The Bad Kicker

Kicking is an integral part of swimming as you all well know. We’ve all gone through those kick practices that seem like all you are doing is kicking for your life for the entire time. Or at least I felt like I was kicking for my life.

Because here’s the thing, I was a good swimmer, but I could not kick to save my life. Before I get into just how terrible of a kicker I was, I guess I should preface with the fact that I actually was a pretty decent swimmer. I was a sprinter who specialized in the 50 Free and I made the NCAA D2 National Championships in the 50 Free my senior year of college. (And yes, those National Championships that got canceled halfway through due to a little something called a worldwide pandemic).

At practice, I was the kind of gal that liked to lead the lane. I liked when I could push myself to make the fastest interval on the board, and I liked to race. But oh man, when my coach would write up a kick set on the board, without fail I would have to grab my kickboard and head to the slowest interval lane. Once I got there, I’d have to tell everyone that they probably want to go in front of me. And then the set would begin, and I would begin my attempt not to drown. As much as I hated going to the slowest group or being the last one in the lane, there is absolutely no problem that I had to do that. It was no problem because no matter what lane I was in, I was still going to do my best.

It was a pretty well-known fact throughout my entire swimming career that I was a terrible kicker. One time, in high school, one of my friends said to me, “I can’t believe you can be such a good swimmer, yet such a bad kicker!” I had to agree, it was perplexing and annoying. I wish I had known then about a little study saying kicking may not even matter in freestyle so I would at least have a good comeback 😉.  But still, I tried to kick the best I could while praying that the next kick set we would at least get fins.

I did actually get a little better at kicking as I got older, although it was hard to tell since I started off so bad. I was incredibly aware that this was one of my biggest weaknesses (along with breaststroke, but that’s a tale for another time…) so I was going to figure out how to make it work for me. In college, my coach and I started playing around with how many dolphin kicks I would take off the wall in a race. Since I was a sprinter, every tiny fraction of a second was important. We knew I wasn’t going to be able to beat the other girls under water, but I could beat them when I was swimming, so I started taking less kicks off the wall.

In practice I couldn’t get away with just swimming a kick set, so I’d still have to do my shuffle to the end of the lane when the time came for a kick set. One year, we got a set of the drag sox to use at practice. Have you ever seen someone kick a 25 with what equates to half a mesh bag attached to each foot? Ok now imagine that, but picture the person kicking is me, and suddenly one 25 can take approximately 8 years to complete. I can’t lie, thinking back to it, it must have been a pretty hilarious sight to see.

I learned that you definitely do not have to be the best at everything to still work to be the best you can be. Instead of deciding that I would always be a terrible kicker and being ok with that, I let kicking be something that I could always get better at. Whatever your weakness is, keep chipping away at it and know that it’s ok to laugh at yourself when you just aren’t the best. To paraphrase our favorite blue fish… Just Keep Kicking 😉

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2 years ago

I’m a horrible free and breast kicker. I’m a pretty good back kicker. Even when I swim free I may be two beats. But I’m 6-beat on my backstroke.

Tea rex
2 years ago

Did anyone else have specific trouble kicking freestyle? I could dolphin kick all day, with our without a board, but flutter kick my quads would lock up around 35 yards every single time.

2 years ago

Side note – are there any elite swimmers who have small feet?

Reply to  Xman
2 years ago

Phelps didn’t even have feet, I think that was part of his success

Reply to  Xman
2 years ago

Big hands, big feet => good swimmer

2 years ago

Sounds pretty similar 😁

2 years ago

Her comment on limiting underwater dolphins is something I’ve been been stewing over for a long time.

When you watch swimming from the 80s to around 2004 most swimmers didn’t do under waters. Yet you still had people going fast times which would be awesome for many college conferences, or high school state meets today.

There is a false assumption that if the top swimmers from that time period used the dolphin kicks they would have gone faster.

Unfortunately that’s not true, as not everyone has the ability to do this no matter how hard they train. In fact forcing the dolphin kicks may be slowing some swimmers down.

Last edited 2 years ago by Xman
Reply to  Xman
2 years ago

Dara Torres was a horrible underwater dolphin kicker, and she realized that pretty early on and would come up off turns right away. She still made 5 Olympic teams and broke American records in the 100m fly, 50/100m free, beating people who were much better at underwaters. You just have to find what works for you and have a coach that can tell the difference between a stroke defect and an adaptation.

2 years ago

College swammer and bad kicker here. I found the best way to improve my kicking was by actually doing it when swimming, not necessarily by doing more kick sets. I made improvements but never became a good kicker.

A minor struggle I have when I look back at my career is wondering how much better I could’ve been if my kicking was good.

Brian M
2 years ago

This was always a challenge for me, and unfortunately that gene passed to my son. I truly believe that one major issue is we still focus so much on free kicking with a board. If you have poor flexibility (my son like me does, and he also has mild scoliosis) kicking with a board will never be easy. And yes, some people just cannot become more flexible no matter how hard they try. With the wide adoption of snorkels and alignment boards, I would like to see more kicking done streamlined, where you most emulate the actions performed during the stroke. I also believe that any believed benefits kicking with a board may bring (resistance comes to mind) are limited… Read more »

2 years ago

I am a D1 college swimmer and still struggle with kicking, it happens. Like they said, we just gotta keep working and look for the little improvement victories 🙂

About Mary Northcutt

Mary Northcutt

Mary is a former 6-time All-American swimmer at Carson-Newman University. She technically was a 50-freestyler, but her favorite events were relays. She wrapped up her swimming career at the 2020 Division II National Championships in March. Since then, she has recently started her first year of Physical Therapy school at …

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