Often regarded as the most difficult stroke to train for and race, butterfly is probably the easiest to teach! The stroke may look very ugly in young swimmers who are not strong enough to pull themselves over the water, but as long as they have the basic components down, they will grow into the stroke, we just have to be patient. Here are the components of butterfly:
The biggest problem swimmers of all ages struggle with during butterfly is going vertical. What we mean by that is at the end of a race or during training, swimmers’ bodies start to angle up as they attempt to keep their heads above water and their abs fail to keep the chest level. Even though there is a natural undulation to butterfly, we still want the swimmer’s body to move forward in a horizontal plane. This is why we focus on body position first. We want to make sure that no matter how “out of shape” a swimmer gets during the stroke, they can at least return to a good horizontal position.
Timing is the next most important factor. Many coaches (including our early selves) try to teach timing the arms with the legs. This is summarized in the typical “kick out and kick in the arms” approach. We try to time the arm strokes with the first and second kicks. This is very confusing for an 8-year-old and often leads nowhere. Instead, it is much easier and more effective to focus on the breath timing. The sequence we want to achieve is Breathe-Pull-Glide (BPG). Early on, we tell kids to actually ignore their legs! The reason is the legs will naturally kick following the body undulation. We really just add a small flick to the natural motion. So if we can get the upper body’s natural undulation and timing right, that will propagate down to the legs.
Although butterfly may look like a very splashy, messy stroke, it is still important to reduce drag as much as possible and return to that streamlined position as much as possible with each stroke cycle. By bringing the arms in close to the ears and the head tucked, we can take advantage of every stroke and maintain our speed by holding a streamlined swimming position.
Lastly, butterfly has a more rhythmic cycle than the other strokes (except for dolphin kicking). In all the other strokes, there is at least one part of the cycle that involves a pause and a glide where everything stops moving and the body just drifts for a split second (or longer in breaststroke). In butterfly, some part of the body is always in motion and maintaining that motion is an essential component of butterfly.
Body Dolphin= Body position
Just like in freestyle, we are going to start without the help of our arms. This drill is simply dolphin kicking on the surface. We want kids to feel their chest press, their hips pop and the feet snap. We don’t want too much undulation (where the head gets buried in water or the feet come out of the water) and we don’t want too little undulation (typically the swimmer trying to go fast and spazzing out). We want a relaxed balance. It should look and feel effortless. When a breath is needed, just look up and then get the head back down for a few more kicks.
Two items to keep kids from doing improperly: Don’t let the arms drift deep in the water and don’t let the knees bend too much. In butterfly, the arms land HIGH in the water. Even though the chest and head press down during recovery, the hands actually reach FORWARD and HIGH in the water. They do not follow the head and chest down into the water.
A common second mistake is for kids to bend their knees too much, trying to use their kick to propel themselves forward. This comes much much later if at all. First and foremost, we need kids to learn to use their arms to do the lion’s share of the work in swimming butterfly. The kick is simply to keep rhythm and body position, not to move forward. Too much bending will only create a large exposed surface area and increase drag.
Tangent: Beware of fins! Oftentimes coaches use fins to help teach kids butterfly. This is a big mistake! Fins mask poor body position and incentivize using a large kick to propel yourself forward. Let the kids struggle and stop chasing yards. Just chase good technique a single 25 at a time.
Breath-Pull-Glide (BPG) = Timing
The most difficult part of teaching and doing butterfly is that there is little opportunity to break the stroke down. You are either swimming full fly or you aren’t doing anything. So, we want to keep things as slow and progressive as possible. The BPG drill helps us work on timing without losing our body position.
When first learning the stroke, this drill is not performed by swimming across the pool. This is done in the shallow end, swimming in place. Have the swimmers start flat on their stomachs with arms out. Then take a full stroke focusing solely on timing: Breathe FIRST, pull SECOND, recover and glide THIRD.
When the arms return to their stretched out position, just stop. Don’t do anything and wait for the body to return to the starting position nice and horizontal at the surface of the water. You won’t go anywhere and the stroke itself will look very ugly, but we don’t care. We only care about timing. Don’t worry about the kick either, just ignore for now.
One of the biggest mistakes coaches hate seeing and struggle fixing in butterfly is the early arm entry/late head entry. Many a coach has yelled the words “you need to get your head down sooner, before your arms hit the water.” This advice only works occasionally and often is temporary. This is because we don’t understand the true problem.
