A Clockwork or an Orange? Balancing the Science and the Human in Coaching Athletes by Charlie Dragon (2009)


Today’s talk is going to cover a wide range of ideas, and please stop me at any point for further discussion. The hook to the title of this talk is a reference to the book “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess and the movie by the same title by Stanley Kubrick. The book and movie are not for the squeamish, but the part that is relevant to us is the central premise of the book. Can we “fix” a person like we can “fix” a machine? Is a person programmable or not? In the book Alex needs to be reprogrammed to be ethical, he is a bad, bad boy. For us the question is can swimming performance, or generally athletic achievement, be programmed into a kid? If we just figure out the right sets, on the right intervals, with the right amount of kick, pull, technique, turns, starts, dryland out will come fast swimmers. Right? Or does psychology, the mushy, non-mechanical, “orange” stuff, stop us? Those growing, living things all cold and wet we boss around every day, are they programmable? Let’s do some thinking about this.

I did not study psychology formally in school, I studied philosophy, but after school there was about 2 years of my life where I was eating this stuff up. It was initially for personal development, changing the way I think and feel, but the more I read the more I kept thinking about the kids I coached, that they needed to hear this stuff too. So I started writing handouts called “Dragon’s Principles of Mental Training.” 1 or 2 pagers, I did 12 or so. Parts of which went toward articles I wrote for ASCA, and I hope one day to write a book. What do you think of the title “Swimming with the Dragon”?

Anyway, I loved the idea of these 13 and 14 year olds going home with handouts covering the stuff I will talk about today. It entertained me to think of mom and dad’s face when they said “Look what Charlie gave us today!” Keep that image in mind throughout this talk, as it was the genesis for most of this material. I found that the kids actually took to these ideas far more than I anticipated.

I did some split analysis recently to see if the advise I was giving out to my swimmers about how to split their races was actually the way the best are splitting their races. I compared the top 16 at Juniors this year with the top 8 at World’s, throwing out the high and low split differential at Junior’s to make averages.

I got some results. The data entry almost did me in, and I had never used excel before (never used power point until these talks too).

Here is the 100 Fr, comparing the split differential between the 1st 50 and the 2nd 50 as a %. How much slower is the 2nd 50 than the 1st? You are at a meet and you look at those splits and see a 1 second difference, is that good? How about a 3 second difference? Is that bad? I did this for all 4 strokes, 100s and 200s, and the IMs. Like I said, I got some results. Are they meaningful?

The men at the world level are swimming the 100fr with a larger split differential than everyone else, most dramatically so compared to the women at the world level. This shows there is a bigger difference between the 50s for the men at world’s, and they are the ones going the fastest. Is that good? Should the women start swimming the race more like the men? And in the 2nd chart you will see the 1st 50 is a smaller percentage of the total, meaning they are going out faster:

Interesting, right? Meaningful? Hmmm.

I’ll give you one more, the 400IM. Most interesting race statistically, because there are so many ways to crunch the numbers. I was interested in the advise to try to negative split each 100, make the 2nd 50 faster than the 1st. Do people actually do that? Drum roll please . . .

The answer is no in fly (not surprising given the dive), yes in the back, no in the breast, yes and by the most in the free.

Ah, numbers, so soothing sometimes. I was thinking of taking this data and advising my swimmers how better to split their races. Or take their best swim, look at the splits as a percentage, decide if that was about what they “should” be doing based on this, and then plugging in a goal time and getting goal splits. So I can say, “If you want to drop 3 seconds and swim it the way you swam it before, here is what you need to do.”

Now that’s good coaching! Right? I think it is, but I also think they aren’t machines, and getting them to drop 3 seconds, or do it in a particular way, is going to involve a lot more than numbers . . . Let’s go from one extreme to the other in the next slide. From looking at numbers, to all psychology and feel.

My example as the opposite of statistics is Arnold on performance. I quote here from “The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding” an 800 page wonderland. If I get carried away please stop me, but there is true wisdom in this book! Seriously!

