How I Would Have Over Coached Sjostrom

Sarah Sjostrom is a phenomenal swimmer. Would you want to coach her? I think many coaches would say yes. The opportunity to work with an athlete on that level is a dream for a lot of coaches.

It's too easy sometimes to say to yourself that the coaches of these phenomenal swimmers are "lucky" to get some one with such "talent".

The truth of the matter is that the higher level the swimmer gets to, the harder the coaching gets. In my career I've worked with a handful of swimmers that ranked in the FINA Top 100. There is still a huge leap from that level to the level of a swimmer like Sjostrom

What I found is that I had a tendency to "over coach", to try to do too much, my first time working with a swimmer that was on a certain level. So I'm trying to do better, I'm trying to anticipate where I might go wrong should I ever get the chance with a swimmer that has Sjostrom's potential. Here's how I might have screwed it up

Stroke Finish

Sarah Sjostrom's completion of her stroke on freestyle and butterfly are something that honestly I wouldn't even think to teach someone until I saw them. Look at what happens in her freestyle. It confounds the technical discussion of "finish your stroke" versus "no, in sprinting it doesn't matter if you finish your stroke". 

More than any swimmer I have ever seen, Sarah seems to get her elbow out early, while somehow still finishing with her hand fairly far back, but with no flick of momentum with that arm up in the air. The stroke finishes hard and transfers energy into the recovery immediately, allowing her to both pull a lot of water and get a fast stroke rate. Look at this video in 0.25 speed from 2:13 (Sjostrom is in the lead):

Likewise in butterfly, Sjostrom has complete control over the finish of her stroke and is able to redirect her arms forward immediately. Compare the ease with which she recovers her stroke.

Sarah Sjostrom is one of the best "inside out" swimmers I have ever seen. The finish, the pull underwater, even her kick all come from an incredible center (the term core is politically incorrect these days) that gives her huge control over what her extremities are doing. 


Sjostrom has just had her best freestyle meet of her career. While she has always been highly competitive in 50-100-200 freestyle, the butterfly races have been her bread and butter since age 15.

Sjostrom's butterfly pacing relies on devestating back-halfs. Her speed advantage in fly is such that she can go out in 26 low "easy" and have plenty of energy to swim the back half in 29. She tried to go out faster in Budapest and did not break her own record.

You would think that the same pacing rules might work for Sjostrom in the 100 freestyle, and maybe they will. But it's hard to argue that she should hold back in freestyle when she broke a world record and went 51.7. I would probably be even more likely to second guess this tactic after the 100 free final where she got run down by Simone Manuel.

But would we have seen 51.7 if Sjostrom had played it safe? Probably not.

Overall, Sjostrom's swimming shows a creativity and autonomy from herself as a swimmer that is unique at the top levels of swimming. The lesson we should learn as coaches is not to copy the precise movements she is making in the water, but to find out what process she (and her coach) used to create those movements.

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