PVC Technical Strategy 67

The Elusive Butterfly

Originally published on SwimSwam on December 19th, 2018

Courtesy: John Holden

I am learning about butterfly technique every day.  My main source of information comes from the swimmers I coach. They have taught me a number of different approaches to the stroke and changed my mind about certain components. For example, I used to think that there was an arm action and a leg action to the butterfly but now I believe it to be all one action.  I was also convinced that the power of the kick came from the waist line and the hips but now I believe that although there is some movement in this area of the body, it is the knees which provide a dominant force. I came to this conclusion by watching my swimmers and underwater pictures of top level swimmers, coming out of the turn and continuing into the stroke.

The body position is changing all the time as it undulates like a dolphin. I like the sometimes heard term ‘dolphin stroke’ because it is more of an apt description of the body undulating but I somehow do not think the term ‘dolphin stroke’ will ever ‘catch on.’ A flat streamlined body position is one theory, an undulating one is perhaps another. The streamlining is sacrificed at the expense of the undulation but without the undulation the stroke would not be effective. My strategy is to keep the body as flat as possible whilst at the same time allowing scope for the undulation. Too much of either will inevitably slow the swimmer down creating excess of drag.

The dolphin kick has proved over the years to be the most effective and powerful. Whilst developing the kick, it must be remembered that there is little or no propulsion gained from the ‘upbeat’ and the legs remain straight for half of the upward momentum having just dropped about 50 60 cm below the surface. However, if the kick is done in reverse that is on the back after a backstroke turn the power works in reverse. Power on the’ upbeat,’ little on the down beat. Back to the prone, the second part of the kick, the knees bend and the feet just break the surface before they kick down, in a whip like action fully extending down with feet plantar flexed. The down beat happens about twice as fast as the upbeat and this provides the thrust down, creating a powerful vortex for forward momentum. It is here that I must mention that there will be some assistance with the propulsion from the hips and waist to assists the action. For competitive swimmers inner core strength exercises, during land conditioning will enhance this momentum by strengthening the abdominal muscles. During this momentum, the term “dolphin” arises again when we look at the action.  Doc Councilman (1977) refers to it as a “fishtail kick” which I believe to be a fitting description. However, we must not be deceived in believing that the kick is as powerful and as natural as that of a dolphin.

There are a variety of drills/practices which can be used to develop the kick.

On the back, on the side and on the front with arms out in front or by side and switching from one to another over a distance.

You can ask your swimmers to tread water using the kick. This not only develops the kick but the body undulation as this is vital to a successful stroke.

A major fault is that swimmers do not fully extend the legs on the down beat and as a result there is too much knee bend on the ‘upbeat,’ which slows the swimmer down.  As already stated, the first part of the upbeat should be done with the legs straight.

To correct this fault, pausing on entry with the head down and arms fully extended, to allow three kicks to take place per stroke. This will give the swimmer more time to think about more hip bend and a longer extension of the legs

Long gone are the traditional bar, and kick board practices, as excessive board kicking can cause spinal injury. For a novice, a simple push and glide well under the surface repeated with a dolphin kick or two during the glide with arms outstretched will give the swimmer a feel for the undulation action. This practice can be extended by a simultaneous pull to the surface and progressing to a simultaneous arm recovery.

The pattern of the arm action resembles that of an hour glass or key hole both traced from above (a plan view) and from a frontal view as the swimmer swims towards you. The arms enter above the head with the elbow slightly raised, shoulder width apart. Both arms move downwards and slightly outwards just outside the shoulder level. The curvature of the hand changes and begins to scull round and back, similar to an initial breaststroke action. It is here that the arms fix and feel the pressure of the water as the elbows are bent and are held high to take full advantage in creating an effective powerful vortex as they pull. The teaching point of “pulling over a barrel” (Councilman 1977) is relevant here as it is in all strokes. This is supported by Colwin 2002 when he states:-

“The high elbow position provides good leverage and effective functional shaping of the arms.”

The degree of bend of the elbows can vary somewhat with individuals as they come under the body but should not exceed 90o.  The swimmer should not exhale until after the arms the elbows bend. By holding the breath, it will enable the chest cavity to expand and provide a firmer base for an effective pull. Exhaling is normally of the explosive type: that is all the breath is exhaled at once.

