Even if you do not practice the butterfly stroke, you may appreciate this approach to solving the not-getting-any-faster problem…

Coach Jamee and I have been working with a mother and three kids (10, 12 and 16) on a swim team who came to us to work on freestyle and butterfly, in hopes of making a breakthrough in their times which have plateaued this last year. Undoubtedly, their club workouts had them working hard on being strong, and these kids could easily handle a 100 yard race, but hard workouts were clearly not enough to help them break through. Their strokes were not bad really, but there were several ways they could make them better. They needed to understand how the stroke works so they could learn to swim it smarter before they tried to swim it any harder. So, we spent our time examining the stroke, section by section, focal point by focal point, over the course of two 90 minute sessions. It was a tall order for such a brief time, but they are young and their brains and bodies did great. We were pleased with the improvements observed and recorded at the end.

However, before coming to their second butterfly session I asked for their observations while practicing the focal points they learned in the first. I appreciated the honest response of the eldest who noted that she did not feel any specific or dramatic change in how fast she felt with any of these skills so far. 

So I composed this response to adjust their expectations for what we were aiming to accomplish in these lessons, and I would like to share it with you.


Since all of you already swim butterfly, but are of different age, skill and speed, we will take you through a selection of skills in each section of butterfly, allowing each of you to explore and then sense which ones you need to work on most. Very likely each of you will be drawn to work on a somewhat different assortment of skills.

At first, you might be judging some of these skills we’ve introduced on whether it makes your swimming immediately feel faster or easier. Those are definitely two important markers of improvement. But another advantage of examining each skill, even if you feel you are already doing it correctly, is to increase your awareness that you are doing it correctly, and appreciate exactly where and how much control you have over that feature.

Many great swimmers are doing the right thing with their body and stroke but they are not aware that they are doing these things. These are often internal features not easily detected by external observation and therefore not appreciated nor taught nor encouraged by coaches. The problem, for those swimmers unaware of what makes their stroke work so well, is that when the going gets rough and some of those features crumble and disappear, they don’t know what happened and they don’t know how to fix it. Trying to swim harder does not magically make those features return – it just makes things get worse.

Those who tend to win the race are not necessarily the fastest, rather they are the ones who slow down the least. Think about that for a moment…  They are the ones who distribute their energy (and speed) more evenly across the duration of the race, while others go out too hard (faster) and fade more quickly. The more skilled swimmers protect their form as fatigue increases, while the others let their form deteriorate though they are very strong athletes, perhaps even stronger than the skilled ones. The slower swimmers actually end up looking like they are working harder, because in fact, they are working harder as crumbling form dramatically increases the amount of drag they have to work against.

Our work in butterfly is meant to not only improve some part of your stroke technique, but also to improve your awareness of how the stroke works, and at what specific moments of the stroke you can do something to protect or correct deterioration of your form as fatigue increases. This will result in a faster time, not because you sped up, but because you did not slow down as much as the other swimmers have.

Certainly, you should (eventually) work on becoming stronger so you can apply more power. But staying in control of your form has to be the top priority because increased power only benefits you when channeled through superior form – this requires very specific strength. In order to do this, you need to understand where the critical moments of control are, and where your own stroke tends to break down under fatigue so that you can work specifically on becoming stronger at those points, resisting deterioration better than your opponents do.

When you are practicing butterfly in easy conditions, with abundant energy (feeling no fatigue)  you may or may not notice the potential benefit of any particular skill we are working on at this moment. It may seem like you know how to do this already. But where this awareness and attention to detail may reveal its greater benefit is when you enter the scarce energy zone (feeling increasing fatigue), when you start to notice the stroke falling apart – and in butterfly it is very easy for the stroke to fall apart, as you know. At this stage you have to apply that awareness and attention in order to get it back on track to conserve energy and resist slowing down further. In our lessons together we’re helping you learn where your stroke is vulnerable to breaking down and what you can do to get it back on track.

The primary benefits you may draw from these butterfly lessons are:

  1. to know where your control points are in each section of the stroke – where and how you can adjust your path through the water – to make it better or get it back on track when it falls off.
  2. to know where your vulnerable spots are – precisely where your form, at what part of the stroke cycle, tends to break down when you feel fatigued.

With these two insights about your stroke, you are in position to protect your form and delay fatigue, and correct your form when it starts to crumble, in order to get better and better at resisting loss of speed.

This is the smarter way to swim faster.

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