My Golden Method for Teaching Butterfly

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on developing a methodology for teaching strokes, because when I first started teaching, especially butterfly and breaststroke, I didn’t have a clue where to start. Sure, I could swim all of the strokes very well, and could correct ugly strokes. But I had no clue with how to teach them from scratch.

The one that I’ve had the most success with is butterfly. Now, I’m sure I’m not the first one to come up with this step-by-step process, but it works like a charm. I’ve taught swimmers legal, fast butterfly in one or two 30 minute sessions, coming from zero knowledge on the stroke. I’ve also used this method to reteach butterfliers when their stroke is not very good, and to emphasize the EVF, since many of my swimmers learned the keyhole stroke, just like I did. Even for good butterfliers, it acts as a good drill progression to help them refocus on the important parts of the stroke.

1. Aquaman drill- The aquaman drill is essentially butterfly kicking, with your arms at your sides. Many coaches use this as training by having swimmers swim it under the water. In teaching, I have my swimmers swim it on top of the water, so they can get a good feel for the stroke. Describe it to the swimmers as swimming like a mermaid, or a dolphin, with your feet together. Also compare it to the dance “the worm.” Even if you don’t get it, most of your swimmers probably will. Have a swimmer who gets it demonstrate, and point out what they’re seeing.

Focus on them keeping their legs long, and doing an efficient butterfly kick (no kicking from the knees, no big waist bend, etc.)

2. Acceleration Drill- Pull them out of the water to teach this one. First, teach them about the #11 position. Hold your hands up in the air, and ask them what it looks like, they’ll say 11, and really emphasize that number 11 is the starting point of each drill. Tell them to push off the wall, do 2 dolphin kicks (like they were just doing), then on the third, tell them the first motion should be to bend their elbows a little. Then after that, tell them to bend their elbows a little more. Then tell them to throw the water to their toes. Then tell them to sneak their hands back up to the number 11 position (like on the underwater pullout), then do the whole thing over again. Have everybody on the deck practice it along with you as you do it. After about twice through, have them start telling you what to do. Like this.

You: “Where do I start?”
Them: “#11!”
You: “Then what?”
Them: “Two Dolphin Kicks!”
You: “Now what?”
Them: “Bend a little!”
You: “Then what?”
Them: “Bend a little more!”
You: “Then what?”
Them: “Throw the water to your toes!”
You: “Then what?”
Them: “Sneak them back up!”

Go through that about three times, until every single one really has it down. While they’re calling it out, do it while they say it. This engages them visually, mentally, and verbally. Once they have that down, they’ll probably want to know when to breathe. Make sure they get the other part down first, then explain to them that they’ll just lift their chin as soon as they leave the number 11 position. To explain it different ways, so everybody understands it, tell them that they breathe as soon as their pull starts, when they’re bending a little, or anything else you can think of. Then tell them to put their head back down to sneak their hands through. Make sure you have them practice this part on deck too.

Now it’s time to have them get in the water and try it. Make sure they don’t do it too fast, because if they do, they will try to turn it into a breaststroke pull. Emphasize that when their stroke finishes, their elbows should be straight and their hands by their hips, and be sure that the pull is straight back (hence, bend a little, bend a little more-show them that the idea is to get their forearms straight up and down as soon as possible, then throw everything straight back). Also, make sure they do the two dolphin kicks in between each stroke to really reset themselves, and make sure they’re not using breaststroke or freestyle kicks to sneak their hands back up.

3. After they’ve mastered that, it’s time for the full stroke. Pull them out again, and explain to them that you’re doing full butterfly now. Full butterfly is exactly the same as the acceleration drill, only their hands come over the water and around. Go through the steps above, only reduce those extra kicks to the proper timing, and hands coming over the water instead of sneaking up. Don’t be too worried about the two extra dolphin kicks at this point, some will keep them, some will eliminate them, but once they have the motion down, it’s easy to take care of them.

Again emphasize the number 11 position. Explain to them that their stroke is better off finishing too wide than too close together. Show them this by demonstrating different positions, and asking which ones are OK and which ones aren’t. Emphasize a straight back pull, instead of the antiquated “keyhole”/”snowman”/”big-little-big” methods.

Many swimmers will try to do other kicks right after breathing. Watch this very carefully. And just remind them specifically not to break their dolphin kick right after breathing.

While they’re swimming their full stroke, emphasize breathing, and the #11 position. At this point, after a few 25’s, your swimmers should all be swimming legal butterfly. Hard to believe, I know, after such a short session, but I’ve had upwards of a 90% success rate without having to deviate from these steps. Even many of the tough learns pick it up with relative ease.

