I use a 5-step progression for teaching the backstroke start to young swimmers.
Step #1 of the progression is a dryland streamline arch over a stability ball. I hold the ball and then have the swimmer stretch into an assisted streamline back arch. I want the swimmer to get the feel for the position and the flexibility needed for an excellent FLIGHT during the start.
Step #2 I take the swimmer into the water and guide them through an assisted back streamline surface dive. I hold her in streamline with one hand and push her back up into the arch with the other. I guide her through the underwater feeling of a back start entry. I remind her to blow bubbles out her nose as she goes under water. I want her head to remain in the neutral position.
Step #3 I teach the proper starting placement of the feet, hands, and hips. This is the ready position…before the starter says, “Take your mark.”The feet should be high on the wall. Swimmers can keep their toes above the surface, but not curled over the lip of the gutter. Both hands grip the bar or handles at shoulder width, with thumbs aligned for a push and palms directed toward the bar. The elbows are straight and the arms relaxed. (However, before a race, don’t hang in this position longer than necessary.) The feet are at shoulder width with the balls of the feet and toes against the wall. The heels are away from the wall. The legs are bent, about 90 degrees. Hips are high, near the surface of the water. Toes, heels, knees, hips, and arms are lined up.The head is in a neutral position, relaxed between the arms, looking at the side of the pool.
Step #4 My students learn the “Take your Mark” position, and there are three different ways that swimmers can do this. The first way is called “The Catapult” and the start looks like this, the arms flex, bringing the body forward. The head is in a neutral position, looking at the wall or gutter. The elbows are away from the body and out of the water. The hips are high and near the surface of the water.
Keep the feet and legs in line. It is a common mistake to let them go out of alignment, like this. Press the chest toward the knees. The armpits are above the knees. Reverse the energy on the palms, like this, so you are ready for a push with the hands. At the start the arms don’t simply let go…they PUSH.
The second type of start is the “traditional” start and it looks like this. The body curls up. The eyes look at the handles or slightly down. The back is almost vertical, but angled forward slightly. The hips are under the shoulders. The hips are near the heels. The legs are almost completely bent. The elbows are next to the legs.
The third type of start is called “The Japanese Start” and it looks like this. The back, neck, and head are in line and leaning away from the wall at an angle. The eyes look slightly upward. The elbows are bent at 90 degrees and next to the legs. The hips are a little closer than the shoulders to the starting wall. The legs are almost completely bent. The hips are a few inches away from the heels. The hands are hanging on.
Step #5 in teaching the backstroke start is to learn what to do when the horn goes off.
Use a double noodle, like this.
First, touch the noodle to their lower back so they can feel what they are arching over. Now, move it a few inches forward. Keep it simple. Tell the swimmer, “Go over the noodle.” Or, tell them to “arch over the noodle and streamline into the water.”
Tell the swimmer to push with the hands first as they throw the head up and back, like they are trying to look back at the water. In the Japanese start the swimmer will just let go and throw the arms back into streamline. The head will align in neutral before entry. Have the swimmer push and throw the arms straight back overhead. The arms should be in a flexed position during the first half of the swing and should be extended and reaching back to enter the water during the final push of the legs. The push of the legs comes after the body is away from the wall and heading backward. During the flight, the swimmer should try to get the entire body out of the water. The swimmer should pike at the waist and feel as if they are flicking UP with their feet. The swimmer should go to a neutral-head-position streamline. Do not tuck the chin after entry. The ideal entry is when hands, head, torso, legs, and finally the feet go through the same hole in the water. This is a clean entry.
The Pike Drill is an excellent drill that helps swimmers get the feeling of the pike position from the hips during the entry. This helps to line up the legs for a one-hole entry.