Tag Archives: technique

Skill Acquisition/Learning [7]

Earlier this year, as a family we were watching the World Gymnastic Championships from Scotland. When Canadian athlete Elizabeth Black was performing her floor routine, the sports commentator made a series of statements that stood out:

“Wow what a move! You cannot teach that, you cannot learn that, that… you just have to have.”

It took awhile before it dawned on me, before I heard what the commentator said, before I realized that we hear this sort of commentary all the time. Whenever we watch sports we are flooded with: “they [the athlete] were born that way”, “they are natural athletes”, “they possess something that no one else does”, “what they do looks easy because it comes easy to them”, and so on.

Its not true.  Its diarrhea commentators spew when they cannot relate to the level of excellence happening before them.

I sat there thinking to myself how many kids watching these athletes compete, and instead of hearing growth mindset opportunities, instead of being inspired, instead of hearing how these athletes train, how these athletes learn skills, routines, techniques, train day in day out, how these athletes review videos of their own performances and those of competitors in order to refine; kids are marketed fixed mindset thinking. Kids are marketed that they have to be born knowing how to execute sport specific skills. Seriously? Kids who end up Olympians popped out knowing how to swim butterfly, how to do a reverse triple from the 10m platform from a handstand, how to pace a cross country race, execute complex martial art skills, bicycle kick a soccer ball for a winning goal? Bulls#!t. Its worse then bulls#!t, because its disrespectful to dismiss years and years and years of training as if nothing was ever sacrificed, nothing was ever missed, that it was all sunshine, rainbows, unicorns, and nothing was ever challenging for these athletes, like they never had doubts, disbelief, difficulty, failed attempts.

How many parents watching are unconsciously marketed that unless their kids came out successful, that unless their kids come out swimming, skateboarding, running, horseback riding right to the podium, then there is little to no chance of them ever deciding to, training for, or becoming anything.

I sat there thinking to myself, for how many years have we been watching sports only to have the slightest dreams, the smallest hopes, the tiniest glimmer of inspiration killed by the words of a sports commentator.

What kids and parents need to hear is that top athletes are no different from them. They once wondered if they could be good at something, they started from scratch, learning the basics. That everyone starts and builds their way up.  No, there isn’t one path that everyone takes to success, we each have a different path because certain skill sets come more quickly and easily to us than to others, because we each have different interests and inclinations, but that doesn’t place anything out of reach or make it impossible.

Why do we want to distance peak performance from the imagination and belief of our kids? Why do we not strive to eliminate that gap, teaching that success is a matter of acquiring a set of skills, training those skills through endless repetition until they are embedded deeply into our minds, and then testing ourselves in competition to set how much we have been able to assemble, and what still needs work.  Why not teach that success is not a place but a process, a process that once learnt in one area can serve as a template for anything else allowing success to be a lifestyle not a once in a lifetime occurrence eventually dismissed as luck.

Why not showcase that success is a decision: a decision available to anyone who has the courage, the guts, the drive, the determination, the will, the humility, the openness to show up on day one, to start at square one, to fail, to get up and take another step, and then another, at their pace, not give up when things doesn’t come quickly and just keep going.

Rory_McIlroy_01c Rory_McIlroy_02aRory McIlroy + TigerNike does a great job with the above advert showing Rory McIlroy become inspired watching the game of golf on TV as a young boy, then practicing with plastic clubs, then real clubs indoors, then outdoors. In the final shot, Rory is walking shoulder to shoulder with Tiger Woods in a PGA event, bringing his dream into reality. Awesome!

Success is a process, a process of acquiring skills one after another available to anyone who wants it. Beyond that, its a matter of desire and follow through. That’s it.

Recently while watching the X-Games, I heard a commentator state that a particular skateboarder is a new talent, has abilities that no other skater has, was simply born amazing. That commentator handed over the broadcast to an interviewer standing with that same skateboarder. Replying to the statement made regarding their natural born greatness, the skateboarder shared, “I just train, I don’t stop training. I train and train and train. Its not natural.”  Finally, truth!

We need to stop listening to the bulls#!t sports media spews, and start listening to the athletes.  They will tell you the truth… they will tell you, they weren’tborn this way“, they trained and trained and trained and that’s how they got to be the way they are. They didn’t start special, but the decisions they made daily definitely made them special.

As a family, we now turn down the audio while watching sports so that we only hear the sound of the sport: the pop of the tennis ball, the whistle of a ref, the roar of fans after a scoring effort. Its made sport so much more enjoyable to watch.

Skill Acquisition/Learning [3]

TEDxOaklandUniveristy talk by Barbara Oakley titled “Learning how to learn”

Barbara introduces the concept of interchanging mental states (i.e. focused and diffuse modes) to obtain the insight of how to solve a problem. In short, to learn and to discover we need to allow thoughts to migrate through our brain, from thoughts that are known to us, to new thoughts allowing for integration and synthesis to occur.

There are two corollaries to this process:

  1. Remaining in the focused mode, trying to focus harder and longer, in an attempt to force a solution… is neither effective nor efficient;
  2. Remaining in the diffuse mode and allowing thoughts to simply meander without end point, without application, without experimentation… is equally unproductive.

The operational process for learning is thru a change of state: from focused to diffuse, diffuse to focused, back and forth. To become proficient at this process, it starts by understanding what these two states are, realizing what it is like to be in each state, learning how to enter and exit each state, and then developing the ability to move freely between the two states, both psychologically and physiologically.

