I’m writing this from Windsor England where I’m visiting for the second time in a few months. In mid-October I came for a Coach Certification Course and returned yesterday to speak at a Triathlon Show. Today’s blog is about Focal Point practice because the experience I had last night during my first swim on this side of the pond was precisely the same as my first UK swim last time. In both swims I felt out of sorts, and was ‘cured’ by Focal Points.
In October, I had just 10 minutes to swim after a session training coaches, time for 500 or 600 meters. But after only 100 meters I lacked enthusiasm for continuing. It was my first time in an indoor pool in five months and I missed the freedom of outdoors and open water. Needing to find a focus, I chose the first one we teach in lessons and workshops — ‘hanging’ my head until it felt weightless. I got so much enjoyment from a narrow clear focus I could have happily continued for an hour. I no longer cared–and barely even noticed–that I wasn’t in a lake.
Last night my challenge was lack of energy (because of jet lag) not motivation. I’d come to the pool with TI-UK Coach Tracey Baumann for a weekly group practice she leads devoted to Focal Point and Tempo Trainer practice. I got in early plannubg to do a series of 100m repeats on gradually faster tempos. But after 800m I felt deeply fatigued and realized it was jet lag kicking in; I’d arrived 12 hours earlier having gotten only brief and fitful sleep on the overnight flight from NY.
At the same moment, Tracey’s group was arriving and she started them with a series of 25m repeats with the Balance Focal Points of Hang the Head, Marionette Arms, and Relaxed Legs. We did 30 minutes of these, then another 30 minutes at prescribed tempos–first slower, then faster–maintaining the same focus. At the end of 60 minutes of constant, clear focus I felt mentally and physically refreshed.
On Sunday I’ll talk to an audience of several hundred triathletes about the benefits of Focal Point practice. I’ll open my talk by describing the restorative effect I experienced in these two swims. Then I’ll go on to describe a whole range of additional benefits, including the following.
Reduce the ‘Genius Gap’ between you and elites In physical terms, most elite swimmers are like a different species of humans–most of them unusually tall, streamlined, strong, and supple. But an even more significant difference is their extraordinary ‘feel’ for the water, an innate awareness of how to move through water advantageously. There’s not much we can do to change our physical conformation, but much we can do to improve our water awareness. Focal Point practice is the best way to accelerate this.
Cocoon of Calm The biggest challenge triathletes face in the entire race occurs in the first few minutes–how to stay calm in the congested, chaotic conditions following the start of the swim leg. This causes anxiety that can verge on panic, triggering an andrenaline rush. The best way to keep your cool is to focus on the only thing in your environment you have control over–how you stroke. In doing so, you also control your mind, by blocking distractions. I call this the Cocoon of Calm, and you begin creating by practicing Focal Points in the pool. Doing it regularly develops the capacity to continue doing so in a stressful situation.
Expert Mind The Expert Mind is my favored term for what author Tim Ferris, in his latest book, The Four-Hour Chef, calls Meta-Learning the ability to learn anything unusually quickly by ‘cracking its code.’ The capacity for laser-like focus is the most critical asset for becoming a World Class Learner–of anything. One proven way to improve your focus is by starting every lap with a goal to execute a chosen aspect of technique better than you ever have.
Reason #1: Be Razor-Sharp! at 90+ Neuroscientists have identified Cognitive Reserve as the key characteristic of a brain that is resistant to loss of mental acuity related to aging, including Alzheimer’s. In simple terms this means having more neurons, more robust circuits and more brain mass. Doing math equations, learning Mandarin, or playing chess are all good ways to develop Cognitive Reserve. But the best way is to mix aerobic activity with a ‘cognitively difficult’ task–i.e. skills that are sufficiently challenging and/or complex that they require your complete attention. The aerobic activity ensures a good supply of oxygen and glycogen, the ‘fuel’ the brain runs on. Being physically active the muscles generate a protein called NGF (Neural Growth Factor) that travels through the bloodstream to your brain, and results in growth of new brain tissue. And ‘mindful movement’ causes cognitive and motor neurons to wire together.
Practicing Focal Points is as good for your brain as it is for your stroke and psyche.