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By Otto Sonnleitner

There is no doubt that the secret to successful swimming is efficiency in the water. In Butterfly I believe that efficiency is paramount as the stroke has an inherent inefficient period during the recovery of the arms. At that time with most flyers the body sinks fairly rapidly. When we talk about efficiency there are a number of aspects that come into play:

Body position: the great Butterflyers of our time from Mary T. Meagher to men like Morales, Sieben, Stewart up to the current World Record holders have all maintained body positions which keep them as close as possible to zero degrees to the water. In other words their frontal and eddy or drag resistances are minimised.

Kick: Importantly assisting the body to stay at close to zero degrees must be an efficient kick which keeps the body as streamlined as possible. When we have a look at underwater shots of the great Butterflyers there are two things which we see very quickly – in the Butterfly kick the legs do bend and put paid to instructions which I’ve heard from some coaches which are … ‘keep your legs straight’. The legs do bend at the knees and the lower legs and feet kick in a backward rather than the misconception of just a downward direction. The hyperextension of the plantar flexed ankles is paramount to a backward drive in the kick. The timing of the kick is as vital as any part of the stroke. If the second kick takes place too early in the stroke, which is what we see from most Butterflyers, then it loses its effect by the legs being in a downward position while the arms are still recovering. The backward drive of the kick should take place at the back end of the pull or push phase. This means that as the arms are recovering the forward propulsion from the legs is at its most effective. This assists the body to stay at close to the desired zero degrees. The hands will enter the water just as the legs complete the kick and as the legs are at their lowest. As the head has already dropped this will have the immediate effect of bringing the legs up and into place for the first kick, which takes place as the hands spread at the beginning of the pull.

Timing: as discussed during the kick timing is also important. In simpler terms that may create a clearer picture for you while you view videos of great Butterflyers, this is the sequence of the timing of the leg kick in relationship to the arm pull:

  1. Picture the body in its best streamlined position with the head down between the arms as the hands have entered the water, and the legs have just risen after completing the second kick.
  2. As the hands begin their outward downward and backward pull the legs begin the first kick.
  3. As the hands begin to sweep inward and backward the legs complete the first kick and immediately in a rebound action begin to rise in preparation for the second kick.
  4. As the hands are in the power phase of the backward and outward push the legs stay streamlined and high in a prepared state for the second kick.
  5. As the hands are about to leave the water for the recovery the legs then kick backward to keep the body in a high streamlined position, at zero degrees!!!

Breathing: the movement to enable the mouth to clear the water for breathing is the one most likely to affect the body position adversely. If the head is lifted too high then the body will drop. If the breath is taken too late in the stroke and the head is up when the hands are about to enter the water this too will cause the body to drop – keep in mind that at this stage the legs have just completed their second kick and are at their lowest position. Therefore it is important that the lifting of the head is done at the right time. The chin should begin to move forward and up as the hands begin the inward and backward sweep of the pull. Importantly this should be done at the same speed and in synchronisation with the hands. By the time the hands are in the final phase of the backward and outward push the mouth should be clear of the water and that is when the breath is taken. At that time the body will be in its highest position and all that should be required is a flexion of the neck in a forward and upward movement. Once the breath has been taken the arms will have begun the recovery and as the hands are about to pass the shoulders the head is allowed to drop back into the water in a position in line with the arms and the body.

Side Breathing: during the 90s, Butterfly swimming had two world record holders who have been side breathers, firstly Melvin Stewart from Tennessee the great 200 Butterflyer and the Russian Pankratov who has broken the World Records for both the 100 and 200 using side breathing. In discussions with Forbes Carlile who saw him break one of those records, Forbes indicated that Pankratov was exceptionally flat or at zero degrees in the water. In addition Ursula Carlile observed that at times Pankratov breathed every three, yes three strokes during the 200 Butterfly!!! The Russians obviously place a great deal of value in being at zero degrees. This obviously requires a great deal of time and patience in training.

Underwater Kick on the Start: While on the subject of Pankratov, it should be noted that he kicks underwater for about 30 metres at the start in the 100 and for 25 metres in the 200. This technique was first introduced by Peter Freney with Angie Kennedy. Angie to my knowledge has been doing this since 1991 and of course is the Short Course World Record holder over the 50 Butterfly. There is no doubt that kicking underwater for 25m is an advantage. For example … not too many girls in the 15-16 age group can break 13 seconds for the first 25 of a 100 Butterfly, yet at the State Championships in Brisbane a 12-year-old Japanese girl, using the underwater start, went 12.4 for the first 25 metres. I believe that this underwater start is well worth pursuing in particular with those kids who are great Butterfly kickers, and those who are not too good at kicking had better work at improving their kick. Obviously getting kids to work at breath holding and slow exhalation toward the end of the underwater phase is going to take some time and persistence, and will need to be done in stages but I believe it is well worth the hard work. I have found that kids resist being asked to stay underwater for any more than about five kicks – yes it is difficult, however if we are to be in the hunt with Butterfly in 2000 and maybe even in 1996, then our swimmers will have to work at it. The Butterfly start in Atlanta will be well worth looking at. I for one believe that whoever wins the 100 will kick underwater for at least 20 metres.

