Butterfly Starts and Turns by Paul Silver (2006)


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I am going to talk with you about butterfly starts, breaststroke starts, butterfly turns and breaststroke turns. Just a quick history, I was a late starter into swimming. I swam with a guy named Mike Getty in Tallahassee, in the Area Tallahassee Aquatic Club. I learned to love coaching by working and swimming for him. Probably one of the things that I remember from him is he told us the only way to do fast turns is to do fast turns. He said you can’t really fake it. You are either doing them fast or you are not. I went on to work with Gregg Troy at the Bolles School for two and a half years, where we had some unique athletes. I think when Larry Shofe talked about learning from your athletes, one of the speakers couldn’t say enough about it. I really got to learn from some very talented athletes while I was working down there. I currently have had some good fortune to work with some good athletes in Raleigh over the last 22 years. One of the girls that I had in the 80’s, named Lisa Brown, wasn’t an overly gifted athlete, but was very tough. She was a big boned tall girl, about 5’ 10”. It was like once she got in the water she had so much momentum that she came up a full body length ahead of everybody every time. She didn’t have the quickest reaction time, but there are a lot of things that are just unique to different athletes. You have got to figure what works for your athlete.

About six years ago at a sectional meet down at the University of Georgia, I had a swimmer by the name of Christian Rohoff, who swam for me at NC State He was getting beat up at starts. He came up and told me, “all right coach, I am going to try rocking back this time and see if that helps me.” Well, he did that and came up off the block about a half a body length ahead of the whole field. Obviously, I was smart enough to say hey, yeah, you need to keep doing that. It was his idea, not mine. I have had other athletes who we have tried that with and will go over some of the premises of things that we worked on with our starts. It just doesn’t work as well with them. It seems to me that the ones that have better vertical leap, if you rock back it seems like, while it takes a little longer to get off the blocks, it seems like you can get a little further. I have got some kids who don’t have a very good vertical leap. We have just got to get them in the water as fast as we can to get the start part over with, because it is just not going to be pretty.

I will go over starts, then turns, and then a little bit of some drills. Some of the premises or things that we talk to them about is about putting their dominant leg back on the track starts. We do this all the way down through our age group program. I don’t know if that is how Eddie Reese does it. If I were smart, I would probably ask him because his kids start better than anybody else. The way I looked at it is similar to if you were going to be doing a lay-up in basketball. You would have the last thing on the ground would be your weaker leg while going up for a lay-out, so I just figured that way is going to be faster. This was probably, one of the things that I learned at Bolles with Gregg Troy, which back then they hadn’t started really doing track starts yet, as we were still doing the old two foot start. We watched our athletes put their toes over the edge and either way, whether it is a track start or a flat star, when the gun would go off, their toes would flip up and then they would go down and then they would take off, except for our best athletes. Their toes stayed down and they got off the blocks quicker. We really talked to the kids a lot about making sure that they keep that down. We will even practice doing starts where they actually don’t take off. We just have them react and watch their toes and see if you know, their toes are flipping up. I mean, they just flip right up. It takes a while for them to get off the blocks. That is one of the premises of the things that we talk to the kids, as far as the technical aspects of the starts. Keeping toes down makes us feel like that helps them react quicker.

We had a girl, a couple of years ago, in the breaststroke, make the 2004 Olympic trials named, Jenna Rinaldi. She wasn’t doing very well on her starts, so we had her rock back for reaction times on starts. You know, she was getting off at a blistering .86 – .85 second, but she was rocking back. We then had another girl who was getting off at .65 or .68 second. When they were next to each other, Jenna would come up ahead and never came up behind anybody, even though her reaction time was .85 second. How relevant is that from athlete to athlete? I don’t think it is very relevant. How relevant it is from one athlete to experience it and then they do it again and comparing. I think it is relevant. In Jenna’s case, she had to rock back a lot so, therefore, it took her longer to get off the block, but the momentum she created got her out ahead of everybody whether it was butterfly, breaststroke, or freestyle. She never came up behind, ever. So that is one of the premises there.

