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QUANTUM THINKING WHEN COACHING SWIMMERS

There is no doubt that athletes today see the world in a different way.  They engage the digital world around them in a different manner than their elders, and their grasp of the tools of modern society are far more advanced and moving further away all the time. Phone conversations are becoming a forgotten art, social networking sites have replaced face to face conversations, and instant messaging and texting have taken on a whole new level of syntax in order to deliver messages at a faster rate.

If you are over the age of 40 then you grew up in a world that was dominated by linear thinking and a linear educational system.  If you were an athlete you were more than likely trained in a linear training environment and you are more comfortable with face to face conversations and dealing with life in an orderly manner.   By linear I mean thinking in terms of A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E etc. This occurred in spite of the fact that our brain’s vacuum the environment we inhabit in a quantum manner.  Quantum thinking is being fully aware of A, B, C, D and E all at the same time, and understanding the relationship that each has to each other at the exact moment and time in space.  Although we can fret about the fact that they’re not like us, it isn’t going make things any easier in the world of coaching.  They are far more adept at using their brain in the way it has evolved, and most of them are comfortable with staying in tune with a lot more at the same time even though it provides them with less depth in each situation.  They can comfortably sustain a conversation with a friend while texting another, watch TV on the side, observe and take on board information around them and consider an update to their Facebook wall. Today’s brains are more in tune with engaging in multiple arenas at the same time and find single stream linear situations to be boring and undesirable. With that in mind, consider a linear brains approach to a set of 15x200 and quantum brains potential abhorrence of it.  One will enjoy the challenge; the other has the potential to become extremely bored and eventually look for other forms of stimulation in alternate environments. As coaches we can bemoan the fact that kids can’t seem to stay focused or committed, or we can become creative with how we serve up our training.  Since the physiological aim is the same, then we have the option to find different ways of getting the impact of 15x200 out of our athletes without serving up the same monotonous gruel.  (More about this at the end)

When we provide quantum learning/adaptation opportunities to our athletes, we not only engage them in a way that their brains want to be engaged but we allow them to use their brains in a way that will help them become far more successful in the long run.  For years brains have essentially been stuck evolving in a linear world, saddled with linear educational systems and addled into thinking that linear living is the only way to operate.  Programs (educational and athletic) that continue to propagate this kind of adaptation environment will still produce athletes, but they will evolve with a reduced ability to explore their abilities and truly understand (or cope) with the evolving world around them.   If you understand epigenetics, then you will also recognize the fact that this also has the potential to retard the ability of any genetic line to advance the way a brain adapts to the world around it, and our training environments might not only impact this generation, but those generations to follow.

Since we’re saddled with an educational system that seems bound to continue linear learning environments, it might be prudent as coaches to consider creating more quantum opportunities in our training environments.  As noted earlier this would be attractive to the way the human brain is evolving and potentially assist genetic lines with the ability to create a higher potential in subsequent generations.  I have some very strong thoughts on how to initiate this in the 7-9 age group, and some ever stronger opinions on how an athlete might increase their genetic potential by engaging in brain specific training during their developmental years, but I’ll save that for a later time.  The problem at this time is that we have too many swimmers training in linear programs, and they all seem to switch their brain off at a very young age.  It gets worse if they adopt a “feed me everything I need to know and tell me when I’m ready to go mindset.”  Not only will they will forget how to use the art of exploration to figure out what works best for them, but they will reduce their chances of achieving a 100% of their genetic potential. 

I was semi shocked the other day when an elite world level athlete commented to me that she was uncomfortable with not knowing if she was doing something right.  It really bothered her to think that she might be doing something WRONG, but had no clue as to what a coach/instructor was asking her to do.  This athlete was all about wanting to hear from her coach or instructor that she was doing it correctly and was uncomfortable with being stuck in a grey world.  This is an extremely DANGEROUS place for any athlete to be in and it is important that we always cultivate exploration opportunities in every practice session we put together.  Athletes should know that it is THEIR RESPONSIBILITY to figure out what works best and how to get the most of out their shape and physiology.  I always ask this question of athletes; “how do you know where the edge is?”  It usually takes them a few guesses to figure out that you have to go over the edge in order to find it.  Oddly enough even the metaphorical thought of going over the edge is disconcerting to their survival or “failure avoidance” based brain, and we have to encourage them to feel comfortable with exploring well over the edge so that they can find what works best for them.  When exploring, everything should be viewed as experiences that will help them figure out what works best for them, and  that there is no RIGHT OR WRONG in the world of exploration.  It’s all about increasing the size of their mental toolbox and being able to handle any instruction or situation that is thrown at them.

I have run into too many athletes at the elite level who have no true spatial awareness, no sense of what change feels like, no sense of how the water threatens them, and no clear cut understanding of what made them as good as they are.  They just ARE.  They can come from programs where they are spoon fed or they could simply be amazing athletes who can achieve everything naturally without even thinking about it, but the bottom line is that neither of them truly understands the aquatic world around them, they’re not completely in tune with how they propel themselves through water, and they can become extremely lost when caught in grey environments.  As coaches navigating the emerging world, we can continue to train athletes in a restricted linear environment, or we can re-adjust to patterns of development that will not only enhance this generation, but set subsequence generations on a course of adaptation that will maximize the human brains ability to achieve its true potential in the athletic world.

SET DISCUSSION

 The following are two examples of changing a linear into quantum environment.  The linear options are very easy to come up with, but the quantum ones are far more complex and require a significant amount of creative thinking in order to develop enough variation within the structure in order to maintain their athlete’s attention and provide constant stimulation.

Example one involves endurance training or improving an athlete’s aerobic capacity.  Set duration 30 to 40 minutes.

Linear Option – 15x200 holding a specific pace all the way; or holding a specific pulse rate all the way; or descending sets of 3 or 5; or swimming four on one off holding specific pulse rates etc.  Set intervals could be constant or descending but the end aim is improve cardiovascular fitness. 

Quantum Option  – 30 to 40 minutes of steady work in the form of a variety of mini sets at varying durations; all done in sequence with varying intensity levels, using different tools, different strokes, different focus options and different levels of mental stimulation during each mini set.  During this think about that; during this control that; change speeds; change stroke efficiency; explore these options and solve that problem.  Sets end with a combination of performance times and question like what did you think; how did it feel; what did you change; what did you discover?

 

Example two involves race specific training or improving anaerobic capacity. 30 to 40 minutes of race specific training intensity.

Linear option – 16 to 20x50 at 200 race speed.  Hold projected race splits, projected race rates and get tough when the set starts to grind at the end.  If you can hold 16 to 20 of them in a row, then you can surely hold 4 of them in a race.  The logic is simple.

Quantum Option – Multiple sets with multiple stimuli that help the brain develop lateral thinking and confidence in its ability to manage any race related condition that could be thrown at it during racing. It might look something like this.

4x50 with a heavy resistance swum with a controlled technique that is focused on perfect posture and patterns.  Rest  10sec.  This provides neural potentiation.

1 min rest while preparing for race specific set.

6x50 at race specific intensity.  No times, rates or information would be given to the swimmers during the set, and there would be no clock they could look at. They would be set off with encouragement and motivating statements, but no feedback or data would be provided to them.  After each repeat they would tell the coach what their rates were in each 25 (2 of them); what their stroke count was; and what their time was.  If they were set off in pairs or sequences then they should be encouraged to give the times of the people around them.  This would all be recorded.

They would move directly into something like 6x50 kick with 30 seconds rest - 25 fly on side with large undulations or big S’s/25 fly kick on back working on generating spinal waves that start big and get smaller (faster) during the 25.  Total focus on manipulating the spine while thinking back through the race related work and their opinions as to how it went.  This set would supply facilitation (usage of lactate as a source of fuel), recovery, a new focus while encouraging lateral thinking with regards to set success, and a mental break from focused race intensity.

