Almost every beginner knows how to swim. Some have had snorkelling experience or diving experience. But underwater hockey has a unique set of water skills which are outside the past experience of beginners, which are vital to the game, and which need to be taught. Unfortunately, most coaches cannot remember the difficulties they had when they were beginners. They either don't bother to teach basic water skills, or simply don't know how to. After all, you don't need to teach someone how to walk or run, do you?
Here is a list of essential skills, and exercises which can be used to teach them. In general, they are described in increasing sophistication.
Fins are easy, providing the size is right. Cope with odd sizes by using socks and fin supports. When a beginner puts on a mask for the first time he or she should:
If possible, the snorkel should not be slid under the mask strap, as this might make the mask leak on one side. It should be attached to the mask strap by a keeper, string, tape or elastic.
Remember, a beginner is using borrowed equipment. Fins will pinch, masks will leak, snorkels will be uncomfortable. It is the coach's job to reduce the discomfort so that the beginner can concentrate on learning rather than the discomfort.
The main problem here is one of confidence. Beginners tend to swim a short distance, then lift their heads out of the water, pull their snorkels out of their mouths, and slide their masks up onto their foreheads. Concentrate on getting them to keep their masks and snorkels in place, and get them to swim a few widths breathing through their snorkels. Points to note are:
Do not confuse them by demonstrating dolphin kick: scissor is definitely better at this stage.
The next crisis of confidence is reached when the beginners have to submerge. Explain to them that they can't breath through the snorkel when they are under the water (a surprising number think that it is possible). Then get them to sink, let their snorkels fill with water, then surface and clear their snorkels. They only need to do this a couple of times to become confident.
You must immediately move to the next step: clearing the snorkel on the way to the surface. Again, have them sink, let their snorkels fill, then start blowing as they surface. They must be taught that this is the normal way to surface.
Finally, get them used to the difference in feel between a snorkel open to the air and one covered by water. Have them suck on their snorkels when there is water in them, so that later they will instinctively know when it is OK to breathe.
The process of a duck-dive is:
Consolidate this and the previous exercise by having them do a few widths of bumps: duck-dive to touch every line, surface and breathe between duck-dives.
The habits that must be promoted are to start clearing the snorkel on the way up, and to not start kicking until the fins are in the water. Explain that if they have already breathed out on the way up, they can immediately take a breath when they reach the surface. Also, if they start kicking before their fins are in the water, the kicks will pull them UP, not force them down. Have them try it.
Tag the habits with a mnemonic by telling them that they are not allowed to splash spectators.
The dive where feet sink first is often referred to as a frog dive.
Unfortunately this dive is often neglected by coaches. It is important for at least two reasons: it is the best dive to use when the player wants to end up stationary and flat on the bottom; and the player can watch the game on the way down.
Start off with a dolphin act: kicking hard, trying to stand as high as possible in the water. When they stop kicking, they should keep their toes pointed and their bodies stiff, and just drop. Most people will easily reach the bottom using this exercise. Once you have proved to them that it is possible, move onto the full skill.
Taught properly, this skill can be learned by most beginners in ten minutes. Otherwise, it can take months. The difficulty most beginners have is of not being sufficiently body-aware to keep themselves stiff, with their toes pointed. Have them concentrate on the tension they should be feeling in their ankles, and as they arch their backs. They should imagine that they have their backs to a large wheel, and they need to press against the wheel as they sink.
This skill follows naturally from the one above. It is fundamental to most puck exercises, so it MUST be taught and mastered. You need to be aware of a bit of mechanics. The buoyancy of a body is mainly determined by its fat content, and air in the lungs. Women have a higher fat content than men, so are naturally more buoyant. Almost everyone floats naturally, so needs to use a swimming skill to stay flat on the bottom. (There are rare exceptions, like Tjalling van Soest, who sink naturally.)
The skill that most people (at first) use to stay down is to simply swim forward. You need to teach them another way, relying on handwork and body positioning. The easiest way is to teach them a way of going down which they will never use in a game: one using just one hand. I've provisionally called this the "helicopter dive", because one arm is used like the blade of a helicopter.
When a hand is held stiffly like a paddle, then moved in an arc at arm's length in front of the body, it can be used to force the body up or down. Have them hold their paddle hands at 45[degree], then move in an arc. Get them to figure out which way their hands must be to force them down. DON'T TELL THEM: they need to find this one out the hard way. When they know which way is which, they can twist their hands at the end of each arc, so that each arc keeps forcing them down. Finally, they can use that hand and that technique to drop to the bottom. Have them do it several times with each hand.
Once the helicopter dive is learned, its application to staying on the bottom is easy. A frog dive is used to drop to the bottom, then the paddle hand is used to stay there. To help keep the legs down, have them bend their legs at the knees, and point their toes at the surface. An occasional kick will keep them down.