I am not supposed to talk about backstroke starts, but I am going to mention that this summer we had this girl, Kelsey Smith, who is swimming at Florida now, who is a backstroker. She swims a 2:16 long course, but has never been good at coming off the blocks. She swam for Pete Malone with the Kansas City Blazers and came with a great work ethic. When she was about 15, her starts weren’t very good so we worked on them and worked on them and got them as good as we could, but she is not very good kicking under water. Her short course 200 back is only 1:59.9, but long course it is 2:16. Well, finally, we decided we would start cheating and just get a head start on everybody because I knew she was real quick. I said, “all right, let’s try this way.” I think it was sometime, not this summer, but the summer before when they had the reaction times. I said, “You know, you have been getting off at about .61 off your backstroke start.” It was average. I said, “I want to see how quick you can get off.” Well, she would come up easily a full body length behind everybody because she is just not very strong in the legs. We talked to her about being quicker than everyone else and kind of getting a head start. Well, she got down last summer to where she got off at, I think it was :52 at her best one on backstroke, and there was nobody you know, anywhere near that quick reaction time. She is still not great underwater, but by leaving a tenth before everybody it made a big difference in where she was coming up in the race and how much effort she had to put in that first 25. When she was coming up behind, obviously she wants to get back in the race quickly and would over-swim the first 25, while paying for it a little bit later. This got her to be able to come up where maybe she was at their shoulders instead of down at their feet. If she was at their shoulders she knew they were in trouble. During the backstroke race, they could see where she was. They could see her coming. She finishes the races really well, so that was one of the things that we did with Kelsey on the backstroke start that I felt like made a big difference for her and how quickly she got off the blocks.

On butterfly, the number of kicks you take under water is going to vary from swimmer to swimmer. Whether it is a hundred fly, 200 fly, 200 IM or a 400 IM, the girl that Rick mentioned that made the National Junior Team, Kirsten Smith is, 5’ 6,” maybe. Even at Nationals, she never comes up behind. That is a whole lot more to do with her than me, I can tell you that. She has got great reaction time and an incredibly streamlined body under water, but the number of kicks depends on the athlete. We got another athlete, Kierstan Kosches, who made Olympic trials. When she dives in, she takes three dolphin kicks under water, which is probably four too many, because she gets nothing out of it and she is a butterflyer. Kierstan, usually on her 200 IM, will take 11 kicks that will get her somewhere in the 11 meter range off the blocks using a Russell stuff with US Swimming and she never comes up behind, even at Nationals. Again, it is because she is so streamlined.

One of the things that I thought was very interesting was something that Bob Gillett did. It was showing a shadow of Misty Hyman when she was doing her underwater butterfly kick and that her upper body was very, very still and her lower body, was going like crazy. Her upper body was very, very still. It goes back to the simple math as we learn that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so she wasn’t doing this, but going straight across. We tried to talk to the kids about doing that. One thing that the kids will do, particularly when you are training hard is they will be lazy on those starts. Even if they do the right number of kicks, as they take the first stroke their legs completely stop – absolutely stop. Do underwater video of your kids at the end of a practice when they are tired. You watch them as they will come up, and take the first stroke as their legs will stop moving until they get their arms back around. They have gotten all this momentum coming off the block and then lose it because they have stopped kicking. We talk to them about that. On breaststroke starts, it is kind of similar to what I just described with Misty, in that when they do the new dolphin kick, you want to keep the upper body very straight so that you are going in a straight line. You don’t want to have the legs rise up and move the head down and then dolphin kick and then come way back up so you are creating a lot of resistance for yourself. In talking with Jonty, I mentioned that we had a girl who was a 2:39 breaststroker. I had him work with her at Ultra-swim this summer on her turns. He said what she was doing was she streamlining too long and so she was trying to wait until that point where she really slowed down so when she grabbed the water she could really grab the water and move forward. Well, the problem was that she was losing all her momentum at that point and so even though it felt like she was grabbing more water she wasn’t getting out as fast as she possibly could. We have talked to our breaststrokers now about maybe shortening that time that they are streamlining so that they are getting a little bit more out of it.

On turns, take a tennis ball and throw it at a wall slowly. It is going to come off slowly, right? So, I believe momentum going into turns is real important. If you throw it in fast it is going to come off fast. I do that demonstration at the beginning of just about every year and showing the kids that they do the same thing. If you want to come off fast, you have to go in fast. When I was working at Bolles, every time the kids pushed off the wall Gregg Troy would tell them, “all right, you need to answer the phone.” They would have their hand on the wall and would bring their hand right here like they were answering the phone. That was back before cell phones, so some of the kids would kind of mess up and bring it over here. Now, I guarantee you, every athlete knows how to answer the phone. I had Greg Burgess, who was a former American record holder in the 200 IM, come and do a clinic with us. One of the things we asked him to do was talk about doing breaststroke turns and butterfly turns One of the things he said he always tried to do was to hit the wall and get his hands off before his feet hit so that his feet were coming around with momentum and instead of hitting the wall, pulling up, placing his feet and pushing off. His feet were swinging in and then he would bounce off the wall. That was something that was very enlightening. I had the kids go underwater and watch Greg do this. It was something that really helped him to improve them as far as what they were doing with their turns.