The arm action is completed with a strong push back towards the hips, to co-inside with the downward beat of the kick and head tilt for inhalation.  However, it is at this stage that improvers find this part of the co-ordination difficult. A harder push back and a vigorous downward kick is a starting point but it can still be demanding for a novice but

You can work on this by following the “two head before rule.” Your head should go into the water before your arms enter and come out of the water before your arms exit (Juba 2004)

The key to the stroke is in its coordination and timing. Each action will have an opposite and equal reaction from the arms and legs and that is why I believe that the stroke is all one action in its continuous undulation movement. Examples are when the head and shoulders are raised for breathing, the legs and lower body are down due to the effect of the downward beat of the legs and a strong push back. When the arms have just entered, the head is already down and the upper body is angled slightly downwards with the hips towards the surface

The somewhat upward movement of the body, caused by the powerful downbeat of the legs and the final push back of the arms, causes the shoulders to rise to the surface but they should not break the surface.  It is at this stage that the breath should be taken. (Inhalation) to co-inside with the recovery The head tilt should be kept to an absolute minimum and should have tilted back down before the entry of the arms. Coaches often ask swimmers to “hide their breathing” because excess head lift will cause the lower body to drop even more and subsequently cause excessive resistance and the undulation will not be as continuous. In order to keep this in check, some swimmers will breathe every second stroke. If swimmers are not “hiding their breathing” it is more likely that they are failing to drop the head after taking a breath. Emphasize chin on chest after each breath and encompass this teaching point into single arms drill and then combine it with three single arms on one side, three on the other, three full stroke cycles and repeat.  If this still does not work, side breathing is another option.

Swimmers will also add a second kick in the stroke, hence the expression “a two beat butterfly kick.”  This takes place on entry of the arms. A teaching point you could use is, “kick the arms in and kick them out.” However, it is the kick just prior to the exit of the arms which is the more powerful and whilst developing the stroke, I only ask the swimmers to use this latter kick until they are proficient. The natural undulation of the body will determine a second kick in due course but if a second kick is added coaches should not see any downward kicking during the recovery of the arms.

Before teaching the stroke, swimmers must have reached a basic level of proficiency such as being able to glide underwater for undulation movements; that they can swim front crawl so that they have the basis of a flutter kick and an effective breaststroke arm action to enable the swimmer to use a similar arm action underwater. For most, Butterfly is a demanding stroke and seems elusive. However, it need not be ‘demanding’ in the early stages of learning. You can always ask the class to swim a width Front crawl` and then coming back on the return width “double Front crawl” (simultaneous Front crawl) which is a transfer of one skill to another just to get them started with a very simple idea.  Breast stroke arms only with the head up. Every time (s)he pulls down, the feet kick down to gain a feel for the dolphin kick. Arms only butterfly over a short distance, will create a natural dolphin action of the lower body and can be a starting point to know when the kick(s) take place in the natural rhythm of the stroke.

It is great fun and profitable in the long term to have improvers attempt undulation practices. Standing behind a woggle with the arms behind the body and diving over the woggle bringing the arms forward with head down, then progressing to one underwater pull, under a second woggle, in a continuous action. The swimmer stands and takes a breath, then repeats the practice. Instead of a second woggle, a hoop could be used. This way the swimmer is getting a basis of continuous undulation and it adds variety to a lesson. It is often said that the Butterfly is a series of mini head first surface dives and this is what the swimmer is trying to attempt initially.

If a swimmer is struggling with a co-ordination, one simple practice is to get the swimmer on the pool side and ask him/her to bend forward with the head down As (s)he demonstrates the arm action to you, the swimmer stamps his/her foot down at the exact place the two kicks take place. It is often said in teaching circles that land practices are archaic, but they do have their benefits periodically

The Butterfly is the most demanding stroke but it need not be elusive for any improver. Like any skill it gets better with practice and the teacher must have enormous patience whilst teaching and developing the stroke. At a competitive level there are a number of laws which govern it and coaches must be aware that anything which contravenes the laws of the stroke is a fault. The secret of the stroke lies in its one continuous undulating action where the co-ordination requires fine tuning from the teacher/coach, All students should have the opportunity to have a go at it providing the teacher is not making unrealistic demands on the students and that means they have reached a level of proficiency as a pre-requisite.

Fill out my online form.