If delivering at a higher level is seen as a knowledge issue, as opposed to a lack of strength, endurance, speed, then the solution is in gaining understanding, awareness, then skill, then proficiency in how to generate greater strength, endurance and/or speed.

If performance – be it academic or athletic or artistic – is seen as a problem that needs to be solved through learning, instead of beating, forcing, threatening, coercion, or any other perverse incentive or manipulation technique then a deliberate process of hypotheses, experimentation followed by meditative reflection can be used to identify solutions.

The issue at stake is not whether we have or will have problems, the issue is how we perceive those problems and how we go about solving them.  If we solve problems in an engaging manner labeling them as solvable challenges as opposed to systemic dead-ends arising from a ‘lack’ in (e.g.) talent, motivation, toughness, or physical potential then we can take athletes to far higher levels than could otherwise by achieved trying to drive them harder and harder.

Training harder and harder works to a point, but only to a certain point, a point beyond which the athlete blows up: injured, burnt out, or maxed out. A point beyond which the coach and athlete are forced to believe that they are incapable of moving beyond, because of a lack of talent, of innate ability, of genetic predisposition, of systemic weakness or other excuse. The fact that harder training has no other end result except a blow up or blow out indicates that this mindset to training is unhealthy, both psychologically and physiologically. It is should not be considered training, as it is nothing more than gambling with the athlete’s state of health.

Training harder and harder generates a negative feedback loop: training hard risks with each session blowing up the athlete, but to progress, the belief must be held that harder and harder must be endured for it is the only path to their potential. This is not training, its a form of self punishment stemming from a belief that you aren’t enough to begin, arising from a mindset of lack and insufficiency, and that to become ‘enough’ requires enduring pain and suffering.

Training hard is ignorant training. It may be physically taxing, even abusive, but because it neglects mental and emotional training it avoids true training: addressing what is imagined as impossible, re-envisioning it as possible, then training as if the goal is already achieved (because in the minds eye it already is).  Training hard is ignorant training because it is uni-dimensional, because it believes that peak performance is a competition of brute force, of sheer strength, of desire and willpower. Hard training believes that the athlete willing to hurt the most, wins. No, the athlete willing to hurt the most, doesn’t win, they hurt themselves over and over, come to believe that hurting is how they are to live, and continue to hurt, long after their days of training and competition only to later wonder why they are hurt, battered and broken.

Training hard depends exclusively on a focused mindset, refusing to acknowledge that a diffuse mindset is required to bring balance into training, into life.

Consistent peak performers in sport are not known for the amount of pain they endured, they are known for changing the rules of the game, for changing the dynamics of game play, for zooming out and seeing the sport in a new way, and then zooming in, executing skills and strategies in a never seen before manner which takes them flying by their competition. Consistent peak performers are known for flowing between diffuse and focused states.

Athletes stuck in one extreme – diffuse or focused – punish themselves in and out of both training and competition and fail to achieve their true potential.

Athletes who learn how to flow between extremes, imagine, innovate, create, all the while enjoying the process as they discover their true peak potential in an healthy self respecting manner.

What do you want? To experience your true peak potential, or a tshirt which states “PR or ER“?

Skill Acquisition/Learning [2]

TEDxCSU talk by Josh Kaufman titled “The first 20 hrs — how to learn anything.”

I believe Josh’s concept of becoming “reasonably good” at a skill within 20 hours is directly applicable to that of athletic performance, especially for athletes – age group or masters – who are just getting started.

Let’s start by picking a sport… say swimming.  What skills do top swimmers need in order to excel?  In general, to compete there are the skills of: dive starts, open and closed turns, finishing into the wall, underwater dolphin kick (UDK) both off the dive start and off each wall, the streamline position, plus knowing how to warm up appropriately, and cool down after a prelim (i.e. between events) versus cooling down at the end of a day of competition within a multi day meet, race strategy, relay strategy, and so on.  These are skills for competing, but before we can compete we need to be able to execute the skills of the actual sport of swimming.

What skills are required to execute each of the 4 strokes?  We can deconstruct the end product in a similar manner as we did with competition to obtain the distinct skills of each stroke: the entry, catch, pull, acceleration, finish and recovery phases are actions performed by the arms.  Add to those skills, timing and placement of breathing, the action of the hips depending on whether its a long axis or short axis stroke, and the action of the legs generating the kick which itself requires coordination, symmetry, awareness of size (both width and height), as well as cadence.  This rudimentary breakdown results in no less than 10 components to a stroke, multiply that times 4 strokes, and you have a minimum of 40 skills. Add the 10 skills required for competition and you have 50 different skills to develop in training.  If you allocate the 20 hrs Josh suggests to each skill, and to be reasonably good at all strokes at a entry level of competition requires approximately 1,000 hrs of training.

An age group athlete or a masters athlete starting out with a goal to be “reasonably good” at all 4 strokes, and able to compete can anticipate – based on how much they train – how long it will take to achieve this goal.  A novice age grouper who trains 10 hrs a week will need 100 weeks to accumulate 1,000hrs, or the equivalent of two and three seasons of training.  A masters athletes training to learn only the basics of the freestyle stroke, (1 stroke x 10 skills) will require approximately 200hrs of training to become “reasonably good”. If they train consistently 3hrs per week then they will need about 70 weeks of training or close to two seasons of training.

