By Russell Mark//National Team High Performance Consultant | Monday, December 8, 2014
Whenever I’m at a pool now or watching film, it’s automatic: my eyes zone into the subtle movements of a swimmer while my mind processes all the information to make a preliminary evaluation of technique.
A short 10+ years ago, it was completely opposite, though. I would look at a pool and just see a mess of moving body parts. Coaches would say this and that about a swimmer’s stroke like it was totally obvious, and I would nod in agreement even though it all looked the same to me. My eyes were open and I was looking… but not seeing anything.
Over time, by asking many questions and prioritizing what’s important to a good stroke, the body movement doesn’t look so random anymore. Nobody ever taught me how to look at strokes, and I don’t think I have a special skill; the key is focusing my eyes on the right places. The amount of practice I’ve had and the conclusions I make – in other words, experience – are probably what enables me to work with the National Team and Olympic Team, but I can still tell you about the first things I look for.
Here are the first things I ask myself when I watch butterfly technique:
1. Are these 3 things in sync? The hand/arm entry, head press, and 1st kick.
The arm recovery should swing forward and be dynamic. The hands should enter while: (1) the head presses forward, and (2) the hips come up at the end of the first kick. All of this should look like a forward attack on the water. If the hands enter too narrow (less than shoulder width) then they’re likely not entering with enough forward motion.
Most common mistakes: the head is late, the arms enter downward, diving the forehead down.
Key phrase: “Kick the hands forward. Kick the chin and the chest forward.”
2. Are there 2 kicks? Do the knees bend enough for the 2nd kick?
Even though you see the feet break the surface on every 2nd kick, it doesn’t mean that the knees are bent enough to have the best 2nd kick. The knees have to bend almost 90 degrees in order to have the optimal kick. It can be seen from above water with some effort, but best viewed from an underwater perspective.
3. Does head come up too early? When the pull starts, are the elbows and hands much wider than the shoulders?
It’s very hard to see if someone has a good catch from above water, but you can think about these questions to help figure it out. The head should break the surface after the hands pass under the chest. If it comes up earlier, then arms might be pushing the body up instead of forward, resulting in a less effective catch. If the hands/elbows are too narrow, this is another clue that the catch could be better.
4. Do the hands get stuck at the finish of the stroke? Does it only happen on the breath? How high does the head come up?
If the hands get stuck at the finish of the stroke and start of the recovery, it could be that the swimmer should round out the end of the stroke to the side a little more… or that the swimmer is arching their back a little too much to get the breath. Focus on staying low and forward, and kicking the breath forward with the 2nd kick.
You can also try a slightly bent arm recovery, like you might see Chad LeClos or Tom Shields employ. It can make for a softer, more forward hand entry and less tension on the back and shoulder muscles.
5. How does the stroke degrade when the swimmer gets fatigued? Does tempo slow? Which part of the stroke? Does swimmer get more vertical?
It’s not fun for a swimmer, but I love watching the end of a 100 or 200 fly because it tells me a lot about their stroke. All of the flaws are exaggerated when fatigue sets in, and it’s a great way to understand what to work on.
My Butterfly Priorities
- Forward attack on the water with hand entry, head press, 1st kick
- Two equally awesome kicks
- A good catch… holding water
Every coach probably has a different way to look at technique, and I appreciate that a lot. I still love to hear what other people are seeing, what the athlete thinks and feels, and acknowledge how much success the stroke/person has. Only then, with all of that information, can you have a complete evaluation of technique.