7 Freestyle Mistakes And How to Correct Them

Swimming is a technical activity and even one mistake can throw off your entire stroke or make it harder. To help make your freestyle stroke a bit easier, we’ve identified 7 freestyle mistakes that most swimmers make and how to correct them.

Please note that this article is more about the mistakes in the freestyle (or front crawl) stroke and overall body position. 

If you’re looking for flutter kick-specific mistakes, check out our sister article: 5 Common Flutter Kick Mistakes to Avoid

Here are the top 7 freestyle mistakes people make and how to correct them. 

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Image of a pool with swimmers in it. A yellow box with a black border reads: 7 Freestyle Mistakes And How to Correct Them

In a Nutshell

IssueMistake Causing the IssueSolution
Your hips are sinking in the waterLifting head to breatheRoll your body and breathe to the side
Head position too high in the waterLower your head so that it rests more naturally and the waterline hits your forehead
Position of the head too low/deep in the water Lift your head just enough so the waterline is in the middle of your forehead
Issue pulling water/barely moving when swimmingThe entry of your hand into the water is too wideAdjust the entry of your hand so you enter in line with your shoulder
Your hand entry is too narrowBring the entry of your hand out just a bit wider so your hand isn’t entering in line with your head
You’re pulling down in the water with a straight armPull with your forearm and bend your elbow slightly as you rotate into the stroke/pull
Your hands are cupped instead of mostly flatFlatten out your hand so it has the barest curve
Not rotating your hipsRoll your hips into each stroke you take
Giving upYou’re frustratedTake some deep breaths and give yourself some time away from the pool. Ask for help or advice.

1. Lifting Head to Breathe Forward

Balance in the water is essential to make swimming easier and it’s hard to stay balanced when your hips are sinking in the water. And the way a swimmer breathes can make their hips sink.

One of the more common mistakes swimmers make in freestyle regarding breathing is lifting your head to breathe.

Related Article: 7 Drills to Practice Side Breathing in Freestyle

And we get it. It feels much easier to lift your head to breathe and you’re less likely to get water up your nose. Or choke on water. But surprisingly, it’s more difficult to lift your head to breathe forward than you realize. 

Doing so not only makes your hips sink but you have to stop or slow down your stroke. Usually, you keep one arm out and paused in front of you to get your breath before putting your head back down and continuing. 

Just writing that out feels exhausting! You’re constantly starting, stopping, and bobbing up and down like a see-saw. 

Not only is this a tiring way to swim freestyle, but it’s also impacting your ability to swim freestyle correctly and easily.

How to Correct Breathing Forward

While simple to write, it’s a bit more difficult to learn and put into practice. But the only way to correct this common swimming mistake is to breathe to the side. 

Related article: How to Side Breathe When Swimming Freestyle

Breathing to the side is less effort than lifting your head to breathe, we promise. It’s much more natural and once you get it down, it’s effortless to rotate for air and keep swimming.

Practice Breathing on Land

We recommend that you practice the motions on land. Preferably in a private area so people don’t look at you weird 😉

  • Lean over so your torso is horizontal to the ground and start your freestyle stroke
  • Every 3-4 strokes, rotate your hips perpendicular to one side
  • If breathing to your right, your left hand should be stretched out in front of you and your left hip should be pointed down. Your right hand will be out of the ‘water’ and your right hip will be rotated up. Reverse this if breathing to your left
  • Bring your arms back around to finish the stroke while rotating your hips and head back to face the ground
  • Repeat!

Once you have this down on land, practice it in the water just before you start swimming. This will help you get the feel of the water on your face, arms, and torso. You can also practice breathing to the side while standing in the water too. 

For more tips and drills to help you learn to side breathe, head over to our article: How to Side Breathe When Swimming Freestyle

2. Incorrect Head Position 

While on the subject of the head 🙂 Lifting your head to breathe isn’t the only common mistake swimmers make in freestyle. An incorrect head position is another mistake swimmers can make which can impact the balance of the body and make things more difficult.

What’s ‘incorrect head position’? Basically, it means your head is tilted too high up or too low down in the water. Ideally, the water should be hitting just between your forehead and the top of your head. 

Many people swim with their heads tilted too high, usually because they want to see where they’re going. And to see when they’re getting to the wall. When your head is lifted, even just to see where you’re going, it will make your hips sink.

Related article: Beginner’s Guide to Swimming Freestyle

It also puts an enormous amount of stress and pressure on your neck. If you’re swimming with your head constantly tilted up, your neck is more than likely sore after your workouts. 

