Backstroke Start Analysis - Minna Atherton
During the ISL season of 2019, Minna Atherton lit the swimming world on fire with her exceptional backstroke performances. When watching the 200 backstroke at the London leg of the tour I was amazed by her start. For me it is the technical model that I look to coach with my swimmers. Below is a breakdown of her start, and more importantly the "why" behind it.
For me, the stance is a key phase in the start, and often when executed poorly, has huge knock on effects on the take off and the entry. To make the stance effective the body should be in a position to generate as much force as possible through the take-off.
What Atherton does well here is keeping her back straight and head in a neutral position. This allows the head and hips to move backwards and upwards simultaneously during the take off as fast as possible.
I think there is a lot to learn from her leg positioning as well. Notice how the feet are roughly hip width apart on the timing pad. Have you ever tried to jump as high as possible off of the ground with your feet really close together compared to having them at hip width apart? Try it and see which one leads to a higher jump. Spoiler, it is the hip width stance that yields the highest jump. Also, notice how there is a gap between Atherton's hips and her ankles, a common mistake is to have the hips high but with the bottom touching the ankles. This would inhibit force production through the take off because the level of muscle fibre overlapping within the active muscles would be sub-optimal. In other words, force-length relationship within the working muscles would be inhibited by sitting any deeper.
It is also of note that the hips are sitting on top of the water as opposed to below the surface. This is because to move up through the water during the take-off would be slower than to move up through the air. To enable this position there is significant tension through the arms.
Take-off + Flight:
During the take-off you really reap the rewards for a great stance. If the swimmer is able to generate as much force as possible then the take-off should be good. The initiation of the take off is caused by the head moving back and the hips moving up as can be seen below.
The movement of the head backwards enables the arch of the back during the flight. They also set the trajectory for the take-off/flight. Needing to get up and over the water but also as far out as possible - a swimmer is quicker through the air than the water.
For me another key component of the take-off, is viewing it as a jumping movement. Below you can see the angle change at the knee through the take off, proving that the legs are the key driver of the take off.
Ensuring a swimmer is able to jump well is really important; a better athlete on land normally equates to a better swimmer in the pool and jumping has a direct impact in so many ways, not least in the backstroke start.
During the take-off and flight phase the swimmer needs to get into a streamlined position; this is done by recovery of the arms over the body and into a streamline ready for the entry. This movement also helps to generate an arch in the body during the flight, an example of Atherton doing this can be seen below.
Notice how quickly the arms have recovered - her feet are only just leaving the wall. This allows the spine to arch and the hips to elevate prior to entry so that the body can enter through a single point in the water.
As the take off is governed by the stance, the entry is governed by the flight. As mentioned above, throwing the arms up and over the body helps manoeuvre the body into a position to enter through one single point in the water. Another action during the entry helps that with this - the flicking of the feet upwards just helps them clear the water until they can enter through the same single point of entry as the other parts of the body. You can see this below.
Hopefully the points made above help coaches and swimmers to develop their backstroke starts Obviously the world class example shown is a specific set of movements that Minna Atherton has developed over years of practise and that works for her. Not every point in this article will work for every swimmer, some may be limited by their flexibility or strength but these are just as crucial in developing the start as the technical knowledge. After all, a better athlete is generally a better swimmer.