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. Brain training can help with many sports. 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:
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 use brain training, 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 brain training 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 identifying 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 brain training for 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.