Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Question/Answer Cycle Problem

In the lead-up to competition, athletes who picture a positive result in performance are more likely to reach peak performance, as compared to athletes who picture a poor result. This reality of competitive sports is well-known among sport psychologists, coaches, and athletes – and must be accounted for when considering an athlete’s race preparation.

It is the athlete’s mindset that determines the deftness with which we walk a path of readiness – and make no mistake about it: readiness to succeed is essential to peak performance. The mindset of an athlete who is ready to achieve peak performance can be defined as an “answer—based” mindset. It is proper training, skill, talent, and physical gifts that separate one athlete from another in competition, but it is mindset that separates our “best selves” from the side of ourselves that is too riddled with anxiety and negative thought to perform at the peak level. There is an important distinction to be made here, because it is obvious and simple to understand that an athlete who does not train hard, often, and well, will not think her way into a win when competing against a trained, ready competitor. But to compete against yourself – “your own best self” – is really the task for all athletes because, simply put, competing against your own “best self” is the task any athlete can learn to control. You cannot control your competitors, but you can control yourself.

An athlete’s ability to control her mind and thus her environment allows her to unlock the free-flow of energy available to her at the time of peak performance!

It is near impossible for most athletes to prepare for competition without asking oneself questions like: “Am I ready?”, or “Is my training plan going to work?”, or “What is my competitor going to do”? It is this type of inner-questioning that makes an athlete, to differing degrees, anxious and insecure about their upcoming performance. To their detriment, athletes tend to dwell in this sort of “question-based” mindset more often as the competition draws closer on the calendar. This type of questioning, posed to one’s self in a habitual way, leads to the athlete’s less-than-ideal picture of what may happen in competition – a picture that readily creates its own reality through performance.

An athlete in the “question-based” mindset may think:

“What if I am unsuccessful like I was last year?”
“What will my parents think if I don’t achieve my best time?”
“Am I ready for this meet?”
“Will my taper plan work out?”

These questions have no definitive answer. One can speculate an answer, but to actually find an answer to these questions is impossible. The answers are impossible because the answers can only be found in the future. The future is uncontrollable. The only thing we can control is the present!

A positive athlete will learn to give proper weight to the answers, and give less power to the actual questions. In doing so, an athlete can learn to control their self-talk, and bring their thought process into the controllable present. It’s ok to field the questions, because let’s face it: no matter how hard we try, questions regarding one’s own personal readiness for competition will always make themselves heard. But with a proper “answer-based” mindset we can either turn a question into a positive answer, or dismiss it from our mind.

The basic question “Am I ready?”, in an “answer – based” mindset, is followed with the inner-statement: “Yes, I am ready. Today, I am stronger and faster than I’ve ever been in my life“. You can stop the cycle of questions by answering definitively.

Stopping the ‘Question/Answer” cycle at one question and one answer is essential! Concisely answered questions tend to create an optimistic picture in an athlete’s mind. The question, “What is my competitor going to do?”, in an “answer – based” mindset, is dismissed because as an athlete you are incapable of discerning what anyone else may or may not be capable of and so logically there is no way to field the question. The question, “What if I am not on my pace halfway through my 800?” can be answered definitively with the answer: “I know I can do an 8:40 in my 800, so if I’m off my pace at the 400 I probably have enough in reserve to make it up on the second 400”. By answering definitively and positively, the focus of an athlete’s internal conversation becomes the answer instead of the question. It is much easier to control the answers you give than it is to control what questions may pop up in your head!

Hard, consistent, skill-oriented training is a key ingredient to achieving peak performance, and certainly there is no substitute. We cannot “will” ourselves to a different level of performance with our minds alone! But it is the “answer-based” mindset that separates us from our previous best selves, stops an otherwise habitual cycle of questions/answers, and allows us to transcend our own peak performances.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Age Group Success and the Olympic Dream

Photo by Paul Yetter (Japan International Meet 2007)

Recently I took a look at the USA Swimming Top 100 All-Time Times List. I looked closely at the Top 25 Times of All-Time (Long Course Meters), excluding the 50 Back, 50 Breast, and 50 Fly -- and searched within these times for names of US Olympians.

I wondered about the USA’s historic best were when they were 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old. Does an exceptional 12 year old have a head start on her competitors who are not ranked as well? Does the 14 year old who is not a highly ranked swimmer stand a chance of overcoming his competitors, to eventually vault into a top-ranked position?

Keep in mind: Out of 14 possible events, there are 350 possible slots in which athletes are ranked (14 events plus 25 rankings = 350 slots). Here are the results:

11-12 Men’s Events: 2 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
13-14 Men’s Events: 29 performances by US Olympians/ out of 350 possible performances
15-16 Men’s Events: 69 performances by US Olympians /out of 350 possible performances
17-18 Men’s Events: 96 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances

11-12 Women’s Events: 33 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
13-14 Women’s Events: 80 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
15-16 Women’s Events: 98 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances
17-18 Women’s Events: 131 performances by US Olympians / out of 350 possible performances

You can draw your own conclusions regarding these statistics. I refuse to believe that our best 12 year olds are meant to simply fall off the map, and that they are simply good for their age because of their relative size. High-level athletic performance is too dynamic a quest to believe such a fixed-mindset stance.