This position is called the "skydiver" position. Like a skydiver, legs are bent at the knees, arms are out, and head is up. You'll find this hard to teach because of a simple problem of concentration: people are more aware of the positions of their head and arms than they are of lower parts of their body. I've often seen beginners who are convinced that they are flat on the bottom, when in fact their fins are almost at the surface.
As before, give them a couple of things to concentrate on. Tell them to make sure they feel their knees touch the bottom; and have them look forward at you. If they look down, their heads will sink too low, and their legs will drift up. EYES ARE IMPORTANT.
The skydiver position works because of the position of the centre of gravity of the player. The main buoyancy factor for most people is the air in their lungs. This acts to lift the body. When lying flat the upward force of the lungs works through the centre of gravity of the body. If the legs are up the upward force tends to pull the lower body further upward. If the head and chest are up the upper body is lifted. Now the main means of staying down is by using the free arm. (One does not want to simply blow all the air out as this makes clearing the snorkel more difficult). The free arm is quite capable of learning to control the body position if the body is going up head first. The arms work near the head and are therefore above the resultant upward force if the head is up. However if the legs are rising the arms have to work to keep the body down from below the body and this is much more difficult to do.
Keeping the head up is worthwhile for another reason - it improves the player's vision and keeps the head further away from the puck and other player's sticks.
(Turning as an advanced skill).
Most beginners need very explicit instructions on how to turn, otherwise they will tend to turn by arching their backs. I normally tell them:
Tell them to try to keep within the confines of a line. Make sure that they swim at least two kicks on the bottom after a turn, to prove that they have finished it.
They should practise turns on both sides by doing figure-eights: swim a lane, do a right-hand turn, swim back a lane, do a left-hand turn, and so on.
Consolidate this with a "butterfly turn". They go down in pairs, shoulder to shoulder. Both must turn in opposite directions at the same time, and both should do at least two turns before surfacing. This exercise is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Consolidate breathing and duck-dives by having races or relays of bumps.
This will speed up duck-dives, and start emphasising "one-breath" hockey.
Do lengths underwater as three-person plaits. The outer person rises slightly, crosses over the middle person, and down into the middle. The middle person moves sideways to make room. The process keeps repeating. This teaches players how to move over the opposition to take up a better position for a pass.
Do "butterfly turns" with a puck. Just before each turn, the player with the puck passes it across to the other.
Bumps are (in my opinion) THE most useful swimming exercise. They practise:
duckdiving; surfacing and clearing the snorkel; one-breath hockey; an appreciation of how long it takes to get to the bottom; in a new pool, you quickly get used to the depth. For variety (when fitter) breathe every second or third bump.
Bump and pass is bumps with a puck. The solo exercise is to pass the puck forward as far as possible, surface for a breath, then duckdive onto it again. Beginners (who tend to have short passes) tend to get a lot of bump practise, with a little less monotony. The exercise can be done in pairs, with one puck, for young players. The partners pass to each other, but surface after each pass.
Three person plaits are a more interesting way of doing lengths underwater. The three players swim along the pool bottom, but the outer player rises slightly, crosses to between the other two, and sinks down again. The centre player moves out to make room. Done properly, this is good to watch, and quite fun. Ideally, all players should have their heads in line, and be continuously moving sideways one way or the other. For variety, add a puck. The person coming into the middle passes the puck directly forward.
Players who want to practise passing on their own should try leapfrog. You need two pucks. Pass one over the other, and keep going. Improves accuracy and height.
To combine exercises, set up an obstacle course. This is best done as a relay. Set up a low barrier to pass the puck over, a cone to dummy round, and another cone to swim a complete turn around. Require them to do the entire thing on one breath.
More about eyes: it must be drummed into beginners that they should only pass to where they can see. (Some top New Zealand rep players still have not learned this lesson, to their team's cost.) Cut out wild underbody passes, except where they score goals. By all means practise the turn and flick into goal, and the underbody cross pass to someone on the freehand side. But stamp hard and early on the underbum pass that most beginners use as a last resort whilst surfacing. The best way to practise this is with circle exercises. A group of at least four are in a circle. The puck is passed around, with each player making eye contact with the next before passing. Start with straight passes, then gradually work in different exercises such as turns. The coach should act as leader, with everyone else playing follow-the-leader.
Another useful passing exercise is one done in triples. The aim of the people on the outside is to pass the puck to each other without it being intercepted by the person in the middle. This is done in two main ways: inside edge flick in front of the centre person; and a pass through the gap under the centre person's armpits. The centre person will stop the pass most times, and should immediately complete the pass.