How to Teach and Train Backstrokers by George French (1973)


My subject is “to teach and train backstrokers.” I feel there is a real gap in what we coaches have done to this date in coaching backstroke. It is not right that Roland Matthes is so much better than United States backstrokers. I think there are some reasons for it. I am not going to deal with the actual training of a National champion. I think there are many things that you do with your age groupers that contribute towards what you do with your National champions.

I’m going to go through what I plan doing with the city of Midland Swim Team*for the next five weeks; specifically what we’ll do with backstroke for one week. I will try to show you the things that I think are important, not only to the American Record holder, but the eight and nine year olds. We got a boy to go American Record Time as a result of these things in just three years. I think that coaching backstroke is really an opportunity to do more coaching per mile swum than in any other stroke. Because, if you’re coaching it correctly, you can communicate with your swimmers through the entire swim if you’ve got them looking in the right direction and concentrating. If you’re used to a full blast freestyle program where the swimmers’ faces are in the water all the time and the only correction you make is at the end of the swim, you’re really not giving the backstroker much coaching.

My coaching philosophy has resulted from being able to observe what other coaches have done with backstroke, such as Jim Montrella with Susie Atwood. Another example is Dick Hannula with Kaye Hall. She was a beautiful backstroker who contributed a great deal towards the philosophy that I felt was pertinent to outstanding backstroke. I was able to observe George Haines almost every weekend. I probably learned more from watching him work with his backstrokers than anybody else. He had a boy by the name of Fred Haywood, who swam for Stanford University and Santa Clara several years ago, who had one of the most outstanding strokes I’ve ever seen. Then there were Counsilman and Mike Troy with Mike Stamm.

All of these people contributed a great deal but I think it’s important that the young coach remember when you’re watching these super coaches, that you’re the one who’s going to have to coach your swimmer not them. Therefore, a lot of the things you hear at this particular clinic, may not apply because they won’t fit into your philosophy. You should try to develop a philosophy and try to work towards a goal and fit some of these things into your philosophy. I think that sometime when you go to your first national championship you stand around in awe of the super coaches and all of a sudden you find yourself trying to imitate them. I think that when the coach finally has the guts to stick with his own progress, he’ll have national champions.

In Midland, Texas, for the next five weeks we’re going to have a very limited training program. I’m talking about all the age groups. Senior swimmers will swim only four days a week for an hour and a half a day. The pre-seniors which are eleven and twelve year olds will go through the same thing. The ten and unders are going an hour a day, four days a week. The first week when we get back on Monday, we’ll have a coaches meeting at 3:30 and we’ll go over the program.

One point I would like to make here is that I don’t believe any swimming team is any better than its assistant coaches. If your assistant coaches aren’t doing the job for you, there’s no way the head coach is going to get anything out of the senior swimmer by the time he gets up there. It’s important that the assistant coach gets some of the glory for what he’s done with the age groupers. This is something that we try to stress at Midland and I believe that this is working very well.

So, on Monday we’ll go over freestyle. We’ll spend four days on freestyle and we’ll break it down into parts. Taking body position, stroke, breathing, kick, whatever, and start and turn at the end of the fourth day. The next week we’ll work on the backstroke and we’ll have a coaches meeting again prior to any instruction, go through the entire week just working on backstroke. At the end of two weeks, we’re going to have time trials and we’re going to swim odd distances. We swim 25’s, 75’s and 125’s because I don’t want any swimmer in that pool trying to judge his progress against last year. The only thing that we’re trying to judge at that point is how well the swimmers are picking up the points that we’re trying to get across and how good a job we’re doing as coaches.

Now some of you are going to say it’s awful early in the season, that the swimmer’s strokes are going to change as they get in shape. I’ve got a very unique situation, moving to a new team and new area, and I feel that I must get my philosophies across to my swimmers early in order to get the season started off correctly. So this is the reason we’re going through a concentrated effort for the first five weeks. Then we’re going to a week of breaststroke, then a week of butterfly, we’ll go on our odd lengths time trials again and the fifth week we’ll go to the I.M. and then into pace swimming using the pace clock.