The value of this exercise is that it sets appropriate expectations and allows for appropriate goals to be set.  If you have a desired performance level then the commitment in training can be calculated.  This mapping process is useful with parents who are overly ambitious, too eager to have their children compete as it lays out the learning curve of the young athlete. This mapping is equally valuable with enthusiastic athletes disappointed with what appears to be a lack of progress in training, and/or disappointing results from a competition.  By laying out their learning curve, they will know when to expect a specific level of mastery. The value of this exercise is immense as it significantly reduce pressure (applied internally by the individual or externally by parents) allowing the athlete to actually enjoy the sport, and focus on skill acquisition, instead of comparing, judging, and inappropriately evaluating their abilities relative to others.

How do you eat an elephant?    One bite at a time.

Mastering any ability can be overwhelming, but deconstructing the ability into distinct skills, and establishing a clear progression from basic to advanced training of the skills provides the basis for learning and eventually mastery.  If our ‘elephant’ (i.e. goal) is to compete at a national level of the sport, then we can work backwards from the desired outcome reverse engineering the timeline from end, back to start (i.e. today).  By doing so, at any point in time athlete and coach can be confident knowing in the midst of training that although the end product may not be visible, the direction is clear, and progress is undeniable.  It’s easier to arrive at your final destination when you have a map.

The mapping process may seem like its a start pointing, but the process and the tool of mapping doesn’t ever end. It’s the process athletes at the highest level of competition continue to use to remain competitive.

Coach Glen Mills – Usain Bolt’s coach – commented to Usain immediately after his Olympic gold medal and WR 100m race in Beijing that he moved his head around too much, and if it didn’t he would have run faster. It is this appetite for skill development, excellence in technique, for learning, plus the humility to realize that there is no end point which results in legendary athletes and legendary careers.

Formula 1 and Indy car racing are an ideal example of an appetite for technique: F1 and Indy cars are stripped down on a regular basis so that ever detail of the car can be analyzed, modified, with the goal of improving it in some manner, and most of the time minutely.  If athletes stripped down their performances in the same manner, identifying gaps in skill, in technique, in the consistency of execution, and gaps in strategy, imagine the information that they could gain to redesign their training? Imagine if coaches and athletes applied this strip down process to training and competition reviews to map out the focus of future training? What level of peak performance would athletes achieve with this attention to detail, this obsession with excellence?

IndyRyanHunterReayDisassembledWhy don’t we do this more often?  Why do we instead go back and beat on ourselves, convinced that if we only trained harder – not smarter – then we would achieve our goals?  The answer… Josh addresses it in the final moments of his Ted talk.

BTW… here is Axis of Awesome with their ‘original‘ piece called the 4 chord song which Josh references in his Tedx talk:

Skill Acquisition/Learning [1]

Sept 27, 2015
By: Jim Pavia, Senior Editor
Published at cnbc.com

From the article titled: “Robbins: These mistakes can destroy your financial freedom

“Robbins believes people need to find ways to improve their skill sets to make themselves more marketable. No matter what you’re doing, you must continue to retool and find some way to improve your skills, he said. If you keep improving those skill sets in the competitive world we’re in, you’re going to have an opportunity to earn more and have more for your family.

However, Robbins believes if you stay with the knowledge base you have today in a knowledge-based economy, you’re going to find yourself in trouble because someone’s going to pass you by and get that job or that promotion you were looking to get. It’s just the truth of life today, he explained. We have to constantly be retooling, finding ways to improve ourselves, finding ways to add more value to our company or to our employees or to our customers.”

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Although sport may not be considered to be a knowledge-based ‘economy’, it in fact is. Because it is, it is the ideal environment for children to learn how the adult ‘real’ world works: upgrade or be left behind. Retool or you will be the tool that becomes irrelevant.

In the past, coaches and athletes have relied on a certain base of knowledge of biology, physiology, psychology, sport specific technique, and so on to develop training programs, but these are no longer sufficient if coach and athlete seek to be relevant.  A working knowledge of physics (i.e. fluid dynamics, aerodynamics) is becoming increasingly critical to peak performance. A working knowledge of biomechanics, pathology, pre-hab and rehab concepts is a must if remaining competitive throughout a season is a priority. To maximize recovery, to prevent overtraining, injury, burn out and max outs coaches and athletes need to gain a wider and wider skill set to get out in the lead, and to remain in the lead. Today expertise in any single aspect of performance is no longer sufficient, coaches and athletes must entangle knowledge of biology with physics with physiology with sport specific technique if they are to be relevant in the sport.

A working knowledge of basic science is no longer sufficient; today biofeedback technology provides information to coaches and athletes that astronauts didn’t have access to only a decade or two ago. To make use of this information, coaches and athletes need to know how to read, analyze, and interpret it specific to the individual, to the sport, to the season, to the goals. Plus, discerning what information is valid, what is invalid, and how to apply it back into training and competition is more important than simply understanding the data to begin. On top, the flow of information continues to accelerate as today technology provides for real-time data, allowing changes to be made on the field, in the gym, on the track or on the deck, both while training and in competition conditions. If you have not retooled to the degree that you have a definite process for integrating new information, for developing the skills sets to apply new info, be aware that your competition is well ahead of you. If that wasn’t enough, the retooling doesn’t stop there as technology provides unending opportunities to learn from competitors. With underwater cameras following athletes in the pool, cameras embedded into the peloton on the back of a bike, and on athlete helmets, the volume of information grows exponentially. Retooling is needed to manage this flow, and to use it.  Watching video footage with editing tools is revolutionizing sport because frame by frame editing allows every aspect of an athlete’s technique, strategy, even entire game plans of a team to be studied, scrutinized, replicated if strong, or attacked where vulnerable.

