the Integrity of The
By Kurt Dunkel, Throws Coach, Shippensburg University (PA)
For the past decade, I have been very interested in the javelin. As a senior at Altoona Area High School, I had one of the most useful classes I have had my entire life. My high school track coach, Tom Musselman, taught a course, which was entitled Physics of Sports. As a high school, college, and post-collegiate javelin thrower and as a university throws coach, I have had a keen interest in the factors that contribute to making a javelin thrower excel. I have also had an interest in contributing, in some small way, to the collective pool of information, which exists surrounding this event.
One thing I have found very intriguing concerning the javelin is the fact that there is no set standard for success. I have often seen javelin throwers, who dont look remotely talented or athletic throw extremely far, while those considered very athletic may struggle. I have seen very small javelin throwers excel, while a larger, more muscular, and more powerful counterpart may really struggle with the javelin. It is amazing to see men such as Steve Backley and Jan Zelezny; men who you wouldnt really notice if you passed them on the street, throw well over 300 feet. This in comparison to the obvious double-take one would do if they saw Toth or Alekna in passing. Before assessing the things we cant see so easily with our eyes, what are some of the obvious visible attributes of a highly successful javelin thrower?
Watching a tape of the introduction to the 2000 Sydney Olympic javelin final, I had a wonderful opportunity to see the greatest javelin throwers in the world together in one place. Beside the fact that psychologically, these guys have the ability to handle tremendous amounts of both internal and external stimulation (i.e. Olympic final in front of 100,000 fans and performing at their very highest level physically), they also have some common physical characteristics. First, all are above average in height. Zelezny, the greatest javelin thrower of all time, really is an exception, in that he is only in the 5 10 to 6 range. Most of the other competitors are in the 6 2 range. Although they are large men, they are not huge men. It is my estimation that most of the finalists fall in the 195 to 235 lbs. range. So, although smaller javelin throwers can realize a high level of success, we see that the most outstanding javelin throwers are usually of above average height and weight. But, they are not extremely heavy. This would indicate that they do not have massive frames and dense bones. There seems to be an area of frame size and density that is neither too heavy (and slows the athlete), nor is it too light (which may risk injury due to weak structural integrity and connective tissue). Remember, in addition to accelerating a javelin, these athletes must also accelerate body parts. Hence, the bone density of a Neanderthal is not beneficial to being a high-javelin thrower. Which is fine, because the Neanderthals main concern with spears is accuracy, not distance.
Next, it is clear that all the Sydney finalists exhibited wonderful posture and fluid movement; with fundamentally sound movements originating from the hips. Their movements showed obvious balance at the core level. This means they had wonderful stability through the postural muscles of the back, abdomen, and both the large and small muscles of the hips. I did not notice the characteristic scoliosis, lordosis, rotated hips, externally rotated drive leg, and muscular imbalances that one can see in so many javelin throwers. What makes these guys so unique? While I address some other issues in this article, I would like to mainly focus on this question. In particular, what are some of the things you as a coach (or athlete) can look for and attempt to develop? I feel there are some things, which are often overlooked. When overlooked, they prevent many javelin throwers from reaching their potential, and also cutting short many careers.
There is a common paradigm, which exists in America, which goes something like this: It doesnt matter what life has dealt you, it is just a matter of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and sucking it up. While overachieving is a big part of the American dream, over-achieving can only go so far in athletics. One cannot forget the role of genetics. Needless to say, Jan Zelezny chose good parents! Humor aside, one really cant make themselves taller, nor can they turn their slow twitch muscle fiber into fast twitch. Additionally, someone with extremely poor coordination and balance cannot turn themselves into Dan OBrien, Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee, Mia Hamm, or Jackie-Joyner Kersee by hard work alone. Sooner or later, we must all face our own limitations. Assessing limitations as well as strengths is the sign of a good athlete. When one can realize what their unique physical and mental gifts are, they can work to develop a style which suits them.
Mechanical principals: first and foremost, throwing the javelin is not a normal movement. The human body was not meant to throw the javelin. If you can take one thing from this article, it is the following: Throwing the javelin twists the body tremendously. Furthermore, if you are not aware of what these patterns of wear are, how to identify them, and how to manage them, you (or your athletes) will never reach your (or their) potential.
The goal of this particular article is not to discuss in detail training methodologies, training philosophy, or specific workouts. There is a wealth of information available for any coach in important areas such as periodization, weight training, plyometrics, bio-mechanics, diet/nutrition, technique, and mental preparation. There seems, however, to be a gap in the information available in terms of the unique demands throwing the javelin places on the human structure. My background is not in studying the body from a biomechanical level. My experience comes from throwing the javelin competitively for 8 years and coaching javelin throwers for the past 5 years. I have seen, first hand, how the failure to take into account the imbalances, which develop in the javelin throwers body, can limit performance, increase injuries, and shorten career. So you may say, Sure this makes sense theoretically, but what about all this from a practical standpoint?