The problem is not the timing of the arms or the head entering the water. The problem is the breath timing. If a swimmer starts their breath too late, they cannot bring their heads down early because they are still busy breathing. This is why they keep their heads up and their arms enter the water first. This of course ruins their precious body position while also looking extremely ugly to any onlooker. If we tell kids to breathe early (in fact to breathe first), then they will be finished breathing sooner and bring their heads down sooner, before the arms hit the water.
Tangent: Yes… Joseph Schooling won an Olympic gold medal in 2016 with a very late breathing style butterfly but he is an outlier. We don’t chase outliers, we become them years down the road after mastering the basics first. Also… it’s still not the prettiest stroke to watch (sorry Joe!)
As kids start to master their timing, this can be a full swimming drill on its own where the kids swim regular butterfly but focus on BPG timing.
3-Kicks 1-Pull (3k1p) = Body position + timing
This is another drill that is essentially slow motion full butterfly swimming. In fact, we have had kids race this drill in meets to maintain their focus on what is important! Instead of doing the typical 2-kick butterfly (aka normal butterfly), this drill forces kids to stop and hang out in the streamlined, horizontal body position while a 3rd or 4th kick is performed.
This pause allows kids to practice regaining their body position between each arm stroke. It also gives them time before the next arm stroke to make sure their BPG timing is going to go correctly. If things are happening too fast, kids can easily forget what to focus on and instead just focus on survival. We want them to slow down in order to swim correctly. The speed comes later.
Fly-to-Streamline (F2S) = Streamlined swimming
We are so close to the full on butterfly stroke but again, we want kids to slow things down and focus on one detail at a time. By requiring kids to return to a full streamline after every stroke, we help them exaggerate returning to a streamlined position during every stroke cycle as well as reaching out as far as possible. It is a simple enough drill that can easily be inserted into any butterfly set to help reorient kids to good technique without sacrificing the opportunity to swim real deal butterfly.
333 = Rhythm
333 is the classic 3 left arm strokes, 3 right arm strokes followed by 3 full butterfly strokes. You may have expected this drill to show up earlier in the progression. Unfortunately, this has become more of a “butterfly substitute” rather than a teaching focused drill. Do not use 333 to simply increase butterfly yardage. Instead, use it to teach an aspect of butterfly, in this case rhythm.
It is much easier to generate and maintain rhythm with one arm. Our goal is to set up the rhythm with the single arm strokes and carry that same rhythm into our three full strokes. This should be a fairly aggressive drill where some part of the body is moving at all times. This is not a “take a break but still swim “butterfly” drill,” this is an attack drill!
Since this drill is focused primarily on rhythm, we do the single arm strokes with side breathing instead of breathing towards the front. It’s much easier to maintain body position, speed and rhythm breathing to the side on the single arm strokes and we don’t want the kids to struggle during that part trying to breathe out front with just one arm doing work.
Fly with Free Kick= Tempo
Some kids struggle to get their tempo up during butterfly or will have their tempo fail at the end of a race as they transition from pretty, flowing fly to dolphin dives… a sad sight. By taking the dolphin kick out of the stroke and replacing it with freestyle kicking, the upper body no longer has to wait for the legs to follow through in the undulation and can instantly go into the next stroke.
This is a great drill for those who struggle with dolphin diving, adding to the end of a repeat to force tempo maintenance, or adding fins to work on maintaining tempo throughout a longer butterfly repeat.
Thumb-Drag = Low Arm Recovery
For swimmers who reach to the ceiling on every arm stroke recovery, having them drag their thumbs across the surface of the water during the recovery phase will help teach them to keep their arms low over the water.
But wait, why is it important for the arms to stay low over the water anyway? After all, what happens over the water doesn't help you swim forward. The reason is because of Newton’s Third Law: what goes up, must come down (ok a little deviation from the law, but close enough). If the arms recover too high, they will crash down into the water instead of being thrown forward over the water as they should be. Speaking of throwing the arms forward...
Wrist Slap = High reach arm entry
Wrist slap is performed by having the kids slap their wrists together as they recover their arms forward. This forces them to keep their arms over the water as they press the head and chest down, preventing the arms from following the head and chest down deep into the water (which is bad).
Summary of Drills: