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Can’t Coach It II- Dolphin Kicking Part I

Some skills are critical to performance yet resist improvement, particularly through coach-led initiatives. We often describe individuals that are successful at these skills as ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’, possessing something that can’t be taught.

In many ways, these skills can’t be taught, at least through traditional coaching methods. However, swimmers can learn to execute these skills well, even extremely well. It just takes a different approach.

In the first installment of Can’t Coach It, we explored the nuances of underwater pull-outs, and how to create a system that developed the physical requirements for excellent pull-outs, as well as provide exposure to environments that allowed for development of the necessary skills.

In this article series, we’re going to explore how to develop dolphin kicking. We’ll examine the key subskills that enable successful dolphin kicking, the physical characteristics required to execute those skills, as well as the tasks that help swimmers learn to execute those skills.

So, what is dolphin kicking all about?

As explored in The Strokes Simplified VI- Dolphin Kicking, the following skills are required for great dolphin kicking.

1. Maintain a Stable Platform

As dolphin kicking involves undulation, there must be some sort of stability in the body from which undulation can be created. Often, this stability is found in the middle of the chest up through the hands.

Some elite swimmers do have more movement in the upper body and the hands. However, these swimmers are still creating stability, just doing it differently. There is a tight, controlled wave moving through the chest, rather than simple back and forth movement.

I would strongly encourage swimmers to learn how to create stability in the upper body, and then experiment with adding more movement afterwards. This is a very different process that simply letting the upper body wave back and forth.

2. Create as Much Propulsion as Possible

While holding water is a concept that is generally used to described actions of the upper limb, the concept is no less applicable to kicking in general, and dolphin kicking in particular. To be effective dolphin kickers, swimmers must be able to create pressure with the feet and the shins. A critical aspect of maximizing propulsion is kicking through the center line as opposed to chopping the kicks short.

3. Maintain Equal Propulsion and Tempo in Both Directions

Novice dolphin kickers tend to focus on one direction while kicking, primarily when kicking in front of their body. In contrast, better dolphin kickers do a better job with foot speed when moving the feet backwards behind the body. This would be the ‘upkick’ on the stomach and the ‘downkick’ when on the back. Faster dolphin kickers are more symmetrical in terms of their ability to create pressure in both directions, as well as maintain foot speed in both directions.

4. Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag

As important as it is to create propulsion, swimmers must also strive to move through the water with the smallest profile as possible. As speed will be the difference between propulsion and resistance, a profile which reduces resistance will improve speed. Importantly, not only this increase in speed not require energy, it actually reduces the energy that is used during dolphin kicking.

There are two primary sources of drag. The first is the ‘default’ posture that come with streamlining. If a swimmer were to push off the wall and glide without kicking, that posture approximates their ‘default’ posture during dolphin kicking. It is primarily their ability to streamline their body by straightening their spine and minimizing the impact of the head. The more aligned a swimmer is, the greater their potential for moving through the water quickly.

The second source of drag will be a result of the kicking amplitude a swimmer chooses to use during their dolphin kicks. While more amplitude could be used to create more propulsion, doing so also creates more drag. In addition, some swimmers lose the ability to their default streamlined posture once they start to execute their dolphin kicks.

5. Appreciate Trade-Offs

While these skills are all important, balance between the various skills is what will allow for best performances. The optimal drag profile is one that is straight with little deviation from this position. More propulsion can be created with more range of motion, and more deviation from a streamlined posture is required for more range of motion. Trade-offs exist.

Swimmers are best suited by focusing on the aspect of dolphin kicking that is exaggerated while executing specific tasks, then focus on simply swimming fast when unconstrained. By improving each skill and practicing swimming fast, the appropriate balance between the different skills will emerge over time.


We have 5 critical subskills that greatly influence the ability to dolphin kick effectively. If swimmers can execute these simple skills, many of the technical problems that limit dolphin kicking speed will be eliminated. Keep it simple and focus on simple tasks that all swimmers can grasp.

1. Maintain a Stable Platform

2. Create as Much Propulsion as Possible

3. Maintain Equal Propulsion and Tempo in Both Directions

4. Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag

5. Appreciate Trade-Offs

While all of the above are skills that can be improved with practice, they are also limited by the physical capabilities of the body. Fortunately, many of these traits can be improved. In conjunction with practicing dolphin kicking in appropriate learning environments, it’s critical to improve the physical abilities that enhance dolphin kicking. We’ll explore those next.

Physical Prerequisites

Before exploring how to best aid swimmers in learning dolphin kicking skill, we must take a look at the physical traits that are important for fast dolphin kicking. Significant compromises in any of these areas will limit the ability to effectively execute dolphin kicks. For some of these attributes more is better up to the limits of anatomy.

