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Breaststroke 101

 Breaststroke has a reputation for being one of the most difficult strokes to learn… and to teach. Dave Denniston, on our GO SWIM BREASTSTROKE DVD, makes breaststroke look SOOOO easy, but the reality is that he worked hard to master a thousand different things, from the timing of his kick, pull, and breath, to the angles at which he holds his hips, knees, ankles, toes, elbows, and wrist.

Dave makes it look easy, but what if you’re an absolute beginner? Where do you START when you want to learn this really cool stroke? And, if you’re a coach or swim teacher, where do you start to TEACH breaststroke?

As the coach of an age-group team, and as a learn-to-swim teacher for kids and adults, I face this question every day. Here’s a teaching sequence that I’ve found works well to teach breaststroke at the beginner level.

Teach the Kick First and Practice Out of the Water!
Breaststroke kick requires you to turn your hips, knees, and ankles in ways that can feel VERY unnatural for a beginning swimmer. Until you’ve awakened your muscles and joints to these new sensations, it’s best to practice on deck before you get in the water.

Practice Lying Down
1. Place a mat or kickboard on the deck and lie belly down on the mat.
2. Keep the knees together and bring both legs UP and hold them there.
3. Turn your ankles OUT.
4. Bring both legs around and TOGETHER and HOLD.
Repeat this sequence, pausing at the top to make sure the ankles are turned OUT, and pausing at the bottom to imprint a streamlined GLIDE with toes pointed.  Once you get a feel for the correct ankle position, make the movement more continuous, pausing just at the bottom for the glide.

Practice Standing Up
1. Stand on deck (hold on to the wall of to thediving board for stability) and practice kicking one leg at a time.
2. Keep the knees pointed down and hold them close together.
3. Bring the leg up and BACK, not out to the side.
4. Turn the ankle OUT at the top of the kick.
5. Kick the feet together.
Repeat this movement 5 to 10 times on one leg, then 5 to 10 times on the other leg. Then alternate legs every 2 to 3 kicks.

Practice While Sitting at the Side of the Pool
1. Sit on the side of the pool with legs together and outstretched.
2. Keep the knees together and bring the heels BACK to the wall.
3. Pause and turn the ankles OUT. The sides of your feet should be pointed UP.
4. Bring the feet around and TOGETHER and HOLD.
Practice this sequence with pauses at each step, then make it more continuous, but HOLD for the glide.

Practice with Your Belly Against the Wall
1. Hang on to the side of the pool and try to hold your belly against the wall. Practice the same kick sequence as on deck, and KEEP YOUR BELLY AGAINST THE WALL. This ensures that your kick happens BEHIND your body.

If you practice kicking while lying on the floor, or while sitting at the side, or with your belly against the side of the pool, you eliminate any chance for three of the most common errors in breaststroke: scissors kick; drawing up the knees in front of the body; and letting the knees fall too far apart.

This is one time you shouldn’t be in a hurry to GO SWIM. Practice on deck and on the side of the pool until you’ve got a good muscle memory for the correct kick. Once you’ve mastered UP, OUT, TOGETHER, GLIDE, it’s time to go swim, but…

Start on Your Back
1. Start on you back with your hands at your sides. Bring the legs up behind your body and try to touch your ankles to your hands.
2. Kick the feet together and hold them for a long glide.

Little kids and beginner adults often don’t have enough power in their kick to stay afloat at this stage of learning. If this is the case, tell them to use their arms in the classic movement of Elementary Backstroke, and it should give them enough propulsion to stay afloat while they focus on the kick.

Kids and beginners need to practice this OVER AND OVER. It may take several weeks of lessons until they gain strength and mastery, especially if the swimmer is a long-time runner or cyclist.  Don’t give up! It takes time to learn the correct ankle position, and to keep the legs behind the body, and to make the kick symmetrical. It’s also important to learn to GLIDE for a few seconds each time the feet come together. Beginners tend to want to kick kick kick, with no glide phase. This will get you into trouble when you finally…

Flip It Over
1. Start by lying stretched out on the surface with arms extended above your head and feet together.
2. Take a MINI pull and a quick breath, then KICK THE HANDS FORWARD into a streamlined glide.

Make sure the pull is TINY and the breath is quick. Most beginners take a HUGE pull, and want to pull their hands all the way down to their sides. They may also want to pull DOWN rather than out to the sides.

Again, practice this over and over for several lengths, each time you go to the pool. Most beginners won’t master this in the first lesson or even the first few weeks. It takes time to get the timing.  And if a beginner reverts to scissors kick when on the stomach, have them go back to practicing on their back until they lock in the correct movement.  

Practice SLOWLY at first, and make sure you have a glide phase in your stroke. During the glide, you should be streamlined from fingertips to toes. Once you have the timing, you can pick up the pace a bit, and you’ll find that the techniques demonstrated by Dave Denniston on GO SWIM BREASTSTROKE will be within your reach. As with everything in this sport, master the basics first, then GO SWIM.