Curing the winter blues

How are you feeling?

Full of vim and vigour for the New Year? Bouncing with energy and creative ideas?

Nah, me neither. It’s all rubbish, isn’t it? This time of year is generally recognised as being the toughest part of the calendar to wade through. The razzmatazz of Christmas is over, the weather is generally cold and rainy (in the UK at least), the bills are mounting up and it still isn’t payday. January seems to drag on forever. By the back end of the month, everything seems lacklustre and dreary.

Photo by Behnam Norouzi on Unsplash

Well, the good news is that I have come up with a solution. With a single masterstroke I have devised a plan which will cheer everyone up and resolve the January Blues forever. It’s very simple.

We move January round to the summer.

Roll straight from December into February. Who doesn’t love February? Short sweet little month bursting with the romantic, albeit slightly over-hyped, Valentine’s Day. Perfect.

And while we’re about it, I propose shortening December to 27 days too. Eliminate that non-productive wasteland between Christmas and New Year. 25th, 26th and 27th, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve. Bish, bash, bosh. No mucking about, just get on with it.

So, with December and February reduced to 55 days in total, that leaves 310 days to split between the remaining ten months. Fantastic! 31 days each. No more having to try to remember where the extra days go. And with November increased up to 31 days, that’s one more day to prepare for Christmas and there’s never enough time to do that is there? Plus January can now be slotted neatly in between, say, July and August, when we’ll all be much perkier and more energetic and able to tackle it head-on.

If I say so myself, it’s a brilliant plan. Not too late to implement it for 2023 either. The campaign starts here. Who’s with me?

Whilst we’re waiting for the inevitable head of steam to build though I guess we need to do what we can. And by all accounts, you could do worse than going for a swim.

In the early eighties, the January Blues phenomenon was recognised as a genuine illness that has become known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD for short. Despite the rather trite nickname, SAD can be extremely debilitating for those who suffer from it with prolonged depressive interludes being the most common symptom.
The exact reasons for SAD are not universally agreed upon and, thus the same can be said for any treatments too. It would probably be crass to suggest that something as simple as swimming could be the cure for what is a serious mental disorder.

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Nevertheless, in 2018 Swim England commissioned a survey into the beneficial effects that swimming can have. It found that one in four people are likely to suffer from some sort of mental illness each year, a huge proportion of the population. Yet 1.4 million of those surveyed found that swimming regularly reduced symptoms of anxiety and/or depression and 497,000 reduced or stopped using medication for SAD if swimming regularly. Food for thought.

The reasons for these startling results are, as I say, not entirely clear. Some of it may be coincidental (although no less valid for all that). For example, SAD is commonly linked with the reduced daylight hours of winter. As swimming usually takes place in brightly lit pools or, even better, in the natural light outdoors, the benefits of improved lighting are inherent to the activity. It’s thought too that lowering the body temperature can also be a significant factor for treatment and outdoor swimmers in particular at this time of year know all about that! The focus and concentration required for swimming can also relieve the mind of negative and damaging thoughts which also may help some.

Of course, there are many other considerations to take into account when treating sufferers of SAD such as the importance of a good diet, proper amounts of rest and the avoidance of large quantities of alcohol plus the requirement for medical intervention in some cases. Mental wellbeing is, of course, a huge subject and one I can’t hope to give full justice to here. However for a treatment that is largely free and freely available and which has proven benefits swimming seems to have much to offer the mind as well as the body.

Meanwhile, I’m going to write to the appropriate authorities to get my calendar reconstruction campaign off the ground. If only I could work out what date to put on the letter…

Can a frog on a bicycle help you swim better?

What has a frog on a bicycle got to do with swimming I hear you ask? 

Well, nothing at all. Obviously. That’s the point.

Let me explain

As swimmers, we are constantly told to swim with a specific goal in mind and to use cues to achieve this. A good cue acts as a constant feedback loop. By honing in on a specific aspect of your stroke you can use the cue as a yardstick by which to measure your performance. Thus you can assess the success (or otherwise) of your swimming instantly and make any corrections or adjustments necessary to improve your performance. 

There is an important caveat to remember though in that you can only gauge your results for that particular swim and, more importantly, only for the particular aspect of your stroke being addressed by the cue in question. Thus if your cue pertains to the way your hand is entering the water but whilst swimming you become aware that, say, your legs are sinking, this does not automatically mean that you have failed in the execution of your cue.

Because the body is one unit and a problem in one area can cause a reaction elsewhere there might be a connection between the two issues, but it doesn’t follow in all cases. The trick is to keep focused on the cue you are working on and not to worry about anything else. You may find that if you can increase the level of adherence to the aspect you are working on then other problems seem to magically disappear. If they don’t, no worries just choose another cue later to address the second problem.

