You would think that being able to breathe all the time would make swimming easy, but the inability to see yourself swim or use the bottom of the pool as reference for how fast you are going makes backstroke a tricky one. Luckily, we have already gone through most of the essential components and drills we used during the freestyle section. Now, we are just going to do it on our backs! Here are the essential components:
Just like in freestyle, we are going to start with reducing drag as much as possible by having good head position. Good head position translates to good body position where the swimmer is relatively flat and horizontal with the ceiling. Again, the head position we want is the same head position we have during the streamline. Nothing changes from a streamlined head position to a swimming head position.
Next, we want to cut through the water as our arms recover and reach out behind us. The arms again return to a streamlined position (or as close as possible). The unique part of backstroke is that the arms are pretty much opposite each other no matter how fast or slow you swim. This is way different than freestyle where the arms can vary a lot depending on how fast you are going. The slower you swim in freestyle, the more up front and “catch-upy” you want your arms in order to be as efficient as possible. In backstroke, the arms are always opposite each other. To go faster, you just increase tempo.
We also want a straight over recovery during backstroke, meaning we want the arms to arch over the head and shoulders without wobbling side to side. Again, it’s not the recovery itself that we care about, it’s the effect it has on the rest of the body. We want to maintain alignment of the body when we recover the arms and by working a straight over recovery, we can keep that alignment as much as possible. In addition, backstroke has a lot more rotation to it than freestyle. By recovering the arms straight over and reaching to the ceiling with the fingertips AND shoulders forces the OPPOSITE side of the stroke to rotate fully and get a good catch and arm pull utilizing the power from the rotation of the stroke.
Lastly, and as always, we want to go as far as possible with each stroke… aka distance per stroke (DPS). Because of the extra rotation that is part of backstroke, it makes the arm sweep a little funky. There is a relatively impressive sideways “S” pattern sweep. Without going through the various details, we just need to start reaching back as far as possible, catch the water out to the side with a good anchor and then use the rotation of the stroke to power the hands towards the hips. Right as the hip rotates to the opposite side and is at the surface of the water, the hand should be finished pulling and breaking the surface of the water to start the recovery portion of the stroke. Let’s break it down with our drills.
Streamline Kick = Head position
Just like in freestyle, we want kids to learn that the head position we use streamlining on our backs is the same head position we want them to use during their stroke. They should pay attention to where the water is around the face, where their eyes are looking, how far back their chests are pushed into the water while keeping their belly buttons on the surface of the water.
No matter the drill, no matter the set, no matter the race… the head always stays in this position!
One Arm Streamline Kick = More head position!
The transition from streamline to full swimming is the most likely place to lose our head position. One arm streamline kicking forces swimmers to stop right at the transition point and refocus their efforts on their head position while maintaining a tight single arm streamline.
For younger/new swimmers it is easier to do this drill while flat on the back. As the swimmers and the season progress, you can transition to kicking more on the side and in a rotated position. This adds the element of rotation that differentiates good from great backstroke. In that rotated position, the legs kick almost completely on their sides and the shoulder should be up close to the chin.
Both regular and one arm streamline kick are great alternatives to regular board kicking. Not only does it add a mentally engaging aspect of training, but because of the law of specificity, not all kicking (or training in general) will transfer to improved performance. This means that kicking on your front with a kickboard will not fully transfer to improved backstroke kicking performance. We always want to replicate the parameters of the stroke as close in training to how it will be performed in a race.
6nRoll = Streamlined arms
Now that we have our head locked in a good position, we can start introducing the arms slowly. Just like 6nRoll on your front, 6nRoll on your back involves starting with one arm streamline kicking and switching sides every six or so kicks. Again, the actual number of kicks in between each stroke is not the purpose of the drill. The purpose is to slow the stroke down so kids get a chance to think about where their arms are entering and reaching during the stroke cycle.
The goal is to switch from one side to the other without losing our streamlined arm position. At first, this is easier done flat on the back, but as swimmers progress you can upgrade the drill to be performed on the side so swimmers have to incorporate a large rotation with every switch.
L-Hold/Drill= Straight over recovery
Now we are getting to the tough stuff. To help kids understand and train their arm recovery, we have them pause in this “L” position with one arm back in a streamline and the second arm pointed up towards the ceiling.
Tangent: To help motivate kids to hold their arms up, we have them “paint the ceiling” with their hands!
In L-Hold, there is never a switching from side to side. The kids just make an L after streamlining and hold it the whole distance. In L-Drill, the kids still pause in the L-position, but then take a stroke and switch sides every six kids.
Because of the added weight of the arm over the water, this is a very difficult drill to perform while still maintaining good body position as you tend to sink very badly. To help out, it is very beneficial to add fins to this drill. This also works as a great replacement for typical kicking sets.
Just like in one arm kicking or 6nRoll, start the drill flat on the back and progress to a rotated position once mastery is achieved.
Single arm backstroke = “S” pattern pull
Because of the awkward nature of single arm backstroke, this is not a preferred drill. But, if you are looking for something beyond stroke counting to work on distance per stroke and focus on the S pattern pull, single arm backstroke can help.
Because of the large rotation in backstroke, we prefer to do this drill with the non-swimming arm down by the side. Keeping it up by the head in a streamlined position (like we do in single arm freestyle) is just too cumbersome.
Spinner Drill = Tempo
Unlike freestyle, keeping a high tempo during backstroke is a critical part of building a fast race. And with the extra rotation involved, it can be difficult to achieve/maintain a fast tempo in backstroke. To perform spinner drill, start the 25 or 50 with the head up looking forward and the entire chest lifted up out of the water. At this point, spin the arms as fast as possible which is made easier by the altered body position. At the half-way point down the pool, lean the head and chest back down to a normal position while trying to maintain the same tempo throughout the full swim.
Summary of Drills: