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What's Wrong with Butterfly?

posted July 7, 2008 @ 8:53 PM  |  Featured Workouts category

Note: Nate McBride had been a competitive swimmer for over 29 years and has been coaching for 16. He is currently the Head Coach of West Side Swim Club in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

~By Nate McBride

Rowdy Gaines put it very well the other night when he was talking about the women's 200 fly being America's weakest event. Not that Elaine Breeden or Kathleen Hersey were slow, on the contrary they had great swims. It's just that when they panned over to Mary Meagher, whose 200 fly record stood for 27 years up until this past April, and whose time was set without the aid of special suits or caps, its a stark contrast to the domination we have in so many other events. Why?

The answer is not so difficult. I have coached hundreds of Masters swimmers and in those years and among those swimmers, I have seen maybe a total of 5 200-flyers come through the ranks. I am talking actual 200-flyers, the kind who trained for and competed in the 200 fly in their previous lives. This could be for many reasons...burnout, destroyed shoulders, never wanting to do another stroke of fly again...but it also stands to reason it could be because of the view towards fly. Take for example a swimmer I once had who had a basic understanding of freestyle and no concept of any other stroke. She wanted to lose weight and was swimming to maybe compete some day in the future. It's worth noting she was 46 years old when she came to me. So I taught her how to swim fly and she loved it, and still does. She came in with absolutely no preconceptions and was like a wet sponge when it came to learning. Before long she was able to do 400, 600 and even 800 meters of fly straight with little difficulty and do it well. For a 46 year old she now is able to do a 200 fly, in SCY, in 3:06 which is faster than many of my swimmers half her age.

The flipside to this story...every other swimmer who has been swimming since they could walk and are self-proclaimed haters of fly because it is so hard and makes them so tired. There was a time in the mid to late 90's when I wasn't so much fly-averse as I was gearing my workouts more towards the other strokes...perhaps from some built-in preconceptions of my own. I was afraid my swimmers would hate me if I gave them a 200 fly so I would squeeze some short fly in every now and then when they weren't paying attention. Then, early in the new millennium, I started incorporating a significantly greater amount of fly into my workouts and those swimmers who didn't moan and whine at the wall, started getting it. I had all of my swimmers, regardless of what they were training for, do fly regularly. Now, it is simply a matter of course if a large amount of fly shows up in workouts one week, as normal as an emphasis on pull or backstroke. I still think many coaches are afraid of giving more than a couple 25's of fly in a week and if they do give more, typically buried in an IM set. (You could apply this whole paragraph to kicking but that story is for another day.)

So I call on all of you coaches...More fly...and if they can not do fly because of a shoulder issue, fly kick. Distance freestylers down to sprinters...they all benefit. And if their fly is miserable, take a stand and correct it. Drill away! Having swimmers who are competent in all four strokes opens up doors of training possibilities that you never had before.

Post Script:

Here is a link to a fly workout - during the month of August 2006. I had a swimmer who was training for the 400 IM. She promised me that she would quit partying and all of her other shenanigans if I would agree to train her. I told her that if she completed 50,000 meters of fly during that month (with me on deck) she'd then be allowed to swim in my group. She actually completed 66k! This was one of her SCY workouts:

2006 Fly Workout



So your research population included hundreds of swimmers, and since you found just one who was willing to train overdistance butterfly, you conclude that it's all in our heads....?

Tecnically speaking, slow over-distance butterfly isn't butterfly - it's more managing buoyancy and momentum. You also place all the stress on the your swimmer's shoulders.

Sorry but either way, it sounds like a pretty unbalanced way to train a swimmer.

I suggest Glucosamine.

Posted by Dave Samuelsohn on July 8, 2008 @ 6:55 AM

I think it does lie somewhere in the psyche. In my experience, and perhaps since I have only coached in the New England region its a localized thing, the average swimmer has a strong aversion to fly for whatever reason. This goes hand in hand with coaches who have a strong aversion to asking adult swimmers to do fly in workouts. I don't think that this is something that just happens one day but is a cultured and grown thing that starts much earlier. I have no empirical data to back up this assertion other than my own observations after all these years. If you don't blance every time the coach gives a fly set, kudos to you AND your coach!

Posted by Coach Nate on July 8, 2008 @ 8:13 AM

As a former 200 flyer, I struggle with shoulder problems when I attempt anything more than a 25 in practice. That equates to only swimming the 50 in meets.
I'm a firm believer that fly should be done properly or not at all.
I would love to know the method that you use to extend the distance that one can swim the stroke. We do a lot of fly drill, but not much fly swim.
In coaching my high school kids and clinics, i do find that although some are reluctant to try, the majority of the kids are willing to do whatever butterfly I give them. I just don't want them to dvelop bad habits.

Posted by Mike Laux on July 9, 2008 @ 4:56 PM

There are two approaches that the coaches at West Side apply to flyers...

For the folks who have bad habits cultivated over many years of poor fly swimming, we have to basically identify the major problems and attack those. It can take many months of constant focus to fix these issues. The three most common faults that we focus on and fix are:
1) the movement of the head - somewhere in the 80's or 90's someone thought it would be a good idea to start evangelizing the notion that head movement in fly was good - anyone who has watched fly change over the last few years has noticed that the understanding is now that keeping the head absolutely still and relaxed keeps the hips higher and body flatter (a la phelps). the same applies to breaststroke...we teach swimming around the head, not letting the head start the stroke.
2) the time between entry and pull through - too many swimmers enter the water with their hands far outside and then delay pulling them through - this leads to the up and down body motion that literally stops the stroke - we teach over and over that as soon as the hands enter they need to immediately pull through - no waiting
3) last but not least, kick timing - the number one issue we see is bad kick timing - so much emphasis on the exit kick (exit being when the hands start recovery) and not enough emphasis on the entry kick and that also leads to the up and down effect - we teach subtle kicks and more snap of the ankles

For the flyers who are just starting out we start at the basics:
1) From a standing position we have them do rainbow jumps both with arms at the side and arms over head - then we graduate to a rainbow jump followed by one fly kick under water and then resurfacing - then we move to that motion followed by a low water kick followed by another kick right before resurfacing - next motion is that plus one recovery stroke - last portion of the drill is all of that plus one follow through stroke
2) we spend a lot of time teaching PROPER one arm fly drill - We see soooo many swimmers do that drill wrong and its maddening - the one arm fly drill should NOT look like a one arm free drill - the body should stay flat, the arm should come around on a parallel axis to the water and there needs to be a two kick per stroke momentum
3) kicking - we have found that the best way to learn a solid fly kick is both doing vertical fly kick and fly kick on the stomach with a snorkel and arms at the side - neither is fun but both have a very high rate of attrition

there are too many drills to name that are great with fly but its the basic ones that we always come back to...3r/3l, Biondi drill, Fly arms with breast kick, 3d/1u...etc. Email me and I would be happy to discuss these more in detail with you.

Posted by Coach Nate on July 10, 2008 @ 1:22 PM


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