Consider this: At age 10, Michael Phelps was one of the USA’s top 10 and under swimmers -- at least when you look at Butterfly performance. He was ranked number one in the USA, and still holds the National Age Group record in the LCM 100 Butterfly in the 10 and under age group. At age 12, he was still very good, but not nearly as highly-ranked on the All-Time USA times list (he is currently ranked 82nd all time in the 11-12 age group). Three years later, Michael Phelps became an Olympian in the Men’s 200 Butterfly. Great, good, great again.

Athletes are not perfect and they certainly are not robotic in nature. They have good days, bad days, great years and off-years. How do athletes, coaches, and parents react when there is a dip in performance? How do we ensure forward progression over time in the face of stagnant performances?

Additionally, what can coaches and parents do to help their athletes and children as they maneuver their way through performance plateaus?

Perhaps I’ll tackle these issues in another blog (this can truly be a rabbit-hole of contemplation), but for now I’d like to leave it out there for folks to consider and discuss.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Training and Racing for the Individual Medley

A Formula for Faster Medley Times

As an intro to this blog I feel it’s important to convey: The most valuable experience I’ve had as a coach has been to mentor with two Olympic Coaches – Murray Stephens (1996 Olympic Team) and Bob Bowman (2004 and 2008 Olympic Teams). To hear the conversation between these coaches and their swimmers – and to work with athletes alongside them --allowed me daily illumination of our sport as I learned what it took to coach high-level athletes.

Additionally, over the last 10 years I have been fortunate to get to know Coach Jon Urbanchek . Coach Urbanchek has spent decades coaching Olympic Medalists and World Record Holders, and luckily (for me) he has visited his Baltimore-based Daughter and Grand-daughter frequently – a few miles down the road from where I have spent the better part of my coaching career.

I remember listening to Coach Urbanchek on deck one day as he spoke about Tom Dolan (a swimmer Jon coached to a 400 IM World Record in 1996). Coach Urbanchek spoke of Dolan’s success in the 400 IM as being attributed to his becoming a great 200 Meter swimmer in each stroke discipline. Specifically, Coach Urbanchek felt that if Dolan could be within 5 seconds of each 200 Meter World Record (in the 200s of Fly, Back, Breaststroke, and Free) – then he would have a great shot at the World Record in the LCM 400 IM.

The increasing versatility of Dolan’s “overall game” – coupled with the specific speed and endurance capabilities he needed to be great at all four 200’s -- combined to make Dolan the most devastating IMer of the 90s, and one of the greatest of all time. Certainly, Michael Phelps followed the same sort of track, led by Coach Bowman. When I look at Phelps’ career, I see an amazing progression with each of his strokes – in technical ability, sheer speed, and specific “stroke-based” endurance. Phelps’ ability to swim breaststroke well – at a National level – has been fused with his world class fly, back, and free to create the fastest 400 IM the world has ever seen.

The knowledge of Dolan, Phelps – and their coach’s plans was an immeasurable help to me as I moved forward in my coaching career. In 2003, I had the opportunity to coach Katie Hoff, who at age 14 had finished 4th in the USA Summer Nationals in the 200 IM with then-Typhoons Aquatics coach Jack Bierie. I made a personal goal in the fall of 2003 that Katie would someday be in a position to break Yana Klochkova’s existing 400 IM World Record – which she finally did in 2007.

During the 2003-2004 year, Katie spent much of her time getting better at her three least dominant strokes. Katie had been a top-ranked Breaststroker at age 13/14, so I felt she had the most room to improve in her Fly, Back, and Freestyle. We went to work on those least-dominant strokes, much like Dolan and Phelps did –and focused on the 100 and 200 Meter Fly, Back, and Free.

I found through this process a way of predicting Katie’s Medley performances, based upon the results (times) of her 100 and 200 Fly, Back, Breast, and Free. This method of prediction seems to work with many athletes around the world. The formula is this:

Take the athlete’s 200 Fly Time + 200 Back Time + 200 Breast Time + 200 Free Time to get an “800 time” …..divide the 800 time, and add 5-10 seconds.

The same formula can be applied to the 200 IM. Take the athlete’s 100 Fly Time + 100Back Time + 100 Breast Time + 100 Free Time to get a “400 Time”….divide the 400 time, and add 5-10 seconds.

Here’s a practical example of how this works. Katie Hoff’s 200 “Stroke Times” in 2004 were as follows:

2:12.1 Fly + 2:16.0 Back + 2:30.4 Breast + 202.1 Free (9:00 total)….divide 9:00 and get a 4:30, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 4:35-4:40. Katie swam a 4:37 that year to qualify for her first Olympic Team.

