Teaching Starts by Scott Colby (1995)  


Since the fall of 1992, Coach Colby has been head coach of the Bengal Tiger Aquatic Club in Baton Rouge, LA.  His swimmer Shelly Ripple has set three National Age Group Records and won the Kiputh Award (High Point) at Senior Nationals in the spring of this year. Head Coach/Program Director Scott Colby has been coaching and teaching all levels of competitive swimming since 1971. He has produced nationally ranked age group swimmers, YMCA and Junior National Champions, and Olympic Trials participants. He holds a Masters degree in Physical Education. Prior to his move to Baton Rouge in 1992, he served as Coordinator of Aquatics for the Fort Worth Independent School District. Scott served as an assistant coach for the National Champion Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta, Georgia. Scott swam competitively for St. John’s University in New York where he was team captain. He has reached the highest level of certification awarded by the American Swimming Coaches Association and recently served as USS National Team Assistant, coaching Olympians at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.



I am grateful for this opportunity to talk to my peers about starts.  When I was an assistant at Dynamo Swim Club 11-15 years ago, Pat Hogan gave me the opportunity to work with small groups of 6-10 swimmers for 15 minutes at a time on starts.  I became an “expert” just because that was my main focus.


My biggest complaint about talks at this clinic is that the speaker spends 30 minutes or more on theory and then runs out of time to get to the practical stuff you can use.  My goal is to get to the practical stuff in 5 minutes or less.  I will talk about Forward Starts, Relay Starts, and Backstroke Starts.



  1. The Water Depth should be sufficient for novices to practice safely. Remind athletes of water depth before the start of each session. Do not do anything dangerous.


2.Control the landing zone.  Do not let the athletes return in the lane until all are in the water or do not let each athlete enter the water until the previous starter has returned it the wall.  Often I will do a warm up of 800-1,000 yards with a start at each end, but we swim up the odd number lanes and back in the event numbered lanes.


3.Control Deck Movements.  Take control of the deck situation.  Have the athletes stay in line, away from the edge and allow no horseplay.



I try to take the approach of the teacher in the movie “The Karate Kid.”  The boy was waxing the teacher’s car and the teacher was very particular about the buffing motion.  “Wax on.  Wax off.”  The boy thought the teacher was nuts, but later found out this was extremely similar to one of the martial arts moves the teacher taught him at a later date.  I take this approach with the drills and the swimmers have learned that we are not doing just stupid stuff to waste time, but there is a method to my madness and they will benefit when all the pieces are put together.


We don’t learn skills in one session.  We need an extensive first session to explain things and get the general idea.  Then we need continual reinforcement of at least part of the start.  If we do not have a start plan, we will end up saying to ourselves, “The season is almost over, we need to start tapering and oh yeah!  By the way, we need to work on starts!”  Even the veteran coach can end up in this trap.


We do learn a little at a time and we often need a break to “digest” what we have been fed by the teacher/coach.  I had this experience when I first started age group coaching and I thought I would go bonkers with the young athletes who just didn’t get it.  By Friday they were confused and almost disorientated.  Monday, I got a pleasant surprise when they were markedly improved in their technique.  I have checked this out with some motor learning experts and they validated my observations.  Hence I recommend we spend a short time on starts frequently rather than an extensive amount of time on starts for a few sessions.



I’ve gotten some of these drills from other coaches and some I have thought up myself.  Coach Ron Young formerly of Nashville Aquatic Club, Coach Jay Fitzgerald, and Coach John Trembley have had the most influence on my teaching.



Approach We actually practice an approach to the blocks.  I got tired of seeing a small percentage of my swimmers look like they were about to dive off a cliff before their race.  So we practice looking and acting tough.


The latest craze is clapping while waiting for the command, “Take your mark.”  I’ve had swimmers spit in the opponents lane in a dual meet (which I didn’t teach or condone), recite, “I feel great” over and over so the opponents are worried about this monster they are about to race, and even had a not so subtle word or two spoken from one competitor to another just before the start.


Take Your Mark Position — Foot placement should be shoulder width apart.  The feet should be slightly pigeon toed to get more toes on the front surface for better application of force.  The body should be balanced over the center of gravity.  The weight is off the heels, so you could feel like you could slide a piece of paper under the heels.  The buttocks should be held as high as possible and the head tucked between the knees.  The grab should be between the feet, so all energy is focused on one point and they will be streamlined when they enter the water.  At the command, “Take your mark,” The swimmer should exhale and be ready to inhale at the starter’s signal.


Don Schollander’s book Deep Water describes taking your mark and tensing every muscle in your body slowly more tense while waiting for the starting signal.  It is legal, it is not “rolling.” It is a “rolling” within the body that cannot be detected outside.  The body is stationary, the muscles within are tensing.


Balancing Act — The swimmer balances at the “take your mark” command and the coach assists the swimmer in getting slightly off balance, then recovers the athlete back to the block.  We try to teach them where the point of no return is so they can get in that position.