Actively addressing these factors will provide swimmers with a higher potential for dolphin kicking, and work here should be done in conjunction with efforts to improve dolphin kicking in the water.

More information on how to address some of these issues is available HERE and HERE.

Ankle Flexibility

As with flutter kicking and dolphin kicking on the surface, possessing more flexible ankles improves kicking speed for the same effort level. While the reasons for this improvement have not been validated, it likely occurs for two reasons. In the first case, more flexible ankles and feet allow for more water to be moved backwards as the flexible ankle allows for a backward orientation of the foot. Normally, a swimmer would have to bend the knee excessively to create the same foot position.

Secondly, a more flexible ankle is also a ‘floppier’ ankle. As the dolphin kicks does have some wave-like or whip-like characteristics, this floppier allows the end of the whip to be snappier. Snappier transitions between up and down kicks may enhance propulsion through the creation of vortices.

Spinal Mobility

Quasimodo will never be a good dolphin kicker. While maintaining an effective streamline through the water is a skill that is learned, it is a skill that is ultimately limited by the available motion in the spine and shoulders. All the skill work in the world isn’t going to help streamline Quasimodo; he’s going to move through the water like a barge because he can’t straighten his spine.

For individuals with an excess lordotic (lower back) curve and an excess kyphotic (upper back) curve, work must be done to improve these areas. They may be great kickers in that they can create a lot of propulsion with the feet. However, because of their spinal alignment, there overall speed is slow due to the excessive drag that they create. Question marks don’t go fast.

Many believe that spinal mobility is important to create a wave-like while dolphin kicking. I don’t believe this is the case. Spinal mobility is important so that swimmers can create a STRAIGHT spine, allowing them to move through the water more effectively. That’s not to say that the spine can’t or won’t move. The important point is the body profile needs to be as streamlined as possible.

Take a look at champion swimmers. In many cases, these curves are greatly minimized. This is not coincidence. The straightest spine I have ever seen was that of Nick Thoman, a World Record Holder and Olympic medalist in the backstrokes. While he had a natural inclination for this posture, he was adamant that the work he had done over the years made a huge difference. As a shorter swimmer, he knew his path to success was underwater, so he worked on it.

It can be done.

Torso Stability and Control

Great dolphin kick is about timing. It includes a series of very small movements that need to be sequenced in the appropriate manner. Even a novice swimmer can perform the general movements correctly. They just can’t perform them with great rhythm at high speeds.

A huge source of this rhythm is the control of the torso. If a swimmer doesn’t have the ability to control their torso, they’re going to struggle with dolphin kicking. Great dolphin kicking must allow for torso motion when appropriate, while also preventing motion when appropriate. If a swimmer doesn’t have the ability to create and release rigidity through their torso, they're going to be limited in their ability to move fast underwater.

Various torso and abdominal training activities can help to develop this ability. However, it’s not so much about becoming ‘strong’ to create a lot of force. It’s about becoming ‘strong’ in the sense that there is great control of the body at high rates of movement.

If a swimmer has the torso strength and control of a wet noodle, they’re not going to be effective, regardless of skill.

Knee Flexibility

The more the knees can hyperextend (the back of the knee is pushed back while the foot stays in place), the more propulsions swimmers can create while dolphin kicking. This ‘extra’ range of motion helps swimmers to kicker further in front of the body without a loss of body alignment.

While this trait is important for performance, there is little that can be done to improve it, and what can be done is not particularly safe in the short term or the long term. However, it is good to be aware of this dynamic when understanding what is happening during dolphin kicking, as well as identifying individuals with a high potential for dolphin kicking.


If swimmers are going to execute great dolphin kicking, they need to execute all of the skills that comprise effective dolphin kicking. If we’re going to work on those skills, we need to know what they are-

1. Maintain a Stable Platform

2. Create as Much Propulsion as Possible

3. Maintain Equal Propulsion and Tempo in Both Directions

4. Maintain a Posture that Reduces Drag

All of the skills are interrelated, and as a result, trade-offs do exist. Understanding those trade-offs is all part of the learning process.

While it’s critical to understand the skills that swimmers must master to move quickly underwater, it’s equally important to understand the physical attributes that makes that skills more effectively, or possible at all. Swimmers must possess the following if they hope to optimize their dolphin kicking.

1. Ankle Flexibility

2. Spinal Mobility

3. Torso Stability and Control

4. Knee Flexibility

With an understanding of the required skills, in conjunction with the physical abilities to execute those skills, it’s time to learn how to fly underwater.

We’ll explore how in part II.


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