There is no disputing that the start is an important part of a race, of course it’s importance and effect on the race is directly proportional to the distance being raced. Your start in a 50m event will have a far greater impact on your race than your start for a 400m event. If you have plateaued on a certain event the start is one of those areas that you can try to knock parts of a second off, or a full second depending on how good/bad your start is. Now I did say that it will have less of an effect on longer events, but it is important to make sure that every aspect of your race is the best it can be. After all you do want to get off to the best possible start (sorry, but in my defence I am a dad).
First things first, which leg are you going to put in front? I usually get people to take a step forward and leap up (on the deck side), then I get them to try it with the other leg. One leg will feel more natural or dominant than the other, that is the one I tell them to put in front. I do this because most of the blocks used in competitions here are not the Olympic style (the ones with the back-stop), so most of the propulsion has to come from the front foot. If you try to imagine an x and y axis printed on the block (and your hips align with the x-axis), your feet need to be shoulder-width apart along the x-axis. While it is ok to go slightly longer than shoulder width along the y-axis, adult swimmers are usually limited by the block size. Children almost always put their feet back too far. Interestingly I used to see the same issues years ago when teaching martial arts. Beginners would often over estimate how wide and long their stance needed to be and I find my feet are almost in the same position on the blocks as they used to be when in a fighting stance. I must add that the toes of the front foot should curl over the edge of the block to gain greater purchase.
Compress the Coil
I like to tell my swimmers that they have to imagine that their body is like a giant spring that is compressed on “take your mark” and on the whistle/beep that spring is going to be released. There are different opinions on leaning back or forward. Personally, I prefer to be in the centre or slightly forward depending on whether the style of the blocks. The hips are to be higher than the head & shoulders, with the knees bent slightly (remember we are a spring). I’ve seen swimmers lock out their front leg and lean very far back. While being farther back does work for some swimmers, the problem with not bending your knees is the amount of time it takes to get forward and out when your leg is locked straight. I’ve had one coach tell me that swimmers should pull down on the block with just enough tension to not get tired, while another said to keep it relaxed. Personally, I’ve found that pulling down creates a lot more force on the take off and I’m still trying to find my own balance with how much I should pull down, if at all.
I’m going to condense dives into two categories, simple and launching. The simple one is what most swimmers start with, it is also the safest and easiest version for beginners. I describe it to swimmers as making yourself an arrow or torpedo, travelling a straight line from the blocks to a point a few meters out, the exact distance depends on the size of the swimmer. The head stays down and tucked in with the arms simply coming into a streamline position. Once swimmers are competent with this version its time to start working on the launching one. I should note here that by the time swimmers come into our club they will already be somewhat capable in the simple dive and we just fine tune it a bit first so that they can start using it effectively in competitions straight away.
The launching version is a bit more intimidating. All of the dives you will see from Olympians fall under this type of dive and there are a number of different spins on it. The main points are to launch upward, pushing up and out to make your dive follow a sine wave with a peak and trough. To get up, I prefer to lift my head up as I push up, but from footage online I see a number of top swimmers don’t do this. Your arms have to get out in front fast, but also need to aid the push up. If the arm movement is incorrect it can kill your momentum. Some swimmers fire the hands or elbows back and up, then they either pull the hand under the body to align themselves for entry, or they swing them over the top in a butterfly like recovery. I am the person doing the former in the picture on the top of the page. I have also seen others put the arms into their streamline position as they push off and simply bring them, straight armed, into position for entry. No matter which option you choose to use, your feet should come up high after your body. If you were to pause footage of top swimmers diving you will see there is a point in the dive when their bodies are almost parallel in the air with one foot a little higher than the rest of the body. If you were to watch the dive from the front the shoulders and hips should stay horizontal with no side dropping.
The entry is where everything can go wrong. On entry the hands should be in their streamlined position with the arms extended and locked or strong to take the impact of the water so that they don’t separate. The body should be pulled into alignment with the feet coming together and there should be little or no splashes. All that is left then is to streamline and work your way up to your breakout after you’ve hit the trough of your wave.
I hope this helps the next time you start to work on your dives. Remember the important thing is to find what works for you and to put your own slant on your dive while keeping true to the basics.