Why failing can be more important than success

I am a failed Ironman. Twice in fact. One of the dreaded DNF’s (Did Not Finish). On both occasions I completed the swim but didn’t make it round the bike section. I don’t think I have ever felt so dejected after a sporting event. Indeed, I can’t remember feeling quite so down after anything I have ever done. Feelings of not only massive disappointment but also mixed with humiliation and embarrassment. At the time I felt as if it would almost have been better if people had openly laughed at me. Why hadn’t I trained more – or more intelligently? Why at my height/weight/age did I ever think I was going to make it? How could I be beaten by Fred or Frank or Francis (names changed to protect the guilty) all of whom were surely less athletic than me? Why did I tell so many people that I was taking part, all of whom I’m going to have to tell that I didn’t make it to the end?

I failed. I am a failure.

With the benefit of several years of hindsight, I can see how ridiculously out of proportion my reaction was. Yet I still can’t shake those thoughts off completely.

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Right now we’re probably smack in the middle of the period where folks are taking on their own personal endurance challenges, probably involving icy waters or towering mountains. Or both. Targets are being set and met, medals are being awarded, grinning selfies are being taken. Stand at any finish line and you will see a range of emotions from quiet satisfaction to extreme pain and relief. But every single person who crosses has the satisfaction of knowing that they are in some way a winner. A finisher.

But there will also be a small number of participants, who, like me at the Ironman, are recorded in the results as DNF. They are the ones being tended by medical staff, ruefully inspecting broken equipment or nursing sprains and pulls who slink quietly off to the car park with no fanfare or fuss. A consoling arm across the shoulders and an encouraging comment will be of little help Perhaps it’s best just leave them to their own quiet moment of reflection and recovery. Regardless, their feelings will be the same. No amount of comfort will assuage the disappointment completely.

Yet, some things can, and should be, salvaged. For a start, a DNF should be viewed as a fantastic learning opportunity. What went wrong and why? More importantly, what changes need to be made before the next attempt in order to rectify the situation? Every detail should be analysed, not just the performance on the day. This includes the training schedule, the type of training done, the nutrition plan, the mental preparation, even the choice and date of the event. For the day itself, a review should be made of the tactics, the conditions and the physical and emotional state of the athlete at the start line. A brutal and honest evaluation will undoubtedly reveal areas that can be tweaked, adjusted or which require a radical overhaul before the next time.  Endurance events, whether on land, in the water or in the air are all about pushing the limits of what we think is possible, testing ourselves and finding out where those boundaries are.  It is inevitable that sometimes, on some days, we find ourselves not quite up to the task.

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There will always be DNF’s for any significant endurance event and we should remember that they represent an extremely important group for everyone taking part. This is because they remind us that the event is a challenge to the athlete and for any challenge there has to be a risk of failure. If not, the event simply becomes “something we do to pass the time”. I can ride a bike; most people can. I can cycle into town, I can even cycle round the local hills. However, as I proved on my Ironman attempts, I couldn’t ride one over the mountains of Majorca because that’s a fairly significant challenge. Therefore, for those who could, and did, they know that they achieved something, overcame something, finished something and therefore their success means something.

So, tough as it may be to swallow, those of us who end up in the DNF category are vital to the overall significance of any endurance event. We provide context and proof that this was something that not everyone can do, even those of us who are relatively fit and prepared. Thus for those who do finish, they can take pride in knowing that their achievement has some sort of significance. And if it doesn’t feel like that, if they felt it was all too easy, then maybe it’s time to step up to the next level where failure once again becomes a threat and a credible outcome for the day.

For the DNF gang, we need to go away, lick our wounds, review and learn and come back even stronger either to take the same challenge on again or maybe set a different target, a different challenge – one that can be achieved. But still one with the danger that it might not. Otherwise, what’s the point in doing it at all?

Ready, steady, wait. (Are you sure you’re ready ?)

Am I alone in having a list of things that I know should be part of the routine of my life but which, seem to get continually overlooked? Things like turning my mattress, reviewing my energy suppliers and flossing my teeth. And doing a proper warm-up before swimming. Please tell me it’s not just me!

If I’m doing other sports a warm-up is one of those things you do almost without thinking about it. Thus if I’m going for a run, I’ll have a short jog first or at the gym, I’ll have a short light session on a machine at a low setting before getting into the main session as a matter of course. But this rarely happens when I go swimming and, from what I observe, I’m not alone.

