Teaching Butterfly - where to start and preventing potential faults

By Harry Peacock

In response to those who seek advice on teaching the butterfly stroke to young swimmers, I would like to offer the following notes for their consideration. In particular, the issue of what fundamental point it is most beneficial to start teaching the stroke and how to avoid creating problems rather than solving them at a later stage.

Firstly, do away with all forms of swim-aids (floats, woggles etc.). More of a hindrance than a help, and yes, there is some evidence to suggest that floats can cause mild back strain. Therefore, we must assume the learner can swim other strokes quite well and is confident enough to at least hold the head underwater for short periods whilst practising.

All the technical aspects of a good butterfly have a close inter-dependency, so my own starting point for teaching butterfly must be the dolphin action of the body and how this will (eventually) relate to the leg kick.

However, much has been written about the 'importance' of teaching the dolphin leg kick when learning the Butterfly stroke. The evidence is there to be seen in many learn-to-swim programmes and coaching sessions for the more advanced performer.

In my experience of teaching and coaching swimming (40+ years in the UK), this is more likely to produce an over-flexion at the knee with little or no undulation of the hips. The result is merely a 'thrashing' of the lower legs against the surface of the water, an action which is obviously to the detriment of the stroke as a whole. Do we not thereby risk creating faults before we even start?

Knowledge of basic stroke mechanics tells us that the downbeat of each leg kick (action - or cause) will elevate the level of the hips (reaction - or effect). OK, but to nip this potential fault in the bud, why not reverse the 'cause' and 'effect' in the early learning stages by emphasising a dolphin body movement (as opposed to leg action), with the legs held relatively still and straight? The legs will then react or affect) to the action (cause) of the hip movement rather than vice-versa.

In time, more emphasis can be placed on the action of the leg kick as the learner becomes more efficient at performing the stroke as a whole.

I've tried this teaching technique for several years now, especially with those in the earlier learning stages, and found it effective and reliable. With a little foresight, potential problems can be eliminated before they are created as an unintended consequence of more orthodox and restrictive teaching practices.

With effective dolphin action and a low head position, the arm movement is easier to perform, particularly at the ‘recovery’ stage.

Granted, not the easiest of strokes to learn, but to a point problems can be eliminated before they even emerge.

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