1- 2 minutes spent downloading the data and information collected by the coach.  There might be some small discussion if their numbers were drastically off, but it would be best if the athlete was sent into the next set almost immediately following the downloading process.

4x50 with a heavy resistance swum as before.  While swimming perfectly they should now focus on how they might expand their ability to manage different variables during the next race specific set.  Develop strategies to maintain or improve velocity by manipulating stroke counts and stroke rates etc.

1 min rest to take advantage of neural stimulation and focus on set goals.

6x50 at race intensity under the same conditions with no disclosure of what they intended to do to expand their potential.

Follow that with a 3 to 400 meter facilitation set with combination instructions that require thought while evaluating the success of the second race specific set.  These sets should always involve the athlete’s ability to improve a certain skill like spinal articulation or lateral connectivity in unbalanced circumstances etc.

1-2 minutes spent downloading the data and information followed by a quick discussion as to how successful they were at achieving their intended strategy.

4x50 with a heavy resistance swum with 35 – 40 meters at low intensity and 10 – 15 meters with increasing pressure on the anchor points.  ( emphasize core management)The focus this time would be developing strategies to improve efficiency via posture, shape, line management, connectivity and power/energy sources during their subsequent race specific training.

I min rest to set up response and new focus

6x50 at race specific intensity done as before.

3 to 400 meter facilitation set while revisiting each 50 of the prior set.

Downloading and discussion with coach as to the how adept they had been at being able to manipulate and manage their environment and what different strategies might be used on subsequent sets of that nature.  (Plan ahead while information is fresh in ones mind)

 

There is no doubt that both sets will increase an athlete’s ability to improve their anaerobic capacity, but there is also no doubt in my mind that the quantum option will produce an athlete with a greater capacity to be able to handle any and all conditions on race day.

USING YOUR BRAIN TO ENGAGE YOUR MORTAL FOE IN COMBAT

In this article I will discuss two elements that are critical to enhancing your self-image and improving your productivity as an athlete. Those elements are:

  • Knowing how to be effective at rewarding yourself;
  • Discovering the power of the magic in a mirror.

 

We think of the body as having one brain, but that’s not true since there is no end of brains in the human body. Inside every individual cell there is an intelligent decision making process (proteins) that is tuned into and reacts to the world around it. You can even remove the nucleus (DNA) from a cell and the cell will continue to be functional until it dies from old age. Some of the larger brains (neuron bundles) of the body are located around the organs. The term ‘gut feeling’ has value since we talk about the fact that some decisions are based off how we feel about something in our gut and there is no question that sensations felt in the gut relate to what is occurring in our life. I point this out because the stomach is linked to emotion and feeling—such as butterflies before a race or a first date—and recognizing that is one of the keys to taking up arms and going toe-to-toe with any adversary you face.

 

REWARDING YOURSELF

I meet with young athletes on a regular basis and ask them this simple question. Who is your worst enemy or your most challenging adversary? After some thought, they all arrive at the same answer: “Me.” Surprisingly, athletes as young as ten come up with this answer. In some instances, they even have a reasonable understanding of how the dynamic works. However, when I challenge them to tell me what they have done on that day to combat their enemy, they mostly end up staring into space as they try to conjure up something that proves they are on the case. I stare back at them, my facial expression dripping with disdain and ask, “OK, what have you done this week or this month?” This gives them an opening and a few hands shoot up. I ask a few of them to relate what they have done. Their answers are usually things like, “I worked harder on a set”, “I went to an extra practice” or “I ate an apple instead of an apple turnover”. They seem proud to have found something that shows that they are engaged, but the reality is that most of the time none of us really are engaged. We all know this is an issue, we all KNOW that we are our own worst enemies, but we don’t go about defeating it in the same way we might go about dealing with a serious threat to our survival.

 

The key to doing this is a simple process. Begin by finding an occasion at least once a day and recognize the fact that you have done something good. This can be as simple as helping an old lady in a supermarket, taking a step towards achieving a skill or meeting a benchmark you’ve been working on for a long time. When you perform a selfless act or achieve a stepping-stone goal you usually feel good about it. However, that’s not enough to truly turn the tide into your favor. There is no doubt that you have to feel good when you walk away from that smiling lady as she thanks you for helping her, but the most important step for you isn’t helping her, it’s HELPING YOURSELF after you have helped her. To do that, you have to say inside your head, ‘GREAT JOB, good on you for doing that. You’re an awesome person for taking the time to help her.’ Most importantly, you REALLY have to say it with EMOTION. Don’t hold back on the emotion, make it a heartfelt ‘GREAT JOB!’ that elicits a smile on your face and a strong vibration that travels through your body and into your GUT. If you do it with genuine honesty, you will feel this in your stomach. If you don’t feel this in your gut, you haven’t been strong or genuine enough in praising yourself for your actions.

 

In helping groups or individuals understand this, I have no problem standing in front of a large group of people and saying, “Practice it, practice saying GREAT JOB to yourself!” So I stand in front of them, I think of something that I have done well that day or the day before, I get a hint of a smile on my face, close my eyes a little as I see it, take a deep breath into my lungs and I FEEL myself saying GREAT JOB. When I do this I can always feel the vibration going through my body and twirling around in my gut. I end with a big smile on my face and my eyes wide open. When I do this in front of a group I never fail to elicit a lot of laughter from them and in many cases notice people almost cringing at the thought of having to do what I had just done, since they are mortified at the thought of having to do something like that in public. When I observe the group dynamic of people trying this for the first time, I find that a small number are easily able to do this in a genuine way. They are open enough to allow themselves to FEEL it, and I believe them. However, most of us struggle with it since it’s something we’ve never done before, and in many cases baulk at the thought of doing, even when alone.

 

The key to all of this is the emotion bit. When emotion is the most significant part of the process, the amydala in the brain becomes prominent in the making and storing of memory, thus ensuring that the memory is of greater long-term significance. Perform selfless acts on a regular basis, recognize them as being done by a good person, and you will become someone who not only feels great about who you are, but the people around you will begin to see the strong aura you emit to them.

 

When you include this in a training context, the dynamic is essentially the same. You’ve been working on a new skill that requires a complex series of moves melded together into one fluent action. It might be something that gets broken into parts, and as you master each individual part you give yourself a big GREAT JOB! When done with strong feeling, a number of things occur. Acts and emotions are connected; you increase the secretion of a neurotransmitter called dopamine and that enhances the “reward” associated with the neuronal connectivity connected with that pattern of movement. It’s recognized as being very important to you. This makes it reproducible, and as your ability to reproduce that pattern of movement gets better, the process of wrapping myelin around that neuronal chain enhances the speed of the signal down the neural chain and this accelerates your ability to execute the skill at faster speeds. Eventually you can perform this skill effortlessly without even thinking about it. This is very important since all sport and most of our daily life occurs below the level of conscious awareness, so we depend on learned processes to keep us ahead of the competition on the playing field and safe from the many dangers that we barely register in real life.

 

On a cognitive level (in yourself), you feel good about achieving something and you allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of success. This should motivate you to seek out and recognize more and more success-based opportunities as you develop your skill level in your sport. The key is to become very good at patting ourselves on the back when achieving small steps, so making larger, more demanding steps seem more achievable. If you ignore the smaller steps and the many opportunities each day to reward yourself, that longer leap might turn into the Grand Canyon in your mind. As an individual, your recognition of your achievements in an athletics environment will have the potential to spill over into all areas of your life. If you use these skills to become a better athlete, there is no reason why they won’t work in the classroom or in your daily life interacting with others. In full swing, the effect can be circular, since the better you feel, the more you will recognize those elements that reinforce what you are doing or are trying to achieve. Positive steps will be lauded and negative ones will be seen as opportunities to be turned into positive ones. The enemy within will begin to shrink, and in time you will wonder at how your worst critic managed to gain control over everything you do.

