Keep Your Head Still in Backstroke

Stevie Wonder Head

Many years ago, I was coaching a ten year old swimmer that had a bad habit of turning her head to one side with each right arm recovery in backstroke. None of the drills I was recommending to her seemed to correct the problem. As soon as she started swimming backstroke again, the head would begin moving.

Her mother was standing behind me watching all of this, while sipping her coffee from a styrofoam cup. I turned to her and asked, ‘has she always moved her head like this in backstroke?’

‘All of her swimming life’, she responded.

Finally, somewhat frustrated by her lack of improvement, the mother threw the remaining bit of coffee from her cup onto the grass and handed it to me.

‘Here’, she said ‘fill this up halfway with water and put it on her forehead. See if she can make it to the other side without spilling it.’

Cup Balance Drill for Backstroke

I saw where she was going with this and was excited to see if it could truly be effective. It is amazing what a swimmer can do when a quirky challenge can reset the mind frame for approaching difficult aspects of altering technique or correction.

The little girl took the cup and laid out on her back, carefully placing the cup on her forehead. She then began swimming backstroke very slowly and deliberately all the way to the other end of the pool. She didn’t spill a drop.

Now, a bit more confidently, she turned and swam back with a little more effort, building speed as she progressed. She nearly made it all the way back before the cup fell from her forehead.

After two more 25 yard swims with the cup on her forehead, I asked her to swim without it. Presto, no more head motion. From that time on, if she started to move her head again, I asked her to pull out the styrofoam cup, fill it half full of water, place it on her forehead and do another 25 backstroke. After a few more days, she never moved the head, regardless of her speed.


Since then, I have used the styrofoam cup technique on many occasions and it has never failed. I suggest using only styrofoam rather than paper or plastic, as it stays on better. For best results fill it about 1/3 to 1/2 full. Tall cups are too top heavy, so stick with a shorter cup. Since not every parent is drinking coffee at the time you need it, I always keep a supply of these cups on hand, just in case.

I am sure that there are many others who have used this technique. I never stop learning new insights or old school tricks from parents and coaches, so keep those suggestions coming!

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

7 Responses to Keep Your Head Still in Backstroke

  1. Chris eidsvik

    Haha, in Canada many of us use hockey pucks for the same purpose.

    If it falls off it’s easy to get.

    Likely not a surprise to many that Canadians do that.:)

    • garyhallsr

      Glad to hear you don’t use the hockey stick to whack them in the head!

  2. David McIntyre

    Excellent idea… This 80 year old master swimmer can do this… hopefully with a bit less of an increase in my favorite 50 SCM time. At my age, forget the reduction in swimming times… just a reduction in the increase of times. Best Regards to Clan Hall. David McIntyre, Gold Coast Masters

    • garyhallsr

      Thank you, David! Always appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Bobby Lavoie

    Yes!! Hockey pucks are GREAT….use them quite a bit in my group technical training. However, I find the kids do this drill AND HAVE FUN by using RUBBER DUCKIES !! lol

  4. Gary of Michigan

    This is a timely article for me. I’ve been concentrating on backstroke launch, sprints, and turns. I’ve watched slow motion of Phelps, Locte and semi-pro’s racing. Phelps doesn’t turn his head a micron and Lochte does slightly. Locte seems to rotate his body more during backstroke than Phelps. So, the natural question, Coach Hall, is how much should we rotate our bodies in backstroke when we keep our head planted? I’m older with rotor cuff injuries, so I tend to be hip driven with the arms for physiological compatibility.

    • garyhallsr

      Body rotation is a powerful coupling motion for backstroke and freestyle. The speed of the rotation, timed with the maximum propulsion of the pulling arm, is the most important factor. By throwing the arm down hard to the water on the last quarter of your recovery arch, you will benefit from higher kinetic energy in the arm and the body rotation. The further you rotate the body in backstroke, the more favorable position you put your shoulder in for a stronger pull.


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