4. Where to go from here? OK, so I said it would be legal, but I didn’t say it would be perfect. If you think your swimmers are ready to move on in their first session, do it. If not, come back the next class, go through the whole thing again (a little faster this time), and then move to this fourth step. It’s up to you to get a feel based on the age/teachability of your swimmers.  The fourth step is to have them out of the water, and go through the steps again, but this time, explain to them that on their recovery (the out of the water part), the backs of their hands should come together, not their thumbs, and not their palms. First show them. Then have every one of them practice it on the deck (and keep practicing it), until you’ve individually checked and corrected every swimmer.

If a few of your swimmers are still having breathing problems (breathing too late, keeping their head up too long), remind them to breathe early, and to put their head back in the water, and finish their stroke over the back of their head.

5. At this point, it’s all about attitude. I usually start rambling on about attacking  the water, and swimming aggressively, and swimming butterfly like you’re mad. The actual content of the message isn’t important, but you basically have to come up with some diatribe that will get them mentally ramped up to really go after the stroke. Keep them engaged. Show them a slow, lazy recovery and ask them if that looks fast. Then show them an attacking stroke, and ask them if it looks fast. Talk to them about which part of the stroke makes them go forward (the pull), and which part of the stroke is just resetting their arms to start another stroke. Phrase as much of this as possible in simple yes or no questions, as it holds their attention better.

6. With regard to the kick. There will always be a swimmer or two in every bunch that just can’t get the flutter kick out of their heads. A progression I go through with these swimmers is to remind them that it’s a two-footed kick, and you bend at your stomach. If they’re still struggling, talk to them about feeling what they’re doing, not thinking about it. They should feel both feet pushing the water at the same time. After this, I put a pair of goggles around their ankles. After a few laps like this, they will get a much better feel of what their legs should look like. Of course, use your best judgement wit this. Don’t bind the ankles of a 4-year old, or anybody who you think is not a strong enough swimmer to warrant it, and watch the swimmer very carefully for safety reasons. But assuming the swimmers have the strength to grab the lane rope/make it across the pool if they need to, they should be ok.

Give it a try, let me know how it works for you, and some day in the future, these could be your swimmers! If you have any questions, be sure to post them in the comments, as I’m sure I’ve forgotten something!


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Suzanne DeVore
2 years ago

Do you ever have them wear fins to start?

4 years ago

What about the two kicks per stroke?

Gina Broderick
5 years ago

Ok – so as a swimming teacher of 10 years this method has been the best I have used and I have had good success. However, the bit I just can’t get my head around is where you say “Go through the steps above, only eliminate the two dolphin kick”. You don’t go on to say when to put in the kicks – you just say eliminate the two dolphin kicks – if you eliminate the two kicks you have zero kicks and are just swimming using arms?? Can you clarify this for me please. Thanks

6 years ago

I’m a learner not a teacher, and this is the most helpful thing I have read! Tried it out today combined with a ‘skate’ drill I saw on youtube (just doing the pull, breathing and then dolphin kicking with the arms still by my sides, before bringing the arms back over. so half the speed of a full stroke), and I now after weeks of being taught it in lessons and not getting the hang of it, I GET IT!! Thank you!

7 years ago

I am still in shock over at how unbelievably well this method worked. I am an asst. coach but I do private lessons on the side. Up until this morning I’d only helped kids refine and improve their strokes, but we have a girl who just joined the team and had never done butterfly. So I did a little research, read through your article, took some notes, and she had it down in 20 minutes. It doesn’t look pretty – she not ready for the Olympics or anything – but she was definitely going through the motions. So, thank you. I look like a genius now thanks to you.

8 years ago

Great article, lots of good info and techniques for teaching Butterfly. I just want to point out an observation of mine. I teach the 4 strokes to new swimmers as well as coach 10 and unders at a more competitive level. I have notices that doing the aquaman drill can in some cases lead to swimmers being too comfortable with their arms down by their side during their dolphin kicks. This may just be a case of overusing the drill in our Novice group but I have found that doing the same drill with arms up in the 11 position without using their arms. They are then more comfortable with the front part of their stroke and more likely to… Read more »

8 years ago

Do you have any videos of swimming going through this progression?

Olga P Rosales
Reply to  Braden Keith
8 years ago

Please do

Ash Pearson
9 years ago

Thanks for this! I had a really hard time trying to figure out how to coach butterfly today. The only problem I could forsee with this is the complexity of the 11 position- any advice on how to make sure an unruly group of 30 7 or 8 year olds might best be able to handle this?

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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