When you hear how mental weight lifting was for Arnold, how tuned into his feel and emotions he was, it’s incredible:

“The body will never fully respond to your workouts until you understand how to train the mind as well. The mind is a dynamo, a source of vital energy. That energy can be negative and work against you, or you can harness it to give yourself unbelievable workouts . . .Whenever you hear about anyone performing unbelievable physical feats – Tiger Woods in golf, Michael Jordan in basketball, Michael Johnson in track, Hermann Maier in skiing, and so many more athletes – it is because of the power of their minds, not just technical, mechanical skill.”

“When you contract a muscle, the brain not only sends out signals that stimulate fiber contraction, but inhibitory signals that limit it as well. This protects you from overcontraction, which could cause injury, but limits the amount of muscle being stimulated. Whenever you experience a muscle spasm or cramp, you are getting a taste of what would happen if these inhibitory signals did not exist.

Training progress happens in part because you are making your muscle fibers bigger and stronger, and in part because you gradually reeducate your nervous system so that it will decrease the inhibitory signals involved and allow for a stronger contraction. It takes energy to overcome this inhibition, to overwhelm the protective mechanisms. The more intense the imagery you use, the harder you concentrate and focus the mind into the muscle, the more you break through these inhibitory limitations your brain is creating and the more rapid your progress.”

“The key to success in your workouts is to get the mind into the muscle, rather than thinking about the weight itself. When you think about the weight instead of the muscle, you can’t really feel what the muscle is doing. You lose control. Instead of stretching and contracting the muscle with deep concentration, you are simply exerting brute strength.”

“It became part of my routine that year to start out every day with total concentration. The way I did it was to play out exactly what I was going to use, how I was going to pull my muscles, and how I would feel it. I programmed myself. I saw myself doing it; I imagined how I would feel it. I was thoroughly, totally into it mentally. I did not waver at all.

When I went to the gym I got rid of every alien thought in my mind. I tuned in to my body as though it were a musical instrument I was about to play. In the dressing room I would start thinking about training, about every body part, what I was going to do, how I was going to pump up. I would concentrate on procedure and results until my everyday problems went floating away. I knew that if I went in there concerned about bills or girls and let myself think about those things while doing bench presses, I’d only make marginal progress. I’d seen guys reading the newspaper between sets day after day, and they always looked bad. Some of them had been going through the motions of training for years, and you couldn’t tell that they had ever picked up a weight. It had been nothing more than heartless pantomime”

I quote here from George Leonard’s book, “Mastery, The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment”

“Our body, brain, and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within narrow limits . . . Just think about it: if your body temperature moved up or down by 10 percent, you’d be in big trouble . . . This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis . . . The problem is, homeostasis works to keep things as they are even if they aren’t very good. Let’s say, for instance, that for the last twenty years – ever since high school, in fact – you’ve been almost entirely sedentary. Now most of your friends are working out, and you figure you can’t beat the fitness revolution, you’ll join it. Buying the tights and running shoes is fun, and so are the first few steps as you start jogging on the high school track near your house. Then, about a third of the way around the first lap, something terrible happens. Maybe you’re suddenly sick to your stomach. Maybe you are dizzy. Maybe there’s a strange, panicky feeling in your chest. Maybe you’re going to die . . . What you’re really getting is a homeostatic alarm signal – bells clanging, lights flashing. Warning! Warning! Significant changes in respiration, heart rate, metabolism. Whatever you’re doing, stop doing immediately.”

I believe the body (and mind’s) tendency toward keeping things the same works on many levels. A certain amount of physical exertion has been experienced before, more than that is resisted mechanically, primally, by the body and brain. There are mechanisms at work that circumvent the cognitive part of the brain and just happen. So if your body is alarmed by the level of respiration, heart-rate, lactic acid, etc., what’s it going to do? Try to shut down entirely.

Or, much more often, you do little things to try to rest, go back to equilibrium. Like? Fewer underwater dolphin kicks? Lazy turns? Longer breathes in freestyle? Float into the wall? Get a convenient cramp? Put in some easy breaststroke kicks?

We all too often look at those behaviors as caused by a personality or character flaw, or as isolated, and not signs of physical distress. I believe they are probably a mix of the 2, but the theme of this entire talk is look for causes to outcomes, consider connections that may not be easily seen. This line of thinking came to me the other day when I actually got in the water and swam some laps – something I rarely do.