I believe that there’s a more ideal way of swimming backstroke than of swimming freestyle. I have read “Swimming World” and I know that some coaches disagree with this because they tend to think that the average individual will adjust and set his own pattern, but I think the coach should have an ideal stroke in his mind that he wants to try and get all his backstrokers to simulate to some extent. All of the swimmers that I spoke of earlier had basically the same stroke technique. They were very efficient, smooth swimmers and did many things the same way. A coach must clearly understand why he is coaching what he is coaching. He’s got to be able to tell a swimmer the reason why he should bend his elbow a certain way. If you don’t understand some of the philosophies and techniques that you’re trying to get across to your swimmer, there’s no way he’s going to understand it. Your entire coaching staff has got to understand what you’re trying to get across to your kids, and I think it’s also important that you break the stroke down and teach very small parts of the stroke at a time. Each swimmer must come out of the stroke session at the end of five weeks with a mental concept of what you’re trying to get him to do. As the season progresses, you then have something to fall back on. Use plenty of demonstrations. I think pictures are worth a thousand words, especially with eight and unders who are not going to understand some of the things that you’re trying to get across to them. A point that I’ll reiterate–don’t over-coach an eight year old.
There’s no way he’s going to understand a lot of this technical stuff. You’ve got to coach on the level and the ability of the swimmers that you’re working with.

I think that stroke instruction should always take place early in the session because this is the particular time when you’re going to get their attention. If you wait until late in the session most kid’s attention span is too short, especially in the younger age group, to get anything out of them. When you’re talking to the group, it’s very important to have a comfortable area for all of them to sit. I think the environment in which you do your stroke will have a great deal to do with how much you’re going to get across. Encourage a lot of questions. Let them stop you at any time. You’ve got to come out of this session with them understanding as much as possible.

Dryland Drills introducing new material is extremely important. Wait and do it out of the water so you have their complete attention. Something that I’ve tried to remember from a college speech class is; tell them, show them, tell them again. I think that you can’t repeat often enough to get the point across.

In teaching the stroke, we go through various points. The first obvious thing that you’ll work on in any age group, senior to eight and under, is body position, he’s not going to swim that stroke well. This means that he’s got to be comfortable in the water, his hips as near the surface as possible without over-arching and he’s got to be in a position where he feels some fluid motion. In order to do this what we’ve done with our younger kids is have them execute a kick or short glide in partners with their hands placed so that their wrists are crossed, hands are back to back and their fingers interlaced and they’re squeezing their ears. If they cannot do this there’s only one reason and that’s because they’re sitting down. You can demonstrate as a coach in the water. You drop your hips and you sink underwater. If you arch your back, lift your hips and do kick glide, you’ll come right back to the surface every time.

The head and eye position is what I feel makes the difference between the champion and the non-champion. The head must be held stationary through the entire swim. It can’t move a fraction. If it does, the swimmer’s getting lazy. His eyes, in order to help obtain this, should be focused at approximately forty-five degrees off the water through the entire swim. In order to get a swimmer to do this in practice, the coach can stand on the starting blocks as he swims away or is kick gliding on their backs. The coach should be able to see every swimmer’s eyes in that pool. Another little trick is to hold up so many fingers in the air and ask them how many fingers were in the air at the opposite end of the pool when they finish that lap. They can also pick out a target to look at. I can remember at the Olympic Trials, the main thing we stressed was looking at the American flag at one end and a particular number on the scoreboard at the other end. We found out which lane we were going to be swimming in as soon as possible we found out where that target was going to be during our warmup and that was the most important thing that I think we did with our boys at the Olympic Trials. Forcing the swimmer to focus his eyes on a target at each end of the pool, contributes to concentration, contributes to holding the head still. If you can get those two things across, you’re well on the way to having an outstanding backstroker.

The kick is another extremely important area of backstroke. Without it you’re not going to go far. The backstroker has got to have a good set of strong legs and must do a lot of kicking on his back. I don’t allow any backstroke kicking with kickboards. I don’t allow any backstroke kicking with arms at the sides and I don’t allow any backstroke kicking with one arm extended. Both arms must be extended at all times. As a result, I’m getting several things; I’m getting endurance, I’m forcing them to hold their heads still, and I’m also getting the head back where it belongs and I’m getting better body position.

In order to teach the arm stroke, I think the swimmers have to know the basic parts of the stroke so as they come up through the age group, the terminology can be consistent.
There are, in my feeling, six parts to a backstroke arm stroke; the entry, the catch, the pull, the push, the release, and the recovery. I’ll go over these quickly and tell you what we do to teach each part.