Obviously, streamlining is the most important thing. I am always amazed when we have kids that are transferring in from another state or other teams and none of them can streamline. I picked it out immediately. Our swimmers really talk about it, not to the point where I think I heard Larry talk about his son doing two and a half days of streamlining at practice. We talk about it and it is not an option, it is a given. You are going to streamline because you don’t want me wasting your time telling you to do something that basic that is going to help you. I mean, if I have ten comments to give you each practice, you really do not want streamline to be one of them. It kind of becomes a given, but don’t waste other people’s time by making me tell you that, so they learn pretty quickly with our program to get the streamline done, so that it is constant. They are very disciplined about that because they do want to hear what information you have to give them on other things that are going to help them to do more. We talk about if you are just doing what you are supposed to do’ you are probably going to stay about the same as you were. You have to do things better than what you have done before in order to improve, and just doing what you are supposed to like just showing up at practice, that is not enough! If you are not even doing that, well, you are really in big trouble. Again, you are wasting a lot of people’s time. They are the ones working with you trying to help you out on things more technical.

The number of kicks underwater on a butterfly turn varies from athlete to athlete. If they have got a strong kick, obviously, it is going to be more. If they have a weak kick, you decide whether it is valuable to help improve that or getting up faster and swimming. As I said, this girl is going to be a freshman with Jimmy Tierney next year. If Jimmy can get her to kick off the wall really well, I’ll hand it to him. When she gets up and starts swimming, she is really good. I think she just wastes time when she is under water. It depends from athlete to athlete so you have to test that and see what is going to work best for this athlete. Now everything works for everybody a little bit different way, so you find out, alright, five kicks works for you. That is really good. Alright, you are stronger now and your goal is by a year from now to be able to do 8 kicks off the wall, not lose any momentum, not have the oxygen debt that you go into the wall with sap you, so that you are not any good on just 11 kicks. If you want to talk to two people who know a whole lot about under water dolphin kick go out to David Marsh or Eddie Reese. David Marsh has a female back stroker who is about 4’ 6.” I think won NCAA’s last year. She beats everybody off the walls. She is this teeny weenie swimmer. I know that she does a lot of kicks under water and is great about it. Breakout on butterfly turns, again, is crucial because you have got all the momentum coming off the wall. With that momentum, you have got to anchor your hands and accelerate through. When they are tired in swimming a 200 yard butterfly and hit turn #7, they might anchor alright. On the back end of it though, they are just trying to get their arms out, so they don’t have to push much really quick. You have to force them to extend back the first stroke.

When I was at Bolles, one of the things I really learned from Gregg was turns. We had a lot of kids when I first got there who were bringing their hands up real high. An analogy to be made is the skater Dorothy Hammil of ’76 Olympics fame. We talked about how when she was spinning really fast, her arms were in real tight. When she wanted to slow down, her arms would come out. That is one of the analogies we use. I think you have to do that with kids. Give them things that they can see. You know, like skater Sarah Hughes or something like that. Just tell them to watch skaters and see. You can learn so much more from other sports, a lot of times, than just from swimming. We talked to them about getting as tight as they can when coming off the wall, so that they can get around faster. We went to a meet and I don’t remember where it was, but they had the flat walls or the Omega wall. I found that our athletes were turning quicker breaststroke and butterfly on the flat walls than they were on regular ones because they were not reaching for the wall, grabbing the gutter and then pushing off. On the flat wall you do not have a choice. If you are really good about keeping your momentum going in, you will get off faster on a flat wall than you will on a gutter wall. I am not sure many people realize that, but they could see the flat wall and panic. They think, “Oh gosh, my turns are going to be slower.” I think and believe it actually makes your turn faster, as long as you keep your momentum going into it as fast as possible. They are not sitting there grabbing the water as soon as their hands hit the wall, so they are trying to get off of it because there is nowhere for them to do this.

