By Rich House
The start. Racers are coiled, ready to leap and unleash their fury of strokes. The crowd is hushed, equally ready to explode at the sound of the beep…
At every level of competitive swimming, the execution of the start can produce an awful race, a good race, and in some cases a great race. While a swimmer cannot win the race with just the takeoff, those that have mastered the skill will have an advantage over their competitors. Having confidence and attacking the start of the event sets the ‘mood’ for the rest of the race. Whether it is a 25 or a 1,500, if a start is executed poorly, a swimmer may spend extra energy and mind power to regain position (and some are unable to recover). This past summer, there was much talk during the Olympics about the start – how Anthony Ervin wasn’t proficient (article), and how Katie Ledecky has a great reaction time (article), even in her longest races. When in Rio, both swimmers notably were able to explode off the blocks and get into their races with confidence to perform to their greatest abilities.
Since 2009, USA Swimming has made a push at the start of every season for coaches to certify their swimmers, at every age and skill level, to correctly execute a swimming racing start. Specifically, the racing start rule, 103.2.2 (which already provides that racing starts should only be taught in at least six feet of water) states that racing starts should only be taught under the direct supervision of a USA Swimming member coach. For swimmers age 10 years and under or swimmers with less than one year of experience, according to the certification process, the coach must certify that the swimmer has been trained according to proper progression (Sitting, Kneeling, Compact, Stride, and Shallow Angle Dive). For older or more experienced swimmers, the checklist requires the coach to certify appropriate skill level based on the coach’s observation. The required certification is based on the coach’s professional judgment and must be recorded in writing for each swimmer.
Executing a good racing start is a skill that is essential to a swimmer throughout their career in the sport. The actual take-off itself has been a source of innovation over the past few decades working to enhance the speed a swimmer can achieve entering the pool: progression from the ‘grab’ start in the 70’s and 80’s to the track start, using side handles on the blocks, and now using the track start with the ‘wedge’ on the starting blocks. USA Swimming has executed studies on the effectiveness of each innovation as it was introduced to the sport. Ultimately the objective of the start as stated by Russel Mark (US National Team High Performance Consultant), is to carry maximum speed forward, push off the block effectively, and have a smooth entry. Further, Mark provides guidance for achieving this objective by practicing four (4) characteristics of good form off the block:
1. High Hips
2. Eyes Looking Down
3. Arms Loaded
4. Rear Foot Behind Your Hips
With these 4 characteristics in mind, the swimmer can focus on the starting signal(s), execute good control of their weight balance on the block, and can hit the water with confidence. For additional reading and links to Russel Mark’s presentation go here: Four Tips to Improve Your Start
In my experience as a swimmer and coach, I’ve performed a few of variations on the start (grab & track start) and trained athletes to perform each. When training, the focus is on taking advantage of their natural talents, whether it’s their ability to leap off the blocks or just have a quick reaction to the start signal. Confidence in the ability to execute a great takeoff allows the athlete to alleviate the stress of getting into the water and really focus on the racing. Take Caeleb Dressel. He’s the best recent great example I’ve seen of an athlete using the takeoff and their own athletic abilities to gain an advantage on their competitors. When he set American and NCAA records in the 50 and 100 freestyle at NCAA’s this past Spring, he was able to execute his start so flawlessly that he had almost a 1/2 body length lead on the field before a stroke was taken. See the video of his record setting 50 free:
The first thing you notice is that he is in his starting position well before the other competitors. Caeleb has made this practice part of his race routine. In effectively establishing this kind of a routine, he is able to focus better and really prepare himself mentally for an outstanding takeoff and break out.
Emphasis on creating a routine for executing the racing start at an early age will develop a swimmer’s confidence, allow them to focus on the elements of the race rather than the anxiety of a start, and potentially give them an advantage over their competition. To master these skills, they must be practiced on a regular basis so you body can perform ‘without thinking’. If you or your child hasn’t already worked with their coach on this skill, it’s time to have the conversation with your coach and put in the work to master the start!