That’s the beauty of a good cue. They act as a small and precise hammer chipping away at the block of marble trying to gradually reveal the statue within. 

But what is a “good” cue? And what happens if you use a bad one? Or no cue at all?

One of the joys of leading our Masters class on occasions is the opportunity to work with a group of swimmers willing, albeit sometimes unwittingly, to be guinea pigs into my little explorations into some of the theories behind how we learn and improve our stroke.

Photo by Kirwin Elias on Unsplash

To this end, last Thursday I gave the group a seemingly random set of 25 cues and asked them to time themselves over 25 metres for each one to see if there were differences in their performance. Some of the cues were familiar to them as traditional SwimMastery favourites like keeping the head away from the feet and sending the head forwards with each stroke. But some were phrases that coaches normally try to avoid such as “Don’t over-rotate” and “Prevent splashing”. I also included some frankly bizarre things for them to concentrate on. 

Trust me, if you’ve never seen the look on the faces of a group of swimmers as you tell them you want them to swim whilst imagining a garden gnome playing a trumpet or a giraffe on roller skates then you’ve missed out on one of life’s rare treats!

Although I didn’t make this obvious to them before the session started I had chosen a number of broad topics (the amount of rotation, the level of connection, the focus on forward motion etc.) and assigned to each, one “random” cue, one “don’t” cue and three “good” cues.

Getting them to use familiar tried and tested cues was an obvious choice although providing different types in order to reach the same ultimate result may have led one or two of them to move away from the security of what they were used to and instead try a different approach.

The reason for using the random yet, I hoped, quite vivid images was an attempt to take their mind off their performance in the water completely so that we could look at how they fared if they reverted to pure muscle memory alone. 

The most interesting results for me though were the ones from “Don’t do this” group. The problem with telling someone to concentrate on not doing something, and the reason why SwimMastery coaches try to avoid doing so, is that there is no instruction regarding how this should be achieved or what should be done instead. It’s like telling someone you want them to go to the bottom of the garden but they mustn’t walk. What should they do then? Run? Skip? Jump? Crawl? Fly? With no further instruction other than “Don’t Walk” it’s impossible to know how the task should be achieved.

Thus “Don’t over-rotate” for example might be a very laudable and worthwhile aim but the brain needs some further information regarding how this should be achieved.

The reason I think this is so important is that there is a great temptation, when practising or training alone, to slip into using these “Don’t do this” cues by default. Have you ever started a swim thinking “I’m not going to drop my elbow before the catch today” or “This time I’m going to concentrate on not splaying my legs as I kick”? It’s an easy trap to fall into.

In order for a cue to be effective, it must be clear, achievable and measurable. If it isn’t, the effects on the stroke will be at best negligible and at worst detrimental.

So what was the effect of my experiment on my Masters group? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that any results have very little statistical validity. The group was very small and the distances they were swimming made it difficult to record any major differences in times. We also need to consider the inaccuracies involved in using time as a measure (but I wanted to avoid them wasting brain space by counting strokes) plus the fact that after a while tiredness inevitably affected performance.

Nevertheless, although there were only broad trends visible, even with the limitations outlined above, the “don’t “ cues seemed to perform less well (or no better anyway) than the traditional SM group. 

What was fascinating though was that one of the group said he felt he swam better when using the bizarre “random” cues! His reasoning was that he felt more able to relax and “just let it all happen”. It is worth noting, however, that he is a very experienced and graceful swimmer and no doubt his muscle memory is excellent. It would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a group of novice swimmers and see if the results are more marked.

It is difficult to replicate this experiment completely now that I have explained the rationale behind it. However, if you wanted to, you could try a slightly modified version. 

Next time you are at the pool decide on your favourite SM cue – one that you know works for you – and time yourself over 100m concentrating only on that.

When you’ve finished, take at least a minute rest. Not to rest your body so much as to rest your brain. Now decide on an aspect of your swimming that you know needs improvement; a bad habit you just can’t kick. Swim another 100m with your only thought being not to do whatever that is.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash                              Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Take another rest and now pick a random image, the weirder the better; a hippo in a hot air balloon, a yeti doing a tap dance, a chicken on a roller coaster, whatever. Swim another 100m and compare your times. 

Let us know how you got on. At the end I suspect you’ll either learn something about the importance of choosing a good cue or the difficulty you have in maintaining a given cue over a longer period of swimming.

Or maybe, more thrillingly, your feedback will help change the way SwimMastery is coached forevermore!! 

Swimming – what really matters…

I was chatting recently to some of my fellow coaches and the subject of exactly why we swim came up. As the summer draws to a close and temperatures start to drift downwards I was curious to know what motivated them, particularly when it came to open water swimming. Was it the feeling of being at one with nature?; the calm meditative nature of the stroke?: the feeling of freedom and weightlessness from being supported by the water? I was predicting a range of answers along these lines.