Butterfly Pull: Better authors than I am have written a great deal on the Butterfly pull and most of what has been written has had somewhat of sameness about it, however at the risk of being repetitive the following is what should happen during the fly pull and recovery…

  1. The arms should be recovered over the water the initial movement generated from the shoulders. As the hands leave the water with the little finger leading, the position of the hands remains that way throughout the recovery – i.e. little finger up thumbs down.
  2. The hands should enter the water at shoulder width with the thumbs down and the hands at an angle of about 30 to 45 degrees.
  3. From that entry position the hands sweep outward downward and backward. During this movement of the initial pull the elbows should be kept up a term that many of us use is ‘over the barrel’.
  4. From there the hands pull inward and backward until the hands meet under the body. This happens anywhere from the mid chest area to about the
  5. From there the hands push outward backward and upward to a position outside the thighs where the little finger leads into the recovery.

Those of you who read our journal would have seen some controversy existing about whether the pull should be a lift or drag orientated. My thoughts are simply this … any Butterfly pull that I have viewed underwater on video or film or just with a pair of goggles in the pool, has shown me conclusively that the pull is a combination of lift and drag forces. What percentage of lift and drag is entirely a personal and talent orientated thing. I have yet to see any swimmer who does either one or the other exclusively. I have at my disposal a video, courtesy of Jim Fowlie, which was taken at the last Butterfly camp, of many of the best Butterfly swimmers in Australia, and to my mind there is no doubt that the Butterfly pull is a combination of both forces drag and lift. As Coaches we have an obligation to teach our swimmers the basic principles of the correct pull while allowing natural talent to develop.

Drills: to quote Bill Sweetenham … A drill done 99% right is 100% wrong – a drill done 100% right is right.

  1. The most common drill that we use is Single Arm Butterfly. Generally we combine single arm with normal Butterfly … e.g. 4 right arm – 4 left arm – 4 normal Butterfly. Using single arm Butterfly gives the young swimmer a respite from the effort of normal Butterfly and allows them to think about any single aspect of his/her stroke. We either have the whole group concentrating on one particular aspect of the stroke or we have each individual focus on his or her worst weakness. The swimmers should do this drill breathing anywhere from every 2 to every 4 strokes.
  2. Underwater Pull Drill: this drill is simply the complete Butterfly pull without the over-the-water recovery. I like this drill as it allows the swimmer to just focus on the propulsive phase of the stroke. Once again the swimmer should breathe every 2 to 4 strokes.
  3. Butterfly Catch Up Drill: this drill allows the swimmer to focus on one arm at a time while at the same time providing an opportunity for working on the double kick.
  4. Kicking Drills: Kick should not just be the mundane kick work on a board. With Butterfly kick there are a number of variations that are valuable to improving the Butterfly kick. We do the normal Butterfly kick on a board then we do a lot of our Butterfly kick on the side and also on the back with the hands in a streamlined position. Occasionally to increase the difficulty of the Butterfly kick we get the swimmers to hold their head up and clasp the hands in front. If you are doing a Butterfly kick set a combination of all of the above makes life interesting.

Coaches must become inventive in their use of drills, as the basics are pretty similar. Using combinations of the above drills can make your training sessions on aerobic Butterfly quite interesting. For example … we use a combination called the Butterfly drill swim pyramid…

4 strokes on each arm single arm

4 strokes normal Butterfly

4 strokes on each arm single arm

8 strokes normal Butterfly

4 strokes on each arm single arm

12 strokes normal Butterfly

Come back down again

Doing this for 200 metres makes it a really strong aerobic exercise.

You can do a set of Butterfly 50s going…

Single arm Butterfly for 25

Swim 25

Alternate 50s are underwater pull drill for 25

Swim for 25

With a relatively short rest of about 10 seconds this becomes a good moderate intensity aerobic drill.

Importantly you should look at your individual swimmer and work on each individual’s worst fault. Then equally as important you should give your swimmers constant feedback on how they are progressing with improving their problem areas.

Just swimming Butterfly, doing interval training on whole Butterfly while consolidating faults is not going to improve your swimmer. I don’t see any problem with Butterflyers who have serious weaknesses work on their Butterfly doing drills while the better Butterflyers do the whole Butterfly stroke.

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