As far as our leg strength, we kick probably 1200 – 1500 yards six times a week, probably not enough, particularly after listening to Frank Busch talk. One of the things Eddie said which I completely agree withis about slow kicking. I am just not patient enough to watch slow kicking. I just cannot watch it. We will use fins probably twice a week just so I can get through it. The other four times, we go on as tight an interval, most of the time, as I can possibly get them to go because I feel like if we are going to do it, I don’t want them sitting there chit-chatting with someone. I want it to be business, you know? Maybe if we start doing more of it, we won’t have to do all of it on such a tight interval. Every now and then I will have them kick for points and again, anything that you do kicking, I think, will help their turns. We will have them kick for points where we will assign a number like you get 5 points for 1:10, 4 for 1:15, 3 for going under 1:22 on up. Then you have got to get 60 points in your lane or 80 points in your lane and then you are done with the set. You do them on two minutes. If you do something like that they will crawl out of the water after the set, because #1 they are trying to get the points for themselves, because they are all about themselves and #2 they don’t want somebody else in their lane telling them that they are a slacker and not pulling their own weight. It is a really good set to get their legs stronger.

Some of the things that Russell has done in USA Swimming that has been real helpful. I am a real slow learner. Those guys have been real patient with me in helping get me up to speed on race analysis stuff. They have been showing me the turn time. We started about a year ago timing turns in practice and will do this just about every morning during the school year. We will go twelve two turn 50’s and time them the same way those guys had me time them. It is real easy at 5 in the morning. You are just trying to get them awake through about half the practice so you can get something done in the second half. We do it right after warm-up, forcing them to concentrate on doing their turns correctly. They really get into trying to see how quickly they can turn. I have a little 14 year old girl who is a better then average swimmer swimming 5:30 in the 400 meter IM. She is a small girl. She gets killed coming off the wall, but she makes up for it because she gets around quicker than anybody. We told her look, you are smaller than everybody so your noose is a lot tighter than everyone else’s, so you had better take advantage of it, because those big people are going to kill you coming off. It has been something that she has managed to work to her advantage, but we time turns a lot.

We had a girl that we were doing a set of 200 fly withone day, like, six of them, as part of a lactate set on nine minutes. The girl started at 2:15 and started climbing up to about 2:18, but on #4 she says, “I just can’t seem to go any faster!” I think about something simple. “I just timed one of your turns and it was 1.6 seconds. If you can drop that 2:10 on seven turns, then you are going to drop your time 1.4 seconds. She tried it and boy did the time drop. I did it again on #6 and dropped it another 2/10, down to 1.2, which still wasn’t good, but then it dropped again. It is a way of breaking things down. They go up there looking at 200 fly and wanting to go better than 2:15. Well, you have got to give them ways that they can break it down and have something small to think about, because their brain cannot think for 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

You know on starts we sometimes will race 15 meters and see how long it takes them to get there to try to figure something out. On relay starts, I talk to them about being aggressive. Especially if you have girls, they like to stay within the rules all the time. I tell them that they need to be aggressive on this. There are no referees here. I want you to false start and so they will start and be slow. I want you to false start. They will do another one. It will be a little faster, but still slow. They come up and say, I false started that time didn’t I? No, I say. I want you to false start and every now and then you get a smart-aleck, who will dive in and go under the person before they even finish. We talked to them about being aggressive on their starts, on all of them because I think, if you are in a college situation, a lot times you are able to work with the same four people that you know are going to be on the relay all the time. You are at least confident that they can do exchanges. You can do them more often. The situation that we are in, I am not sure you can put that much time into it at least I am not managing to do it. We tried to tell them to take advantage of this and be aggressive on your starts. Because they will always tend to be too slow, if you give them the green light a lot of times, you can just get them to false start. It is a whole lot easier to bring them back to a bad start then it is to have them keep going slow. They keep going slow. You try and get them fast. You have got to give them the green light that it is okay. Once you do that, you can get them back the way you want.

The other thing that we do and I can’t remember where I got this. It might have been Paul Yetter. In the morning, when we do some of those two turn 50’s where we are timing, we might do the first turn where they will go to the wall, turn, come off and go to the middle of the pool and stop in the middle of the pool and then have to do a turn in the middle of the pool, back this way and then back again. It is really hard. It is real hard on your core, your abs, the whole mid-section to get around like that. If you can get around that way without a wall, then you are going to get around pretty fast with a wall. You will do that sometimes in freestyle turns where they will sprint to the wall, do a turn, hold their hands on the wall, kick for ten seconds and they go and do a turn again and then come off. So, those are a lot of the drills and a lot of the premises that we have for our turns and for our starts. We probably don’t spend as much time on starts as are needed. I think you need to take away some little things that are pretty simple to do like keeping your toes curled or just a matter of paying attention to what you are doing. If you get them to do that, then you know you are probably going to get some improvement. Sitting there testing and looking at whether or not they should be rocking back or leaning forward. You know, maybe there are some people that would tell you that there is only one way to do it, but I haven’t figured out that that way works for everybody yet.