In fact, the answer was unanimous and unequivocal. There was no debate with regard to the best bit about swimming:

It’s the cake.

Specifically ginger cake apparently.

Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova on Unsplash

Now I am aware that not all open water swimmers will agree with this, some might see it as quite a controversial view. Particularly those who favour a Battenburg. However, there can be little doubt that, whatever the exact type, there is very little that can beat a nice thick slice of cake after a swim. Preferably accompanied by a hot chocolate or at the very least a strongly brewed cup of tea.

But is any of this relevant? And if so, how? Are Swim Mastery swimmers not here to exercise, to practice and improve, to train and travel on the road to higher learning? Well, yes, clearly. That’s definitely part of it. A pretty large part of it. And indeed if you want to make that your sole experience then good luck to you.

However, there is a whole other side to things to consider. SwimMastery is all about making connections. Connections in the body when we’re in the water to ensure that we are moving as one coordinated unit. But connections are equally important out of the water. Social connections, bringing people together who have a shared love of the sport. People who would probably never meet any other way. 

Just in my own relatively small circle of swimming friends I have met government advisors and grannies, prison officers and stay at home Mums, acrobats and architects. Plus people I consider that I know quite well yet have absolutely no idea what they do for a living. Because swimming, like many sports, is a complete leveller. It doesn’t matter what folks do away from the water. All that matters is the enjoyment which is had within it. And success in business is no guarantee of success in the water (but no barrier to it either obviously). Normal hierarchies can be completely overturned. Not that it really matters; in my experience most swimmers focus on the challenges presented by the water and are less focused on the performance of their colleagues. Some competitve element may creep into affairs from time to time but rarely is this representative of serious rivalry.

I observed a coach the other day who was drilling a group of youngsters in the pool. I was horrified. If he felt they hadn’t swum a length well enough the whole lane had to get out and do press-ups or crawl on all fours back to the other end It was meant to be fun I’m sure but looked simply degrading and humiliating. None of the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves. I had no idea why they didn’t push him in. Needless to say, he was not a SwimMastery coach. Perhaps he was having success in creating a few swimmers capable of winning a race in a school gala. However, I am certain that he was completely failing to nurture a life-long love of swimming in any of his pupils which would have been a preferable outcome by far and may well have been a more successful strategy in producing successful race swimmers to boot.

Photo by Angelo Pantazis on-Unsplash

Because if you aren’t enjoying your swimming, if everything becomes a grim-faced slog, then it’s unlikely that you will build those all-important bonds which unite both formal and informal groups. It’s probably no coincidence that the SwimMastery swim groups I see tend to have a lot of fun and laughter together. 

And cake.

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.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Massimo Sartirana on Unsplash

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?

An extraordinary relationship with your swim coach

Carl Rogers, a preeminent American psychologist of the second half of the 20th century, stated, “If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur” (Rogers, 1961, p.33).

He was making a bold assertion about the power of extraordinary helping relationships in general, (not just therapists) to do more than teach but to facilitate transformation from those seeking healing from illness and distress to those seeking enhancement of their normal human capabilities for work, sport or living well. He was promoting the view that when a person (you) are immersed in this kind of extraordinary helping relationship you are much more likely to experience a natural urge to seek, to try new things, to learn, to grow, and develop in positive ways, much more energetically than you would without this kind of attention.

It doesn’t take much experience with coaching adults in swimming to notice that most of our clients regard their swimming practice as much more than an exercise or sport but as a vital part of their physical and mental vitality. This makes the coach more than an instructor in how to move and train, but also in how to focus on what matters and how to respond to ups and downs of life that are represented in the athletic experience. This places the coach in a position to accompany and support a student as they go through a sometimes difficult and unsettling experience of physical and mental change and growth.

Rogers (1957; 2007) points to three features in helping professionals that enable them to create this extraordinary kind of helping relationship which can be readily seen in an extraordinary coaching relationship: empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard.

Empathy is the coach’s ability to sense some important parts of what you (the student) are experiencing and their ability to communicate this understanding to you in a way that makes you feel understood.

Congruence is the coach’s ability to be secure enough to show you on the outside what he/she is thinking and feeling on the inside regarding your person and progress as a student. They can be genuine and transparent in a tactful way that is helpful to your learning process.

Unconditional positive regard is the coach’s genuine open, accepting, warm, caring and non-judgmental attitude toward you that doesn’t require hiding or faking anything. You can feel safe to be vulnerable in your learning process with this professional.

When the skills you need to acquire and the conditions you need to prepare for are fairly easy for you, then you may not need something exceptional from the professionals who are trying to help you with that. But when you are facing greater internal or external challenges on the path to your goal, when improvement in performance may require changes in your inner being that provoke a sense of vulnerability, the quality and depth of relationship with a skilled coach can make a tremendous difference in helping you make those changes more easily. A coach who embodies these features noted above would be one who is more suited to accompany and support you on that journey.