 

In team environments, attitudes and actions are quickly contagious. Whether it’s selfless acts, recognition of the acts of others on your team, or exhibiting the passion you have for your sport when you smile and celebrate those steps, it will impact those around you. When you get excited about achieving simple goals on the way to bigger ones, you will help others see and understand the value of following that same path. We all talk about the value of having goals and structure, but we’re not always told how to organize such a set-up. Change your team environment into one that has many athletes using this process and recognizing their achieving together, and you will develop a force within your team that will be strong enough to overcome any obstacle. When individuals work together to overcome common foes they develop relationships that have fiber and meaning to them. Stronger teammates will help weaker ones, older will help younger and the net effect will be a spiral upwards towards greater achievements on both an individual and team level.

 

USING THE MAGIC OF A MIRROR

We don’t arrive on this planet as a clean slate, we arrive with baggage. As regards the nature/nurture argument, my opinion is that it is both. The hard part is that we don’t recognize this fact and in some cases some people are saddled with a large environmental genetic load and never escape its impact on their lives. I have seen this time and again in all walks of life and have often wondered why we don’t put in place educational programs that are aimed to help us understand who we are. Since epigenetics is an article in itself, I won’t delve into the subject but simply say that until we each take steps to know and understand our particular inheritances, we will struggle underneath the weight of the baggage we carry around. So I ask all athletes to give me ONE MONTH of doing this simple act.

 

When you finish brushing your teeth at night, take the time to look at and engage yourself in the mirror. Now, I know a lot of people will struggle with this since they will be loathe to be reminded of all the many faults they see, so the key is to not look at the whole, but lean forward and engage yourself with your eyes and your face. Don’t get caught up in the surface features and to look into your eyes in a way that helps you look into your own soul so to speak.  Ignore all the blemishes and wrinkles and say out loud, “I AM UNIQUE” and “I AM AN AWESOME PERSON”. Smile with your eyes and lips when you say this, and once again feel the vibration and emotion when you do. If you don’t feel that warm feeling in your gut then it won’t be genuine. For many this will be a struggle in the beginning so it will require some time to develop the ability to do it with emotion and feeling in a way where the mind/brain recognizes its value to you. There is no doubt in my mind that doing this every day for a month will change your perspective about who you are and what you bring to the life you’ve been given.

 

I’ll close with these thoughts. We’ve all come into contact with people, via family and friends, who have gone down the path of addiction. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drugs or alcohol or gambling, we struggle and usually fail to convince them to change their ways. In many cases, they go through stints in rehab centers, get clean and relapse soon after they get back into the real world. If you have experience in these issues, you will also know that what turns an addict around is a decision inside THEIR head to change what they are doing and become a different person, one who is not addicted. It’s always up to them to make that decision and there’s little we can do to change them before they do that. What does addiction have to do with this subject you might ask? The reality is that we can all be considered addicts on some levels. The fact that we refuse to combat our worst enemy on a daily basis is no different than an addict who won’t see the light. Ultimately it comes down to a decision to make a change, and until we begin to pat ourselves on the back on a regular basis, or acknowledge our awesomeness in the mirror, we’ll be chained to the same vision of who we are for years to come. Make the change, you won’t regret it.

Using exploration to increase the size of an athletes toolbox

 

“Show me a piece of furniture built by a carpenter using few tools and no imagination, and you’ll be standing in a flea market.  Show me a piece of furniture built by a carpenter using few tools and an unfettered imagination, and you’ll be looking at a work of art.  Show me a piece of furniture built by a carpenter using many tools and unlimited imagination, and you’ll be looking at a masterpiece that will transcend time.”

 

One of the beautiful things about the human race is that we are all so different.  We come in all shapes and sizes; stem from different cultural backgrounds; follow different belief systems and see the world through a variety of philosophies.  However even with that great disparity in terms of social and environmental backgrounds, sports are one of those things that not only bring people together, but cuts through all differences we see.  An athlete is an athlete regardless of their heritage and it’s the core of what makes the Olympic Games a wonderful event to watch. 

 

Even in the world of sports, sports that tend to cater to specific body types have their own outliers or athletes who don’t fit the groove.  Granted some events are very restricted, but in most you’ll encounter athletes competing at the international level who don’t resemble their peer group at all.  Why is that, and what really goes into producing a great athlete?

 

If I had to compile a list of genetic elements that go into making a great swimmer, it would contain elements from this list:

ü  Body anthropomometry – segment length’s and shape

ü  The physiological engine inside the body

ü  The athletes center of aquatic mass

ü  The athletes buoyancy

ü  The athletes range of motion

ü  The athletes mindset OR the I HATE to lose attitude

 

The type and size of the engine inside can be manipulated to some degree.  The center of aquatic mass and buoyancy can be manipulated… especially in one of those “techno” suits.  The range of motion can be influenced and in general the body can be managed in a way that produces a better shape and adds more potential to their velocity in the water.   However, the I HATE to lose mindset is one that I find people either have or don’t have.  It’s very hard to instill or teach, and in many ways is a deal breaker.  Athletes can compete without one of the other parts, but they will have a hard time getting to the top of the pile without that single ingredient.  However this isn’t about how to sharpen ones teeth before battle it’s about creating the kind of environment that gives the athlete the potential to be the best in the world.

 

People talk about Michael Phelps as having the perfect swimming body.  They talk about his tall upper body, strong legs, and an arm wingspan to die for.  Some people are just born lucky right.  I disagree.

It has nothing to do with the shapes and segment lengths and has everything to do with how you use it.  You can have all the genetic gifts in the world, but if you are born, raised or trained in the wrong environment, your chances of becoming successful become limited.  In this article I’ll talk about the trained version since that part implies opportunity. 

 

We tend to think of sports as being a physical enterprise.  Granted many people have made careers out of sports psychology, but for the most part that side of the equation is all about getting the physical side to the game in the right cognitive mindset.  What we talk the least about is how the physical brain manages everything we do. How it is the ultimate governor that manages all information and is the deal breaker when we approach the blocks on race day.  If the brain’s expectation level on race day meets your goals, then you’ll be a happy athlete.  If it doesn’t, you’ll be crying in the corner or scratching your head as to how things got away from you.

 

Getting to the pinnacle of success is a long journey.  Even endowed with the right ingredients the training evolution can make or break careers.  So what should that evolution look like?  What path should swimmers or any other athlete follow?  In my mind that path should be filled with opportunities to explore any and all areas that can contribute to their sporting universe.  I emphasize that since society’s educational structure is extremely regimented and the concept of exploration isn’t instilled at a young age.  Even swimming itself follows a learn by rote structure that teaches techniques based off set principles and follows general road maps that have been successful before.  On one hand you have this huge variety of shapes and sizes and on the other you’re trying to fit them into the same pattern of movement.  It’s the square peg in a round hole dilemma.

 

If you saw Janet Evans swim today you’d think nothing of it.  Straight arm windmill recoveries are common.  Coaches have been teaching that technique to swimmers since the late 90’s.  Michael Phelps worked on adopting it in the summer of 2009 to get faster in the sprint freestyle events.  However she didn’t swim in the 21st century, this was more than twenty years ago in the middle 80’s and her technique was very unconventional for its time.  I heard many a coach state that if they were her coach, they’d teach her real freestyle and then she’d really go fast.   Her coach at the time had the sense to try and teach her a conventional stroke at young age, but after a few tries thought better of it and let nature take its course.  In my mind she is still the best female distance swimmer the world has ever seen.  If Liesl Jones shows up with a very retro looking breaststroke after decades of the wave technique’s influence on the stroke and smashes the world records, should everyone go back to a retro style?  Should we go back to teaching techniques that evolved in the 60’s?  NO.  The answer lies not in the specific technique or strategy, but in the ability for each kid to find what works BEST FOR THEM.  There is no perfect freestyle.  However, there is a perfect freestyle for every swimmer. Yes they will be limited by genetics, or simply range of motion, but they should never be limited by their environment when it comes to figuring out what works best.