So I’m going back and forth, trying to play with my stroke, do some drills, just feel the water. And all of a sudden, I was doing little cheats, when I was alone, had no interval and knew a hell of a lot about what I was supposed to do. I said, “Why am I doing this? It seems automatic.” Some was habit from my inglorious days as a swimmer, but the other factor was as I got tired it got worse. Duh, right?

Well, how about those days when the whole group looks like crap, when their streamlines are poor, they aren’t doing the drills well, and they generally stink. Ever think that might be a sign they are worn down physically? That their bodies are self-preserving? Ever think that practice attendance is reflection of that too? Illness? All ways to rest aren’t they?

How do we teach kids to resist those physical mechanisms which are screaming “Go up for air! Stop at this next wall! Go on the slower interval, you can’t survive this!”

Ownership goes a long way to helping that. I like an analogy to school when it comes to ownership, as I got good grades in high school but did the absolute minimum to get them because I felt like being in school was being in jail. I took the path of least resistance, and I regret it.

Most students, including me, look at learning the content of the class, let’s say history, as the means to getting a good grade. Goal = ‘A’ grade. Way to achieve that goal? Remember material, test well, do homework, etc. Teacher has the power.

Now, what if your goal was instead to learn history. That’s what you wanted to do, to learn history as well as you could. If that’s truly how you felt, then the teacher is now an asset to achieving that goal, as are tests which motivate you to study and to learn, which is your goal. A’s, grades, are now the happy side-effect of learning. The goal is learning, the side effect is good grades. Let that sink in a bit. How radically different would that school experience be from the one I had? The tables are completely turned, the power, the ownership, is in the hands of the student.

Swimmers can get fast without ownership, can get fast through a horribly strong sense of guilt about not going to practice or disappointing parents and coaches. They can get fast through fear and intimidation, or through wanting to keep up with their peers, or through anger, or through bribery/extortion by parents, or all sorts of other negative emotions. This fact actually makes coaching, and what I am doing right here, far more difficult. But I do not believe that anyone can reach his/her full potential, can be as fast as the physics of their body allow, if they lack ownership.

If we had to rank mental states by effectiveness for sports performance, I’d put what is referred to as “flow” at the top.

This is a fascinating book. The state of flow is something we all have felt, it’s the one where times flies by. You are playing with your friends, and all of a sudden it’s dinner time and you have to go in. I think I experienced it most as a kid, before my analytical brain took over and it still won’t let go. Flow is truly “optimal experience.” I love how sports commentators ask athletes how they were feeling during their race, or when they were making a great play, and the answer is “I wasn’t really thinking about anything” or “I’m not sure.” They were in a state of flow most likely, unencumbered by the thought process . . .

There are times to think, be analytical, but those times are in practice, not while racing. The author of Flow found that people most experienced this state when they were doing what they were passionate about. Whether that be building model trains, or exercising, or reading. They actually found people were almost never in a state of flow when watching television, and people actually reported more stress and discomfort while watching tv.

There is no formula for how to get a person into a state of flow, how we as coaches can make that happen. Surely we can strive to reduce de-motivators during practice. The distractions or difficulties we all face. We can try to be engaging, encouraging, inspiring. I’m not sure how to put someone else into a state of flow, as it is hard enough for me to get into it. But I know it matters a whole lot.

Overachievement – The New Model of Exceptional Performance by John Eliot

“Michael Jordan was not a very gifted basketball player. That may seem an outrageous (even stupid) thing to say, but it is true – at least by many objective measures. Grab your record book and follow along. Jordan ranked ninth in field goals made, eighteenth in total points, sixth in field goal attempts per forty-eight minutes. Jordan does not rank first in any major NBA statistic. Even in his prime, Jordan was not the fastest or most accurate shooter; he certainly was not a rebounder or brilliant at defense . . . Michael Jordan does hold one record: He has missed more shots than any other player in basketball history. And, as Jordan knows full well, it is because of that statistic that he is the greatest . . . Jordan never reacted to his mistakes as if they were a problem. He would make a foolish play, and as soon as it was over, there he was with the ball again, his tongue hanging out, winking at somebody, looking to make a move toward the basket.”

