Backstroke Starts and Turns by Michelle Bernal-Sweeney (2006)


This afternoon I am going to be speaking on backstroke starts and turns and how we are going to be able to produce swimmers on being efficient off the start, during breakouts, off walls and again, during breakouts. I have broken down the video clips for you with different athletes at different levels, because I know we probably have a lot of different coaches at different levels in the room so, hopefully, people will be able to get a couple of different things out of the talk. Starting with the backstroke start, we are going to be speaking about hand placement, foot placement, take-off from legs, how the arms are going to leave the wall into the water and the body entry of streamline hips and then feet.

The hand placement on the wall when you go to do your start, I think is pretty much the swimmers choice. I personally find it very hard for young children, under about 5’3” being able to hold onto the bar so we do a lot of the gutter start and then that is just where you want to put their hands. I personally say, right at the shoulders. That is where the hands should be placed on the T or on the wall. The foot placement just like with anything else with any start off of a block you can do a couple of different things. You can go track start or right there on the T, hip width apart. I personally have swimmers that do both and on the video you actually will see swimmers doing both regular start and also the track start.

When we look at backstroke starts, a lot of times I have found myself doing it and I have seen other coaches do it also, is telling a swimmer, really throw your arms back. The problem with that is that when they are focusing on throwing their arms back, they pretty much just land flat or they really don’t get any distance off the wall. So, what we tell them is to really think about is it’s as if you were in a squat position and really trying to take off from the legs. The arms will follow, okay? With the arms, rather having them come off the bar and follow backwards, if they do that, unless you really want them to get a lot of deep depth in the water and do about 12-15 dolphins, it is going to be pretty tough on a little one so you really want to try and make them come around with the arms because by the time they hit that streamline they will just be entering the water and the body position will be in the correct place.

Just the body entry, if you look at it from video, you want to see the streamline being the first part of the entry into the water, then the head, then the hips and then the feet. I do have a couple of video demonstrations. This is one swimmer I worked with, a Senior National level swimmer, 16. I will show it again a couple of times, but what you want to really look at is he is arced over the water. The hands and the feet are still sort of touching the water, but nothing in between is. The head is looking back and feet are the last thing to enter into the water. In the program that I have been with, we are big underwater backstroke swimmers. I came from a program that produced David Berkoff in ’88 with the Berkoff blast off so we really do find doing it underwater is most beneficial, but it also depends on the swimmer and really the philosophy of the program so I, the reason why he is under there for so long is that reason, but the breakout is also important of not picking up the head and really starting with the shoulder at the exit of the first stroke. In slow motion, just so that you can see, this is going to be from looking head on to the swimmer and you will actually see the entry and he is going to tuck up, his head is going to disappear and he is actually going to start with his legs before he starts with his hands for the start. The legs drive the start. Okay? He is going to make eye contact pretty much with me, bring the arms around. He is streamlined. The head goes in. The hips go in and then the feet will come. There they are. Now, I know that a lot of you guys say, well that is a senior national level swimmer, he is 15, that is pretty nice. Well, this is an 8 year old, same idea, same tactics. Of course less dolphins, but you can get that arc and you can get them to drive with their legs. He actually does a track start. He gets into his streamline, puts his feet up to the ceiling and I actually have that in slow motion for you too. And just from another point of view. As they bring their arms around, rather than straight behind their head they do not sink down to the bottom. So especially with little swimmers you will see them sink right down to the bottom and the next thing that they do is they pick up their head and they go straight up to the surface. They can bring their arms around. It will set their body position flatter in the water when their full body is entered, than being down in an angle. Under water, the backstroke start, just like above water. You are going to want to look at the foot position. You are going to make the determination or the swimmer can make the determination whether the track start is better for me, does it feel more comfortable? Regular start with the feet hip length apart. You really don’t want to go any wider than that. The entry is going to just , we just want to show what the entry is going to look like under water. You will see the streamline happen first. You are going to see the body position of how they enter and then they can get flattened through the dolphins and then the breakout. This may be a little dark, I am sorry about that. And this swimmer is Senior National level. An 18 year old swimmer and he is really proficient with his dolphins, but even if you are not going to do a lot of dolphins, you can see the head is back, it is looking straight to the sky, one arm breaks, breakout with the shoulder, continue on. It shouldn’t be breakout with the shoulder, take a stroke and then the hands are down here and then you are starting to build into it again and that is just something that you see a lot with age group swimmers.