 

The key is understanding a few very important things.  I mentioned that today’s society is working against you with regards instilling the concept of exploration.  It gets stunted in the classroom and it’s getting reduced in the day to day activities enjoyed by kids the world over.  Video gaming systems are stealing athleticism from our children.  I find it ironic that in a society like America that our kids spend less time playing outside than most countries in the world.  If we add the training environment to this list, it just gets worse.  Not only are we seeing a reduced exploration of athleticism on the play ground, but an unimaginative training environment will exacerbate the ability for an athlete to discover what works best.  Life today is as advanced as ever, however the luxuries come with a price, and in many ways were devolving and not evolving. 

 

Although we have many thousands of years of genetic evolution on land, we have barely a few centuries in the water.  This raises one of the central dilemma’s that surround adaptation in an aquatic environment.  The brain’s first response to anything is survival based and since we have a limited amount of genetic evolution in the water, exploration in the environment becomes a tenuous activity in the initial years.  If you happen to come from a genetic line that is “heavy” in the water, those initial years have little to do with swimming, and lot to do with survival.

 

Having said all of the above, THREE steps are critical to giving a swimmer or any athlete a chance to achieve their ultimate level of genetic talent. 

  1. They have to become very comfortable just being in the environment (water or land) well before they begin the process of learning how to develop their skills.  In some cases this might very quick for body types that float easily, but for others it might take many months to get there.
  2. They have to be given basic balance and centralized body management skills to use as building blocks to figure out the patterns of movement that work best for them.
  3. They have to be taught how to explore and how that exploration impacts how they evolve.  In many ways they have to take ownership over how they develop.

 

Without those three steps in place it becomes a lottery game with regards to achieving peak potential.

 

A few months ago I was on deck talking with a coach I hold in high regard and he shared with me a story about a swimmer he’d recently inherited.  She was a world class swimmer, had come from a training mill and didn’t know how to think in a critical way.  When asked what she thought about something, her answer was either a blank stare (as in why are you asking me that question), or I don’t know.  This had nothing to do with the academic intelligence of the swimmer and everything to do with the athletic intelligence of the swimmer.  Her toolbox was practically empty, and she had little imagination with regards to what she was doing.   It just happened because she worked hard and her coach said it was going to happen.  In this case the swimmer had exceptional talent and was very good, but in my mind almost lucky to have made it to the top of the pile.  With a lesser developmental coach she might have never made it at all.

 

Many years ago I’d watch a pool full of swimmers and wonder at times who taught that kid to do that & how in the heck could that kids coach watch that freestyle every day in practice.  It was abominable looking.  Today I realize that we are a combination of genetic gifts and products of our environment.  That we don’t all fit the same patterns of movement and that at times we barely resemble what passes for accepted techniques.  If great swimmers continue to smash world records with techniques that seem out of place or time, then what is the answer to what works best.  More than ever I recognize that the brain’s exposure to its elements makes all the difference in the world, and without that exposure and the subsequent prodding to explore, we’ll never help kids discover what works best for them. 

 

I see it this way.  Athletes with tool boxes that only contain a few tools and no imagination will become very limited down the road.  Athletes with a huge variety of tools and the unbridled excitement that goes with exploration will find it much easier to become the future champions of the world.

Brain Training

Consider the following situations: Is the pitch coming at you going to be a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball or slider? Will the fast bowler swing the ball out or in? Which way is Roger Federer going—down the line or will he whip the ball cross-court and out of reach? What is footballer Cristiano Renaldo’s next move (after you’ve already been dazzled by his endless scissor moves and amazing foot speed)? Whatever choices you make, you only have split seconds. Solving the problems you face is not simply about physical moves or fitness, it’s as much about brain fitness.
    Most people in this world see dealing with these situations—and many others like them—as being purely physical in nature. They see people as being physically gifted and born to be able handle the rigours that any sport might present to them. What few understand is that every move and every reaction is managed by the athlete’s brain, and to get to the very top of the athletic food chain brain-training has to be a major part of their training programme.  
    Every athlete has to develop their skills and ability through years of physical work, but all that work can be for naught if the athlete remains unaware of how the brain manages everything they do. Is it good enough to just have great technique without having the ability to read your opponents body? No. You have to spend time studying and working not only with your physical abilities, but in many sports you have to constantly update the brain’s experience-level with regard to how it reacts to what it sees. Understanding that can be the difference between being able to win a gold medal in the Olympics and being a spectator at the final.
    I’ve used very open sports with hundreds of options or iterations above. But even in closed sports like cycling (single pattern of movement) and semi-closed sports like swimming (multiple similar patterns of movement) one needs to understand how the brain is involved in everything we do. How the management of things like body posture and patterns of movement or metabolic resources are all managed by the brain based on its experiences in day-to-day training.  
    We like to think of the brain in purely psychological terms, but there is much more to it than that. So, the next time you head out onto the playing fields (pun intended) or the tennis courts, take the time to think about how your brain manages you, and how you might go about training your brain to be better at helping you to meet your expectations in competition.

Coaches and science

Science has the ability to create a synergistic or destabilizing effect on sports.  The difference lies in how the coach approaches science and how the coach incorporates science into the program. 

 

The key to success in all situations is the requirement that the coach be the leader with regards to incorporating science into their system.  I note this since there is nothing more destabilizing to a coach than to be introduced to testing and concepts they have no knowledge or understanding of.  In all cases this will result in the coach flying blind trying to coddle together programs based off incomprehensible data and ideas, and hoping for success based off the kindness of whatever swimming deity might control human performance.  So is science good or bad? And if it’s good how can it be managed in a way that enhances performance not detracts from it?

 

What has impressed me in all my years of travelling around the world and looking over coaches shoulders is the number of great coaches who don’t use science at all.  They have developed their own system, are great teachers and motivators, and know how to operate within their sphere of experience. However even those coaches suffer from inconsistency and in some cases some of the greatest coaches in the world have struggled with helping their charges reproduce similar or better performances at the elite level.  Granted many factors contribute to performance, and there are many stumbling blocks in between an average showing and a spectacular feat. However, in today’s world with more and more athletes competing at the top end of the pyramid, winning on a day when your best is below awesome isn’t going to happen. Well unless you happen to be named Kobe, LeBron or Michael.  That’s the swimming Michael.  So where science can help is with consistency and figuring out ways to knock off those tenths and hundreds that make the difference in the long run. If managed correctly, science can enhance performance and help all coaches unlock the key to every athlete in their program.

 

The key for coaches is following some core tenets that can make or break how science might be used to enhance a program.

 

If possible develop a relationship with a physiologist/performance scientist who understands the dynamic of athlete adaptation in an actual training environment and not a science lab.  There is distinct difference between the two, and the black and white information that can be derived in a lab doesn’t always translate very well to the grey environment of the sporting field.  Pure science based people tend to believe the numbers they see and tend to interpret them as fact. Training science people understand the dynamic involved with day to training and understand that all numbers are open to interpretation.  The key is structuring the program in a way that reduces the level of interpretation.

If you do find a good science based person find out who they are and what their philosophy is before you ask their advice.  This quite obviously goes both ways and since all relationships are built on trust, getting to know the person is essential.  So many hours might need to be shared before ideas are brought into the competition arena, and the background work will go a long way in developing the kind of relationship that works. So they should know you and you should know them.  Trusting someone who doesn’t know you or how you think is dangerous.

Don’t react to everything you read that sounds great. This isn’t to discourage reading or exploration, but pursuant to my previous point, it is better to work with people who know you and how you think.  They will be more adept at communicating with you in a way that makes sense and you’ll avoid rushing into areas that have you ending up with more questions than answers.

