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Teaching and Coaching Others to Teach the CSS (Combat Swimmer Stroke)

Stew smith

Coaching the CSS

The Combat Side Stroke (CSS) has evolved from the side stroke to the modified side stroke. It is still an underwater recovery stroke, which is the Navy Physical Screening Test rule used to screen potential recruits for SEAL, SWCC, EOD/Diver, and Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (SARC). The CSS has some more efficient features. 

Recently, a swimming coach joined a coaching session with me, teaching about 20 members of the Navy how to learn the stroke. Yes, there is a difference between the CSS and elementary side stroke (see both side by side). Some of the coaching cues and finer points of the CSS are the following to correct as a coach:

Body Position - As with any swim stroke, staying horizontal in the water is the key. Many non-swimming athletes start swimming using this stroke and fail to understand the importance of body position caused by popping their heads up and out of the water to breathe.  This stroke requires you to be on your side for most of the stroke, so there is a “top arm” closer to the surface and a “bottom arm” closer to the bottom of the pool.  

1 - Turn to breathe with the top arm (don't pop up to breathe) – If you turn to breathe like during the freestyle/crawl stroke vs. pop your head out of the water to breathe, you will fix both the timing of the stroke (Turn with the top arm pull) and the body position issue as the body acts like a see-saw in the water when the head comes out of the water. Acting like a screwdriver and turning to breathe is one of my coaching tips for students.  Notice The head turn with the top arm pull.

2 - The top arm looks like a "freestyle catch." – Along with turning the head with the top arm, you need to pull as much water as possible when pulling. This means teaching the “freestyle catch” for the top arm. Many students will pull from the shoulder with a straight arm, creating a multi-directional pull that is less effective than a freestyle catch. Imagine reaching over a barrel in front of your head and bending the elbow, so the forearm is near vertical to start the top arm pull. This pull will engage the back muscles through the pull and then create a push of the triceps at the bottom, making for a powerful, unidirectional stroke.

3 - Breathe during the Bottom Arm Pull – For perfect timing of the CSS, after you turn to breathe with the top arm, start the bottom arm pull and inhale during the pull. Your face is out of the water at this time.  Many people make the mistake of not turning with the top arm and are rushed to fit in the bottom arm pull with a turn (or pop-up) of the head and the breath. This bottom arm pull looks more like a "breaststroke scull" than a full arm stroke to your waist.  

I use the coaching cues TT and BB:  Turn with the Top Arm and Breathe with the Bottom Arm to combine the two arm pulls in proper sequence.

5 - Kick can be either a scissor kick or a breaststroke kick.  You can choose either kick, though most people use the scissor kick. NOTE:  Most land athletes do better with the scissor kick (CSS), and most swimmers/water polo players do well with a breaststroke kick (CSS). and extra flutter kicks, too. It is personal preference, though once they pass the point of having to take PSTs, they will be doing most of their swims with fins in their military training. Some will recommend constant flutter kicks in between the scissor kick WITHOUT fins.  I do not, as most people, especially land athletes, are inefficient with flutter kicking. It will make you faster at first, but maintaining the constant kicks will tire you out on the back end of the 500-yard swim (and the rest of the PST - sit-ups and 1.5-mile run). 

There is no rule against adding flutter kicks - however, I have seen it not go well and is not the best universal recommendation for all Spec Ops candidates. 

However, with fins flutter kicking is the way to go. You must do something other than a breaststroke kick, like scissor kick, flutter kick, or even dolphin kick). Swimming with fins video.  The one thing you want to avoid when swimming with fins is “bicycling” or bending the knees too much. Notice the difference between the two forms of swimming with fins.  

6 –Arm Recovery – GLIDE - At the time of the kick, a tight arm recovery needs to occur to put you into a "streamlined glide position" that should last 2-3 seconds, moving at a yard-per-second place.  There is a fine line between over-gliding, under-gliding, and perfectly gliding.  Check out this correction of overgliding#1 and not over-gliding #2. You cannot miss under-gliding as that is a near-constant stroking process that skips the stroke's 2-3 second glide.  If you want a fast swim, you need a powerful kick and a perfect streamlined body position.  One of my perfect demonstrations is largely due to a perfectly streamlined position - Here is a perfect CSS to put it all together.

7 - Extra Credit - KICK OFF THE WALL - You do not need to do a "breaststroke pullout," but if you consider adding it to every push off the wall, you will be faster.  However, you must get in better shape to handle the longer time underwater at every kick-off of the wall, especially if you are a non-swimming athlete.

Sorry for all the links, but it is nearly impossible to coach the swimming techniques with seeing a moving picture of the skill discussed. Find more videos about learning and coaching the Combat Swimmer Stroke on the following social media pages: Instagram Reels    |  TikTok     |   YouTube and YouTube Shorts

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