The playing field is being flattened rapidly, coaches and athletes – just like entrepreneurs – must be innovating while leveraging all available resources to remain in the game. To remain in the game, whatever that game may be, retooling is the new normal.

Any coach or athlete who is not constantly retooling – i.e. figuring out how to train smarter than the competition – who instead continues to rely on archaic training concepts (e.g. train harder) is going to be passed by. It isn’t enough just to own the latest gadget, its taking the time to learn… about yourself, about your training, about how you respond to various forms of training, how you recover from training, from competition, what happens when you change one variable, what impact does it make on all other variables of training, and on and on it goes. The experiments are endless, and those who are experimenting will be the ones we will be watching as they will be the ones on the podium.

Training harder than everyone else was the old game plan. Today training harder is going to leave you surprised, shocked, and nursing the swift blow to the head your competition delivers when you least expect it. Train Smart or HardTraining smarter than everyone else is the new game plan, and there is no amount of hard training that will ever outperform smart training…ever.

Today, technology allows anyone to run experiments (where n=1) when only yesterday similar experiments would have required a fully equipped government or university funded laboratory. Today, technology allows anyone to test hypothesis after hypothesis, day in, day out. Today, technology allows scientific data and research which is population based to be tested at the individual level, allowing coach and athlete to customize training and competition to the individual’s physiology and psychology.

If you are not retooling yourself as a coach today, then if your knowledge base isn’t yet obsolete, its on the verge. If you are not retooling yourself as an athlete today, then if you haven’t been passed by rookies yet, you are on the verge of moving to the back of the pack.

Physical attributes and hard training alone are no longer sufficient to lead.

Mental tenacity, focus, and determination alone are no longer sufficient to gain an edge.

Emotional stability alone is insufficient to prevail over challenges competitors deliver.

Today, the level of competition requires all coaches and athletes to raise their game, to train and compete smarter than ever. To be on the leading edge requires not only the right tools, but tools which are sharpened daily, it requires ongoing retooling.

How Can We Admit That We Know, When… [1]

National Geographic Documentary on Shaolin Monks:

If Shaolin Monks are able to enter a state of meditation where our assumed limits are diminished or are eliminated, then why are we not integrating such techniques into the performance of all tasks?  It is the mind which creates both illusion and reality, thus disciplining one’s mind must be the focus of athletes seeking consistent peak performance.  Being able to enter a state in which the body is loosened from the confines of our poor understanding of what is and isn’t possible would only serve to encourage us to dream bigger.

What could professionals – both athletic and non athletic – unleash if they could free themselves of their fears, regrets, and emotional burdens?  What would happen if the weight of failure, jealousy, hate, frustration, and self-preservation were eliminated?  What if all professionals trained their minds as much as their bodies – if meditation was integrated into smart training programs – then we do not have the framework today to conceive what would be achieved.

Chopra The Third Jesus“Researchers can verify that after prolonged periods of meditation, such as the years spent in monasteries by Tibetan Buddhist monks, the so-called hard wiring of the brain may undergo permanent changes.  Primarily, the centers that light up on MRIs when a person faces sudden stress don’t react in long-term meditators.  The neurological centers for anger, anxiety, alarm, and reflexive fight-or-flight appear to be quiescent.”

Deepak Chopra. The Third Jesus, New York, Three Rivers Press, 2008

What Does It Take to Be Your Best?

Excerpt from The Athletes Cloud [TAC] Book

TAC pyramid lvl2

Level 2 – Consistency

 

TAC matrix01Physical Dimension – Stamina                                                                                       

What is the underlying ingredient for an athlete to be successful?  This has been a highly debated question for many years.  The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s Elite Academy of Music conducted one of the important scientific experiments in this field to offer an answer.  By studying young violinists and monitoring their progression they were able to discover who were the ones capable of reaching the highest level of their discipline. They discovered that those students, who practiced the most, became the top violinists.  “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.  And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.” “In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hoursThe emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything,” writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin.  “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.” (1)

Reference

  1. Gladwell Malcolm, Outliers (New York NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), 38-40.

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First, ten thousand hours applies to acquiring true expertise, to becoming a master, perhaps a grand master of the art, the sport. Its to train to achieve the highest levels of performance.

Second, everyone starts at zero, no one is born with an account already credited with any hours.

Last, its not ten thousand hours of mindless repetition, of pure volume, of ‘garbage miles’, or ‘junk hours’, it is training performed with specific intent: mindful repetition to gain, to improve, and to refine skills. It is ten thousand hours of knowing at all times what it is that you are training, why you are practicing the skill, the sequence, and reflecting on how it feels.

It is ten thousands hours of constantly asking…

  • Can my execution be improved?
  • Can the effort be made to feel easier?
  • Can anything be modified? What? How?

The goal of those ten thousand hours is to progress from a state of:

  1. unknown unknowns – not knowing that you are unaware of what is required to succeed, to
  2. known unknowns – gaining awareness of the complexity of what excellence entails, to
  3. known knowns – able to execute skill sequences on demand with a degree of proficiency, to
  4. unknown knowns – able to flawlessly execute form, skill, and technique while managing foreseen and unforeseen variables moment to moment without conscious decision making.

