Welcome to the Art of Swimming online magazine!
The secrets of Shaw Method superfly
What do you think of when you think of butterfly? Chances are you will visualise a competitive swimmer like Olympic Gold Medallist Michael Phelps, with his unnaturally wide wing span, powering through the water. And if you search for “swimming butterfly” online no doubt you’ll find lots of evidence to back up the idea that the stroke is not for you. I found quotes such as, “Butterfly is a difficult stroke to swim as it needs both stamina and style” (BBC Sport Academy), “The butterfly is most difficult stroke in swimming” (Live Strong), “[Butterfly] requires strength of body and endurance skills, which you should have been building up through other strokes before attempting butterfly” (Wonderhowto.com), “Many consider [butterfly] the most difficult style of swimming” (Wikipedia).
I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m going to tell you that butterfly is not hard to learn, it does not require superhuman strength, and you don’t need to be under 25 to swim it. I’m confident of that. Why? Because Steven Shaw has been developing and refining Shaw Method butterfly for over ten years. He has taught pupils as young as 5 and as old as 84 to swim this graceful, dolphin-like stroke.
I’m going to pass on some of Steven’s butterfly secrets in a moment, but first, here’s some history of swimming’s newest stroke.
Butterfly dates back to 1933 when Henry Myers first swam the new stroke at a swimming gala at the Brooklyn Central YMCA. His new technique evolved from a need to improve his breaststroke performance in competition. The overwater arm recovery was developed to eliminate the drag in the breaststroke underwater recovery, and the dolphin kick was introduced soon after. The new style was considerably faster than traditional breaststroke (the slowest competitive stroke), but the new kick was illegal under FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation) rules. The overwater recovery was allowed, however, and was used in breaststroke competition from the late 1930s until 1952 when butterfly was recognised as separate stroke with a new set of rules. Butterfly got its grand unveiling as a separate discipline the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
For the years that followed butterfly was admired from afar while recreational swimmers swallowed the consensus that the stroke was reserved for the competitive community. Then, in 1999 a former competitive swimmer, Vikki Harmer, signed up for Art of Swimming’s Shaw Method teacher diploma. “Vikki could swim butterfly when she joined the course,” remembers Steven Shaw. “But she couldn’t sustain it for more than about 200 metres.”
At the time Steven had been doing some experimentation with fly on his own, but didn’t teach it because he had not worked out a way of making it sustainable. And he had some pretty bad memories of the stroke from his time as a teenage club swimmer. “I was caught pulling on the lane rope by my coach, who gave me a 1,500 metre butterfly swim to do as a punishment,” he says. “I did it, but felt absolutely terrible afterwards.”
With that memory still haunting him, Steven was delighted to observe that as Vikki began to transform the way she swam front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke, she also began to work on her butterfly. Over time she was able to swim fly in a much more sustainable way. Steven then spent a lot of time exchanging ideas with Vikki and working on his own stroke. He says that, in one year, he put in about 1,000 hours practice on his butterfly and formulated a way of breaking it down into a useful progression that could be taught by Shaw Method teachers, and mastered by anyone, no matter what their age or ability.
Then three years ago Steven set himself a challenge. He would swim the 5km Swimathon entirely in butterfly. He succeeded and now teaches fly in workshops and private lessons regularly. In fact, he reports, that butterfly is Art of Swimming’s second most popular stroke after front crawl.
So what was different about Vikki and Steven’s butterfly that meant they could swim it as easily as others swam crawl? “When I had to do that 1,500m swim for my angry coach the whole focus of the stroke seemed to be on the arms, about getting them over the top of the water and in and back out again. So the focus was on the recovery, not the propulsive movement,” says Steven. “What I saw that Vikki could do was lead the undulating movement with her head, and that led to a much lighter recovery of the arms.” If you think about it, it makes no sense to put all the effort (and emphasis) into recovering the arms as that is not what is driving you forward.
To see this in action please take a look at Vikki Harmer swimming and if you’d like to learn Shaw Method butterfly here are Steven’s four key principles:
1 The wave action is at the heart of the stroke
In many swimming books you will read that the wave action of the body – the undulation – is a consequence of the correct movement of the arms and legs. Shaw Method butterfly says that the correct movement of the arms and legs is a consequence of the correct movement of the torso. If you would like to practise this remember that the eyes lead the undulation. If you start with your eyes looking ahead, look down as your legs press down, and your hips rise, to dive. As you begin to look ahead again, the legs will lift, and your hips sink as you float up to the surface.
2 Butterfly is a “four-wheel drive” stroke
If you think about it, crawl is a “front wheel drive” stroke – the propulsion comes from the upper body – and breaststroke is “rear-wheel drive” – the propulsion comes from the legs. Butterfly uses the arms and legs equally, so we call it the “four wheel drive” stroke. If the legs drive the body down, the movement of the arms holding the water and pressing back, brings you up. And it is important to know that explosive breathing will not help you here. Breathe out gently and you can make use of the air in your lungs to help drive the elevation.
3 The hands exit the water thumbs up
Like Shaw Method front crawl the arms and shoulders are opened during the propulsive phase and so the hands will exit the water thumbs up. This means that the arms can recover in a sweeping motion just above the water’s surface. In traditional butterfly swimmers are required to exit their hands little finger up meaning they employ much more effort to lift the arms over the surface. Try it now as you read this – you will really feel the difference in your shoulders.
4 There are three phases to butterfly
There’s the dive down phase generated by the wave action and the legs pressing down. Then the pull up phase that is generated by the wave action and the arms under the water. And finally that light sweeping recovery. Every second stroke the face breaks the surface just before the recovery phase allowing an inbreath. As you need to bob up further on the breathing stroke, pause before you pull with the arms, ie let yourself float up a little further. This means that you do the same level of propulsive movement on each stroke and don’t tire yourself on the breathing stroke.
Of course the best way to learn is to get yourself a Shaw Method teacher. If you can’t manage that you will find a breakdown of all the practices for butterfly in the DVD A Shaw Way to Fly and Steven’s book Master the Art of Swimming. Both are available from the AoS shop.
The good news about learning butterfly is that you probably have little or no experience of the stroke, so you have no bad habits to break. Steven says that when teaching a day workshop in butterfly he’ll find that around 80% of the group will be able to swim it with the correct timing by the end of the day. In a breaststroke group that number will only be 50% because of need to challenge long-held patterns of movement. “I think that the fact that most people have never swum butterfly before is one of its biggest advantages,” he says.
What I love about butterfly is that it makes you feel like you are an aquatic creature. You go deeper into the water than you do in any other stroke, and use your torso to drive you forward (naturally, this means it is very good for developing core stability). Steven agrees, “There is something very primal about it: you’re using your whole body with every movement.”
Find butterfly workshops in London and the rest of the UK