Why not? Perhaps, because they don’t come out of the water drenched in sweat, no matter how far you have swum folks don’t realise how much energy and work they have spent and, even with a good technique, how much potential strain there has been on the muscles. The fact that swimming is a low impact sport probably exacerbates this potentially complacent view.

But one ignores a proper warm-up at your peril, particularly with advancing years. It will go a long way to prevent injuries, improve performance, reduce the level of muscle tension and increase the range of motion possible. All vital stuff.

But if the case for doing a warm-up is inescapable this leads to the inevitable question of what one should actually do. Is it sufficient just to swing the arms vigorously for a while, stretch out the shoulders and quads, roll the neck a few times before leaping into the water? Or should the warm-up be a more structured affair?

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In order to answer that question it is important to differentiate between stretching and warming up. For some the terms are interchangeable but in reality they describe different activities and their functions are often very different. Care should be taken when stretching that the result is not more harm than good. Every body is different and there is no one size fits all ruling but as a general rule of thumb stretching should only be performed on muscles that are already warm. That is to say, they are best performed as part of a warm down at the end of a swim, not part of a warm-up at the start.

 

 

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Stretching can be broken down into several sub-categories. These include static stretches where a person holds a position for up to 30 seconds, passive stretches, where this is done by someone else, dynamic stretches, for example, controlled swinging of the arms and ballistic stretches, where the body is forced beyond the normal boundaries of operation. Other more complex types include active isolated stretches where the contraction of one muscle leads to the stretching of another, isometric stretching where a muscle is alternatively stretched and contracted and a combination of passive and isometric stretching known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Of all these variations only the controlled dynamic stretches are really suitable to be included in a warm-up and even then they should be used very judiciously. Save everything else for later, and, even then, take care not to overdo it.

So if stretching is largely to be avoided, then what should be included. The best advice seems to be to simply do what you plan to do in the main set but to do it at a lower tempo and to take rests throughout. Thus, in a pool, one might do six to eight lengths swimming at something like 75% and resting for several breaths at the end of each 25m. If you want to swing your arms a bit or rotate the neck gently before you get in, well OK, if you must. However, those won’t be movements you are performing when swimming (I hope!) so is there really much point in getting the body ready to perform them?

The best warm-ups will consist of movements likely to be performed later simply performed at a lower intensity to prepare the body for what is to come. After the swim and during the warm down (also not to be forgotten) is the time to, carefully, include any stretching you want to include. At all times ensure you are operating within the boundaries of your limitations.

That way you can remain safe and healthy ready to floss those teeth and turn your mattress!

A look back at the Tokyo Olympics

So finally a line has been drawn beneath the delayed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The closing ceremony was awash with the usual impressive pyrotechnics and entertainment ranging from the mind-numbingly dull, through the frankly bizarre to the jaw-droppingly spectacular and thus neatly encapsulated a Games which has been like no other. Or like any is likely to be again. The predictions of doom regarding the increased spread of Covid appear to have been largely unfounded and the result of the lack of spectators often resulted, not in an empty sterile environment, but a more intense atmosphere of sporting competition stripped bare of the usual razzmatazz which surrounds such events. And, was it just me, or did there seem to be a greater respect amongst athletes for the achievements of their rivals and a genuine joy in the success of others? Certainly one of the abiding images from Tokyo came at the end of the 200m women’s breaststroke final. Won by South African Tatjana Schoenmaker in a new World Record time of 2.18.95 she was embraced by compatriot Kaylene Corbett as well as Americans Lilly King and Annie Lazor whom she had beaten into the Silver and Bronze positions and the delight on the faces of all four women was beamed around the world.

The Tokyo Olympics saw its fair share of drama and determination, highs and heartaches many of which will live long in the memory. The aquatics centre was no exception to this rule with many outstanding performances. 880 athletes competed and 21 countries won at least one medal with the standout performance coming from the United States who brought home a total of thirty medals, eleven of them gold. The Australians took the second spot with nine golds amongst their twenty medals with the third most successful team being Great Britain and Northern Ireland with eight medals, half of them golds.