Excellence is being able to consistently execute at the highest level of performance regardless of changing variables such as competitors and conditions.

2013_IWC_003

“Anyone can win something once or do something once.  You can be opportunistic, but turning up at the biggest races in great form and putting in a great performance year after year is the toughest thing to do in sport [in art, and in life].”

3x Ironman World Champion Craig Alexander

It’s All ‘Bout the Base, ‘Bout the Base [1]

running with kenyans

Adharanand Finn spent 6 months in Iten, Kenya on a mission to discover or uncover why Kenyans dominate distance running around the globe.  Whether its the New York Marathon, the Olympics, the World Cross Country Championships, from the 800m to the marathon Kenyans dominate.

A runner himself, Finn had the opportunity to meet with Kenyan athletes and their coaches, but he also had the opportunity to train and live amongst elite runners.

Kenyan long-distance runners are arguably the best in the world. Is it the diet, the lifestyle – or anything to do with running barefoot to school?  In a follow up video to the book, elite marathon runner and Kenyan athlete manager Tom Payn and up-and-coming Kenyan athlete Boniface Kiprop Kongin tell Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans, why their country has produced so many great runners…

Link to Adharanand Finn’s profile and blog at ‘theguardian‘.

Boniface started training informally by running to and from school. In rural Kenya, families don’t typically have cars, so running is simply how children get around. School for Boniface was 5km away and walking simply took too long; 5km, twice a day (not counting home for lunch) works out to weekly mileage of 50km.  If Boniface ran 46 weeks of the year (school is year round in Kenya) for all 8 years of elementary school, his training base would be in the range of 18,000 km.  If running to school continued through high school, then outside of any formal training program, he would have ran another 9,000+/- kms of mileage.

Think about that for a moment….  Canada at its most extreme width – from Cape Spear, Nfld to Mt. St. Elias in the Yukon – is 9,300km.  Base mileage for a Kenyan is the equivalent of having run across Canada, twice, and a third time when running to/from high school is included.

If the base of Kenyan runners is not already astounding, then consider that those who live and train in the Rift Valley Province – from where Kenya’s top athletes arise – are at altitude, which further develops their physiology and running efficiency.

For elite Kenyan runners – track, to cross country, to marathon runners – a full decade of training is the starting point for formal training, training for competition. It is from this starting point of a base of years and thousands of kilometers that African runners begin formal training, training to compete, training to win.

A decade of daily simple low intensity activity primes the physiology developing the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculo-skeletal and neural systems.  

Repetitive low intensity training develops agility, balance, coordination, and maintains flexibility so that efficient movement becomes normal for the developing athlete.

In time, this training leads to fluid, graceful, effortless movement that is referred to as “talent” or “natural ability”.

In the book “Running with Kenyans”, Finn shares that there hasn’t yet been a Kenyan born and raised in a city who has become a champion runner.  Children of Kenyans who were champions on the international road running circuit do not become champions either, as their parents purchase a life of convenience in the city, removing them from the formative rural life.

Born_to_Run09

With a minimalist life dedicated to a single focus an undesirable pill to swallow in Western culture, researchers in search of a short cut, in search of a monetizable performance solution have performed genetic research numerous times on elite Kenyan athletes in hopes of finding a running gene.  No running gene has been identified to date despite efforts by scientists from numerous countries.

A running gene!  A typical Kenyan elite runner logs a decade+ of training, tens of thousands of miles and we go looking for an excuse, for an easy explanation which short cuts countless hours of dedicated training and endless sacrifices made by athletes striving for athletic excellence. I challenge anyone to train for a decade amassing 20,000 km transforming your physiology and psychology and not find comments about loopholes – genetic or otherwise – as demeaning and disrespectful.

Champions are not born, they are developed, trained, nurtured, and supported over a period no less than one, perhaps two decades.

Athletes – both amateur and professional – who seek their true peak potential need to realize that excellence is not found in the latest and lightest racing flats, trending sports nutrition or fad diets, in so called ‘new’ training routines such as USRPT, CrossFit, Tabata, or any other repackaging of HIIT training, and most definitely not in gadgets, apps, nor online training software.  There is no coach who possesses training ‘secrets’, and no athlete is ‘destined’.

There are no short cuts.  There is no such thing as luck.  Success = opportunity + preparation.

Building a base, developing yourself so that you are capable of graduating to strength training, HIIT, and advanced technique requires years and years, thousands and thousands of meters or kilometers of thoughtful development of physical literacy, aerobic capacity, and flexibility.

The fact that you can use your health as collateral, exchanging it for performance beyond your current physiological capability is no short cut.  In the end, what happens is that you compromise your health while failing to get anywhere close to your potential.  In the end, you will have neither your health, nor have experienced your potential, and you will have set yourself back years as your body and/or mind call on the credit line underwritten by your health. Whatever medals, trophies, and finish line photos you acquire along the way fade fast as the cost you paid for them becomes a gamble that you realize didn’t pay off.

The illusion of a short cut is powerful, its deception strong.

There are no short cuts to excellence, to your potential.

The long way is not a burden to peak performers, they have come to understand that the process, the journey, and all the experiences along the way are the reward, as such, they have learnt to enjoy the process of becoming, developing, growing, stretching themselves.

Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent [6]

Dmitry Klokov demonstrated ankle flexibility into plantarflexion (i.e. ability to point the ankle like a ballerina) in Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent [2].  The application to swimming was direct as the ability to generate propulsion with the kick requires swimmers to be able to point their feet.

What about ankle dorsiflexion (i.e. being able to bend the ankle as in a deep squat position)?

In Olympic weightlifting, greater flexibility into ankle dorsiflexion offers the lifter a lower starting point from which to initiate the drive and lift the weight.  If the starting position was higher, the lift would resemble a deadlift, the shortened distance of the lift would make it nearly impossible for the athlete to be able to have the time and distance to accelerate the weight upwards in order to get under it.  The greater the flexibility of the ankle into dorsiflexion, the greater the lifting distance, thus time, making it easier for the athlete to execute effective Snatch and Clean & Jerk technique.

Dmitry_Klokov_200kg_SnatchIn swimming, ankle dorsiflexion is equally critical as swimmers need sufficient ankle dorsiflexion to position themselves into a squat position for the push-off at every wall when turning.  Ankle dorsiflexion is of special significance to backstrokers who need exceptional range into dorsiflexion to position themselves into a deep squat for the start.

The swimmer who has the greatest amount of contact with the wall (i.e. has the greatest amount ankle dorsiflexion) will have a Force vector pointing directly opposite to the intended direction of travel (i.e. into the wall).  Those athletes with poor ankle dorsiflexion instead of pushing directly into and perpendicular to the wall, will push off with a downward vector weakening the push-off while risking one or both feet losing grip, slipping and eliminating any chance of having a competitive start.Swimisodes_BK002

A weak start or a start where a foot slips will have a shortened air time and travel distance.  A weak start will have the athlete falling into the water, instead of exploding off the wall.  A weak start will leave athletes exhausted before they have started to swim, as they play catch up with every competitor who executed a start with exquisite technique.

 

Strength training is not flexibility training.  Training technique is not flexibility training. There is no number of backstroke starts or deep squat repetitions that will increase ankle flexibility. What will happen to the athlete who lacks ankle flexibility as a result of repetitive backstarts, flipturns, and/or strength training is that they will develop compensatory actions leading to soft tissue (e.g. ligament, tendon, muscle), or hard tissue (i.e. bone) injuries. Arch pain in the foot, ligamentous sprains and tendinitis surrounding the ankle, meniscal injuries in the knee, and low back pain are all possible side-effects of poor ankle flexibility.  Ice packs, compression clothes, and therapy appointments are exalted as if normal aspects of training and recovery; yet flexibility is rarely cited as a solution. No matter the number of injuries, coaches and athletes fail to learn that attempting to workaround inflexibility always leads to injury (or burn out or max out).  Always.

If Olympic weightlifters work to develop full range of motion so that their lifting technique is flawless, then why wouldn’t swimmers?

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No, flexibility training is not ‘sexy’ training.  Its simple, repetitive, static, solo, meditative training. Flexibility training is in fact harder, far harder than any HIIT workout because athletes cannot hide behind adrenalin or endorphin highs.  Flexibility training strips you naked, reveals exactly where you are limited, gummed up and stuck; it humbles you revealing your true skill level. The result, only those who truly seek excellence train flexibility.

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Flexibility training is the training which reprograms the body, mind, and spirit as to what are the limits of the athlete.  Strength and endurance training do not push the limits of the athlete, they can only be performed within the confines of the available range of motion of the athlete and against the resistance imposed by those limits.

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So then why do so few age group and masters athletes spend so little time stretching, developing flexibility?  Perhaps it has to do with the perspective that unless they are spending time training the actual sport, then it isn’t training.  The problem which arises with this perspective is that the only option for training and competing is uni-dimensional: generate as much power as possible within or against the narrow confines of the athlete’s own rigid limits.

Any athlete who has come against their max knows the feeling: it feels like you hit a brick wall, but, trying to break that wall results in only one thing… hurting yourself, because that brick wall is not weakness, it is not a lack of pain tolerance, it isn’t any of the bull marketed to you by the fitness industry, your trainer, or your coach.  Thats all negative motivation and leads to physical and mental health issues, and worst of all, broken spirits.

 Those walls are the walls of your own inflexibility, to hit those walls is to hit yourself.

To become frustrated at those walls, is only to become frustrated at your own rigidity, stubbornness, and inflexibility.  To hate those walls is to hate yourself.  Trying to break those walls leads to one thing and one thing only… self-destruction, slow and steady or all at once.

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If all you want is an outcome, then you will bypass proper training, gambling and risking your health to obtain the outcome you seek.

If all you want is an outcome, then I can tell you from first hand experience it isn’t worth it, the finish line you believe will bring closure to your inner turmoil is a mirage. The finish line, the medals, the podium, none of it brings what you truly desire because what you are looking for is not tangible, it is the intangible process of becoming, developing, pushing up against your limits and then deciding to explore what lies beyond them in concert with yourself, not by engaging your fears in hand to hand combat.

Self love, self esteem, self worth don’t arise from punishing and fighting yourself.

If you want an active, fit, healthy lifestyle, then pursue it, not what the sports media and the commercialization of excellence attempt to convince you is right, good, and “healthy”.

Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent [5]

11-year-old Brooke Raboutou is a rock climbing phenom who regularly breaks world records on elite bouldering and sport climbs once thought impossible for someone her age.

With two former world champion climbers for parents and coaches, Brooke’s pedigree is unmatched. Now she has set her sights on pushing both herself and the climbing world to even greater heights.

Key point from the video: the “secret” to Brooke’s ability… “she has been able to maintain that almost baby flexibility where she can twist and turn into positions which the average climber is not able to do.”

Brooke maintains her flexibility… there is no reference to her being abnormal, double jointed, or ‘baby I was born this way’.  The point is that she trains flexibility. Perhaps she was blessed with a wider range of motion to start – no different than Michael Phelps – but like all of us, our flexibility must be challenged daily in order to be retained, in order for its sharpness, its explosiveness, its utility to be available on demand.

If you aren’t stretching, then you will not experience your peak potential.  It is that simple.  So why train without significant time spent developing and maintaining flexibility?Bouldering_001

Considering the challenges competition brings at the international level, there is every reason to make flexibility a priority: its a prime training tool for active recovery, it develops introspection and self awareness skills, it adds to range of motion decreasing the amount of muscular force required to execute movement (i.e. increases endurance), or generate power (i.e. thus increasing strength and speed).  If athletes are looking for a skill set to distinguish themselves from competitors, to give themselves an edge in competition, then flexibility is the tool.

Athletes, trainers, and coaches falling back on the age old adage that flexibility is simply a form of ‘talent’, that you are either born with or not, are lying to themselves.  Such an attitude towards flexibility reveals the fear of pursuing true potential.  True potential is hidden beneath the rigidity and brittleness of a fixed mind, body, and spirit.  Athletes who seek their potential cannot run away from their fears, from their inflexibility. Athletes who desire to discover their potential must seek above all: freedom from fear.Bouldering_002

There is no amount of external toughness, no single max rep weight, no speed nor pace that will allow you to escape fear, the more you build yourself up against fear, the stronger it becomes. The more you train against fear the more you will feed your anxieties, your anger, fears of inadequacy, insufficiency, of failing, and being a failure.

How is 11 year old Brooke able to outperform elite rockclimbers?  How is it that 13, 14 and 15 year olds qualify, compete, and medal at the Olympics?  They have conquered fear, because they have been mentored and have learnt to confront fear.  Freedom from fear finds symmetry in freedom to move, to think, and to feel without limitation.  Physical freedom allows champions to bend, twist, and out manoeuvre those who may be mightier but less flexible. Mental freedom allows champions to engineer solutions where others are overwhelmed by the problems.  Emotional freedom allows champions to retain objectivity, where the fear of others causes them to choke or panic, seizing up and falling short, not for lack of potential, but from emotional intolerance and inflexibility.

In the classic film A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by his deceased business partner Jacob Marley who hopes to save Scrooge from a fate of wearing the chains forged in life from living in fear. Chains which burden, which harden the heart, the mind, and the body.

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To free himself, Scrooge needed a change of heart, a change in mindset, and behaviour…. he had to soften his stance.

Free yourself from fear to experience the fullness of your potential… flexibility training will challenge you by confronting you with your limits, with your definition of who you are and what you are capable of achieving.  By challenging those self narrated limits you will find that only they stand in your way, only they stand between you and your potential.

Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent [4]

Shoulder range of motion and scapulo-thoracic control are fundamental to maintaining a straight directional vector irrespective of the sport: to directing every unit of force generated into the desired direction of travel.

What is often neglected is the role of the rib cage, the relevance of movement timed to breathing, and proper breathing (i.e. size, rate, rhythm, amplitude, pattern).  Without training these skills the athlete will be unable to generate peak power in their upper and lower extremities, and will be asymmetrical in movement compromising the execution of technique, and risking injury.

One of the side-effects of neglecting the role of the rib cage and breathing is that athletes will compensate for their poor biomechanics by turning to strength training and adding muscle to correct imbalances. Adding muscle provides a short term solution, but long term, the additional weight of muscle loads the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, pushes the athlete into anaerobic energy prematurely, reducing endurance, speed, power and strength.  The addition of muscle volume leads to restrictions in flexibility as full range of motion becomes limited, especially at end range where it is crucial.  Reliance on muscle shifts the focus from coupling the contractile properties of muscle with the elastic properties of connective tissue, to a dependence on the contractile aspect alone.  This training methodology presents significant risks as the odds of spasms, cramps, muscle strains, and joint sprains rises exponentially.  In time, this training methodology leads to inverse results, where the more muscle the athlete gains the more imbalanced their power to weight ratio becomes rendering the athlete uncompetitive.  Since weight training yielded short term results, the athlete falls to the belief that weight training is part of the solution, not the problem.  As performance flat-lines, then falls off, the negative training spiral plays psychological havoc on the athlete as they begin to doubt their potential.  Gained weight, injuries, fatigue, sluggishness all contribute to the negative spiral, which morphs into negative self talk.  As long as strength training is held as a solution, the athlete will try to regain trajectory by micromanaging their diet, training intensity and volumes, all to no avail.

Where is the pay-off with strength training beyond body weight training (especially when the athlete hasn’t mastered body weight exercises)?  There is none for age group or masters athletes. Only those athletes who have developed a dynamic core and are capable of controlling their bodies weight through a full range of motion coordinated with breathing need progress to additional load (i.e. strength training with weights).