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Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21(2), 95–103.

Rogers, C. R. (2007). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 240–248.

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

 

True story. In 1995 a man called McArthur Wheeler, robbed two banks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.. He wore no sort of discernible disguise and happily smiled at the security cameras on the way out. The police viewed the CCTV, identified him and quickly arrested him. He was astonished. He couldn’t work out how he had been caught. He assumed he had stumbled on a failsafe method of disguising himself because he had smeared his face with lemon juice.

Huh ?

Well, because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink he had assumed that it would do the same trick for him and render him invisible as well !

It’s easy to dismiss this story as the act of an idiot. However, it piqued the interest of two phycologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger who decided to investigate further. Their findings, published in 1999  (https://www.avaresearch.com/files/UnskilledAndUnawareOfIt.pdf)  gave birth to what is known as the Dunning Kruger effect. You see, their conclusions were that the man wasn’t a fool at all. Just extremely misguided and misinformed, leading him to have a massive overconfidence in his own ability to succeed.

Further studies on people rating their own levels of competence have backed up their conclusions. For example, in a group of US software developers 42% ranked themselves in the top 5% of performers.  Another study showed 88% of US drivers rated themselves as “above average” in their skills.

Interestingly, the lack of self-awareness about one’s true level of competence in whatever area was being studied was not limited to those with little knowledge of the subject. People with a genuinely higher level of expertise tended to make incorrect evaluations regarding their own ability in the other direction. i.e. they tended to rate their performance lower than was actually the case.

Their perception of their performance only began to improve once a pretty high level of competence was achieved. The explanation for this apparent dichotomy was that this group simply assumed that everyone possessed their own level of expertise and knowledge and thus they set a higher bar for their perception of average performance.

The Dunning Kruger effect on people’s self-assessment of their own ability can be plotted a chart like this:.

Initially, while competence is barely started, there is a huge spike in confidence. But as knowledge increases and the true difficulty of the skill set becomes apparent, confidence plummets for a while before recovering again once as skills are mastered.

That initial exaggerated level of competence could, I guess, be extended back to the period before someone even attempts a particular task. How often have you ever looked at something without ever appreciating the level of skill involved? Just because a person is making it look easy doesn’t mean that it is. The “how hard can that be?” mindset can be applied to almost every walk of life be it writing a book, cooking a meal, servicing a car or decorating a room… or learning to swim.

Swim coaches often encounter clients who do not have an accurate self-assessment of their own ability. Most have met clients who believe that they can pick up the skills required to make them into an excellent swimmer within a few lessons just by making a few tweaks here and there.

Photo by King Lip on Unsplash

Sadly, in reality it often quickly becomes apparent that their confidence is somewhat misplaced and in fact their technique is in need of a complete overhaul and that many bad habits need to be unlearned and re-constructed. 

But in order to do that the swimmer needs to be aware of how far along the path of competence they currently are and how much they still have to learn. The coach needs a certain degree of tact and sensitivity. It is important not to crush the spark of motivation completely or to present the path to competence as being immeasurably long and unachievable. Goals must be carefully set which are both attainable and measurable. The downward slope from that initial spike of overconfidence needs to be carefully managed to ensure the swimmer does not lose their confidence even while their competence increases steadily.  Equally, swimmers need to approach the process with a mind open to new ways of thinking and moving, perhaps discarding old inferior practices which have become ingrained and second nature when in the water. It is important to view the body as one integrated system with every body part linked to and responding to previous actions.  Thus the key to resolving a problem in one area of the stroke may lie in correcting the actions of a completely different part of the body.

Following the curve of the Dunning-Kruger effect we see that a mismatch between confidence and skill may apply not only to inexperienced swimmers but to experienced ones as well. Equally challenging for the coach are the swimmers who are further along the path of competence but whose level of self-confidence might be less than those who are further back. In these cases, the job of the coach is not only to build on the current ability but also to boost their sense of self-efficacy, or the ‘I can do this!’ attitude and enthusiasm. The acquisition of new skills is recognised as being as much in the mind as it is in the body. But it is perhaps less obvious that a significant part of this is simply to recognise one’s own level of competence.  Sometimes swimmers simply need to be kinder to themselves and have faith in their own ability

Confidence is a major factor in providing a foundation for understanding and mastering new skills. Whilst some may need to be gently shown that they have some way still to go, others may need to be built up to understand that they are very close to perfecting a particular area already. 

The challenge for the coach is to recognise which type of swimmer is before them as the Dunning-Kruger effect may well mean that some swimmers will have difficulty in evaluating this for themselves.

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