Conversely, if your head is too low in the water, your head will be plowing through the water. This creates resistance while you swim as the water is pushing against the larger part of your head. 

This can also put stress and pressure on your neck, as the water is pushing down and against it. It’s also forcing your shoulders down and lower in the water, making it harder to take each stroke.

Correcting Your Head Position While Swimming

Luckily, this is an easy mistake to fix! It just takes time to make it a habit. 

As mentioned earlier, the water should be hitting between the top of your head and forehead. If you’re looking forward or can see the water level when you’re swimming, your head is tilted too high.

A common reason for tilting the head up while swimming is the fear of running into the wall. While understandable, it’s also important to point out that that’s what the black line is for! 🙂 

The T at the end of the line signals that you’re approaching the wall, usually 1-2 strokes away.

Use this marker, conveniently located underwater and on the pool floor for you, to know when you need to stop. 

Related article: A Quick Guide to Body Position in Freestyle

If this isn’t enough to ease any concerns, count your strokes. If it takes you 15 strokes to reach the end of the pool each time, you’ll know where you’re at in the pool. 

Already looking down at the bottom of the pool? Great! If your head is tilted too far down though, bring it up so the water hits more of your forehead. Remember to tilt your head instead of arching your neck.

3. Entry Too Tight or Wide

Your entry is the part of the stroke where your hand enters the water. 

Entering the water with your stroke either too wide or tight can not just make swimming freestyle more difficult but it can also hurt your shoulders. 

Swimmer’s shoulder is one of the more common swimming injuries that occur from the repetitive motions in swimming. And can also happen from improper technique. 

Related article: The Freestyle Stroke and Arm Movement

Ideally, when your hand is entering the water, it should enter just off the center of your head. This puts you in the best spot to catch the water on the pull of the stroke and pull yourself forward in the water.

When you go to take your stroke and place your hand in the water, watch to see where your hand enters the water. 

If your hand/arm is going in front of your face/head, then your stroke is too tight. Some swimmers may find that they’re placing their hand as far as their opposite shoulder. This is way too tight and not only are you barely pulling any water but you’re straining your shoulders unnecessarily.

Your entry is too wide if your hand enters the water out past your shoulder. This will be the shoulder/arm that you’re using to make your stroke. When the entry is too wide, you can’t get any power while pulling your arm through the water. 

Fixing Stroke Entry

Practice makes perfect! Much like learning to breathe to the side, we suggest that you practice out of the water first. Practice your freestyle stroke while bent over and watch where your hand would enter the ‘water’.

See if you’re crossing over your head or pulling out past your shoulder.

A good way to help visualize the placement of your hand is to imagine a line going from the top of your head and out in front of you. This is the middle line, which your hand shouldn’t be crossing when you enter the water.

Instead, it should be just to the left or right of the line for a good position.

You can also imagine a box from the outside of your shoulder going back to the center line of your head. Your hand shouldn’t be going over the line of that box, otherwise, you’re pulling too wide.

Related article: 10 Drills to Help You Master the Freestyle Stroke

Once you have an idea of how your stroke entry looks, practice the same motions in the water. This time, you won’t just be able to see how your hand enters the water, but you’ll also feel how the stroke feels underwater.

Make some small adjustments as you go until you feel comfortable with the motions. Then start swimming. Every few strokes, tilt (don’t lift!) your head up just enough to see your hand entering the water. Hold this for 2-4 strokes before lowering your head again.

You can also try using paddles, such as FINIS Freestyler Paddles to help your stroke enter the water at the correct position. These paddles give instant feedback when you’re swimming, in that, if you’re entering the water incorrectly, it’ll try to force your arm to correct.

It’ll take time and constantly checking your stroke before it starts to feel more natural. You may also find that your shoulders hurt because of the new motion and resistance from the water. Take a break to help them adjust or you can run the risk of injury.

4. Stroke with a Straight Arm

One mistake that many swimmers make in freestyle (myself included!) is pulling the arm down straight through the water. In freestyle, there should be a slight bend to the arm as it pulls through the water.

When you move your arm through the water and keep it straight, you’re not catching any water to move you forward. And more often than not, it may feel like you’re trying hard but not going anywhere.

Your arm should bend at the elbow as you start your pull through the water. It shouldn’t be anything less than a 90-degree angle. Any smaller will be insufficient to grab water and you still won’t go anywhere.

More Content for You: How Many Laps is a Good Swim Workout?

Some swimmers can pull with their arms bent at around 90 degrees while others bend slightly over 90 degrees. I fall in the latter category and my arm is at about a 100-degree angle. 

