The devastation wreaked by Covid 19 has seen the passing of a fair number of the great and the good this year. Amongst these and almost un-noticed was actor Dave Prowse.
I’m sure most of you know exactly who he was but for the uninitiated I guarantee you will have seen his work at some point either at the cinema or on TV. Dave Prowse was probably most famous for being the actor beneath the black helmet of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.
But if you grew up in the UK wearing flares and a tank top during the 1970’s Dave Prowse had a second equally iconic role. Sporting a rather dodgy low budget spandex get-up, he found fame as the Green Cross Code Man in the Government’s Road Safety campaign. He would pop up at random moments in ad breaks telling us all how to cross safely without being knocked down by a reckless driver of a brown Hillman Avenger or the like.
He was, by all accounts, very successful in his role and I got to wondering if he would have been equally successful as a swim coach, particularly if his pupil was Darth Vader. (Hey, come with me on this one – it’s Christmas-time !)
It’s widely recognised that getting the head position right is one of the non-negotiables when it comes to efficient swimming, and mastering the turn to the air is a huge part of this. Therefore, the basic message from the Green Cross Code man of looking left, looking right and then left again (begin with the opposite direction if you drive on the right!), seems a pretty useful start point. It does at least get the eyes moving on the correct plane. So often we see swimmers who can easily master this basic instruction whilst standing vertically but find it much more difficult once they get horizontal. You would be forgiven for thinking that Dave Prowse had said “Look at the sky, now check out the shoes of the chap standing over your left shoulder, right, now back at the sky…” and so on.
Once in the water, the brain enters a slight panic mode. It is used to being able to see where it is going and definitely used to the body being able to breathe easily. It might be a natural instinct for a swimmer to want to look forward but translate that back to the vertical and the swimmer would be staring at the clouds with a crick in their neck. Uncomfortable for any period of time but, more importantly this restricts the movement of the scapulae resulting in a lordosis of the back, the raising of the rib cage and a loss of connection between the torso and the lower body.
Equally, looking over one’s shoulder in order to take the breath might seem a good idea for some. However, it can easily result in over-rotation, with the knock-on effects on the timing of the stroke and definitely will take the head off the central axis which in turn will take the body away from the desired forward direction.
This might be the time of year to be looking forward and also looking back but it’s never a good idea if swimming freestyle.
So if you’re looking for a new image for your swimmers you might like to get them to imagine that they are wearing Darth Vader’s helmet. This might prove to be a useful aid. Like many elements of the costumes worn by fantasy heroes and villains (what is this obsession with capes ?), Darth’s helmet looks impressive but is massively impractical for day-to-day living, restricting, as it does, both vision and movement. However, for the swimmer this is no bad thing. If they imagine that the helmet makes it impossible for them to look either up or down then the head can only move in a horizontal plane. If it helps, they could visualise the Lego version of Darth Vader if they like, who is completely incapable of moving in the incorrect plane
Additionally, strap his light sabre to the top of the helmet and instantly they have a cue for the desired direction of travel for the head as well.
Of course this only addresses the basic plane in which the head should travel. Once this is understood, it is essential to connect it with the rotation of the body and to the correct timing in order to achieve maximum efficiency. However, these are huge topics in themselves so for the moment let’s just concentrate of making sure the eyes and head are moving along the correct path and that bad habits are not being imprinted. To quote another Star Wars icon, the wise Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” Granted I don’t think he was talking specifically about freestyle swimming but he easily could have been.
Turning one’s head correctly may seem like a very basic skill, yet in such small steps are galaxies overthrown. The position and movement of the head is the first step in unleashing the true power within the body.
Get it right and the force may be with you !
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