A few years ago, I was on vacation in Arizona, visiting my parents. My mom and I went to her neighborhood women’s league, affectionately known as the Women Who Wine. After learning I was a swim instructor, I had several women ask me, “how do you do the butterfly?!” Well…..
Butterfly is the toughest stroke to master; there is simultaneously very little mechanics to it and a whole lotta technique, finesse, and rhythm. When you think about butterfly, there’s really only two motions–your arms swinging around in a circle and your legs kicking like a dolphin; however, this seemingly simplicity sits on a throne of LIES!
A short history of the butterfly
Butterfly is the newest stroke. It was originally developed in the 1930s as a style of breaststroke, but with an out of water arm recovery so swimmers could go faster. 1936 Olympic 200 breaststroke American swimming coach David Armbruster is credited with developing the butterfly that we know and (not) love today.
This was first used by Jack Sieg in an Iowa University swim meet in 1935, but the dolphin kick was specifically outlawed by FINA (the International Olympic Committee), and Sieg was DQed. Fly officially became an Olympic Sport in 1956, and it has been torturing inexperienced swimmers since.
There are 3 stages to the arm motion for butterfly: catch, pull, and recovery. At Swim-in Zone, we call it diamond, angel, swing, because that is the motion your arms are making. While your hands are catching the water (or starting to make a diamond shape), your feet are undulating under the water in a dolphin kick to help propel you forward. As your hands exit the water to make the recovery back to the top (swing around), there is another dolphin kick to help propel your arms out of the water. The hardest part about the dolphin kick is it is not just a down kick; it is both an up and down kick. This means that you not only need to kick both feet down, it is imperative to also kick up with both feet together. All this energy is coming from your core and your hips–not the legs. It’s the up kick that young or inexperienced swimmers miss. Butterfly is a short axis stroke, meaning that the energy is from the up/down motion of your core (the shortest way across your body). It also means that there is a certain rhythm to butterfly.
Butterfly has a 1-2 rhythm. There’s a method of teaching butterfly called Maskan (Swedish for “the worm”), that teaches this rhythm by tapping your collar bone and your belt/hip area while moving your hips forward and back. Some of our teachers use this method to help kids get the basic motions of fly. All of this technique and rhythm hasn’t even taken into consideration breathing! You need energy to swim fly, and you definitely need to breathe! Watching Michael Phelps, you’ll see him breathing every stroke. Some swimmers, depending on the distance, will breathe every other stroke. Breathing is all about timing. Most people will try to breathe as their arms are coming out of the water during the recovery period. This is a huge mistake! Breathing should actually be done when your arms are pulling and pressing down on the water, thus enabling you to pick your head up and take a breath. Your head should be down and in the water as your arms recover.
If you can’t tell, I am so not a butterflier. My problem with fly (and with life) is that I have no rhythm! I cannot keep a beat to save my life. But, there are many 5 and 6 year olds who can! The craziest part about butterfly is that it doesn’t take a lot of strength to do it, and honestly, muscle-ing your way through butterfly is the fastest way to tire yourself out. Butterfly is a rhythm stroke. So, if you can keep the beat, try fluttering on by.
My mother loves to tell me the story of my first swim meet. I was 4 or 5 years old and my event was coming up. I was hysterically crying for Lord knows what reason, and I was being comforted by my coach, Shane. I’m sure I was upset because I had to swim a whole 25 or dive off the block, or some overly dramatic reason. That’s the only thing she remembers about my 1st swim meet.
My earliest memory of Summer Swim Meets were the sugar highs from eating jello powder and pixie sticks, and the hot dog and orange tang at the end. Nothing tasted better than a boiled hot dog at 930 on a warm, summer night, after swimming your heart out in the 8 and under 100 yd. free relay.
As low-key and fun Summer Swim Meets were, Swim-in Zone has a similar vibe. Our swim meets are smaller and give kids a taste of what meets are all about. Most importantly, though, they are fun! They give the kids the experience of competition, give parents something to cheer about, and ultimately, it gives everyone a reminder of what normalcy is.