Recognize that athletes are all unique individuals. They come to you with different levels of development, internal engines, body anthropomometry, mindsets and goals and you cannot treat them as a group when trying to achieve peak performance in the Olympic arena.  As a coach you have to find the best way to help that athlete unlock their true potential and training athletes in an environment bereft of information will make your responsibility extremely difficult.

Track what your athletes are doing in all phases of training as individuals and not as a group. This should pertain to what they are doing on land and in the water.  By tracking your athletes in terms of workload and intensity you will create the ground map that will be used to plan future adaptation programs, and will be essential to understanding the meaning of any testing being done on your athletes.  If you are a shoot from the hip coach who goes by feel, or a coach who doesn’t track training levels and or intensities, then using any form of science will in my opinion be a waste of time and resources.  You have to take this step if you’re to have any chance of using science in an effective manner.

Develop a way to evaluate your athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.  It’s pretty hard to begin down the road of athlete development if you have no idea where you’re starting from.  It’s too easy to just see an athlete in terms of their competition performance (best time) and go from there since what you don’t see is more important than what you do see.  Athlete injury is commonplace in all sports, and a large majority of those injuries stem from athletes being placed in programs that are either over their head or not conducive to their body type/anthropomometry.  It would be best to have a relationship with a physical trainer who is adept at evaluating athletes and has a strong sense of what it takes to get athletes ready for elite level competition. Things that would be important to evaluate would be; body symmetry, flexibility/range of motion, core stability and general strength in functional movement patterns.  This should be connected to their in water technique since all athletes are unique, and they will develop patterns of movement in the water that compliment who they are.  In some cases these patterns of movement will evolve based off structural weaknesses and great care should be taken when restructuring patterns of movement to gain a significant change in performance.  In most cases that kind of restructuring will need to be initiated from the ground up so that the athlete’s brain can generate new activation patterns consistent with the new alignment that’s associated with the new pattern of movement. In some cases that might take from four months to a year to take root.

Keep it as simple as possible. Too many variables will never answer any question you might have about a certain athlete’s development.  There are enough variables just dealing with athletes who are navigating day to day living let alone adding an abundance of extra ones connected to a training session or a season of development.

Begin by establishing simple tests that you would do on a regular basis.  These would more likely be race specific training sets that you always do during certain phases of the season and would incorporate tracking set performance parameters that can be expanded over time.  They would also include land based testing that can be tied into the initial evaluation of the athlete and linked to their land development.

When you establish tests, stick with them.  The worst thing you can do is to keep changing things around.  When you decide on something, stay the course on it and study it completely before you introduce another test or a different variable associated with that test.

Add additional parameters to those simple tests. In the water these parameters can expand from a simple average time parameter to tracking; time, stroke rate stroke count, heart rate, lactate and post set recovery looking at both HR and lactate.  That recovery can be monitored in an active or passive style depending on what you are looking for. On land they can be expanded to incorporate the ability to master more complex movements and athleticism.

Add additional test sets that track adaptation outside of regular training sets.  A prime example of this would be a lactate step test.  To get to this level of testing support, a coach would have to follow an extremely rigid training environment, and have athletes in that program who are the least influenced by day to day living. Eat sleep and train kinds of athletes. I make that point since a large majority of this kind of testing is still open to interpretation.  Because these tests are structured in a way that makes them look like pure science, don’t get lulled into thinking that what you see is exactly what it is.  There are a significant number of factors that can influence results, and unless your athletes are willing to go the extra mile to eliminate those variables, then doing this kind of testing is close to wasting time and resources.  The real keys in this area are:

1.  Eliminate as many variables as possible by rigid training plans that reproduce exact circumstances prior to and during tests.

2.  Follow the exact same testing protocols to the letter: Time of day, time of week, and exact preparation. Even the workouts prior to these tests should follow a similar pattern of volume and intensity.

3.  Have athletes follow similar social, eating and sleep patterns around all testing periods.

4.  Avoid using testing to develop training speeds.  Even if you follow the above three steps perfectly, things can still go wrong, and you’ll end up with inaccurate training speeds.  It is better to prepare athletes based on race specifics than to prepare them based on tests that are steeped in sub maximal speeds.

5.  Avoid reacting to one test

6.  Look at testing longitudinally.  I feel you can gain more information when you look at testing over a season or a series of seasons.

 

The bottom line on this is that the coach has to drive the incorporation of science into their program.  They need to either become skilled on their own, or develop strong relationships with practitioners who understand them and the business of training adaptations. Once the coach takes that step, they need to understand that they have to track training volumes and intensities in order to relate tests to performance parameters.  Anything short of that will be more than likely be a waste of time.

 

Why brain training makes swimming success easier to achieve

When you look at all the different sports in the world, you recognize that some could be considered as being very linear and some extremely complex. Preparing for and dealing with a linear sport is fairly simple when compared to complex sports that deal with the need to react to the same scenario in a variety of different ways. Although we consider hitting a golf ball as a very complex maneuver, it has an almost simple approach when compared to hitting a moving fastball in the major leagues. Both athletes employ very similar core or body based swing motions, however the golfer can train one basic club path and impact position versus the batsmen who has to be ready for many different variations of bat path, bat speed and impact position. The golfer will have a fairly small number of tightly banded iterations associated with a golf swing. The batsmen will have a huge variety of body iterations based on ball velocity, curve and placement.

 

So in looking at the sport of swimming, I find that the ability to be able train athletes in an almost linear pattern makes the sport fairly simple with regards to impacting performance. In this sport every race will have a specific math of the performance that can be calculated via race analysis and training strategies can use that math of performance to develop more successful or faster performances. The key will be finding an effective and accurate analysis tool, and then creating testing parameters in training that will reflect the level of physical attributes needed to support that performance.

 

In general when you look at the performance support umbrella that is provided to the sport of swimming, these areas are covered:

Physiology

Biomechanics

Psychology

Nutrition

Sports Medicine

Strength and conditioning

 

The area that we don’t cover right now is the area of neuroscience.  This I find interesting since nothing is achieved on race day that isn’t directly related to the brain and how the brain manages performance. In my mind the future potential in sport performance will be directly related to understanding how neural training can impact race day potential by doing a better job of training the neural side of performance on a daily basis. In relation to the above list, you can organize brain or neural training into two separate categories, those disciplines that are impacted by brain management and those who might be. Heavily impacted areas are, physiology, biomechanics and strength and conditioning.  It’s the area of psychology that I find the most interesting. The whole concept of mind and brain and the impact of the physical brain on performance versus the impact of positive thinking, cognitive thought, visualization and self talk. Is one more impactful than the other, and are we relying too much on psychology and too little on neuroscience?

 

It’s easy to think of all movement as the flowing coordination between the bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles.  In reality the human body is essentially a marionette at the end of a bunch of interconnected strings and the master puppeteer in this case is the human brain. So we all think of the muscles as being the prime movers with regards to mechanics, but cut to the quick, what really makes us move is that chain of neurons all involved in the same activation pattern that dictates the exact power and timing of the working muscle.  So when we talk about making changes to patterns, positions, or exercise intensities, we have to understand that we’re not attempting to change those elements relative to the working muscles, but we’re changing the patterns relative to the neuronal activation patterns managed by the brain. So when we train the brain we have to understand that everything we do should be related to how the brain functions, and how it receives and transmits information.