What I am going to show you is a quick video, if I can get this to work right, of Kirsten Smith’s start at nationals. She hardly ever comes up behind people on her butterfly and breaststroke turns. She is usually real good. She has a lot of work to do on her freestyle turns, so I am not showing you that one. Actually if I had been smart, I would have showed her back to breast turns because I think she is pretty good on doing the cross-over turn. It is a lot easier to teach that cross-over turn to somebody small, but I think regardless, you need to do it. Greg Burgess should be what, 6’ 4” or so and did that turn 10 – 15 years ago. It worked pretty well for him. This is Kirsten doing breaststroke and butterfly turns. I believe that the turns are first and then the starts. Again, she is not a real big girl, but coming in on her turn in breaststroke you will see her hands are gone before her feet hit the wall. She tries to keep her upper body real still. She probably dug down a little too deep there on the way in. I will yell at her when I get back for that one. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so you want to be straight in there. She is a pretty versatile athlete. She is 2:15 breaststroke, 2:05 butterfly, 2:01 IM, 2:00 backstroke.

One more thought on the butterfly turn is whether or not you breathe going into the wall or not, I don’t think it matters. Certainly, I wouldn’t recommend taking your head down two times right into the wall. Stay with your same breathing pattern. I think if you work on being fast going in and being quick, you do it right and then you can sit there sure that you can get off the wall fast. You can see how streamlined she is when she goes in and how still her upper body is. I think Eddie was talking about ankle flexibility. If you ever see her stretching at a meet, she looks like Gumby. She can tie her body into knots that I have never seen anybody else do. There is one other thing that, right there on her turn, you will see her pop her heels up as she gets around. When you are watching above the water, it helps get her legs into a little bit better position for the turns. You watch right as she hits the wall. She should be getting her heels up and that helps get her around. You will see the same thing on the butterfly turn where she will get her heels around. Again, here, we are using a pool with a gutter. I think it was actually at the US Open at Auburn with flat walls there, right? I think that is where we figured out that they were quicker that way. She goes in very streamline. Watch her toes. You see right there, they flipped up a little bit.

That is really all I had for starts and turns of breaststroke and butterfly.

Questions? He asked when you time the turn. We time them from the time their hand touches the wall until their feet leave. We try to get them below 1.0 on that. Again, it takes discipline as a coach to do that. It is real easy to have them do a set and watch while analyzing what you are doing. If you are thinking about it and you know what is going on it does absolutely no good. It only matters if you communicate it to the kids and give them real numbers. They will try to beat it. They will make a game out of it.

On starts in general we look at their head breaking out somewhere between 4.9 and 5.5 seconds.

His question was concerning the dominant leg in the track start. I may be doing it all wrong, but our better athletes have been a little bit more successful with their dominant leg forward. Again, I would think about it more from the standpoint of doing a lay-up in basketball. You are going to go this way and so it would be the same thing. It may be wrong, but it is just what works for me.

Yes, sir. One, I can’t get her to change. I have had other athletes that have done that and been successful. What she does is when she comes off she gets a really great push off the wall and pulling on the blocks. It is probably a little too long because you are not really throwing her hands back. She is just not moving them forward because when she comes off her hands are still here, which is where they are when her feet leave. It is something that we tried working on. We just haven’t been able to get her to change it, but I have seen other athletes do it and do okay. Whether it is ideal or not, it is something we are working on. Good question.

Yes? The question was, he has been told I guess more often than not that when you go down from the start that you should be looking back behind you, but he has also seen athletes look straight down. I think to a degree it has something to do with the flexibility in their legs and their neck and where they can put it. As I said earlier, Kirsten is incredibly flexible. If any of you remember Tracy Caulkins and the way her knees were double-jointed, well you add about two inches to that and that is how Kirsten’s knees and elbows are. I mean, she is very flexible, so I think it depends from athlete to athlete as to what is best. Do you have any other questions for me? The last thing I will just say is that same last point. You have got to work with your athletes and figure out what works best for them. They do not all come in with the same tools, so you have got to figure out how that works. Thank you for your time.

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