Reaction Time —  Many reaction drills exist and Colorado Timing Systems has a method of using a touchpad and a start to time reactions.  Football teams use them often and call them “Breakdown Drills.”  One drill is to start on the third “Go!”  The coach says “take your mark….Go….Go….Go….Go” and the swimmer is supposed to start on the third (or whatever number you pick) “Go.”  The cadence is changed to help them focus.


A second drill is to place hands on hips and the coach will signal from behind the team.  Upon the signal, the swimmer claps their hands as fast as possible.  You can hear the “slow pokes.”  In a dual situation the swimmers can grab their nose or ear.  Be creative.


On the blocks, the swimmer will grab the front of the block and on the starting command throws their arms forward off the block as fast as possible.  I got this from Coach Kirt Myers in Americus, Georgia.


Swing Jump — Coach John Trembley stated that 20-25% of vertical jump comes from arms.  His college coach, Coach Ray Bussard, would require old fashioned wind up starts until December, just to get the idea of imparting momentum to the body.  The athlete swings arms in a double arm backstroke motion, squats to a 90 degree knee bend, then explodes all at once.  The key is to stop the arms in front of the chest so the momentum is imparted to the body.  If the arms swing too high, the feet have left the block and the momentum is not transferred.


Grab Jump — Same as the swing jump, but only in a grab start position.  Reaction drills on land can be done with the grab jump.


Sit In — Sitting on the side of the pool, the athlete rolls in and focuses on the chin tucked and streamline position.


Kneel In — (foot on foot) Similar to “Line Ups” in competitive diving.  (I consult diving coaches whenever I can and watch their practices for things I can apply to the competitive starts.)  On one knee, the athlete streamlines and falls in.  The focus here is on putting the feet together for the entry.


Butt Ups — Swimmer stands behind the block with palms on two rear corners of starting block.  The swimmer performs three jumps trying to lift their buttocks higher than their head.  The hands remain on the block for balance and support.  The object is to get the feel of the pike on the start and have the hips up real high.  Usually after two or three before a start there is a remarkable improvement in the height of the start.


Abdominal Punch Similar to Butt Ups — I ask them to imagine a stiff punch to the mid section while in the air.  This helps the pike.


Through Hoop (Then imagine) — On the block, the swimmer can start in a hula hoop and dive out of it.  The height of the hoop will determine the height of the dive.  This can be done with toes over the edge or from the middle of the block.


With the hoop on pool surface, the swimmer can try to land in the hoop.  This is excellent for teaching the athlete to enter the water in one small hole on the surface instead of crashing in flat.  The hoop can be very intimidating, so after a few tries, I remove the hoop and ask the swimmer to imagine it is still there.  After all, there won’t be a hoop there on race day!


Over Pole/Tubing/Water Hose (Then imagine) — Over the years I have had swimmers start over a hand held pole and surgical tubing stretched out over the water.  Another idea I like a lot was just given to me at this clinic.  Use a water hose shooting out a thin stream.  The swimmer tries to make it over the stream without hitting it.  The placement of the obstacle is important.  Encourage the swimmers to dive “too” high at first and then learn to “scoop” up upon hitting the water.  The scoop action must be started before the swimmer’s feet enter the water or they will be way too deep.


Back of Block Start — from the middle or back of the block to be sure to push upward instead of backward on the thrust of the legs.  This technique can be combined with many other drills (over a pole, through hoops, launch ramp, etc.).  Care should be taken for safety sake that the surface provides enough traction for the swimmer to avoid slipping.


Over Kick Boards (on block) — Similar to jumping out of a hoop or over a pole placed about knee height approximately 6 inches in front of the swimmer.  Three to six kick boards are piled up on the front edge of the block and the swimmer performs swing jump over the boards without touching them to promote height in the start.


Swat Butt with Board — I threw this one in for entertainment in the video.  I do not recommend you promote anyone, swimmer or coach, hitting any swimmer in the buttocks with a kick board.  The object is to get off the block quickly at the starting signal, before you are swatted.


Jump with Weights — I’ve experimented with swing jumps and swing dives with 2 1/2 pound weights in each hand.  It can prove valuable to some swimmers to get the idea that their arms add to the momentum of the start.  I do not recommend it for everyone on the team, as it is not practical or worth the expense of securing the weights for this drill.


“Throw, Ride, Tuck” — The swimmers on the block rehearse what they are to do when airborne.  The arms are thrown forward, only until the hands are in front of the abdomen.  The head is lifted up and the swimmer holds this position for a second to promote the “ride.”  The swimmer then leans forward without lowering the arms and the head is tucked in between the arms.  This can be performed two or three times on the block and then a real start given.  While that heat is climbing out the next heat can be on the blocks practicing throw, ride, tuck.


Take Off Ramp (Kick Board) — I’ve calculated an optimal takeoff angle of 37 degrees based on a start from a height.  (If you were to start from water level, the angle would be 45 degrees.)  To promote this I have a partner hold a kick board length wise in front of the blocks.


Ninety Degree Knee Drill — Again using a kick board, place the short flat side against the calf muscle of the swimmer on the block.  At the start, the kick board holder keeps the board in contact with the swimmer’s calf.  This requires changing the angle as the swimmer leans forward into the start.  The object is for the swimmer to squat deep enough for a 90 degree knee bend so that the hamstrings brush the long surface of the board.  This promotes power and a 90 degree squat at the start.