The entry is where the hand goes in the water. I feel it’s important that the little finger lead. I think the key to any arm stroke or any stroke is the entry. The hand will search
for pressure and the hand will always go in the direction in which the palm is facing. Now if the hand goes in upside down, it’s going to slide through the water until it turns over and is perpendicular to the line of pull and until then it’s not going to do any good. In freestyle, if you’ve got your thumb in too deep and not really aware of turning over and making a quick catch, you’ll spread way outside. So I feel that the little finger should lead the arm into the entry with the palm faced slightly towards the water at about 60 degrees and angles down to about 45. Then as the hand drops down into the catch it will already be in a catch position and will not lose any efficiency. If the hand goes in upside down or goes in a straight line, there’s going to be a lot of slippage through the arm stroke before there is a hold on the water.

The catch is normally, depending on the size of the boy or girl, ten to eighteen inches deep. You can’t over stress getting deep enough on the catch. If the catch is too shallow, there will be a lot of white water on the pull. Also, there will not be any shoulder rotation. So it’s important that they learn to reach deep on their catch. It’s also important that on their catch the fingers are spread slightly so that they can feel some sensation of pressure on their fingertips. If they can do this, then they are relaxed. If the fingers are squeezed together, the feeling of tension will extend into the shoulders. I believe that if you squeeze your hand the tension will work right up through the arm and into the shoulder. If your hand is relaxed, normally you relax in the
shoulders. So, by spreading the hand a little you get a little better feel of the water and you’re more relaxed.

I think the pull should be executed much in the same manner as throwing a baseball. Drop your hand down, make a catch and keep your elbow in front of your hand. The elbow leads the hand. Now the hand moves from about 18 inches deep up to a point that is approximately 6 inches deep, so that the hand is going to travel in an arc. The reason for doing this is that the hand is searching for water that is not moving. If the hand pulls in a straight line, you’ve taken a little water a long ways. We want to search for water that is not moving so we have constant pressure against un-moving water and more efficiency down the pool.

The push is from the rib cage area on down through the thigh. In this particular position, the hand will then shift to a point in front of the elbow and will press in a downward arc. The important thing here is get the swimmer to hyper-extend the wrist and keep as much perpendicular pressure on the water as long as possible with the hand. If you can get the swimmer to do that, he’ll be much more efficient. The stroke should finish three to four inches from the hip or from the lower thigh and on the end of the stroke a release.

A release is merely forcing the hand downward towards the bottom of the pool. This does a couple of things. It forces the swimmer to swim all the way through the stroke or pull through a stroke. It also puts the hand in an ideal position to recover because pressing down on the water is going to get an opposite action to help lift the arm. It also puts the hand in the water where it’s in the least resistance area. Water is going to run off the hand and it can be lifted from the water easily. In describing this, tell them to grab a handful of mud and throw it at their feet. Young kids play with mud and they know what mud feels like. If they can get that idea of a handful of mud, they’re going to get one heck of a handful of water and that’s going to be more efficient.

Now the release obviously leads to the recovery and the recovery has got to be made with the little finger leading. If the little finger is leading at the conclusion of the release, you’ve done two things. First of all, you’ve forced him to release the water because now you’ve made him turn his hand down in order to get his little finger up. If his little finger is leading on the recovery, the swimmer has the only opportunity in the stroke to see if he’s doing anything right and if his little finger is leading in front of him it’s got a pretty good chance of leading on the entry. If the back of the hand is leading, there’s a pretty good chance that the back of the hand is going to lead in the entry. So, as the arm comes out of the water, the little finger is leading and the arm should come directly over the shoulder and the entry should be made directly behind the shoulder or slightly outside.

Now, I didn’t put shoulder rotation in with body position because I think it’s a little too technical for an age grouper. You should be careful because if you add it too early they start throwing _their heads around, and you’re not going to get a very efficient stroke. You’ve got to have shoulder rotation for two reasons; you get added leverage on the pulling arm and you reduce resistance on the recovery arm. Both of those factors are going to make for a better backstroker. In order to get them to do this, their heads have to stay stationary and watching that target up on the wall or the pole or whatever it might be. The body and the shoulder rotate around the center axis of the body of which the head is part. There are several drills I’m sure you’ve read about, but some of them might cause a hesitation within the stroke. For example, lifting the shoulder while kicking down the pool with the arms at the sides, lifting the shoulders to get the idea of the feeling. The better swimmers are all doing this more and more. Some of the lower level swimmers at the Class B or C Level are also doing it.

