Backstroke Technique and Training Tips
For this report I am borrowing upon the experience of a good friend, Coach Dick Hannula of Tacoma Swim Club and Wilson High School as well as upon my own experience teaching the fundamentals of this stroke.
Most Important things to remember:
1. Head and Body position
2. Hip and Shoulder Rotation
3. Timing of arms/legs/rotation
Head and Body Position.
Backstroke, like freestyle is a "long axis" stroke. What coaches are looking for here is a head and body position where the head and body are aligned. You should think of your head being on top of a "metal rod" (Coach Dick Hannula)with the head still and the hips and shoulders will rotating side to side (tick-tock). Your head should lie fairly flat on the water. (see the following diagram)
You should think of the water as a very soft pillow. The eyes should be looking nearly 90 degrees upward with some adjustment allowed so that the eyes do not look at 90 degrees straight up. The head can be slightly tilt the chin so that it is a little toward the throat with the eyes then looking slightly down at a 75 to 80 degree angle. The single most important thing to remember is that the head needs to remain on top of the spine and does not move. The very best backstrokers will not move the head but will keep it, in what Coach Hannula calls a "neutral" position.
Hip and Shoulder Rotation
Look at the diagram above. If you look carefully you'll see the proper amount of rotation that is an efficient backstroke. Too much rotation is as bad as too little. Backstroke probably should be re-named Side-back-side stroke, but this is way too long a title to put into a meet program. As you swim backstroke your head should remain in the "neutral" position on top of the spine. You need to think of your spine as a solid rod with the the hips and shoulders rotating around the head and spine. Rotation in long axis strokes is very important as it makes the body more streamlined through the water. To rotate in backstroke you must enter the hand-little finger first above the shoulder. As your hand enters the water, you should continue to rotate at the shoulders and hips until you catch the water. You should try to feel the water on the palm of your hand and in your arm pit for the most effective stroke.
For a longer stroke you want to "pitch" the hand palm down after entry so that it catches the water early and fairly soon above the shoulders. When drilling, or swimming at this point you should try to feel the water on the palm of your hand and your arm pit. The stroke pattern is almost a direct line from above the head to an exit point at the hips. As your hand is anchored in the water with the rotation, the arm begins to bend at the elbow near the shoulder so you get the maximum angle from which to pull the body forward past the hand. The stroking arm will be at its' maximum bend as the body is pushed past the anchored hand (see the diagram above). The wrist should flex to let you continue pushing water toward the feet as the arm nears the exit point by the hip. Take a look at the next picture of Hayley McGregory and see where her right hand is in the backstroke pattern.
The hips and trunk (core) will have rotated to the other side as the hand exits the water thumb first with the hip rotation. During the recovery phase of the stroke the arm will recover in a straight, but relaxed motion. Former World Record holder John Neighbor called the backstroke recovery a "gun barrel" recovery. To get a good picture of the timing and recovery look at the two pictures below of Matt Grevers and Aaron Piersol as great examples of what these two aspects of the backstroke should look like.
Timing-arms,legs and rotation
Kicking is a very important aspect of backstroke. Your kick should begin with the push off on EVERY wall. You should start your kick with a dolphin kick in "torpedo" or streamlined position for the maximum distance possible-15ms. Your fly kick should be short and quick so as to build momentum into the break out. You can alter the amount of time you spend under water depending on the distance of the race and your conditioning level. The back flutter kick should be narrow with continuous speed. The back flutter kick should come from the hip with the ankles and feet being the final phase of the kick. The feet should come to the surface with your kick "boiling" the water behind you. In his book, Coaching Swimming Successfully, Coach Hannula describes this action like someone trying to kick off a sock or shoe. You should be able to do the back flutter kick on your side with the rotation of the backstroke. A well trained kick will provide you with proper head and body position that will decrease drag. An effective kick will help you build into and out of the walls, maintain proper body position, keep your rotation going and provide you power to go fast.
Like all of the strokes you must learn to relax on your back. Many times swimmers feel uncomfortable doing backstroke as they are not able to see where they are going. To over come these concerns you can learn to count strokes between flags and walls