When Dolphin kick isn’t dolphin kick

Butterfly needs to have a dolphin action to swim it correctly.  The basis for the stroke is a correct dolphin action, NOT a dolphin kick.  An undulation starting from the upper part of the body is a natural body movement that I have often seen in children.  Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be taught in swimming lessons leaving most swimmers who are graduating from their lesson programme into a swim club without the most basic skill to swim Butterfly.  The fly stroke that often develops is a high head position, with fly-like arm actions and a kick that is totally ineffective. Learning the dolphin action to replace the kick is the key.

So it would seem that although many children can naturally do an undulating body action to move through the water they lose that skill from lack of repetition.

Swimmers that I see in private lessons, who struggle with their Fly stroke, do not kick correctly.  They ‘kick’ but do not ‘undulate’.  A fly kick is not like a breaststroke kick (in fact a Breaststroke kick should have a dolphin action in it but that’s another topic).  A lot of swimmers kick downwards and then by bending their knees they lift their heals to kick downwards again.  This type of kick is like one step forwards and one step backwards. To do it correctly the whole body is undulating not just knees/feet.

fly undulation

I often run into this problem with swimmers and so it is important to start from the beginning: teach them how to ‘kick’ (or I much prefer ‘dolphin action’ because the word kick implies legs only).  Luckily it doesn’t take long due to the fact it is a natural movement.  However years of doing the dolphin kick incorrectly becomes the problem; many repetitions of an incorrect way versus only one or two hours of the correct way.  But with time the dolphin action is learned and then you can move into learning Fly.

With many swimmers it is just the knees that are the problem.  As we all know the knees do not bend backwards (although some great fly swimmers have this strange hyper extension of their knees which does allow their knees to bend slightly backwards…very rare I might add).  The correct way to swim fly is to have both an upward and downward action that propels us forwards.  So we need to use the joints that do go backwards; hips, ankles and your whole spine.  A good drill to teach swimmers to use their whole body to dolphin action is called ‘Peg Leg Drill’.

Peg leg drill

To do the Peg Leg drill you really should start with wearing fins.  It is a very hard to do without rigorously driving the hips forwards and backwards; ie perfect dolphin action.  This drill can be followed up with simply doing dolphin action on your side but also it can be done without fins for the very skilled swimmers.

Another good drill to assist the learning of dolphin action is vertical kick.  There are many variations of vertical kick and as long as the dolphin action is demonstrated it will be a good drill.  To observe if a swimmer is using their body correctly you should watch them from the side and not from the front or back.

One vertical drill I like we have called ‘Spy Hopping’.  It is what Killer Whales do to see along the surface of the ocean.  Drills need interesting names to be memorable. To do a Spy Hop drill you will need a deep end at your pool.  The swimmers then push off the bottom and dolphin up to the surface, then try to stay up high enough to keep your eyes along the surface.  It can be done with arms up or down.

jumping off bottom spy hops etc

To transfer the vertical kicking into horizontal action I like to use a drill called dolphin dives or ‘Leaping Fly Drill’.  Basically taking the drive upwards to a more slightly horizontal position by adding the arms.  If you watch the swimmers closely some will stop their kick just a the critical point; at the point where they use their arms, don’t let them do that.  With one great dolphin action, plus one big arm pull, the swimmer flies over the surface and dives into their next stroke.  This drill can be done in shallow water but of course be careful in the shallow water.  It can also be done over lane lines as widths, however if you lane lines are rough you might not want to do that.

BUTTERFLY DRAWINGS 002 leaping fly drill

The whole stroke has interacting considerations but if there is not proper dolphin action you will not be able to swim Butterfly correctly.  So it may be important to start saying ‘dolphin action’ and not repeating ‘fly kick’.  It may be giving your swimmers the wrong message.  If you are involved in the learn to swim side of swimming… get dolphin action onto your syllabus!  It certainly is on ours.

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About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at: https://www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/gary_Vandermeulen
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