Why is swimming butterfly so scary? (Top 4 most common butterfly mistakes)

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May 9, 2011

Why is swimming butterfly so scary? (Top 4 most common butterfly mistakes)

Many beginner and even advanced swimmers dread the words "butterfly". When swimmers come to practice and see the butterfly stroke written on the board or the practice sheet, the mood suddenly goes from wonderful life enjoyment to a sad end of the world like expressions. As a coach I can just see the face expression changes just when I say the words "we’ll swim some butterfly today". Let me tell you though that this behavior is totally unnecessary.

There are a few reasons why the word "butterfly" causes false stress and anxiety in many swimmers’ minds. They hear their coaches say how hard the stroke is, so obviously their mind is already expecting something difficult. Or their coaches make them swim long distances in butterfly thinking that this will help to make the swimmers faster. (Note: swimming longer distances in butterfly is in most cases detrimental. To improve in the stroke you get enough from 15-50 meter swims. Anything after that is usually swam with bad technique as the beginner swimmer’s body is fatigued.) Or the swimmers just have a very poor technique which makes swimming butterfly almost impossible. The last reason is in my opinion the culprit behind majority of the butterfly sad faces.

Let me tell you an insider secret, a butterfly stroke, also referred to as dolphin, is not a harder or more exhausting stroke than any other swimming style. Where butterfly meets its negative reputation is in its technical aspects. Since majority of swimmers (young and old) have not mastered the butterfly basics, they feel that swimming butterfly is very difficult and look very ungratefully upon this daunting effort. And rightfully so, without the proper technique and timing, butterfly definitely is the hardest and most exhaustive stroke out there. However, once you as a swimmer grasp the concept of the butterfly rhythm, timing and focus on the important parts of the stroke, you will realize that people are wrong about butterfly and don’t give it its rightful justice. With proper butterfly technique and rhythm butterfly is a smooth stroke with which you can swim longer distances with no problem, so turn that frown upside down and get cracking on breaking down the stroke to the basics before you attempt another butterfly stroke. Here are a few key pointers which will help you focus on the right technique:

1) Do not think of butterfly in terms of breaststroke - Many coaches compare butterfly to breaststroke, but it is not fully so. The coach who tells you this, usually means it in a good way in terms of the undulation and timing, however, what coaches often fail to consider is the other aspects of the stroke. The biggest problem is that a swimmer does not move his/hers head to breath in butterfly. As opposed to breaststroke where your head and spine are connected (immobile) and move as a whole with your body. While swimming butterfly, if you keep your neck and spine stiff and move them together when you go for a breath, you will have to exert so much more energy to get your body and mouth of out of the water which causes you to get tired. Instead, why not get your neck moving when taking a breath. Leave your body in the water and focus on extending your chin on top of the water to get that needed breath. Imagine the following: If you had no hands, your nose/forehead would need to be the first part of your body to touch the wall in the finish. Forcing your chin forward (skimming the surface of the water) is much easier than lifting your body out of the water and it requires almost no hard physical effort, just a mental one.
badly bent arms by rgtmum
2) Do not move your arms on recovery (across the water) with palms facing down or bend elbows - this is a very common mistake in butterfly. A swimmer tends to jump over the water with their arms/hands in freestyle like positions. It almost looks like the butterflier is trying to jump over an invisible obstacle. The problem with that is that the swimmer again goes too far high out of the water. Instead, keep your arms straight when they are out of the water and keep your palms facing backwards and relaxed from the time they exit the water in the back until they reach the front. Have you ever seen how Asian street vendors make pancakes? A small ladle of dough is poured on a hotplate and then a wooden or plastic flat stick is used to spread the liquid dough around the hot plate. Imagine your arms are as the flat stick, they just barely skim on top of the water spreading the dough (with your thumbs almost touching the water). Of course in this analogy, you will not be touching the water like the flat stick touches the dough. If you bend your elbows on the recovery and have your palms facing downwards, you will miss the pancake dough thus not really spreading it around the hotplate. You will end up with a small teenie weenie amoeba shaped thick pancake as opposed to nice thin flat and round delicious pancake beauty. If you wish another analogy, your arms (NOT YOUR BODY) during recovery act like a hovercraft. Nice flat right on top of the water. With the difference that your palms are facing backwards and thumbs down.

3) Do not breath too late - if you watch experienced butterfly swimmers very closely, you will see that after a breath their head goes back into the water first, before their arms. Another most common mistake is for the head to enter the water after the arms are already in the water. Next time you swim butterfly notice what your head is doing. Is it late going back into the water with the arms ahead of it in the timing or is it properly leading your body wave into the water. So think of it terms of head first, then arms. This rule actually goes along the full stroke as well. You should always think that your head is doing what your arms will do next, so head is leading the way for the arms. This problem is not as hard to fix as you might think. You can start by making sure you exhale your air while still under water, so all you have to do is inhale when your head is above the water. This will make the time for taking a breath smaller.

4) Do not exaggerate the knee bend - the timing of a butterfly kick is for another post, but what I’d like to stress is that your knees are not to be overtly bent when you kick during the butterfly stroke. I see it over and over where when a swimmer goes for a breath, they totally bend their knees, drive their hips forward and then when a breath is taken they again dive deep under the water. The tip here goes along the same lines as above. You do not want to go up and down in butterfly with a very high amplitude. Your oscillation (up and down movement) should be very small and right at the surface, this will help you minimize the drag. If you bend your knees a lot during the kick, you will end up in almost a vertical position with your chest sticking out of the water and your hips driving forward. This is no good :). To help you with the knee bend, I’ve covered the shinfin™ leg fins in the my previous post. These are great to help you with getting your kick to start in your hip and not in your knees.

So next time you swim butterfly, think of some of these pointers above. Are you making it harder for yourself than it actually is? Stay tuned for more tips to come.

Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.


Anonymous said...

useful tips !!

Staucott said...

Get Tip on skimming your chin along the water when breathing !

Staucott said...

Great tip in skimming your chin along the water when breathing !

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting. I have been trying to learn butterfly for several months now and I think I am doing everything you listed the wrong way. Cannot wait until tomorrow to try out the tips!

Libor J said...

@Anonymous: good luck. Hope it works out for you. Don't be shy about asking more questions if something is unclear.

Devin Jones said...

Hello, I am 14 and get super tired after swimming butterfly. I try to do everything right and my coach says that I look ok in the water. Is there a way I can use less energy yet still go fast-ish in the water.

Libor J said...

Hi Devin, thank you for your question. The energy expenditure is very much about the timing and rhythm. Working on your undulation and breath timing could help. Also, make sure to stay close to the surface when you breathe (do not go up too high - that could be a possible issue). Without a video - very hard to say :). Hope it helped at least a little.

Ekot 0419 said...

Imo. Kicks are the key to this stroke. I aoent 6 weeks doing nothing but fish stroke. Also plenty of kicks drills. Once you mastered that. This is half the stroke right there. But at least I managed to swim about 400m after 6 weeks. Versus 25m and I was dead.