 

The brain is also about expectation. It takes what it knows from history, combines it with the now, and develops a level of expectation with regards to everything that happens. Since life is an endless ever changing landscape this process is ongoing and relative to whatever situation the brain is currently facing. In going back to the golfer/batsmen concept the brain has to deal with very different circumstances. The golfer deals with a stable ball, a specific swing plane & body connectivity.  The brain can manage this very effectively by setting everything up in advance and managing the patterns of movement relative to the expectations in the eye of the golfer’s brain. Once the ball has been struck, the expectation relative to the result has an impact on the setup and subsequent expectation on the next swing. For the batsmen this isn’t so simple.  Since there are a myriad of iterations to deal with in the set up and the execution of a ball strike, the whole process of past, now and expectation have to occur in the blink of eye. Evaluating the effectiveness of the ball strike in itself is also a complex task that has to take into account a variety of options relative to the situation.

 

Swimming on the other hand deals with an almost precise set of circumstances that are presented in an almost pristine environment at the Olympic level; indoors, no environmental effects, three meters depth water, and a lane to each competitor. In the short events it’s all about being the first to touch the wall. In the longer events (400 and up), there are additional race strategies that could play a role in the race, but for the most part training should take into account any and all variations that might occur. So swimming is all about managing all the criteria involved in racing, and helping the brain be more in tune with the challenges that will be present in the upcoming event.

 

Once you can establish a strong correlation between testing, training and performance, you will have the ideal platform to create training plans that will advance the athletes ability to improve their performance.  Since the brain ultimately manages all aspects of the physical performance, you will need to establish training parameters that impact the brain’s ability to manage a higher level of performance on race day.  If your best time is 47.5 and your goal is to achieve 46.5 in a 100 meter freestyle, then you have to design a training program that will achieve that end.  Looking at this from our current point of view will mean working on elements of the race and training harder than you ever have before.  It will more than likely involve being fitter, swimming faster on test sets or recorded training sets, performing better on testing parameters (if there are any) and believing in your ability to achieve a certain time. 

In a brain training environment the elements take a different approach.  Since you have every parameter relative to the 47.5 race, you can design the parameters needed to achieve 46.5. Cut to the quick, the metabolic cost of swimming is primarily about the shape of the object being propelled through the water, the level of drag that object creates in conjunction with its moving parts, the amount of pressure applied to the anchor point, and the anchor cycle rate.  You can change your shape and reduce your drag (or wear a new suit) and gain velocity. You can improve your start, turns, underwater phases and transitions and drop time.  However, racing is ultimately about the relationship between Cycle Rate (CR) and Distance Per Cycle (DPC).  You should see them as almost symbiotic twins… as one goes up, (CR) the other goes down, (DPC) so very linked.  The key is being able to design training that influences one or the other (or both) in order to reduce time. Since a combination of land and water training will be involved in achieving this end, everything that is done in the training environment should have a direct relationship to the final result.  Just training hard has a very limited almost nebulous approach to performance in sport, and by never looking at or working at specific parameters that influence performance, your chances of being successful will be based more on luck than intent.

 

So brain training involves indentifying all the parameters that can be influenced, and then creating training adaptations that give the brain the opportunity to develop the ability to manage the elevated parameters.  Should this involve some level of power increase, then a combination of land and water training will be involved so that the body can develop the ability to handle that increased power. So in my mind just doing training routines that are fitness based are in some ways limited versus training routines that have a direct relationship with the desired power increase. Ultimately it’s about taking the brain through every step of the way many times over until it has a complete series of activation patterns related to the desired result. It should be to the point where swimming 46.5 is a slam dunk, and feel like it’s time to get it over with. This is where the whole mind brain debate comes into play.  Do athletes rely more on cognitive thought, positive self talk and visualization to achieve the final result, or can the positive impact of focused brain training achieve that same end. In my mind they go hand in hand with each other. Every day in training there should be circumstances where effective brain training should reinforce positive self talk. As the body of training accumulates the feeling of being able to achieve the goal on a conscious or thinking mind level should get stronger and stronger. So although I know that there is evidence to support the fact that psychology can have an impact on performance, I believe that training the physical brain will not only enhance performance but will make it far more consistent.

 

So although in the sport of swimming we see the process of developing an athlete for peak performance as being a very complex process, in reality it is a fairly simple process when viewed from a brain training perspective.  Although all sports require certain levels of skill sets or functional ability at the elite level, swimming is a sport that isn’t presented with multi dimensional options when racing.  The complexity is derived from the need to understand the qualities of the athlete and develop training paradigms based off projected race parameters that are successful for that specific athlete.  Once those parameters are set in place and the training process is set in motion, the ability to be successful should be relatively high.

Making changes to patterns of movement or positons

I answered this question that was posed on line

What process does a swimmer need to follow to make a meaningful change in his or her stroke?  What's the expected timeframe for change, and is the timeframe different depending on what aspect you're trying to change, e.g., does it take longer to change something involving the head... or the body... or the arms... or the feet?

Before I can answer some of the questions I need to cover a few global items that affect everything.  Also this is a cliff note version since to really cover this in depth would require quite a number of pages of thoughts.

 

We all think of the muscles as being the prime movers with regards to mechanics, but cut to the quick, what makes us move is that chain of neurons all involved the process of dictating the exact power and timing of the working muscle.  So when we talk about making changes to patterns or positions, we have to understand that we’re not attempting to change the pattern relative to the muscles, but we’re changing the patterns relative to the neuronal activation patterns in the brain.

 

When dealing with change we can’t just look at the moving part and try to restructure the pattern of movement relative to that part, we have to understand that there are a variety of elements involved in supplying information to the brain with regards to that pattern. Those elements include: the motor cortex, the somatosensory cortex, the visual cortex, and the vestibular system.  So when you make a change, you have to account for all those elements, and you have to create circumstances where the athlete is wired into how each of those elements impacts what they are trying to do.  I’ve talked before on this site about how the visual cortex is a major player with regards to supplying the brain with muscle management information, and more often than not, when you take the visual out of the equation, you allow the sensory cortex to get more involved in helping make the change. Plus you don’t have the eyes getting in the way by trying to push the brain to go back to the original patterns based on what it sees.  So creating new patterns results in the creation of new neuronal activation patterns, and the subsequent wrapping of myelin to enhance the speed and strength of the electrical signal sent through that circuit.  I mention that since to get myelin to wrap, you have to be working in a state of total focus on the subject material.  To do anything less might result in miss steps back to the original patterns and result in total confusion in the brain as to what the goal is. 

To answer the question as to whether different things take longer or less time. I would suspect that activation patterns that are extremely complex will be harder to break because of the inherent complexity. The time to get to a point where the new pattern or position is ingrained is still relatively similar.


Last but not least, this experiment on monkeys is probably the best experiment I’m aware of that catalogues how long it might take to fully develop a new pattern of movement.  In the experiment they amputated the middle finger of the monkeys to see what would happen to all the neurons currently involved in managing that finger.  Post op the area in the brain that managed the middle fingers went dark.  After a period of time the management of index and ring fingers began to take over some of the neurons formerly associated with the middle finger, and after 30 days there was a loose brain map associated in that area connected to the other fingers. After three to four months the takeover of the area was complete.  How this relates to change is that it takes about a month to establish the new pattern in the brain, and about 3-4 months to get that pattern to a point where you don’t even to think about it anymore, it just happens.


So the key to being successful in making changes:

  • Understand you’re changing the neuronal network associated with that movement
  • Understand that you have to consider many elements relative to that change
  • Know that it requires absolute focus on the task at hand to get the myelin wrapped
  • That it takes about a month to develop a loose network associated with the movement patterns and about 3-4 months to entrench it.

Will Michael Phelps be successful using a straight arm recovery in freestyle?

One of the keys is the fact that connecting the “windmill” stroke into the body is an absolute must.  This technique has tremendous potential when connected to angular momentum and unless it’s anchored into the core it could all go to waste. So yes it has the potential to be more powerful, has the potential to increase rate along with that power, but connecting the anchor to the core has to happen to make this work.

