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The Dolphin Kick
by Kerry O'Brien

There are many swimmers who believe the greatest oxymoron of all time is the term "effortless butterfly." Perhaps swimming butterfly without any sign of a grimace is only a David Copperfield illusion! How do some Masters swimmers incorporate grace and power into a stroke that is difficult for so many others?

Timing the Two Kicks
Each butterfly arm cycle should be accompanied by two kicks, which serve different but important functions. The downbeat of the first kick begins just as the hands are about to enter the water. This leg action helps to bring the hips back to a higher position on the surface and provides propulsion until the hands reach the "catch" phase. The upbeat of the kick helps to streamline the body and reduce drag as the hands enter their propulsive phase. The first kick is longer in duration than the second kick.

The second kick is executed as the arms are completing their propulsive phase and beginning a slightly upward movement toward the recovery. Compared to the first kick, the second kick is more concentrated from the knees down. The second kick generates propulsion that helps to drive the shoulders forward and upward over the water to assist in the arm recovery.

Unlike freestyle and backstroke which use rotation or shoulder roll, butterfly relies on this propulsion to lift the shoulders out of the water. Also, proper timing of the second kick helps support the hips, keeping them from being pulled underwater.

Many beginning butterflyers make the mistake of completing both kicks before the start of the arm cycle - what I call a "kick-kick-pull" butterfly. Here the swimmer extends the arms forward after the entry until the finish of the second kick, then uses the end of the second kick as a trigger to begin underwater arm movements. As a result, when the pull is completed there is no thrust generated from the legs to elevate the shoulders and to help raise the head for a breath. Consequently, the swimmer must arch the back and lift the head and feet at the same time. In addition, this improper timing results in a lack of forward propulsion during the arm recovery.

Rhythm and Roll
The butterfly body motion is one of rhythm and continuous roll. When swimming any stroke, the body will always want to follow the direction of the head. During freestyle and backstroke, the goal is to keep the head still as the rest of the body rotates on its axis. This minimizes lateral and vertical movements that would inevitably reduce speed. In butterfly, a nod of the chin initiates the undulation that triggers the incorporation of the hips that continues all the way down to the snap of the ankles. This undulatory movement means that the hips can begin the next kick as the ankles and feet complete the push of the previous kick.

A common fault in butterfly is to avoid using the hips and to kick solely from the knees down. This results in a tendency to exaggerate the bend in the knee and to draw the feet up too high, that is, toward the suit. Consequently, the hips remain flat and the kick is directed straight back. Although this may sound like an acceptable stroke technique, the body needs to travel in a somewhat upward direction during the second kick, as mentioned earlier.

Competence Levels
When learning the butterfly, it is important to concentrate on the timing of the two kicks in relation to the arm cycle rather than to emphasize the relative strength of the two kicks. "Feeling" the involvement of the hips and "rolling" the kicks together will help one obtain a sense of stroke rhythm. "Survival flyers" are those swimmers who have a difficult time with butterfly, regardless of other stroke successes. Some survivalists attempt to simply finish a 200-yard butterfly while others struggle to complete the first length of a 100 IM. For these swimmers, emphasis should be placed on the first kick since it is longer and will help maintain proper body position.

For more experienced butterflyers, swimming from a 50 fly in a 200 IM to a 200 butterfly, the emphasis should be on allowing the hips to initiate the first kick without overkicking from the knees down. Generate as much propulsion as possible from the second kick.

Sprint flyers with strong legs may drive both kicks (including upbeats) with about the same intensity. Just remember: strength is wasted without rhythm and roll.
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Kerry O'Brien is coach of the Walnut Creek Masters and was named USMS Coach of the Year in 1987. Kerry was also a coach at the September-2000 Mentor Coach and Swim Clinic in Richmond, VA.

Taken from SwimInfo