A lot of us make the mistake of not paying enough attention to breathing. A swimmer should never hold his breath; he should establish a breathing pattern. If he holds his breath, he’s going to go into oxygen-debt just like a freestyler would. Regular breathing helps to keep the swimmer relaxed. From a track coach at San Jose State College, I picked up the idea of watching their mouths and their cheeks. If a swimmer had loose lips, open mouth, and floppy cheeks, he is normally very efficient. If he tightens his lips, he tends to be very tense. If you will watch your backstrokers and notice that they’re gritting their teeth and tightening up their lips, they’re probably very tense in the water. These are things that you can see and you have to pay attention to them and say something about it. Try to have them keep the mouth open, the lips loose and cheeks floppy.

There are several different ways of backstroke starts. We’ve normally stuck with the conventional start. I like to have my kids stagger their feet on the wall, one slightly above the other. There have been a couple of instances at the Nationals where a boy slipped because he had his feet side by side. The position of the hands should be directly in front of the shoulders, slightly outside the shoulders on the start bar, giving room for the knees to be drawn up between the elbows. On the command “take your mark”, the swimmer should pull up as high out of the water as possible with his chin down. Some backstrokers will start with their head up. I think they get added momentum coming off that starting block by snapping the head back a little bit further. When they release the block, the head is driven back first and the hands are also pushing into the rail. Something that’s helped our boys and girls tremendously is that upon the release of the block the palms should be immediately turned upward. If they’re turned upward, the swimmer is now going to come out parallel over the surface of the water. If the backs of the hands are allowed to lead on the release, normally this will create a lot more arc to the flight of the start. The higher you go the deeper you go and you don’t want that. So, we want to stay as flat as possible, the hips are lifted. We’re coming out parallel to the surface of the water. In teaching this, most times it works out very well to have the swimmer start using the gutter, not the backstroke start rail. When they release the wall, have them drag their fingertips on the water as they come around on their release. This will help keep them down flat and it will also force them to get their hips up. We’ve done this even with the best swimmers and it’s helped them quite a bit. The entry should be made with as little angle as possible and the swimmer should be stretching for every inch he can get out of his start. The glide–he’s going to be traveling faster at that particular time in his race than at any time.

So we encourage our kids to wait and wait on that pull until they feel the sensation of slowing down. The first thing they want to do is to kick when they fall into the glide and then they want to pull. On the first stroke they’ll pull in order to continue the momentum of the glide. The second stroke is pulling them to the surface. On the third stroke they should set their eyes on the target. The sooner the swimmer sets his eyes on the target the sooner he will be in the regular arm stroke rotation that he will need to get down the pool.

Normally, a backstroker will not set a stroke rate until he’s set his target and you see a lot of backstrokers come off the wall and it takes them four or five strokes to get going. If you have them set their eyes right away, they’re going to have four or five extra strokes that will add to their speed. The backstroke turn is a tough one to teach and it takes a lot of work to develop a good backstroke turn. There’s no getting around it, it takes a lot of practice and you have to demand things of your backstrokers and make them do it the way you want. Don’t allow them to get sloppy. We start our backstrokers about ten feet outside the backstroke flags and the first drill we’ll go through with a kid that doesn’t know how far it is from the flags to the wall, is to have them sprint underneath the flags to the wall counting their strokes to the wall. The first stroke, the arm that is up as they are passing under the backstroke turn flag, is stroke number one. As they come under the backstroke turn flags, they still have to be watching that target at the other end of the pool, but the flags are in the field of vision. It is not necessary to drop the head back to the flags, so the swimmer still holds his head constant. He goes into the wall three or four times until he comes up with a stroke that’s been consistent throughout that drill. Then he goes into the various other parts of the stroke or of the turn and continues on step by step.

I think that it’s important in a backstroke flip turn that the swimmer squeeze his knees before they’re lifted. If the knees are squeezed together, they’ll pivot faster on the turn. If their knees are apart, it seems to me to take quite a bit longer to get that backstroker around. It’s very important that on the last stroke the eyes should follow the hand to the hand touch and the hand will then come directly over the head, the eyes will follow that and this is the only time that the eyes have left the target. So, they follow the hand to the touch and when they touch the wall the chest has got to be out of the water and the hips have got to be up. The higher you get that center of gravity on the way into the turn, the higher you’re going to come out of the water at the wall at the end of the turn. So, if you can get their hips up it’s a lot easier to flip. If their hips are down, then they have a negative movement that they have to make up for. They’re dropping their hips one way, then they’re trying to go the opposite way and it just makes it too difficult.