If you watch his 100 meter race in Charlotte you’ll note that he swam his regular stroke in the beginning, a little straight arm in the 2nd 25 and then evolved into his normal stroke through the turn. Coming off the wall it was all the old MP we’ve seen, and then back to the windmill to finish the race.  In watching it seemed that his ability to manage the stroke was limited, and there seemed to be a clear lack of connection between the “windmill” and the body… especially over the last 15 meters. To me the lack on connection seemed stronger on the left than the right.

http://swimnetwork.com/videos/v/20090517/charlotte_men_s_100m_free_a_final-16629.html

What makes the left side seem like a struggle is the fact that MP uses a hybrid based stroke that is used by many, but might make the transition difficult. (He gallops)  By this I mean that on his left side he uses a high elbow anchor, but on the right side he uses more of a straight arm (underwater stroke). This causes him to surge off the right side, (more power) and then drop down lower in the water and be more horizontal on the left side. So where the right arm will fit well with the transition to a straight arm recovery, the left will struggle with it.

In this race I thought the transition to the windmill did nothing for him at all, and he looked far more powerful in his normal stroke.  That might be just a training/adaptation issue, and time will answer that question (is it right), but underneath all that it’s not easy fitting this stroke onto a hybrid/gallop stroke to begin with.  Getting the brain clued into how to manage this in an effective manner won’t be an easy task. So his training adaptation program will need to be specific with regards to accommodating both strokes within the same race strategy, and think it will take more time than this summer to get a solid sense as to whether strategy might be successful. I’ll add to that this thought… if his program is distance based and similar to the training strategy he used to get ready for Beijing, I’d also question whether it would be specific enough to accommodate his sprint based goals.

It’s an interesting strategy since there are so many variables to consider. Do his genetics allow him to make this leap? (sprints) There have been many distance based swimmers who dropped down, Ryk Neethling being the most recent example, but under the current suit conditions, the ability of the distance based swimmer to compete at the 100 level is very limited. When the 50 back, breast and fly folks figure this out, things might change in those events as well. However, a large part of this depends on what FINA does with the suits, and what direction they take. With Mustapha stepping down and Maglione coming in, it might shift the mindset back to a pre 2007 level, and that will give Michael a chance.  Keep things as they are, and I think it will be tough.

If for some reason FINA doesn’t change their current stance and we remain a suit dominated sport, then going in this direction is probably a good bet. (Assuming he can bring it off) If we head back to the suit designs that are pre 2007, then staying with the old stroke might be a better bet.

Resolving the suit issue

A lot of recent discussion in the swimming world has centered on the new suits and their impact on the sport.  World Records have been cheapened; performances have been classed as unbelievable; and worst of all, some athletes are gaining an unfair advantage over others depending on their anthropometric measurements, their suit selection or their economical situation.  If I had to pick one aspect that I dislike the most, it’s the fact that the playing field isn’t level. Regardless of whether technology has turned this sport into a mockery of itself, I could almost live with it if I knew that every athlete gained the same advantage when they put a suit on.  That prior to diving in the pool, the athlete with the best mindset and preparation had the best chance of winning.  That’s not the case today, and we have moved extremely far away from what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about.


However, of all the aspects being discussed, the issue of an awkward conflict of interest seems to have been discussed the least.  The organization that is in part sponsored by manufacturers of the suits in question is attempting to decide what to do about the ‘problem’. Questions have been raised around the world, and petitions have been made to FINA by a number of national bodies and swimming communities. In response, FINA is attempting to solve a problem it failed to see coming a year ago. That should set off alarms, right there.


In our case the pool door isn’t just wide open it’s been ripped off its hinges. How does one roll back the clock on suits without creating a royal mess of the record books? Added to that, what happens to the world ranking and age group ranking individual performances achieved in these suits? Have records been kept of what suits or how many suits were worn in what race? Historically even though FINA acknowledged the issue of illegal substance abuse by East Germany they were against employing asterisks in the record books to denote questionable times. That creates a precedent; one likely to cause a potential dragging of feet when addressing what is self-evidently a pressing issue.


The message is loud and clear: action is needed. But what action is possible? Many National Governing bodies as well as the international body, FINA, receive funding from the manufacturers.  These same manufacturers convinced a very “non technical” FINA committee that their products were legal. If it is now decided that swimming needs to regulate the use of the suits, FINA is essentially left dealing with an unenviable situation.


Many years ago, organizations recognized the fact that policing their own sports when it came to doping issues was a problem. WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) were formed to manage the process separately from the governing bodies. Such independent regulation freed them up from the politics that inevitably swirl around individual sports and governing bodies and allegations of countries covering up their problems soon declined.


Ironically, many people involved in swimming have referred to the new suits as a form of ‘technical doping’. That only adds to the call to develop an outside organization that can manage the process of ratifying and policing technical equipment independently of FINA. Experience tells us that such regulatory bodies are best funded by sources other than marketing dollars; they need to be shielded from the pressures that marketing and money bring to bear. To me, that is the logical first step.


The central task of the new body should be to return real competition to the swimming pool, events where eight swimmers line up, and the best one wins—this, as opposed to the slope we’re heading down, where eight line up and the swimmer taking advantage of rules and the best technology wins. Imagine what might have happened last summer if, say, Phelps had been saddled in Beijing with a ‘No Tiger clause’ in his suit contract; if he had been restricted to wearing, say, a Nike suit. Not only does the magic touch in the 100 fly not happen but the chances are that Lezak (a Nike athlete) doesn’t overhaul the French on the last lap of the freestyle relay, a truly magical moment in swimming history.


If you look at the effect of suits today they impact the sport in many ways. The suits reduce drag; add buoyancy; stabilize the athlete’s core; improve body connectivity (long axis strokes); improve body balance and give the swimmer a sleeker shape (morphing). The compression of body mass reduces the body’s recognition of fatigue (especially in the legs) and the fabric memory provides propulsion support.That’s a lot of add-on and clearly we’re not yet done with technical innovations.

How does one go about the process of creating a reasonable playing field with all those factors involved? From my simple coaching perspective there could be a few ways to do that.  For a start, we can look at other sports and see how they’ve tackled similar issues. A beginning might be the simple requirement that manufacturers create their designs using the same, regulated fabric. Different designers will, no doubt, be able to gain very small advantages based on paneling or cut, but at least we won’t have the extreme situation we’re dealing with today.

A second requirement might be that the material has a standard buoyancy profile. You do that by restricting everyone to one material and then testing that material extensively in a lab and performance environment. With today’s fabric, you’re unlikely to eliminate all buoyancy effects because the micro-fiber system pretty much repels water. You can, however, limit this effect and standardize it for all manufacturers.

Another area we might want to examine is the use of multiple suits. It’s almost shocking that some athletes have been willing to exploit this loophole for their personal gain, but that’s the effect money and prestige has on performance.  It would be an easy call to ban multiple suits, and pretty easy to regulate at all competitions.

Areas that will be hard to manage are the effects of compression, fabric memory, stability and connectivity. By standardizing the material you’ll limit the effect of cuts or paneling, but you won’t make it perfectly even. Swimmers will still try to race in a “smaller” suit and possibly gain more compression, or fabric propulsion etc, but that might come at a cost in comfort and range of motion.

Although FINA has managed swimming since its inception, there are precedents to creating structures outside of governing bodies in order to create equal playing fields. I hope that the world of swimming understands the position we’re in and moves to bring swimming in line with other sports heavily influenced by technology. I’m hoping that we recognize the need to put athletes and performance standards first, money second. Given that, we can get back to worrying about producing the fastest athletes, and not panicking about whether our athletes are in the fastest suit.  We can get back to watching racing knowing that the best athlete on that day won the race.  It’s the least we can ask for, and without a doubt, the athletes deserve that environment.

SWIMMING IN THE NEXT DIMENSION

If you look back in time, it’s clear that there have been some dramatic changes in swimsuit technology. Arguably, the greatest impact on the sport has been delivered by the most recent developments in this technology.