From a practical standpoint, this article will focus on two core aspects. First, what is happening to the body as a result of throwing the javelin? Second, what can I, as a coach or athlete, do to reduce the negative effects that javelin throwing can have on the body?
What is happening to the body?
Looking at the picture of Steve Backley (left), we see a wonderful example of what the body encounters when the javelin is thrown extremely far and with nearly flawless technique. Needless to say, this position is generating tremendous force and has taken years of training. If we view the body within the framework of symmetry, we see that, in many ways, the body is being developed in opposite ways. From a frontal view, if we imagine the thorax, pelvis, and shoulder girdle in a more simplified manner, it is in essence a capital letter I
This twist sees a great degree of its origin in the pelvis, or in this case, the base of the I. For a right-handed thrower, the left hip will ideally have a great degree of stability, during the throw. Due to simple laws of physics, this stability produces a powerful anterior drive of the opposite hip, and consequently, the torso. Due to the complexity of the pelvic/lumbar region, this can be one of the most challenging areas to analyze. There are various major, surface muscle groups in this area, but there are also various smaller and deeper (but none-the-less important) muscles in this region. The four quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, gluteals (medius, minimus, and maximus), tensor fascia latta, the deep hip rotators, and quadratus lumborum all have major roles in not only generating power in the hips, but also creating much needed stability.
As we move up the body, the next component we look at is the top of the I, or the shoulder girdle. It is clear that the shoulder girdle is also a complex system, which undergoes dynamic physical strain. The picture of Konstantinos Gastioudis (right) shows us the forces the shoulder girdle generates/supports. As you can see, his left shoulder (the left side of the top of the I) is dropping downward, while at the same time, trying to brace the left side (in conjunction with the left him). You can also see the tremendous importance of latissimus dorsi to the javelin thrower. In this photo, you can nearly see the attachment site of latissimus on his humerus! Not only is latisimus dorsi being used, so is serratus anterior and pectoralis major. We see that these three muscles are primarily responsible for transferring the power generated in the core into the throwing arm. Of course we cannot forget that the shoulder is a very free moving and complex joint that sees a great connection to the scapula. The second integral point of this particular article deals with the movement of the throwers scapula. It is the opinion of the author that the movement of the scapula is one of the most integral components of a successful javelin thrower. First, the throwing scapula needs to drop down the back in order to allow the throwing shoulder to roll into position. Proper throwing position requires the armpit area to open. This can be seen in the picture of Backley and Gastioudis. Second the scapula on the block side needs to drop down in order to cause the scapula on the throwing side to drive up and into the throw. Now the key in this scenario is the fact that there must be a delay between the block scapulas movement and the movement of the throwing scapula. This creates the stretch-reflex through the chest.
This type of movement symbolizes the beauty of the javelin throw. On one hand, one needs explosive, fast-twitch muscle fibers, along with a great deal of flexibility and elasticity. Additionally, one needs the ability to coordinate an array of tensed and relaxed muscle group movements quickly and dynamically. For example, the scapula are closely linked with movement of the thoracic area of the spine. The thoracic area of the spine is located between the cervical (neck) and lumbar areas (lower back). In order for the scapulas to have adequate range of motion as well as stability, the thoracic area must have an equal amount of stability and range or motion. As you can see in the photos, there is a noticeable (yet not extreme) twist in the thoracic spine as the left scapula drops into the block position. Often we will see very successful javelin throwers wrap the javelin and attempt to bring the delivery arm closer to the center of the system. As we know, the closer the delivery is to the center-line of the body, more power can be generated.
So, we need a body that is flexible, durable, explosive, and coordinated. Additionally, patience is also very important, as successful javelin thrower almost always needs repetition. I felt it important to address what is actually happening at the bodily level before addressing how an athlete or coach can attempt to maintain the integrity of the physical structure. When you develop an awareness of body patterns and the mechanics of the throw, then less of your time is spent just on your own learning process. Thus, more time is available to focus on how to address the issue of maintaining the health of the body. This is absolutely a critical component of both success and longevity, because often the two are mutually exclusive.
The first part of this article I tried to cover in a very general way, what is happening at a bodily level to a javelin thrower. In the second portion of this article, I will discuss how these patterns are stored in the body and what can be done to prevent these unhealthy patterns. The role of fascia, muscle strength imbalances, structural imbalances, stretching, and manual manipulation of soft tissue will be discussed in greater depth. *LSTJ*