Layering: from Simple to Complex

After a recent TOEST swim workout, an athlete mentioned that the style of my workouts (i.e. the repetition of sets, and the repetition of certain components within a set) can make a simple set, challenging to follow.

Why not just make it simple? Why make athletes think? Aren’t athletes supposed to just train, not actually think about their training? It may seem that my desire is to make complex what could be made simple, but… there is method to this madness.

mona_lisa_by_leonardo_da_vinci_from_c2rmf_retouchedConsider the painting widely considered to be “the best known, most visited, most written about, must sung about, and most parodied work of at in the world”: the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, between the years of 1503 and 1506, and possibly until the year 1517.

Lets just stop there for a moment… the Mona Lisa was not painted in a single sitting, not in one afternoon, not even in one day, but painted perhaps a little bit one day, then allowed to dry, then painted again another day maybe a few days later, a week later, and this process was repeated year after year after year.

Note to all aspiring athletes: Leonardo didn’t bang out the Mona Lisa in a single session, it was repetition, consistent repetition of brushstrokes over years that led to a masterpiece.  No single workout makes a World Champion.

If that wasn’t enough layering, then consider that recent research into exactly how Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa has been performed using various optical technologies and resulted in the discovery that there is at least one if not two distinct portraits underneath the painting we refer to as the Mona Lisa. How many layers of paint does it take to hide one painting within another, especially when individual brushstrokes weren’t heavy enough to cover the layer below? When the total sum of layers is considered, the workmanship, the diligence, the thoughtfulness put into the painting becomes elevated to a level where it becomes difficult to even conceptualize the effort put forth by Leonardo.

But what’s this got to do with coaching, swimming, or any form of training?  Loads.

What we see when we watch any World Championship competition, or the Olympics is not the single brushstroke of an athlete painting a performance, it is the final masterpiece after years and years and years of layering of skill after skill after skill, executed by performing drill after drill after drill.  Its workout after workout, competition after competition, with time in between to reassess, take a step back and stop and look at the entire picture, evaluating what needs specific attention, and then back to drill after drill to build up weak aspects of performance.

Training was performed, rest so that training would ‘dry’, be woven into the neuromuscular patterns of the athlete, into the fiber of their being, blending with all the deeper layers, resulting in a masterpiece with such variation, so many shades and textures, that depth was created, character was formed, a presence was transferred into them, making them larger than life.

An aspiring artists can be given a brush and they will paint.  The drawing will be uni-dimensional and because it is uni-dimensional (i.e. without depth) it will be distinguishable from the work of a legendary artist like Leonardo da VInci.  A single brush stroke by Leonardo is likely of little difference than that of a beginner.  The difference is that Leonardo adds brush stroke after brush stroke, changing modestly the width, the length of the stroke, modifying the hue of the paint just enough to play with the perspective of natural light which is anything but constant.

There is a key psychological aspect to workouts which are layered… it is an attempt to instill in athletes that it is not any single repetition, not any single length, not even any single drill, but the repetition of many drills, in varying orders which layer skills into abilities and eventually into what the sports media refers to as “natural talent”.

When interviewed, Bob Bowman (Michael Phelps’ coach) often shares that Michael is asked whether or not he works with a sports psychologist.  Bob replies “everyday” (as Bowman’s college degree is in developmental psychology).  The importance of weaving the psychology of sport into the daily training of athletes cannot be understated (as the significance is made clear in athletes such as Phelps).  Weaving in patterns of repetition, of complexity through layering is one way of modelling for athletes that there is significant thought required into achieving their potential, and workouts cannot be executed mindlessly. Mindless workouts leads to mindless repetitions, mindless meters, yards and miles, and mindless athletes.  Yet the highest performing athletes are developed mentally as much they are physically, so why wouldn’t a coach take every opportunity to challenge their athletes multi-dimensionally?

If your workouts are uni-dimensional, lack depth, meaning, significance, then perhaps its time to lift your training to a new level, to the level of an athlete pursuing their true potential.

Perhaps some of my workouts could be written out simply, one straight set from beginning to end, but I believe there is value in having athletes think before, during, and after workouts.  I believe it ensures that athletes are engaged throughout, thinking about what they are doing, and hopefully when unsure, asking questions as to why, what’s the point and purpose.

My workouts are written to engage athletes, to present opportunity for athlete and coach to interact ensuring that the end goal is always front and center for both.