How Does The Pinky Finger Impact Freestyle Pull?

Abbie Fish has been in the competitive swimming realm for over 20 years. From qualifying for the Olympic Trials to working at USA Swimming's headquarters, Abbie has been on all sides of the sport. She is a University of Georgia "Double Dawg," as she swam and graduated with both her M.S. and B.S. degrees.

Currently, Abbie is a technical swim coach at Ritter Sports Performance. At Ritter, she studies different types of stroke technique and analyzes an array of race videos. She will be bringing FloSwimming all types of content related to technique tips, drills, and videos.

A lot of times swimmers have issues with their hand entries at the beginning of their pulls. The ideal entry point is with the hand faced palm down and leading with the middle finger. The middle finger should be the first finger to enter into the water.

In order to achieve this middle finger entry, the elbow must be higher than the wrist and the wrist higher than the fingers. If either the wrist or elbow is lowering the fingers, the middle finger will not be the first to enter.

When I first started coaching at Athens Bulldogs Swim Club, we had our swimmers do the "Ping Pong Drill." Basically, they were to swim with their pointer and middle fingers bent and touching the tip of their thumbs -- creating a circular space. The circular space is what gives this drill its name, because it's where a ping pong ball could be held (you don't need a ping pong ball to actually perform this drill though -- see pictures below).

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The reasoning on why this drill works has to do with the fact that some swimmers like to lead their pulls with the thumbs. Leading the pull with the thumb means your entry looks like a "slicing motion." This type of entry was taught years ago, but now it's argued that it is less conducive as it puts more strain on the shoulder joint and also prolongs the time it takes a swimmer to get into the high elbow position. So in actuality, the thumb-leading entry makes a swimmer's pull less powerful.

So what does the "Ping Pong Drill" really do? Well, the drill is related to the nerves in the hand and arm. The ulnar nerve runs from the brachial plexus, a network of nerves in the neck region, to the ring and pinky fingers. The median and radial nerves run from the brachial plexus down and into the other three fingers. During the "Ping Pong Drill" you actively engage the first three fingers by holding the fingers together. You are forcing the body/brain to learn what it feels like to initiate and pull with the pinky (via the ulnar nerve) on the outside of the hand.

I know coaches and swimmers are concerned about the ideal entry and hand position during the freestyle stroke, but neither of those entries matter if the pinky isn't engaged properly. If you're only pulling using the first three fingers (and two peripheral nerve groups), your entry or hand position doesn't matter because you aren't effectively using the surface area available. All five fingers must be engaged and slightly cupped backwards, leading with the middle finger, for you to effectively use the entire surface area of your hand and the three major peripheral nerve groups.

​By Abbie Fish


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