The angle bend in your arm stays the same as your arm moves through the water. From entry and down past your hip. Your arm should start to bend and straighten out more as your hand pushes back past your hip and your hand exits the water.

How to Fix Your Pull in Freestyle

Fixing the pull in any stroke takes time and a lot of work. We won’t lie or try to say otherwise. It’s part of what makes swimming so difficult. 

Like other aspects in correcting mistakes in freestyle, we suggest that you practice the motion on land first. Start with your torso horizontal and begin your freestyle stroke through the air. 

While you do this, watch the bend in your arm. If it looks too tight or too wide, adjust the angle to something closer to a 90-degree angle. Get the feel of that motion and find what works for you.

More Content for You: 7 Common Swimming Myths

Try the same thing when you’re in the water while standing still. This will let you feel the resistance of the water without trying to worry about kicking or breathing.

Once you’re ready to start swimming, take your time. Watch how your arm moves through the water to see if you’re bending your arm enough and that your entry is still correct. Correct hand entry and the bend to the arm are two pieces of technique that work together.

5. Cupping Your Hands

You wouldn’t believe that cupping your hands like a small teacup is a mistake swimmers make in freestyle, but it is! Most of us were taught to make a cup or curl our hands to catch more water.

And while you may scoop more water, you’re reducing the amount of surface area to grab the water. Who knew science would play so much in swimming? 🙂

The good news is this is an incredibly easy fix. All you need to do is flatten your hands out some. There should be the slightest curve to your hand. So much so that it could still pass as flat if you looked quickly.

6. Not Rotating Your Hips

Hip rotation is a key part of the freestyle stroke. It’s used to help keep your hips high in the water and help propel you forward. It will also tie your kick and your stroke together, as well as make it easier to breathe.

When we say rotating your hips though, we don’t mean that you’re rolling completely to your side. That’s a bit too much rotation! 🙂 

More Content for You: Why Do Swimmers Use Kickboards?

With each stroke you take, your hips should be rotating just a bit to the side to give your stroke a bit more distance. When your right arm is reaching forward in a stroke, your right hip should be pushing forward and tilting down slightly. Your left hip will rotate slightly up towards the water level.

In some ways, your hips help drive your kick and your stroke. Pushing you into each stroke you take and using the kick to drive you forward. 

Learning How to Rotate Your Hips

Before you can start using your hips when you swim, you should learn how to rotate them while keeping your body still, first.

Stand up and let just your hips rock from side to side while keeping your feet and shoulders still. Once you have that motion down, allow your shoulders to move with your hips.

Finally, try swimming in place again. But this time, as you’re taking your strokes, let your hips rock/rotate with each stroke you take. Again, your hip should be moving forward with the arm that’s taking the stroke.

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Try the motion in the water once you’re comfortable and then start swimming! While you’re swimming, engage your core muscles to help keep your body balanced and to make it easier to rotate.

7. Giving Up

Swimming is hard and the number one mistake swimmers make with the sport or workout is giving up. And we get it, it’s easy to want to give up at times. 

Swimming makes you frustrated and exhausted even when you’re doing everything correctly! But more so when you’re struggling to get the technique correct and not going anywhere.

The best thing to do though is to keep going. Getting better at swimming doesn’t happen overnight, let alone a month or two. It takes constant work and working on your technique and endurance all the time. 

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If you can, see if anyone can watch your stroke and provide some feedback. Or see about either joining a club/workout group. Even talking to someone about some of your struggles in freestyle can help give you a different angle and what you should fix.

In Closing

Whether you realize it or not, incorrect freestyle technique can make swimming more challenging for you. You may not go anywhere or as fast as you would like. But taking the time to find the mistakes and correct them can go a long way to making swimming a bit easier.

As always, happy swimming!


Bonus Content

A Swimmer’s Review of FINIS Freestyle Paddles: The FINIS Freestyler Paddles are for developing and working the freestyle stroke. Want to know if this paddle is for you? Keep reading for a full breakdown.

4 Ways to Prevent Swimmer’s Ear: Swimmer’s ear can be a painful experience if left untreated. That said, there are steps you can take to help prevent swimmer’s ear. Here are 4 ways to prevent swimmer’s ear.

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Image of a swimmer diving into the water

Chevron is a current competitive swimmer with almost 20 years of experience in the pool. And although she fell into the sport by accident in her high school years, she still trains daily and competes throughout the year. She’s committed to providing guidance to all levels of swimmers and believes that everyone should know how to swim.