Established stars defended their records and their reputation for being at the very top of their game whilst rising stars emerged and are certain to dominate the sport for years to come. But there was still room for one or two shocks and heartwarming success stories.

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At 27 the US swimmer Kate Ledecky is hardly over the hill, indeed she is almost certain to feature prominently at the Paris Games in 2024, but compared to some of her youthful rivals she is becoming one of the more experienced performers in the pool. Tokyo represented a personal triumph for her as she won two golds, one of them in the new freestyle distance of 1,500m. These, added to the four she had already won at previous Games makes her the most decorated ever female Olympic swimmer.

However, 21-year-old Ariarne Titmus gave notice to the old guard that new talents were emerging as she beat Ledecky to gold in the 400m freestyle as she also bagged gold in the 200m event plus silver in the 800m and bronze as part of the 4x200m relay. Another 20-year-old Kaylee McKeown a backstroke specialist won gold in the 100m and 200m individual event as well as the 4x100m women and mixed relays.

Other notable Australian successes were recorded by near namesake Emma McKeon who added to the four medals she had won in Rio with a further seven in Japan. This matched the record for the number of medals won by a woman at a single games. Together these three formed the backbone of the Aussie dominance in the pool.

For the men, no-one came near the man constantly compared to Michael Phelps, the amazing Caeleb Dressel. With five golds he was a commanding presence whilst still remaining refreshingly modest and grounded during interviews. Undoubtedly his most impressive performance came whilst setting a new World Record of 49.45 in the 100m butterfly. At just 24 years old he still has plenty of time to overhaul Phelps’s record of 23 Olympic medals.

For the Brits, Adam Peaty, James Guy and Tom Dean all won two golds with Peaty and Guy also bringing home a silver medal. They were both winners of one of the new events for Tokyo, the mixed 100m relay along with Kathleen Dawson and Anna Hopkin.

Possibly the most unexpected victory however came in the 400m men’s freestyle event. Starting in lane 8, Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui was hardly known and certainly not one of the favourites for the title. But in a winning time of 3.43.36 he proved that dreams can indeed sometimes come true.

So as Japan’s rising sun becomes its setting sun we can reflect on some truly incredible performances, not only by those I have mentioned but by every athlete who has spent years training and toiling away from the spotlight for their brief moment to shine and to entertain us as they chase their target of glory. Roll on Paris, it’s going to be spectacular!

Time to get in line

If you hang around talking with SwimMastery coaches for any length of time you’ll hear an awful lot about the importance of the Streamline position. It is, they will tell you, the most important position in Freestyle swimming and, if one is to have any success with the stroke, it is vital to master this phase.

To anyone coming to the stroke for the first time, the emphasis placed on the Streamline may seem a little misplaced. If the point in swimming is to create forward momentum, why concentrate on an aspect of the stroke where, apparently, there is relatively little going on? Would it not be better to concentrate on the period where the body is being propelled forwards?

This though is to misunderstand the fundamental point of efficient swimming which is to displace as little of the water as possible as you move through it and past it. And the position in which you are doing that at the maximum is during Streamline.

Photo courtesy of Tracey Baumann

It’s also a great phase at which the brain can perform a rapid mental checklist and, if necessary, “reset”. If performed correctly the Streamline will be the point at which the body is at its maximum length and the connection from the fingernails, through the scapula, hips thighs, knees, to the feet will be at its most apparent. Once the swimmer can tune into this feeling of connection all the way down the body they are in the perfect position to initiate the weight shift which leads to the rotation allowing the body to power past the anchoring arm performing the catch.

Without that all-important whole-body connection the timing, breath management and coordination of the stroke are all lost and with it the speed and efficiency too.
Remember too that the Streamline is hit twice in each cycle of the stroke, once on the left and once on the right. Most swimmers will have a favoured side – usually the one where they are leading with their dominant hand – so make sure that both sides are equally perfect. Spend time during practice to imprint the muscle memory clearly, spending more time on the weaker side if necessary.

But remember Streamline is only a fleeting moment in a fluid whole movement. Although it presents a perfect opportunity for a quick “stock-check” of body parts it is not an opportunity to have a little rest and let momentum glide you forwards! This can only lead to a slowing of the overall speed with increased work required to regain it. It is vital to develop the ability to instantly recognise if the body is not conforming to the perfect Streamlining position and to correct and re-connect immediately.

