Sixty years ago, when I was a competitor, the breaststroke was the swimming stroke many instructors first taught to beginners. At that time the peculiar crawl style practiced by Pacific islanders had not been refined and was, in fact, barely known in the civilized world. Though the crawl, because of its greater efficiency, is broadly recognized today as the basic stroke, the breaststroke remains—and I venture that all instructors agree with me on this—a valuable part of the average swimmer's repertoire. Physically speaking, the breaststroke is an easy action, very conducive to relaxation. Indeed, for a swimmer who achieves even reasonable competence it is a downright restful way to move through the water.
In presenting my methods for teaching the crawl and backstroke in the first two parts of this series, I cited a basic law of swimming: water is buoyant, air is not. It is this basic law that makes the breaststroke comparatively restful. In both the crawl and backstroke, because he must recover first one arm and then the other through unbuoyant air—and, in the crawl, turn the head to one side for air—a swimmer is like a ship with a constantly shifting ballast. The breaststroke affords considerably more stability and flotation. For one thing, in the breaststroke the arms are never out of water, even on the recovery. The head is the only part of the body ever out of water, and even at that, to take air, the head is lifted straight to the front, not out of line to the side, as in the crawl. For another thing, in contrast to the alternating and essentially vertical action of arms and legs in the crawl, in the breaststroke the arms move in unison and the legs in unison through a somewhat horizontal plane, further improving the swimmer's stability. The flotation and stability of the breaststroke are such that a swimmer in fair condition can actually go quite a distance holding his head up so his nose and mouth are out of water all the time.
The underwater recovery of the arms and legs that contributes so much to the swimmer's flotation also, unfortunately, makes the breast-stroke inefficient. By recovering under water, all four of the swimmer's limbs are to some extent opposing his forward progress for part of each cycle. Because of this, the all-important lesson, and the hardest for a beginner to learn, is timing—sneaking the recovery of the arms and legs into the cycle, so to speak, so they impede forward progress the least.
As in the crawl and backstroke, I first teach the pupil the kick. At the bottom of this page, Artist Ed Vebell has done a sequence of drawings looking directly up as my granddaughter Marilyn breaststrokes overhead. For the moment, you should ignore the arm action and consider only the legs, starting in the first drawing of the sequence, where the legs are fully extended, straight behind, as if Marilyn had just dived into the water. Since the breaststroke kick is essentially a thrusting action, obviously Marilyn must first recover her legs forward from this extended position before she can kick. In the recovery Marilyn flexes at the hips and knees and, keeping her heels fairly close together, draws her feet forward until, at the completion of the recovery, her upper and lower legs form a diamond, as shown in the third drawing. Marilyn's feet, legs and knees are in much the same position they would assume if she had stopped midway while doing a deep knee bend with her knees spread about 18 inches apart. To start the kick, pressing the soles of her feet flat against the water, Marilyn thrusts her legs back until they are again straight but with her feet apart (for a 9-year-old, about two feet apart), as shown in the fourth drawing below. Finally, she brings her extended legs back together (fifth drawing), in effect closing a wedge that squeezes the water and tends to propel her forward. Before beginning the next recovery she glides for a moment on the momentum of the kick. While the kick can be divided mechanically into four parts—a recovery forward, a thrust back, a squeeze together and a glide—from the recovery through the squeeze the action should flow uninterrupted.
July 24, 1960
I first show the pupil the mechanics of the kick on land, guiding her legs through the action and then having her try it without my guidance by sitting on the ground and leaning back, supporting her upper body on her elbows. For such practice, logically the pupil should lie prone, but since on the recovery the knees actually come up somewhat underneath the body, the correct prone position is impossible when first trying the kick on land.
As in the other strokes, the real practice of the kick is done in water. Since the breaststroke is now taught as a secondary stroke to pupils who already have learned the fundamentals of the crawl and are at ease in the water, I do not hold the pupil while she practices, but rather let her support her upper body on a kick-board. There are today kickboards made of synthetic materials and of balsa wood but, all told, I prefer the traditional, heavier pine boards, about two inches thick, 10 or 12 inches wide and two feet long. When the pupil holds a board of this sort out at arm's length, the body is correctly level in the water and the board offers resistance that I feel best simulates actual swimming. As in the other strokes, the pupil should practice kicking until the action is virtually automatic, so she can next concentrate on the arm action without giving the legs much thought.
