Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
One of the most common problems we find with the backstroke starts among our Race Club swimmers is going too deep. While it is not unusual to go a little deeper on the backstroke start than on the freestyle start, the shortest distance between two points is still a straight line. A swimmer takes a long, curved path back to the surface by going too deep, one that often takes too much time. If the swimmer does not have a strong dolphin kick, going too deep will result in a huge problem in the race.
The most important technique we have found for getting the angle of entry correct in the backstroke start is the head position. At the time the hands reach the water, the head needs to be in alignment with the upper body. It should not be extended backward, nor should it be flexed or tucked forward.
To get the head in alignment with the upper body at hand entry, it is essential to start with the head in alignment with the upper body in the set or take-your-mark position. That means the swimmer should be looking straight back through the starting block at the timers sitting behind them, rather than looking down at the water or up at the sky or roof. The feet should be positioned shoulder-width apart on the backstroke wedge or high on the wall (even slightly above the water line on the flat-walled surface).
At the sound of the starter’s beep, there are two technique options for the swimmer’s head position. The first is to keep the head in alignment for the duration of the start. Using this technique, it is vital for the swimmer to arch his or her back in order to enter at the ideal angle. Failing to do so will result in a back-sided belly flop, which hurts. In this week’s video release, you will find elite Masters backstroker, Mike Boosin, using this head technique with a nice back arch. In another Race Club video, you can also see how elite backstrokers Luca Spinazolla and Josh Zuchowski use this same head technique with their amazing backstroke starts.
A second option is to start with the head in alignment, then extend the head backward forcefully at the start, using the weight and motion of the head as coupling energy for the start. If this technique is used, it is essential for the head to get back into alignment with the upper body by the time the hands reach the water. If not, the swimmer will always end up too deep underwater on the start.
World Champion, Junya Koga, does a beautiful job of throwing his head backward on the start yet straightens it out before entering the water, resulting in a perfect entry. In this week’s video, you will see how high schooler Bora Hurst, just learning to do the backstroke start, throws his head backward but fails to straighten it out in time. The result is a long trip back to the surface. National Champion backstroker Amy Bilquist also demonstrates how she uses this same head technique with her start on the image below.
In teaching these two head position techniques for the backstroke start, we have found that some swimmers do better with one technique, while others do better with the other. For those swimmers who struggle to get enough back arch on the start to achieve a clean entry, we recommend throwing the head back and then straightening it out. With either technique, make sure that the head gets back into alignment in time and that the hands get wrapped together before entering the water. Then practice, practice, and practice. The best way to improve your start is by doing more starts.
Yours in swimming,
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