Optimism is not about waking up smiling everyday, or thinking everything is for the best. Optimism is about internal reaction to disappointment and adversity.

Seligman talks about watching Biondi in the 1988 Olympics, how he finished a disappointing 3rd in the 200Fr and was out touched in the 100Fly. The question was, would Biondi be able to bounce back for his other 5 events?

“I sat in my living room confident that he would. I had reason to believe this, because we had tested Matt Biondi in Berkeley four months before to determine his capacity to do just what he had to do now – come back from defeat.

Along with his teammates, he had taken the Attributional Style Questionnaire, and he had come out in the top quarter of optimism of an optimistic bunch. We had then simulated defeat under controlled conditions in the pool. Nort Thornton, Biondi’s coach, had him swim the 100 yard butterfly all out. Biondi swam it in 50.2 seconds, a very respectable time. But Thornton told him that he swam a 51.7, a very slow time for Biondi. Biondi looked disappointed and surprised. Thornton told him to rest up for a few minutes and then swim it again – all out. Biondi did. His actual time got even faster, 50.0. Because his explanatory style was highly optimistic and he had shown us that he got faster – not slower – after defeat, I felt he would bring back gold from Seoul.”

So the test Seligman conducted on all the swimmers was to have them swim one of their best events and then tell the swimmers the time was slow by an amount that was significant but believable and then ask them to try again. The swimmers who scored as pessimists on their exams swam worse on the 2nd swim, those who were optimists either swam the swam time or improved. Pretty dramatic!

The pessimists over the course of the season had twice as many unexpectedly poor swims as the optimists did.

Seligman also notes that before the season he had Nort and his wife Karen rate all of their swimmers on how they thought the swimmers would do, particularly under pressure during the season. Turns out those predictions did not line up with the optimism test scores, and the results.

I have no idea what this protest is about, seems to be from Belgium, I intend no political commentary here.

Do well-rounded people make better athletes? Do well rounded people make better coaches? It’s not clear to me the answer to either of those questions is yes, sadly. But I want to be in the business of helping develop well-balanced people and I myself want to be a well balanced person. We as a community need to reflect on the outsized role swimming plays in the lives of our kids and the limitations the commitment to swimming has on their development as people. A friend of mine is a classically trained musician, and he remarked that at conservatory you had many kids who were phenoms at their instruments but barely knew how to cross the street. They were incomplete people, and as such rarely achieved true greatness. Do we see some of that in swimming?

This is from “Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment” by George Leonard

“Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it . . . To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so . . . you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

As Leonard presents it, this is the Mastery Curve, the process by which we become great. It’s not linear, meaning it isn’t a straight line up, it has regresses, and bends, and twists. It’s also incredibly uncommon. Dealing with the plateau, being able to practice with as much intention and focus when you aren’t improving is very challenging.

“There are times in almost every master’s journey when it becomes necessary to give up some hard-won competence in order to advance to the next stage. This is especially true when you’re stuck at a familiar and comfortable skill level. The parable of the cup and the quart applies here. There’s a quart of milk on the table – within your reach. But you’re holding a cup of milk in your hand and you’re afraid to let go of the cup in order to get the quart.”

There was a Navy Seal series on Discovery Channel in 2002 about the BUDs training, the boot camp for those wanting to be Navy Seals. Now if there ever was tough-guy stuff it’s this. I own the dvds and love them. I couldn’t believe how often the seal instructors were talking about the mind. They looked at almost every single problem as fixable through changing the mental outlook. Toughness for them was entirely mental.

Fear is not simply what you experience when your life is in danger, or you are on top of a tall building, or some other dramatic situation. Fear is subtle and prevalent in many situations we encounter daily. But we often don’t recognize our reactions as fearful because fear creates many other emotions like anxiety, nervousness, anger, sadness, embarrassment, frustration, critical self-talk, hopelessness, helplessness and pessimism. Fear is not always the cause of these other emotions, but oftentimes it is. Fear is present in all of us, only in different amounts.

We are fear deniers for some reason. I have listened closely to athletes describe a problem and it is so clear to me that they are in fear of something, but when you suggest fear as a cause they deny it. Fear = Chicken = Character Flaw or Weakness of Will to far too many coaches. Our response is too often “don’t be scared” or we just get away from a kid who we label a “head case.” Deconstruct the fear, try to draw out from the swimmer what is actually causing the problem (and that may take time) and once out in the light it is easier to manage.