As one of the fundamental building blocks for the freestyle stroke, time spent practising and perfecting the Streamline will never be wasted.

Short and sweet

It’s not uncommon for swimmers to come away from their initial assessment with their coach fired up with enthusiasm and buzzing with new ideas and techniques they are desperate to try out within their stroke. And that’s terrific. Just what we want.

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Why then, doesn’t your Swim Mastery coach recommend that the best thing to do next is to go for a long swim to try out all these new ideas?

The great temptation is to go to the pool and put in multiple lengths. Indeed many non-Swim Mastery coaches will recommend doing exactly that. I remember a couple of years ago, talking to one coach who was teaching a group of three swimmers in our local pool. After giving them ten minutes or so of quite intense drilling he then set them off swimming laps for the rest of the session. When I asked him about this he said it was important for his pupils to get the miles under their belts to practice what he had just been teaching. In addition, his view was that his pupils should complete two to three long swims before their next lesson.

The Swim Mastery approach is diametrically opposed to this view advocating instead short repeats of no more than six to eight strokes with no breathing (exactly as per the coached sessions in fact), There are several reasons for this. Primary amongst them is the fact that the coach is trying to instil new movement or thought patterns into their swimmer’s stroke. This can be easily achieved in short bursts but much more than that and the body will revert to the old default way of moving.

Don’t believe me? Well, try this. Go and take a walk down the garden but as you lift each foot make sure the knee bends at an angle of 90 degrees before you straighten it at the end of each pace. Come back and tell me how you got on.

Done it? Good. OK, so a slightly weird way of walking but easy enough to do right? I’m guessing that you believe that you achieved that easily enough. But answer me this. How did your thirteenth pace compare with your nineteenth? And how did either of them compare with your fifth? Were they all completely identical? Are you sure? If not, which was best? Why? What would you do to improve?

If you can answer all that with any degree of certainty I would be amazed (and you would almost certainly be wrong!). There’s just too much information coming at the brain far too fast for it to process it all completely. And if I’d asked you to walk up and down the garden six times instead of just the once, my guess is that by the end of it your 90-degree bend would have decreased significantly and you would have begun to revert to a more familiar way of walking.

Similar sorts of principles apply in the pool. If a swimmer is trying to compare how their second stroke felt to how their fourth one felt they are far more likely to be able to do it (and make the necessary corrections) if they stop after the sixth stroke as opposed to having to process another twenty or so strokes after them.

By swimming in such short bursts the swimmer can make an instant evaluation of their performance, even without their coach present. If they feel they are achieving whatever task they have set themselves, terrific. Time to do another set and see if it can be repeated and the movement pattern imprinted on the brain. Alternatively, if it didn’t feel quite right, by taking a break the swimmer gives themselves time to work out why that might be and what they need to do to change without falling back into old, bad habits.

And there is another major benefit. Short repeats mean that the swimmer can simply stand up when it is time to breathe. Even for experienced swimmers, the breathing stroke can look a little different to the non-breathing strokes. For the novice swimmer breathing strokes are often massively disruptive; the head can be raised resulting in a bend in the back and a complete loss of connection in the body. The leading arm has a tendency to come across the centre line and the overall loss of balance can result in the legs splaying out of the shadow of the body’s forward propulsion. It can take a stroke or two to recover, and by then it’s almost time to take another breath!

None of this is unexpected and is part of the natural survival instinct to get to the air. However, it is also massively disruptive to the overall stroke and takes brain power away from the specific cue which is being taught or practised.

When learning a new movement pattern the average attention span is surprisingly short and it is important to stop before the processing power of the brain has been exhausted and to remove as many distractions as possible. One of the greatest challenges to a coach is to overcome deep-seated assumptions or practices previously acquired over many years. The swimmer’s brain and body will have become accustomed and reliant on them even whilst also acknowledging that they may not be the most efficient ways of moving. Given half a chance they will return to the old familiar practices simply because that is what feels most comfortable.

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To break the cycle, the swimmer must receive constant reminders of the new methods and movements and by far the most effective way of doing that is to instil these through short repeats and evaluations. Only once the skills have been mastered in these small bite-sized chunks and become the “new normal” is it time to take the next step and see if they can be replicated during longer swims.

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