Mechanically speaking, the movement of the arms in the breaststroke, like the kicks, is a four-part action. For the correct arm action you should look again at the sequence at the bottom of the page, this time ignoring the movement of the legs. In the first drawing Marilyn's arms are extended to the front, as if she had just dived into the water. To propel herself she simply presses outward and back in an arc (second drawing). During the press she keeps her arms straight but not rigid. The arms do not sweep back in a shallow, horizontal plane, but rather, as shown in the drawing at the upper left, travel somewhat downward as they move back. At the finish of the press, when the hands are a little past the line of the shoulder, the arms are angling down about 30° below horizontal.
There are two parts to the recovery of the arms in the breaststroke. First, by flexing her shoulders and elbows, Marilyn tucks her upper arms in fairly close to the body, at the same time sliding her hands in together. As she does this, the palms of her hands face the bottom so they create less resistance as they slip laterally through the water. In the second part of the recovery Marilyn thrusts her arms forward (fourth drawing). When her arms are fully extended, her hands together directly ahead of her (fifth drawing), she is ready to start the next press. Before pressing again, however, there is a pause, to glide. The pause of the arms is not as pronounced as that of the legs—the actual duration depends largely on the pace that the swimmer is setting. A good swimmer, moving very easily and very slowly, will glide with arms and legs extended for as long as a second.
If each of the parts of the arm action coincided exactly with one part of the kick, the breaststroke would indeed be simple. The parts do not coincide, and most pupils have to practice kick and arm stroke together a good bit to get the correct timing down reasonably well. In the second drawing of Ed Vebell's sequence you can see that when Marilyn presses with her arms her legs are still extended, quite logically slipping through the water, offering as little resistance as possible while Marilyn propels herself with her arms. As she finishes pressing and brings her arms in toward her body, Marilyn is recovering her legs, drawing her feet forward. Then, as she executes the last part of the arm recovery, extending her arms to the front, she has thrust back with her feet and is squeezing her extended legs together. Finally, with both arms and legs extended and together, she pauses again, gliding before starting the next cycle.
The pupil can be taught the mechanics of the arm action on land, but proper coordination of arms and legs will only come with practice in the water. Since the timing is rather tricky, it is best for the pupil to concentrate on arms and legs without incorporating the action of the head. A child who is quite buoyant and completely at ease in the water can practice using arms and legs, holding her head out of water all the time, without any support from the instructor. If the head is up, the feet will tend to ride a bit low, but usually not so low as to spoil the rhythm or to keep the child from concentrating on the job at hand.
However, if your pupil seems tense and must work too hard to maintain a good body position, you should have her start practicing coordination of arms and legs with an inflated tube around her waist. The tube's resistance, true, nullifies somewhat the streamlining of the body that is so important during the glide, but this unnatural resistance is a worthwhile price to pay at the start to keep the pupil relaxed while she concentrates on the timing.
Once a child gets arms and legs working fairly well, the head action is quite simple. At the end of the glide, as the arms start to press, the face is tilted up until the mouth is just clear of the water. The breath is taken while the arms press. Then, when the arms start to recover in toward the body, the face is turned back down, and the swimmer exhales as the hands are thrust forward. When the face is submerged, it is not straight down but tilted slightly forward so that, as in the crawl, the waterline is about mid-forehead. Since water is incompressible, a slight "bow" wave develops, and if the swimmer is moving along at a fair clip, this wave will actually roll up a good way past the hairline.
Even when your pupil is combining head action with the stroke and kick, if she tends to work too hard or too fast you should let her use a tube so that she gets a good feel of the rhythm. Obviously, in this stroke, where timing and streamlining are so important, when finally she is going it alone your pupil will progress better taking two or three rhythmic strokes at a time, rather than struggling the length of a pool.