Even if your child isn’t sure about competitive swimming, it’s a great experience. Kids are grouped by age, gender, and event. So all the 6-year-old girls swimming a 25 yd freestyle will be together. Same with the 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds. There are also 30 ft events (the width of the pool) for the little kids (ages 7 and under). If you’re not sure your child could make the whole length, we have the shorter distances, so they can still participate. Plus, we have attendants (our instructor volunteers) who will be in the lane just in case your child becomes uncomfortable.
And our instructors love to watch their kids! Many of our instructors will stay to help, and they want to cheer on their kids. Ms. Annie, especially, loves seeing her kids compete. In her words, “it’s a vibe!” She loves the fun, loud atmosphere, where everyone is cheering and there’s such a vibrant energy.
This year, however, we are doing things a bit differently, but the low stakes energy will be the same. The older kids (ages 6+ and able to swim 25+ yds) will be swimming on Friday, November 5th, at 645 pm, and the younger kids (ages 3-7 and able to swim 30 yds or the width of the pool) will be swimming Saturday, November 6th, at 2 pm. We do have a limit of 45 kids per day, and there is a $10 charge per day per child; however, each child can swim up to 4 events. You can sign up at the Front Desk, but the deadline is Friday, October 29th. So while you are planning your Halloween costumes, plan your events, and we will see you and your kids the 1st weekend of November swimming their hearts out!
How long will it take my child to learn to swim? We get this question so much at the Front Desk and the answer is so nuanced and based on the individual child and his needs. But, I will attempt to answer it here…hopefully, lol. This might be a bit of a long one, so, in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, hold onto your butts! haha!
When a parent asks me when his child will be able to swim, the absolute first questions I ask back is what is your definition of swimming and what are your goals. When I (personally) think of “swimming,” I think of a person who can swim at least 1 length of the pool freestyle with side breathing and a propulsive kick, like a baby Micheal Phelps. (I then imagine a 3-year-old swimming like this and it makes me giggle, but I digress). However, many times parents reply that their definition of swimming is being safe in the water without them having to watch the child. Then I laugh and tell them it’ll be a few years before that happens. Other parents are more realistic and say that they want their child to be able to paddle a few strokes and “swim” 2-3 feet, and depending on the age and ability of the child, this is totally feasible within 2-3 sessions.
So let’s look at our levels and our goals. Level 1 is all about comfort, then mobility. You will not be able to swim in the water without being comfortable and being able to float. So much of Level 1 is centered around comfortability (playing games, doing crocodiles and bunny hops, practicing jumps) and floating. Every single one of my level 1 classes float on their front and back at least twice per lesson because it’s that important! (Even the first few weeks of all our lessons center around the basics of swimming, including floating and breath control). So while Level 1 may not look like we are doing all that much, we are building the foundation of all the levels and all the skills.
It’s not until a child can submerge themselves underwater that they will be able to swim, and this doesn’t happen until the end of Level 1 (Orange) and Level 2. Once a child can float with their face in the water, they will be able to begin paddling around and “swimming.” From there we start learning how to do “big arms” or “alternated arm and switch.” You’ll definitely see my Level 2 classes kicking with 1 hand up and 1 hand down because we are practicing not only our propulsive kick but a full stroke from hip to above the head. This goes beyond the doggy paddling that some parents might be referring to when they want their child to “swim.”
Finally, in Level 3, we are working on perfecting our freestyle, including the side breathing component, as well as our backstroke. However, in levels 1-3, all the focus is on perfect short distances. That is why you will not see very many of our kids doing full laps repetitively. It’s not until the end of Level 3 (Blue) and Level 4 (Blue/Purple and Purple) that we get to my definition of swimming (a full-length freestyle with side breathing and propulsive kick).
And just to complete the goals of our levels, Level 4 & 5 is all about building the distance on freestyle and backstroke and coordinating breaststroke and butterfly.
