Competitive swimmers and coaches are intimately familiar with the forward start technique, which is meant to give athletes a fast, safe start. But many of them may not realize that a misinterpretation of this technique has the potential to cause severe spinal injury, which can lead to costly liability lawsuits.

To understand why, let’s take a look at the standard start technique. It includes both feet forward and track-start foot placement positions. The phrase “press back on the block” in an action to set the hands and hips in motion has been used by many clinicians, coaches, swimmers and training videos. Prior to entering the water, the swimmer’s hands swing forward to an above-the-head stance for a streamlined entry.

But some are misinterpreting this technique to the point where swimmers are performing their jumps with hands at their sides. This flawed technique is a major factor in a start that can cause minor to catastrophic injuries. I recently served as an expert witness in just such a case (Mohr vs. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association). The original suit for $20 million eventually was settled out of court for $1.5 million.

Watch local, state, national and international swimmers perform their starts and you’ll notice some of them using this flawed technique. Besides putting swimmers at risk, it is not a good transferal of energy. When swimmers leave the block with their hands below their shoulders, momentum is not effectively transferred.

This start also leaves heads and necks unprotected. If swimmers were to slip off their blocks, they would not be able to effectively protect their heads. This protection of the head is of the utmost importance and takes precedence over performance.

With swimmers in mid-air, hands at their sides, the motion of the hands and arms swinging forward into a streamlined position compromises protective strength. Stopping during the forward motion can occur just by impacting the water, thus causing injury.

Furthermore, the hands hitting the water can cause the torso to roll and place the cervical vertebrae at risk. Contact of the hands with the water during the forward arm swing can cause the upper torso to roll downward, exposing the head and neck to possible injuries.

I’ve seen several injuries as a result of such moves, including a novice high school swimmer who tore her rotator cuff and a junior varsity male athlete who received a neck sprain because his head was in this compromised position. This last accident happened from a 30-inch start block in water that was 13 feet. So even at a water depth beyond National Federation, United States Swimming and National College Athletic Association depths, injury can occur.

Coaches must take steps to correct this flawed forward start technique. Through my research, I have not found any evidence of a catastrophic spinal injury occurring during the start of a race. These injuries generally happen during meet warm-up, practice or during the swimmer’s leisure time.

However, the starting techniques that the swimmer acquires are carried over into noncompetitive swimming settings, and injuries occur due to disregard for regulations or inadequate facilities.

Studies have shown that children taught how to dive with a specific technique can be kept out of the water for 30 months only to return and perform that specific dive with no review (Jenny Blitvich/Australia National Water Safety Council/2003). A skill learned in a competitive setting would be transferred to recreational swimming activities. It’s because of this transferal of technique that coaches must take a leadership role in the promotion of safe diving.

Imagine the effect it would have if we all promoted safe diving to the more than 300,000 competitive swimmers in this country and the countless thousands they with whom they come in contact.

This network would in effect educate the public and, it is hoped, reduce the number of catastrophic spinal injuries caused by diving. Note: In 1989, there were approximately 700 catastrophic spinal injuries related to recreational diving, costing in excess of $3.5 billion total. In 2001, there were 11,000 injuries related to diving, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. No wonder insurance firms clamp down on competitive swimming when there is an issue.

Competitive swimming is one of the safest sports, with relatively few injuries at all levels. As aquatics professionals, we must instill proper/safe diving techniques and water-entry guidelines to our athletes and coaches, and provide leadership within our communities in an effort to promote safe diving and other aquatic activities for all.