If Michael Phelps trained and qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens without touching weights, then what is the argument for any amateur athlete – age group or masters – to do weights?  Doing so indicates a flaw in training methodology: it is an attempt to pull forward performance results, to short cut training, to peak an athlete prematurely, well before their physiology and psychology are primed, well before their skill level is prepared.

The Rib Cage

The role of the rib cage is obviously to protect the lungs and the heart, but that is not where its function ends.  Without the rib cage the lungs would deflate, the rib cage serves as the frame which stretches out the lungs using negative pressure between the ribs and the lungs to suction the lungs to the inner side of the ribs.  This is the mechanism for the lungs to expand making breathing possible.

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The elastic properties of the ribs are subconsciously known by most: if you have taken a CPR course then you know the feeling of springiness that the rib cage provides when performing chest compressions.  This elasticity exists due to the properties of connective tissue which assist in returning the rib cage, hence the lungs after inhalation back to a resting position at the end of exhalation.

There is tremendous power in the elastic properties of the rib cage and when leveraged effectively leads to maximum speed and strength, as in: a swimmers stroke, an Olympic weight lift, a runners stride which can be lengthened with proper breathing thus proper use of the rib cage, and the most obvious example… the power in the ribs of an archer’s compound recurve bow which send arrows flying at speeds of hundreds of feet per second.

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To maximize the power available in the thorax, required is:

  1. A flexible rib cage and a dynamically stable thoracic & lumbar spine (i.e. a dynamic core) and scapulo-thoracic rhythm,
  2. Coordination amongst face, neck (cervical), thorax, and lumbar and all extremity muscles,
  3. Uninhibited inhalation and exhalation of the breathing cycle  (which requires full emotional freedom),
  4. Refined control over the breathing cycle, all breathing patterns, and the ability to adjust the cycle and patterns to fit movement as needed,
  5. Coordination between breathing and both isometric holds and three dimensional movement performed with varying speeds of the extremities,
  6. Disassociation between breathing, functional movement and sport specific technique,
  7. Physiological tolerance for retained carbon dioxide (i.e. ETCO2, plasma acidification).

Exactly how much power is available in the thorax:

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A compound recurve bow which has just one set of opposing ribs requires as much as 60-70 lbs of draw strength to achieve full load.  An arrow flying from such a bow can be used to hunt deer, boar, even bear.  If this is the power available in just one pair of ribs, imagine the power your rib cage is capable of storing and releasing.  With 5-6 pairs of ribs in opposition, and another 4-5 ribs opposed at an angle, plus the elasticity of the rib cage joints and bones… there is a massive reservoir of power in what may appear as a useless cage of bones.

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Compare the draw of the archer to the entry of the butterfly stroke, there isn’t much difference. Tyler Clary loads his rib cage using the exact same principle as an archers bow, except that his arms and legs act as the drawstring, as the levers compressing the rib cage, storing incredible amounts of potential energy. Follow through of the arms through the pull phase of the stroke is not simply muscular power, it is the elastic recoiling of the rib cage back into normal position releasing kinetic energy by snapping the arms through the pull and finish phases of the stroke. If you are trying to swim by muscling it, then you will max out prior to your potential.  Those who swim at the highest level possess muscular strength, but they leverage the elastic properties of their body to multiply muscular strength to a level impossible by muscling it alone.

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The elastic principles of the body to leverage muscular power applies to all swim strokes and to all sports… running requires the pumping action of the arms, the arms transfer their swing into the legs through the elastic recoil of the lumbo-pelvic junction.  Poor breathing, poor thoracic range of motion, poor flexibility in the rib cage and the lumbo-pelvic region and you end up a weak, ineffective runner with a short stride, a rigid torso easily exhausted on the flats with any change in terrain exacerbating tension and fatigue.

A sprinter at top end speed achieves the fully drawn position of the archer’s bow at toe off: their spine is arched, their arms and legs like the bowstrings add to the tension through the hip and shoulder joints, then the snap… as toe-off ends and tension is released the spine and pelvis reverse rotation across both transverse and longitudinal axes accelerating the opposite leg into the drive phase while the opposite arm swings additional propulsion.

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Name the sport and if breathing and range of motion are not aspects of training, then its guaranteed that both athlete and coach are banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out how to obtain greater strength, speed, endurance, power, but making only minor inroads into the athletes potential.

Peak performers are flexible, in their rib cage, and in their capacity to breathe, and to use their breathing to lift their performance.  Your competition is training at this level, are you? Your competition is lean, are peaking their power to body weight ratio, have eliminated useless bulk becoming exceedingly efficient, and maximize their elastic properties to bounce, to glide, to explode with power.  Are you?

Are you depending solely on muscle to forcing movement, grinding out each stroke, each stride? You may want to stop and consider perhaps if your approach to training is not only taking a physical toll, but a mental and emotional toll.  If your training ain’t fun, then there is something wrong with it: muscling it, forcing it, grinding has that side-effect.

Champions execute their technique, their performances effortlessly: they glide over the track, the road, through the water, not plodding, hacking, or chopping their way to the finish line.

Champions focus on training how to move; speed, endurance, power are the outcome of such training.  Training to develop speed, endurance, and power and then hoping it will all become effortless is a dead end: you will not achieve your potential, your performance will not become effortless, fluid, and graceful.  It will hurt, ever time, and only worse with time.