Once I have established what the parent is looking for in terms of swimming ability, then I look at the individual child. Is the child afraid of the water? Does the kid mind getting splashed in the face? Will the child go underwater happily? If the child is afraid of the water, we are starting at the beginning of our levels, at Red, and depending on how afraid the child is, it might take a while for her to get comfortable and start dipping her face, then submerging herself. Getting a child who is afraid of the water to start going underwater could take up to a year (or more!). If the child doesn’t mind getting splashed in the face, but maybe isn’t dipping his face in the water yet, we would place him in a Red/Orange class. Now we are working still on comfortability, but there’s already some comfort there, and working on dipping the face for longer and longer periods, up to about 5-6 seconds. If the child is happily going underwater, then they are already at Level 2 (depending on age), and it makes our job so much easier! Now, we are just building those floating, kicking, and arm stroking skills. And, this is all for a neurotypical kid. If your child needs special accommodations or is on the spectrum, it could take longer.
“But my child’s been doggy-paddling around all summer–why can’t he do that here?” We get this question a lot too, and it goes back to comfortability and floating. Yes, your child might be able to swim with his head above the water, and he might be really good at it too, but this type of swimming is exhausting! Will your child be able to do this if he falls or is pushed in the water and his face gets wet? Will he be able to do it if he gets splashed? What happens when he gets tired? Swimming with your face out of the water doesn’t equate to comfort in the water. These are all safety concerns, and it’s why we focus on submersion, then mobility.
While this method of learning to swim takes time, we believe in our process. We believe in it so much, we offer a guarantee to all our students, ages 4+, that if they spend more than 3 sessions at a specific level, they get the 4th session for free! So parents, trust us! We know this way takes time, but so does learning how to figure skate, do karate, or play basketball. You wouldn’t expect your child to do triple axels, go up a few belts in karate, or make a layup in a few short months, and we cannot expect a 4-year-old to move along the top of the water long enough or far enough to get out of trouble in this short amount of time either.
So what can parents do? Practice, practice, practice! Tub time is the best time for trying skills out, like dipping faces in the water and even floating (depending on the size of your child and tub). I can totally remember trying to float in my bathtub when I was little. I can also remember trying to swim and making a mess, lol. Tub time is also great for practicing with goggles. A lot of kids will try more skills with goggles on (it’s like Dumbo’s magic feather). And also, we have our Free Friday Family Swims from 1-230 and 630-8 pm, where the entire immediate family can come swim for free! So everyone (yes, even you, Dad), can practice floating and goof around. You can have your child show you their tricks, and you can even show your kid some of your own.
Summer Session is notorious for having older kids (think 6+ years old) who don’t know how to swim. Well, let me rephrase that, summer is notorious for having older kids who think they know how to swim, but really don’t. We get so many people, both young and old, who take lessons, and think that swimming is thrashing their arms and legs in the water. They think that they have to “do something”–like move their arms or kick really hard to be able to move through the water. But this is not how you swim.
Swimming is really just floating. That’s it. It’s floating with gentle movements from arm and legs that propel you forward. The best way to swim is to actually do the least amount possible. Kind of like golf.
Floating, and therefore swimming, is understanding that the water works opposite. To move forward, you need to push the water backwards, and vice versa. It is trusting that the water will hold you up (buoyancy), and working with the water to move.
And this is why floating is so important in swimming because floating IS swimming. If you can float with your face in the water and move your arms, BAM, you have a freestyle. If you can float on your back and gently kick, BAM, that’s a backstroke. It may not be Olympic quality swimming, but it will get you from point A to point B safely. This is why we spend so much time in our Level 1 and Level 2 classes on floating, because floating is the foundation of swimming, and back floating especially, is the foundation for being safe in the water.
Safety-wise, back floating is incredibly important. Every single one of my Level 2 classes does a component of back floating every class. If you can float on your back, you can breathe! This is why we focus so much on rollover breathing because back floating enables you to catch your breath, relax, fix goggles, or call for help if needed. Kids who can roll over and float on their back can swim quite a distance as well (which is what makes these younger Level 2 kids so dangerous, but that is for a different blog). If there is one safety skill that you emphasize with your kids, it is back floating.