So, turns have to be worked on a lot. As you come down to a meet, backstrokers are always having problems with flags because some pools don’t put their flags at fifteen feet. S-J you’ve got to take some time during every meet to make sure that the backstroker knows where his flags are. I feel that it’s extremely important at the end of each warmup, when everybody else has started to clear the pool to stay in and keep working with your backstrokers in a lane that doesn’t have any swimmers. Have them go through eight or ten, stand at the flags and count strokes for them and make sure they are consistent with what they have been doing in practice. I also feel that the backstroke flags must be up every time you swim backstroke in practice.

There are many ways to train swimmers as there are people in this room. Backstroke is no different than anything else. As I said earlier, stick with what your plans are, don’t change. If you’ve brought your swimmers along on 18,000 or 20,000 yards a day or 10,000 or whatever it might be, you’ve got a special way that you think they should be tapered. Don’t change because you see George Haines or Doc Councilman doing it differently. Stick with your own program. I think this was the thing that took me the longest to learn. I really respect a lot of the coaches. I’ve learned a lot from them, but sooner or later you have to realize that you’ve done a pretty darn good job of getting your swimmers to where they are.

In training, I think that early in the season you must go over the stroke and make sure there is a clear understanding of what you’re going to be expecting from them. I think in backstroke, continual stroke correction should take place every single day right down to the meet because backstrokers’ strokes change all the time. I think the coach has to be willing to get in the water. We are not fortunate enough to have video tapes or underwater windows, so some of us have to make sure that what we see from the surface is really what’s happening underneath. Nine times out of ten it’s different.

One-arm and double-arm pulling is a good training method to help the swimmers get the feel for the water and develop the correct pull. Double-arm is probably more beneficial than most things that we’ve done. Hand paddles are very important to developing correct stroke techniques. I don’t think that they should be used for backstroker sprinting. They should be worn for long distance swims and stroke work sessions, because the main value is that it accentuates any bad mistakes. If the hand is going in the water wrong, it’s really going to be evident with the hand paddle. So, it shows the swimmer the correct feel of the stroke. Drag devices, such as inner tubes, are all good if they’re used properly. However, I think that body position can be fouled up with inner tubes, if you are not careful. As a major meet approaches, all pulling should be stopped because the stroke may be affected. A swimmer needs to be strong in order to swim fast. However, you have to know what muscles to exercise. Counsilman’s book is outstanding in this area and I think that if you don’t have it you should buy it because the exercises are specific for backstroke. If you exercise the wrong muscle groups, you’re going to create resistance to the flexibility, which you don’t want.

A number of years ago I saw the Cleveland Browns do a fifty-minute warmup exercise with an Exer-Genie warmup. In one of the drills they used a forty-foot rope with a halter. The runner or lineman would get down in a stance and then take off from the Exer-Genie, which was hooked to a Cyclone Fence and sprint the length of the rope. They could adjust the tension of the rope for the particular player. The player had to have good running fundamentals. He gained strength and endurance out of this drill.

We experimented with this and tried to adapt it to swimming. We would hook the Exer-Genie up in chlorine water, but those little buttons on the Exer-Genie last only about two months. So, we would have to pre-establish the tension on each Exer-Genie and we would assign them to the swimmers according to need. The Exer-Genie would be hooked up to the start rail or the backstroke start rail at water level. The swimmers would place the halter over their shoulders so that the rope came out in front of them. They would press on the deck for ten seconds, their hands at gutter level, hands even with the elbows, pressing directly down into the gutter or onto the deck, depending on where they were. The important thing is that everything is kept in line. Obviously, this only strengthens that muscle at that position. So, we would press for ten seconds and then turn around to the wall and sprint away from the wall as hard as they can using hand paddles or anything else that you wish. This has been good for my backstrokers, because it’s a control effort. If they’re doing anything wrong, every 40 feet I can tell them about it and I can signal them as they go down the pool whether their left hand is coming in behind their heads or outside their shoulders, where it belongs. I could time them for the 44 foot sprint and see who had the fastest time. We would go one of these every 45 seconds to a minute and work two kids together. In ten minutes of this, I think we get as much work as we would normally get in forty minutes in a workout. We normally do this at the end of a morning workout and the kids will do it every other day and they really like it. It’s something they ask to do. If you’re going to do it every day, I think you’re going to have some shoulder problems.

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