anymore. The focus is more on the type of effort and the kinds of speed and techniques–again, quality over quantity. 

Volume, in a sense, is still an important metric but nowadays it has a very different definition. The “new volume” metric is a holistic view of “total work,” including, Hawke lists: nutrition, strength training outside the pool, flexibility and mobility work, recovery, and psychology. 

“It’s all the things that you’re doing throughout the day to make you a better athlete, rather than just looking at how many yards you swam up and down the pool.”

7. Swimming is Always Evolving

From using a new measure of volume to hyper-specialized techniques and training methods, Hawke says swimming is always evolving and changing.

“You're always trying to get faster so you always look at ways to evolve your stroke. You look at the little nuances like streamline and you say, okay, what could I do here that might be slightly different, that might be effective as well? I think that's where we are and that's what we try to do: all the time, trying to make improvements, working on those little things that might shift and make change.”

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