There is also something called vertical floating, which is my favorite. Vertical floating is floating straight up and down (vertically). Vertical floating is great because it is such a flex, a power move. If you can float vertically, you can tread water, and if you can tread water, you can play water polo (the best sport ever).
So while many people may scoff at floating and think that it’s not important or it’s just for lower levels, it is actually the most important part of swimming, hands down (or no hands down, because that wouldn’t be floating, and no feet down either). Next time you’re in the pool, try just floating around and see what all you can do with such a basic skill.
I was an annoying child. At least that is what my mother told me when I asked her why she signed me up for swimming when I was little, as opposed to girl scouts or softball. Well, she didn’t exactly say that I was annoying. She said that I had a lot of energy that needed to be used and focused, and also, I needed something that would help me sleep at night. I’m pretty sure that is mom code for I was an annoying child though.
Little did I know that her decision to enroll me in the Summer Swim Team would have such big implications in my life, and I’m so glad that it did.
But what she didn’t know and I didn’t know was that Swim Team, and Summer Swim Team in particular, has a culture all its own. Parents need to make sure that not only are their kids ready for a swim team, but that they are ready too.
The biggest difference that parents should be aware of is that Swim Team practice is NOT lessons! Ms. MacKenzie, an instructor here and Head Coach for Salisbury High School and Middle School Swim Teams, as well as Head Coach for Down at the Severns in Annapolis, Maryland, says that coaches are fine tuning techniques during practice; they are not teaching your kids the complete stroke. That means that your child should know all 4 strokes and they should be comfortable swimming multiple laps of each stroke.
Also, parents should be aware that their kid might not be the best. They might not be 1st, or even 2nd or 3rd. MacKenzie also says that this doesn’t matter as much. Swim Team will make your child stronger and they will improve. However, it might be a struggle to get there, especially with swimming full laps. It’s imperative that parents remain patient.
This all boils down to intensity. Swim Team, even Summer Swim Team, is definitely more intense than lessons, and it’s competitive. From a coach’s point of view, parents must be patient, keep an open mind, and know that practice and lessons are two totally different things.
Swimming runs (swims?) in my family, so I spoke with my sister-in-law, Jenni, about being a Swim Team Mom. Swim Team Moms are a different breed of mom, but Swim Team Moms make great (albeit, loud) friends. Jenni recommends doing this by volunteering at the meets either by timing, being a runner, or a wrangler/zoo keeper (keeping the kids together, especially for relays). This will also help you get to know the other kids and start to understand swimming as a sport. It’s also important to get to know the coach, but not BE the coach. While Summer Swim is competitive, it’s not as competitive as the regular season. (Which, BTW, swimming is a Winter sport).
And finally, I interviewed my nephew, Gregg, on what he wished he would have known before he started swimming. He states, emphatically, to not worry about breaststroke, lol. As a butterfly-er, he loathes breaststroke, and is always trying to convince people that fly is not that bad. (It’s terrible, don’t do it!) But he wishes that before joining, he would have known more about each of the strokes.
And that seems to be the mistake parents make; they equate practice with lessons, and throw their kids in to literally sink or swim. I know my mother did it to me, but I was annoying, so she had good reason 🙂 Parents, just understand that while Summer Swim Team is fun and a great workout, your kids should have some idea of what they are doing. If you’re not sure, sign them up for lessons and our instructors can let you know if they are ready. And, if your kids love swimming, but Summer Swim Team is too much, you can totally look into our non-competitve Swim Team, which we have this summer, as well as during the school year.
Swimming and joining a swim team changed my life. It’s a great way for me to stay active as I get older, it’s also provided me a great career path, and I hope, I’m slightly less annoying (to my mother and to all of humanity). But, it’s also important to understand where lessons end and Swim Team begins.