Backstroke turns above water. The backstroke turn, a lot of times, you will see swimmers take their last stroke, stay here, do nothing, turn onto their stomach and take one stroke. Really, the backstroke turn incorporates two final strokes. One gets you onto your stomach and towards the wall with speed and then the other one brings the legs up over the wall and gets you off and rebounds you right into your dolphins and into your breakout. We will show it again. I missed it, sorry. You take one stroke there, the second stroke there. And a lot of times you will see people actually take that one stroke, let it finish and go onto the stomach rather than as they are here, starting to roll onto their stomach. I have it in slow motion. You take that stroke, get onto your stomach, pull all the way through, take the last stroke as if it were a freestyle stroke to get up and over. And again breaking out with the shoulder. Under water you will see it much better underwater of course than above water. You are going to be looking at their arm pull and the placement of the body because again, a lot of them will pull, still stay on their back and then take this arm to get them over and pull them into the wall, which is a lot of different motions to get done and keep the speed that they are coming into the wall at.

You want to look at the foot placement on the wall. It is going to differ and depend on what your outcome that you want your swimmer to have. Where I have come from, the foot is a little bit higher on the wall because we want to be much deeper because we want to get in our 12 or so dolphins. If you are looking to maybe just do four dolphins or you have, especially younger swimmers, right on the T. The feet should hit right above the line of the T. Then they won’t pop up and they won’t pop down onto the bottom of the pool. Head and body position is also very important. You want them to be flat body position, the head shouldn’t be looking up since it will sink the feet and again, as I said, the foot placement of the dolphins depends where you would like them to be and how deep you would like them to go coming off the wall and you will see the two strokes, one stroke there, second stroke there. Body position with the head looking up and you break out with the shoulder. We will see that again. One stroke onto the stomach, second stroke to pull yourself into the wall. This is at regular speed for this swimmer.

There are many drills that you can incorporate into your practice, just like you do with your stroke drills. There are drills that you can use to sort of teach the kids the starts and the turns. I think backstroke starts are pretty much the hardest start to teach because when they are up on the block you can sort of manipulate them. Move their feet. Tell them to tuck in their head and give them a little bit of a push if you need to. In backstroke starts, I mean, unless you are going to be straight in the water with them it is a little bit more difficult and I think it is a little bit more difficult too because you are trying to push off a vertical wall and actually get height off of that and for younger swimmers that is complicated. So, we have incorporated four drills of going into the starts that all the swimmers can use from your youngest to your most advanced. The first drill is looking at the foot and hand position of the start. The second one is for the body position. The third one will be for leaving the wall because we really want to get them to automatically drive with the legs and try and get away from really, you know, just whipping back the arms and then the last one is just doing a start without arms and just really focusing on the whole body position and the speed from the legs too. The first drill is just coming up. Taking your start and making sure that your feet feel they are in the right place and if they start to slip, helping them out. Trying to figure out whether it is better that you do a track start. Try it with the track start now, maybe put your feet a little bit more closer together. Are your hands comfortable where they are at? Can you get all the way up. So, I mean, you can just go over that with them and you know, if you have 8 lanes or even if you are with little kids and you do it off the gutter, take one of the last lanes and just line them down the gutter and just say, you know, pull up, release and so forth and so on and they will start to really feel comfortable with getting into that position.

[Inaudible Question From the Audience:] Answer: No, it was just because this particular summer wanted the touch pad when I was doing all the video taping with him, but there are some meets where you don’t have touch pads so I would say, if you have touch pads, maybe do some with and some without so at least when they get to a meet that doesn’t have touch pads, they do not feel funny on the wall and vice versa. If they haven’t really been to a meet that has touch pads and then they show up to one it is good for them to get the opportunity to do it at practice, but it depends on the type of equipment that you have at your pool.

Inaudible Question From the Audience:] Answer: You can even put a towel in the water, get it wet and then put it up against the wall. It will stick to the wall. Maybe put a chair on the towel or whatever it may be to stick it there and it still gets the same feeling of just being able to grip something other than a concrete wall if you don’t have touch pads. That could be another opportunity that you could use.

The second drill: They will be pulling up and then just trying to bring the head back, now whipping it back, but just getting the idea of when I leave the block, before my arms leave, my body is already starting to go and my head is already starting for the other side of the pool. Just remember we are trying to teach them not to drive their start from their arms. They are driving it from their legs so that drill actually just gives them the feeling of arching their back and understanding what it should feel like, rather than just pushing straight off the wall.

Drill number 3: This drill is actually to let them get as far away from the wall as possible. Get into a streamline as fast as possible and make sure that your toes get out of the water also when you do that, into a pike because remember the toes are the last thing to enter from your start. I can show that again. This can actually become a really fun game with the little ones because you can say, you know, whoever can go the furthest, you know, can get a lollypop or what not and it is really fun to watch them try and go as far as they can. They will never go that far to start, but you just come to realize how strong their legs really are and how much they do really need their legs for the start.

