Dance With the Water–Part 4: Tennis Anyone?

In this "Dance with the Water" article series, we continue discussing the idea that an athlete must listen to the signals the water gives, like a dancer, following the lead of their partner. Move to your own beat, and not in rhythm with the water, and you're bound to struggle. In this article, we again highlight the concept of pressure and how it can make you faster overnight.

One of the more popular drills among athletes is the fist drill. Ask an athlete what the fist drill is for, and you might get a variety of answers. The main idea of the fist drill is to challenge athletes to use their forearms to catch water by greatly reducing the surface area of the hand.

The biggest problem with the fist drill is it goes against our natural tendencies and desire to swim with our hands open. So naturally an athlete begins to cheat and open their fist, even if just ever so slightly. But if we place a tennis ball in the hand of the swimmer, they have to focus on keeping the hand closed around the tennis ball.

Tennis balls are one of the most effective tools I have found in teaching athletes the concept of pressure in the water. Sure, sometimes my athletes get strange looks at the pool when they pull out the tennis balls, but they normally don't care once they see how fast they are swimming. The concept of pressure in the water can dramatically and instantly add speed to a swimmer!

Feeling the Difference

The biggest benefit of using tennis balls actually happens when the athlete stops using them. Suddenly, their feel for the water and the pressure they feel on their palms is greatly heightened. They feel like they're using paddles, when all they are really using is their hands. In fact, this is one of the best warm-up tools for a swim session, or even for a race, for swimmers who are still trying to grasp the concept of pressure.

The other big benefit of using tennis balls is being able to focus on your hand and arm during the length and reach portion of the stroke. With a heightened awareness of the hand and arm during the reach, athletes can better assess how well they achieve maximum length. They can also use the ball in their hand to forcefully throw the hand forward, creating momentum in their stroke and therefore giving them lift and speed.

I would encourage any athlete struggling with the concept of pressure in the water, (also known as catching, or holding water), to use a pair of tennis balls in their next swim session.

Once you have found the appropriate amount of pressure with this drill, transfer that pressure to your regular freestyle stroke, looking for and using that pressure on the palm and forearm with every stroke you take. You will be amazed at the difference!

Now that you've got the fist drill down, check out Part 5 of this series: "Coordination Building" or sign up for a swimming event.

Jim Vance is a USAT Level 2 and Elite Coach for TrainingBible Coaching, and a professional triathlete. Questions or comments can be sent to You can also follow his writings and training advice at his coaching blog,, and on Twitter at

Related Articles:

Dance With the Water—Part 1

Dance With the Water—Part 2: Play Golf

Dance With the Water—Part 3: Tennis Anyone?

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