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Just Breaking The Surface

Written By: Reed Miller

We see it all too often, what appears to be the Loch Ness monster rising up and out of the water. But, unfortunately it’s not majestic or mysterious. Nope, it’s just another bad backstroke breakout featuring floating arm syndrome. It’s one of the most common mistakes we see that drives us coaches crazy.

Why do backstroke swims so often turn into Nessie sightings? The drifting lead arm stems from poor streamlines along with a bad angle at the breakout. A bad angle at the break can be caused by a shortened kickout if the swimmer wants to breathe and/or because they mistime the final dolphin kick and try to breakout with their feet down and subsequently out of line. Another culprit is over rotation through the first pull. As the swimmer approaches the surface we see them contort into an awkward shape to get to the surface, gasping for air with an arm out of the water that might as well be waving. This creates a dead space in the swimmer’s rhythm as their stroke connection is minimized when their lead arm is in the air as the first pull is finished. Needless to say, body position and stroke rhythm are critical to efficiency, which is why it’s important to address this flaw.

As with anything swimming related, there’s rarely a quick fix and there are always multiple approaches to implementing technique work. I prefer full stroke swimming with a focus on specific skills rather than using drills for the majority of my technique work. With that in mind, I’ve found some cues that help develop more effective backstroke breakouts.

1. Stay (relatively) flat through the first pull. Many swimmers try to dig deep into the first catch position which drives their shoulders and hips to become over-rotated. Since they are still under the surface throughout the first pull phase it’s okay for the first pull to be slightly shallow. Keeping the shoulders flat allows the swimmer to keep their opposite arm in a better position leading into the breakout. Notice the relatively shallow hand of the swimmer below (red arrow) as she maintains flat shoulders through the first pull.

2. Hold half a streamline through the first pull. When swimmers separate their hands from the streamline position, we usually see both arms drift away from their center line. By staying flat and holding the non pulling arm in place swimmers can maintain a tighter line approaching the surface. Another way to think of this would be to pull the lead arm forward with the first stroke. See the position of the swimmer’s lead arm (green arrow) in the photo above as she progresses through the first pull.

3. Catch twice before breaking the surface. Many breakout problems persist in part due to timing.This cue revolves around the timing and depth of the separation of the streamline into the first pull phase. Swimmers should have enough depth to finish one stroke and begin the second catch phase before breaking the surface. This will create the fluid rhythm we want with the first pull driving the second catch as the swimmer breaks through the surface. In the photo below you’ll see the second catch forming as the swimmer breaks through the surface.

4. Kick your hand into the recovery. This addresses the leg drive into the breakout. We often see swimmers shut down the legs and try to muscle through the breakout using only their arms. If the swimmer is dolphin kicking through the first stroke then they should try to time the final upkick with the finish of the first pull, similar to a single arm butterfly pull but on their back. This will help the swimmer drive into the second catch phase as they break through the surface. See the swimmer below finish the final upkick as the hand begins to accelerate into the recovery.

Next time you encounter Nessie make sure to try out the above cues. They can be used individually or in unison to develop better backstroke breakout lines that facilitate early rhythm in the stroke.

Reed Miller joined the DART staff in 2015 as the AG3 lead coach. He is currently the lead coach for SR1 and SRHS. He also assists with SR2. Multiple swimmers have achieved top 10 national rankings for their age group, Far Western Championships, and Sectionals qualifying standards while under Miller’s tutelage. In 2017, Sierra Nevada Swimming selected Miller as the Age Group Coach of the Year. Before becoming a coach with the DART program Reed was an assistant senior coach and 9-10 coach for the City of Mobile Swim Association from 2014-2015. He was also an assistant coach for Mcgill-Toolen Catholic High School. During that time he coached multiple Alabama state champions as well as Junior Nationals qualifiers. Mcgill-Toolen achieved a second place finish at the Alabama High School State Championships in Miller’s lone season with the program.Reed started swimming competitively at the age of 16. Two years later he walked on at Wingate University where he eventually earned a scholarship. Miller achieved All-America status twice in his career, which is attained by finishing top eight at the NCAA Championships. He was also an Academic All-America selection his junior and senior seasons. Miller was appointed team captain by his teammates his senior year.

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