The last drill is a start without using their arms while trying to really get the momentum from the legs and getting away from the arms. Again, you want to try and get them to go you know, head, hips, feet. It is a good opportunity for them to start using their legs, but also get the feeling of trying to whip their feet up towards the ceiling and being able to master that without having to use the arms as a crutch to try and get them back up to the surface. The only thing that I say is that start in really deep water when you do that drill. He was doing it in 5 feet, but he has been doing it for a long time. If you guys have a diving well or 6 feet, I would definitely go that route because again they aren’t using their arms so the first thing that would hit the bottom of the pool would be their head so just something to be cautious about.

We have a drill for our backstroke turn. What it is, is a lot of times and I am sure that people do this with freestyle a lot too. When the swimmer goes to get from their back to their stomach in backstroke, they are sort of turned around quite a bit, especially if they are you know, a beginner swimmer and not a senior level swimmer. They don’t really know where they are at and that is why sometimes they almost look like they are going to hit their head and so forth and so on. In practice, just from the flag, have them do their backstroke flip turn and stop them. Have them stop for a second or two and see where their feet are actually placed. If they are placed in the correct position, you can have them go back off. Even have them go back off if it is not so they can see why it is wrong. Explain to them, you know, you are going to shoot up to the ceiling or you are going to shoot down to the bottom of the pool. After a while, if they know where their feet should be placed, they can stop for a second or two. Look at where their feet are and if they are not placed in the correct place they can move their feet around and then push off correctly and it will become something that is a constant thing and it will just become part of their turn. We do want them, once their feet start going over to be planted on the wall, to get into streamline as soon as possible. A lot of times you will see kids, if you look at them in slow motion or look at them in regular video, they will get their feet on the wall and by the first dolphin is when they actually start streamlining. They want to line up the body position when they are also on the wall and they would also like to be exiting the wall with dolphins in a breakout. Dolphins or flutter kick, whichever the philosophy of the program that you are working with is. Now, he has his feet pretty high up on the wall and he was doing this for demonstration purposes to help me, but he does 12 dolphins off of each of his walls so that is why he sort of looked like he went down and straight up, but you will see the stroke right there, the second stroke, streamline, push, head is looking straight up, start the flutter kick and pull from the bottom hand on the streamline.

[Responses to Questions – questions were not recorded]

I personally don’t, but I think that if you use the FINIS snorkel a lot, it automatically teaches swimmers not to be breathing out of their nose when they are doing their flip turns and the program I was with used FINIS so often, I mean we would snorkel so much that it was probably just an automatic situation for that swimmer, but I really personally do not. I am sorry.

No, but as we are talking about the turns, is he talking about going into the turns and flipping around? Is that what your question was about? The flip turn? Yes, on the turns we actually use snorkels a lot of times with backstroke. Not on the start, but you know if you use a FINIS snorkel you have to actually hold your breath when you do the flip turn. You cannot really breathe out. You have got to breathe out once you sort of hit the surface so that may be one of the reasons why. The other thing that I try and tell swimmers is just to block their nose with their top lip when they are actually doing their dolphins under water. I am going to make a fool of myself right now up here doing this, but just make this lip try and connect with the nose and go like that and they won’t get any water up it as they go.

Yes? I would love to have people do that. I think it is personal for the swimmer at times. I think also, if the swimmer is pretty strong being able to kick up, you probably have them do it that way. You have to have a lot of core strength doing it on your side so that you are not heaving, but you know, I think either way, if it is successful for the swimmer. I think that for age groupers, anything that will give them the fundamentals and until they are really, really sharp with the fundamentals, then if you have an age grouper that can go on to the next level then try it out. I say, try anything out. If you don’t try it then you will never know.

He does one dolphin when he goes to do his flip turn? That is not what we’d like to see, but you know, I wish I actually had some different video of some different people, but no you would definitely want them as they are taking the first stroke to be kicking and you would really rather in freestyle or backstroke really not want to have that dolphin. She wanted to come up nice and smooth, but I was working with a swimmer that was a little tired and just coming out of championships, but I think if I show him at regular speed you would see him doing it differently. I can maybe go back if you would like or afterwards I can have you, no, he usually would be kicking into the wall. Kicking into the wall is very important. You can actually do that turn and you can do it with drills with kids where you just say to them, okay, what we are going to do is all I want you to do is come in and turn to go onto your side , kick onto your side and then kick in and then just stop on the wall. Don’t even worry about the flip turn to give them the idea of just learning how to do that turn. I would incorporate the kick so that it is automatically there, but I think with anything else, with a lot of swimmers, sometimes you know, they stop doing certain things and when they get a little tired.