“Emotion runs the show in sport. Some emotions are empowering and free your talent and skill; other emotions are disempowering and effectively lock your potential out. Empowering emotions are those associated with challenge, drive, determination, positive fight, energy, spirit, persistence, fun. Disempowering emotions are those associated with feelings of fatigue, helplessness, insecurity, low energy, weakness, fear and confusion.” – James Loehr

Look, emotions are in charge. We can’t pretend they are not. How many athlete to athlete, and coach to coach interactions, have I seen that were emotionally based despite being expressed otherwise? Most I’d say. Sure the topic could be some benign scheduling matter, but the emotional undercurrent could be something far different. Sound like a relationship to you? What’s a relationship but an emotional interaction. Those big meets we all love so much, where the team and the crowd are fired up, that’s all emotion. How about the melt-down swim, the huge choke, the disaster of a season. How many times has that swimmer been really solid emotionally? Never?

I quote here from Joseph Cambell, a professor of religion and myth. He did a series on PBS many years ago you might remember. So keep in mind this quote is coming from a highly accomplished, highly respected professor, someone who has devoted his life to thought and study – a “nerd” according to too many athletic types.

“My peak experiences all came in athletics. I ran a couple of races that were just beautiful. I knew I was going to win even though there was no reason to know because I touched off anchor in a relay with the first man 30 yards ahead of me. But I knew, I knew — it was a peak experience, no one could beat me that day. It’s about being in full-form. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those races.”

“There is a place in yourself of rest. This I know a little about from athletics. The athlete who is in championship form has a quiet place in himself, and it’s out of that that his action comes. If he’s all in the action field, then he’s not performing properly. There is a center out of which you act . . . In dance there is a center which must be known and held. There it is quite physically recognized. But unless this center is found, you are torn apart, tension comes.”

Center in swimming is, balance, line, posture. We can almost see in swimming when the center is “torn apart.” Think about those races by non swimmers in the back yard pool, head out of the water, flinging side to side, arms thrashing, knees bending.

The place of rest, of grounding, is something I believe all top athletes have. It holds them together when the pressure is on.

I love this quote by the ancient Greek Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand, and I can move the Earth.”

In ancient Greece there existed the Oracle of Delphi, a temple inside of which sat a priestess who was thought to be able to predict the future. Kings, military generals and other people of importance would ask the Oracle which choice they should make in a tough situation. I think the Oracle has something very important to tell us about awareness, how to solve our problems, determine our future, make us faster swimmers and better people. Why? Because above the entrance to the temple, written in stone, were two words which translate to “Know Thyself.” The best predictor of the future is just that, knowing thyself.

William James is one of the greatest American philosophers and a personal favorite. Despite being absolutely brilliant and credited by some as inventing the field of psychology, he often wrote much more approachable essays on topics of general interest. You can find this essay that I am about to quote from online for free.

“And often our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself in a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself . . . and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case . . . the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such a belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust – both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.”

That really fits with a lot of the evidence from quantum mechanics, that atoms are neither here nor there until they are observed, at which point the wave function collapses into one of the possible positions for the atom to be in. But I am not prepared to discuss that further. Just know that there is strong scientific evidence to support that our intention often changes the facts of the world.

Remember that split analysis at the beginning? At times that is exactly what they need, and at other times they need a laugh. Sometimes they need clear, precise expectations with immediate feedback (and numbers are great for that), other times they need to a talk about relaxation and visualization.

We are both, machine-like and irreducibly whole, but in differing amounts. I think as coaches the best thing we can do is to learn our swimmers, learn to identify what they need, and then prepare ourselves to give it to them.

In my 1st year of full time coaching I got a point where I felt completely frustrated. I thought, how can I be 25 different things to 25 different people at the same time? Each swimmer’s personal needs were too much for me to bear, I couldn’t change gears between talking with the confident, overachieving 13 year old boy, and the timid, upset 17 year old girl. How can I be everything to everyone?

I can be by learning them and being myself. It’s a balance, and the art is in walking the line.

Thank you!

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