All things in life go through cycles, not least swimsuits. In the last century, they have gone from full-body suits of a heavy material that weighed swimmers down, to suits that were as brief as possible and almost see-through, then back to full-body suits that not only reduce friction exponentially but also add buoyancy to the athlete in the water. The early-century wool-based suits weighed up to 8lbs when wet, in stark contrast to the Blue70 suit that requires just under 4lbs of applied weight to actually sink it below the surface of the water. So, suit material went from wool to Rayon to Nylon to Lycra, to Fastkin (2000) as full body suits returned to the fore, and most recently to the LZR Racer (2008), where more material versus less was the order of the day. It’s been quite a journey.

Now, I don’t know whether you’re for or against ‘progress’, but, personally, I find myself conflicted on the subject. I think technological progress is an inevitable part of this sport, but it shouldn’t come at the price we appear to have paid for it. I’ve studied time progressions through the decades and the stats show that the ‘90s were one of the most stagnant periods in swimming history.

Innovations in suit technology came thick and fast at the end of that decade and jump-started record-breaking again. Times have fallen and fallen. At one level, it’s been great to watch and seems to have been good for the sport. At the same time, these changes have left us all on a slippery slope and FINA would seem not to be dealing with it very well. I am beginning to rue the day we allowed that virus in the back door. Yes, since the ‘90s, swimming has seen a renaissance in terms of record-breaking performances, and times that were almost untouchable have been rendered almost meaningless. But what, I wonder, is the true cost of such technological progress? At what point is the sport more about technology than technique, more about materials than physique?

Little has been said or written about how the new suits have impacted the sport in ways other than by dropping performance times. They bring an insidious aspect that could hamper rather than help coaches unless coaches realize what their true impact on the sport is. If you look at the results since the introduction of the FS Pro in 2007, it’s clear that we have been riding a wave of what I call the WOW factor. (Or, if you’re watching a rival team, maybe the SOB factor.) The LZR has been the suit that has garnered the most attention and is by far a faster suit than the FS Pro, but it was the FS Pro that turned the corner on truly enhancing bodyline and structural compression, and was probably the first suit that impacted technique and potential training options. So, until we get through an entire cycle of indoor and outdoor, this WOW factor won’t abate, and its effect on the opinions coaches have of their success will continue to be, in my opinion, a muddied affair.

Coaches are constantly looking for answers to the age-old question: ‘What does it really take to put an athlete in a position where they can achieve a peak or breakout performance?’ When that over-the-top, breakout swim (or season) occurs, they tend to study that season’s training logs in search of what it was that might have contributed to the breakout performances. If it worked once, it should work again and again, right? And if they can find that magic formula, they will always be successful at helping their swimmers swim fast. Sounds great, right? Everyone wants in, like “Where can I sign up?”

The problem is that this isn’t really the way it is in coaching. Swimmers grow and change, team dynamics change and performance dynamics evolve over time. Although there is a staple of work focus that is constant in terms of its impact, many of the variables ebb and flow, and as coaches we need to understand the big picture when planning a season. Having said that, we’ve just gone through two summers where performances have been radically altered by the suits. Having your team swim 100% lifetime-best performances has a limited correlation to the magic bullet of coaching, and I seriously question whether coaches can rest on their laurels and try to emulate or reproduce the training programs that were successful over the past four seasons. Even if you recognize that performances have been skewed, and that what you did in training wasn’t necessarily the perfect plan, you still have to recognize that this sport has changed dramatically in the past year. Using the training methods that were successful in the past will more than likely put you in a position where those that change and adapt will reap far greater benefits than you. The paradigm has taken a dramatic shift, and anyone who fails to see these suits in the correct light will likely end up frustrated, or worse… on your own and wondering where the herd went.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about freestyle in which I argued that, in terms of broad technique, there are two main options, and that our infatuation with short-course yards (SCY) racing was leading us down a path of diminishing returns in long-course (LCM) swimming. My rationale at the time was the fact that, while swimming with a straight-arm catch versus a high-elbow catch was more powerful, it had a greater metabolic or energy cost. Using this technique in LCM seemed, to me, to limit the swimmer’s options beyond 100m free.

A swimmer can be very successful with the straight-arm option in SCY because the actual time spent swimming as opposed to turning was very small (cost issue). That changes dramatically in LCM. Enter the suits and their effect on metabolic cost—it lowers the cost substantially—and suddenly swimmers can sustain straight-arm technique easily over a 100m long course. This past Olympics was a testament to that fact. You used to see the odd high-elbow swimmer in the thick of the 50; now you don’t. They used to be in the thick of the 100; now they’re rare. You used to have 200-meter swimmers competing in the 100m—and in many cases winning that event—but not anymore. 100m races are dominated by straight-arm, 50-meter guys.

So, what does a coach do? Do you still continue down the path of teaching kids a high-elbow freestyle? Or, do we reason that the suits a swimmer who is ten years old in 2009 will be using in eight years time will allow them to sustain rate and straight-arm dynamics over 400m? If you want to develop and establish neural function correctly, it’s best to embed the process during those periods when the swimmer is most malleable, since it’s much harder to change when they’re not. As they say: neurons that fire together, wire together.

Coaches had best take a long, hard look at what they’re teaching their age groupers today. If anyone thinks they have the next Michael Phelps or Natalie Coughlin, they should at least be asking themselves what technique base they intend embedding in the swimmer, in particular with regard to taking advantage of the suits we’re likely to see in 2016 and 2020? Technological development will not stand still.

Have you even thought about that option? Yes, there is a good chance that FINA will reassess their position on the suits. Even so, regardless of whether they do or don’t step back to 2007, or eliminate any neoprene or neoprene-derivative from the suits, what suits are permitted will continue to enhance performance. Not recognizing that simple fact and its fundamental impact on coaching may result in some swimmers being disadvantaged.

You cannot fail but notice how some countries have accelerated in their grip on some events. France, in particular, has jumped out of nowhere to being a major force in men’s sprint freestyle. How did that happen? Where did they suddenly get all of their awesome sprinters? Truth be told, some of them have always been there, and one could be considered a prodigy just coming into his own. But, what changed, what made the difference?

The possibility exists—this is international sport, after all—that something hidden is going on. People being people are prone to pointing fingers and spreading rumors, about possible underhanded methods, say—which is a crowd favorite. Why accept something as genuine when you can tear it down by speculating about the possibility of drugs? You don’t even have to provide evidence; rumors do the job. My own feeling is that it’s not a suggestion I care to make.

It’s just as likely that the French coaches figured out the kind of program that prepares their sprinters in a way where they can finish their 100m races on a consistent basis and with the ability to sustain a higher percentage of velocity over the second 50. Their sprinters have in the past been in the pack. At times, they even showed standout flair in relay splits. What was missing was consistent front running prior to 2008.

But there’s a third possibility: they didn’t change much at all. What changed was the effect of the suits on their training programs. Most American coaches are enamored with endurance training—doing the mileage, paying the price. They were for the most part more successful, because their athletes worked harder. Enter the suit. Programs with more emphasis on neural or speed-based adaptation concepts jumped forward because the suit afforded them easy access to muscular endurance, body tone and balance with no comparable dry-land training programs. The suits reduced the function of endurance in the equation. The French sprinters could now finish races with sustained velocity using, in some cases, inferior techniques. This seems to me to be the most likely answer, the one in my mind that makes the most sense

I see the French success story as reinforcing my point that the playing field has changed and that coaches would do best to think differently about how the suit is impacting performance on a metabolic and a biomechanical level. It’s highly probable that training routines that have in the past been successful will continue to lead to success; but the levels of success will be limited. I believe that the dynamic of preparing athletes has shifted dramatically, and anyone thinking otherwise, or doing the same thing as before stands a good chance of getting left behind in the wake—or maybe at the wake—depending on how you handle defeat.