Well, it depends on how many dolphins they are going to do. The swimmers that I work with in backstroke, I try to build them up exactly the 15 meter mark. Okay? And off their third wall, if we are going short course, off their third wall about to the 12 ½ yard mark so we are looking for a good amount of depth because you don’t want them so close to the surface that they are just really kicking up bubbles. Off the breakout you really do I personally feel that they should be starting to turn on the breakout so that they exit with the thumb and the shoulder. They are not trying to exit this way because then they are going to be pushing their body back down to the bottom of the pool. And with the head, the head would be at an angle. You don’t want them totally flat back as they are exiting and if you are actually turning your body as it is, exiting with the thumb, you are not going to have the head flat back.

I personally think if it works for the swimmer. It depends on the coach’s philosophy. For me, I have just found , especially working with growing adolescent swimmers and younger swimmers you should have them really use it from the legs because the legs are the thing that is going to give them the distance. The moment you tell them throw it from the arms you will see them pretty much get about that far off the wall and then they do not really have any momentum because they haven’t really pushed back at all. They sort of forget about that because they are trying to do it from their upper body, but again I think it depends on the philosophy and the coaching style, but I personally use it from the legs.

You know I have seen when swimmers are pretty far apart, I personally think that it has been a little bit harder for them to push off the wall, but he also is, if you are looking at the way he is pushing, his feet are together, but he is pushing down. He is not trying to push out as if it were a squat jump per se . He is pushing down at an angle because again we want him to get down deep, to get the dolphin started. If he was doing a freestyle flip turn his feet would be about this far apart because he is not going to do 12-15 dolphins off the wall, but it relates to what we are trying to get done after he gets off the wall, into the breakout into the first stroke. So I would say that if you are going to have a swimmer maybe do 4 dolphins or just do some flutter kicks you would want them to have the same kind of foot placement they would on a freestyle flip turn.

Well, I think it is me because I teach it differently. So what I do is I just tell the swimmer that yes, you are going to, I guess if you want to call it “pushing from the wall”. They have got to remember that the legs are the power so they have got to push and then the arms come up and around. So I guess you would say “push the arms up and around”, but I just get concerned because I have worked with so many age groupers that if you tell them to push from the arms, the legs they just forget about this. Well, they should be though the last thing off the wall, yes. I think that if you tell them to push from the legs and bring the arms up and around they will be fine . Or if you want to say, “Push from the legs and push from the arms around your head”. What I have just sort of experienced it and educated myself with it and educated myself in speaking with other coaches that are huge backstroke coaches that is sort of what I have come up with to get the actual objective done really very well and quickly with the young swimmer and then build on it from there. That is why I did want to show the 8 year olds sort of doing the same thing and he looks a little as all 8 year olds do you know they look a little a little “gumbish” coming off the wall,. I think if you can get those mean principles down at that age, you have a lot to work with you know, when they become 12 or start filling into their body at 15.

Last question? No, you cannot side kick 12 dolphins off the wall. In the age group program , I believe in the dolphin kick on freestyle and on backstroke and you know they have to 1. understand that being under water isn’t a scary thing, but some kids do get a little nervous. I, even on the lowest level, four dolphin kicks. Very important, you want to make sure that the dolphin kicks are correct because a lot of little kids will just kick right from the knees. Doing a land, dry-land, and sort of teaching them above water also and you know, it is okay to put you know 11 and 12 and some 10 year olds into a 12 ½ yard dive tanks or even 25 yard regular tanks and do hypoxic swimming with them, with fins on. They can really get the feel of it and you know. Have them turn and cork-screw under water so that they aren’t saying that the water isn’t getting totally getting up their nose . I think that is the biggest problem that we have, trying to get kids to do dolphins for a long period of time on their backs, is the water in the nose situation. I would build up from two and then you know, if they can handle two and do it correctly, technically correct, go to 3, 4. If you can get a swimmer that is 8, by the time they are 10 they are going to be doing a lot of dolphins off the wall. The only thing is that how well can they hold their speed with the dolphins. You have to look at that too. If they can only hold their speed very well with four, even though they can do 10, you want them to break out at the 4 dolphin mark until they can actually hold their speed and be competitive that way. Not all swimmers can. I mean we have some backstrokers that only do six at the national level because they do not have the power in the legs and they do not have ankle flexibility so I think that that is an individual thing, but I think that if you want your swimmers to be able to do dolphins every swimmer should be able to do as many dolphins as you would like them to. Hypoxic under water as long as you build them up.

Thank you.

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