By 2008, Katie had made some big improvements. Here’s how 2008 went:

2:11.0 Fly + 2:09.9 Back + 2:29.7 Breast + 1:55.7 Free (8:46 total)….divide 8:46 and get a 4:23, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 4:28-4:33. Katie swam a 4:31 that year to set her 2nd 400 IM World Record.

Taking a look at Michael Phelps’ 200 IM from Beijing shows similar results. In 2008 his 200 times were:

50.5 Fly + 53.7 Back + 1:02.5 Breast + 47.5 Free (3:33 total)…divide 3:33 and get a 1:46, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 1:51-1:56. Michael’s best 200 IM that year was an Olympic Gold Medal time of 1:54.2

Ryan Lochte’s 100 Meter swims showed the same sort of predictability in 2008:
52.8 Fly + 53.3 Back + 1:04.8 Breast + 48.6 Free (3:39 total)…divide 3:39 and get a 1:49, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 1:54-1:59. Ryan has since been quite a bit faster, but in 2008 was 1:55.2 off of these swims.

I believe that an athlete has to actually compete in the “stroke” events to ultimately reach their potential in the Individual Medley. Simply having the “potential capability” to perform in the “stroke” events is not enough. There is something about the experience of competing the 200 Breast, for instance, that teaches an athlete the type of stroke needed to swim a great breaststroke leg in an IM. It’s widely known that Tracy Caulkins -- one of swimming’s all-time greats – held an American record in each discipline at different points in her career. Surely this experience was a factor in her lowering the 400 IM World Record to 4:40.8in 1978.

The use of a formula like this one will help coaches motivate a potential IMer to improve his/her weaknesses – an extremely valuable concept when it comes to not only minimizing performance plateaus, but when choosing which events to swim at meets. Particularly at the age group level, coaches and swimmers miss the chance to develop these specific IM-related skills, and instead persistently enter their “top events” over and over. By entering the same events meet after meet, the swimmer does not get a chance to race the 100s and 200s of the strokes, thus limiting their potential for their best Medley performances. In addition, the swimmer often finds that it is difficult to improve their times from meet to meet when the events competed are continually the same events! Aside from the psychological and neurological issues associated with repetitive racing, as you get older and faster it takes more training time to improve an event – and so more time needs to be devoted to training the event, and less time to actually racing it. The athlete tends to do best when prepared with repetition in practice, but variety in meets – leading to that final meet of the season when their best performances in their best events are meant to emerge.

I’d like to see emerging IMers compete in the 100s and 200s of each stroke, as well as the 400 free (for 200 IMers), and the 800 free (for 400 IMers). I believe that the skills and physiology needed to improve these complimentary events has a direct correlation to improving an IM – and mixing the races will keep racing fresh, exciting, and achievement-based for our next generation of Medley greats.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"The Underdog's Advantage"

Earning a spot on the United States Olympic Swimming Team is an extremely difficult task. It’s even more difficult to earn, from one quadrennial to the next, a second consecutive placement on a U.S. team. Does the newcomer have a statistical advantage when it comes to makeing the U.S. Olmypic Swim Team? Here are the numbers, from the years 1988 through 2008:

4 of 24 men repeat from 1984 to 1988
6 of 19 women repeat from 1984 to 1988

9 of 24 men repeat from 1988 to 1992
3 of 20 women repeat from 1988-1992

5 of 23 men repeat from 1992-1996
3 of 20 women repeat from 1992-1996

4 of 19 men repeat from 1996-2000
5 of 24 women repeat from 1996-2000

11 of 21 men repeat from 2000-2004
5 of 22 women repeat from 2000-2004

11 of 22 men repeat from 2004-2008
5 of 21 women repeat from 2004-2008

The overall percentages are telling: the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team is made of many first-time Olympians, and very few repeat Olympians. In a given year about 66% of the men and 80% of the women are “new Olympians” – not having been a part of the previous Olympic Team, but then earning a spot.

Some of these “new Olympians” are the young athletes, whose rapid improvement through the Olympic year takes everyone by surprise; some are the older athletes who has been hanging around for a few years just waiting to burst on the scene at Olympic Trials; and in a few cases (Morales, Torres, Jendrick, etc) there are those who have been there before – then after skipping a quad have come back into the fold for another selection to the team.

Of course, making the team is still a monumental task whether you've been there before or not. It takes a ton of training and preparation -- and it takes an ultra-tough, determined athlete. But it happens, and it happens quite a bit when an athlete wills themselves out of obscurity and onto the U.S. Olympic Team.

Don’t consider yourself a legitmate contender for the team in 2012? Re-evaluate your expectations. Your chances may be better than you think.

….stay tuned for my next blog entry, which will address the United States’ Olympic veterans – and the amount of hardware collected by these exceptional athletes during their second and third shots at the Games.