Countdown — Swing jumps are performed with the idea of timing the jump to the touch of the incoming swimmer.  To rehearse relay take offs on land, I will count down “5,4,3,2,1,0” at steady rate.  Each number represents a stroke for the incoming swimmer.  I will change the cadence.  Obviously, the butterflyer will need to wait a little longer than the freestyler.  I tell them this is a breaststroker, or this is a 200 free relay.  They swing on “1” and their feet hopefully leave the ground on “0.”


Rate with Diving Cards — Swimmers on the side rate each take off based on how good the exchange was.  You look for a score of 8-9, as 10 is too close to a jump.  This can also be filmed and replayed one frame at a time.  Shoot for a one to two frame overlap between touch and takeoff.


Step Jumps  — A more advanced relay start that has become popular, the step in relay start allows for a “running” start.  Start with both feet at the back of the block and as much weight off the back of the block as possible.  When it is time to start, take one step forward and basically do a track swing start Two variations of this include two steps forward to allow the swimmer to get both feet at the starting edge at takeoff time.  It is hard to get a good flow to the motion using this method.  A second variation is to start with one foot at the front edge of the block and one foot at the back of the block.  The athlete steps the back foot forward to join the front foot.  The benefit is that the athlete gets both feet at the front for a more powerful takeoff (if you do not like the track start) and it is safer since the athlete has a good reference from one foot where the front of the block is.




Take Your Mark Position — Several points I try to teach our athletes for the backstroke start.  Be the last one to grab the blocks.  Make the starter say, “Place your feet.”  Your opponents will be hanging an extra 3-5 seconds before the start.  Foot placement should be shoulder width and staggered one foot higher than the other if the pad is slippery.  The thumbs should be on the backstroke grip parallel to the deck, facing each other.  Use the antagonistic muscles to be prepared to spring at the start.  For example, the biceps will help pull the body up at the “Take your mark” command.  Flex the triceps with the elbows held high, ready to push on the block at the start command.


Wide Grip — Start with a wide grip on the gutter and feet down low.  This eliminates the danger of smashing the back on the water when first learning.  The wide grip also allows the swimmer to be able to throw the hands back in the direction desired.


Edge Pike — With toes over the edge, the swimmer launches backward in the air and pikes.  Try to land on the buttocks in the pike position.  This helps get the feel of rising up high on the start and having the hips clear the water.  It is a lot of fun also.


Sailor Dive — Similar to the edge pike, the sailor dive is basically a backstroke start with arms held at the swimmers side.  It teaches to lead with the head, arch the back, and get the hips up.  Caution should be taken to do this in deep water only.


Heads — Swimmer places their feet in readiness for a start.  The coach says, “Take your mark.  Heads!”  At the command the swimmer extends the arms but stays in contact with the starting block.  The body is rotated up and the head looks backward at the opposite end of the pool.  I usually do two “Heads” and then one start.  Be sure the neck muscles are warmed up before attempting this drill.  It is great for beginners to get the idea of throwing the head back.


Over the Kick Board — The swimmer takes their mark and another swimmer puts a kick board on the surface at the small of the starting swimmer’s back.  The object is to start over the board, thereby getting height.


Into the Hoop — Backstroke starts can be practiced into a hoop as in over the kick board above.  Either anchor the hoop on the surface with stretch cords or have another swimmer hold it in place.


Off the 1 Meter Board or Starting Block — Occasionally, I’ll have the swimmer try a back dive off the one meter diving board or starting block to get the feel of a clean entry.  Be sure the water is deep!




Rules — Go Over the Rules Published from the USS Rule Book and look at the exact verbiage of the rules for starting.  Go over it with the athletes.  Be tough with them when you practice starts.  My “pet peeve” is a swimmer or parent saying, “You held me too long,” when they never stopped their movement.


Starts Bulletin Board — A whole bulletin board or a section of your bulletin board devoted to diagrams and pictures from newspapers and Swimming World Magazine of good starts at the various stages of execution.  I also include any articles and diagrams that can help them.


Cellophane Man — Years ago a Councilman Creative Coaching Award went to a coach whose idea was to put cellophane over a TV screen and drawn the correct way to do a start.  Then tape your swimmers and play the tape of them under the cellophane and they can see exactly how they are off the path you are teaching.  My swimmers call this “Cellophane Man” and they love it.


Partner Teaching — Lane captains or coaches for 5 minutes to critiques the other swimmers.  Captains are rotated within the lane so all get a chance to be the teacher.


Enlist the Help of a Diving Coach — Watch a diving practice and “pick the coach’s brain.” Ask him/her to teach a lesson to your athletes!




Be creative.  Invent your own plan and progression and teach a little bit at a time, but do it frequently.  Make it fun and motivate the athletes.



Jay Fitzgerald – “The Whip Start for Little Whippers”  Swimmer’s Coach Magazine

John Trembley – ASCA World Clinic Yearbook

Ron Young – ASCA World Clinic Yearbook (1978)

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