TI Coach Lou Tharp was the coach of the West Point Triathlon Team between 2006 and 2009. While there he converted a cadet named Nicholas Sterghos from an injured runner into an elite triathlete. In just two years, Nicholas improved his 1500-meter open water time from 27 minutes to 18:13, without ever doing a single conventional “workout.” Instead he focused relentlessly on Balance. Streamline. Propel. Read Lou’s chronicle of a full season of Army Tri Team practice in his book The Overachiever’s Diary.
While Lou isn’t coaching Army nowadays, he still works privately with triathletes. His latest blog Begin With Your Brain And Don’t Let Your Muscles Get In The Way gives great insight into why your brain is crucial — and your muscles often uncooperative — in learning Balance.
I forgot how much patience and how little muscle it takes to make progress when you are a novice swimmer. And, how little patience and how much muscle novice swimmers are ready to expend.
My newest novice is a 30-year-old overachiever who was a junior high, high school and college wrestler. He has delts for days, and the confidence that goes with being a proficient athlete. These days he’s a triathlete who is fearless on the bike but feckless in the pool.
I tried to prepare him for the non-muscular activity he was about to do called balance drills. I did one and he watched. Then he didn’t do one, but he tried. And tried.
“It’s all about letting your brain do the work it wants to do. Your brain will figure this out. Just relax and be in the moment,” I said 19 different ways.
Two-and-a-half hours later we were done for the night. I was happy. He had made huge progress, but didn’t think so. I said if we were learning how to run or bike he’d be sweaty, feeling beat-up, and physically exhausted. Learning to swim is more about brain work than muscle firing, so when you’re learning, the result is brain-based. It’s not intuitive.
I recognized in Lou’s account something I’ve only come to appreciate in the last few months. It’s not enough to focus on the brain in learning Balance — or any other skill. We need to be in the Superlearning State!
Light and sound are measured via electrical signals called hertz (cycles per second). Neuroscientists also use hertz to tell what kind of work the brain is doing. Brainwaves fall into four categories : Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta.
Beta (13- 40 cycles per second) Our normal waking state. Very alert, but busy, dealing with a rush of stimuli and distractions. Ideal for avoiding an accident while driving, but too ‘hyper’ for learning.
Alpha (8-12 cycles per second) The ‘Superlearning’ state. Calm, but keenly alert. Resistant to distraction and optimal for targeted focus.
Theta (4-7 cycles per second) At 7 hertz, deep relaxation, as in seated meditation. Good for autosuggestion, but too slow for intense mental processing. 3 hertz is falling asleep.
Delta (1/2 – 4 cycles per second) Deep sleep
As do all of us, Lou’s student came into the pool in beta state. His efforts to learn balance were impeded by his difficulty in achieving calm but acute focus. Just as important, his frustration was also produced by his beta state brain. Rather than simply evaluating his experiences as information essential to course-correction he kept judging himself — and being new to Balance practice, felt frustrated instead.
The most important — and universally overlooked — thing you need to do as you begin practice is have a process for shifting your brain from the beta to the ‘superlearning’ alpha state.
How to get into Alpha State Several techniques have been identified as effective in producing alpha brainwaves. Three have particular application to swimming practice – Breathing, Floating and Yoga.
Breathing Rythmic breathing techniques are taught by many ‘eastern’ disciplines, such yoga, aikido, and tai-chi because they prepare one for mindfulness. Breathing exercises clear the mind, and allow the student to concentrate on the material being learned. In his book, Effortless Exercise: A Guide to Fitness, Flow States and Inner Awareness TI Coach Grant Molyneux describes the importance of what he calls “Checking In” and explains how to do nose-breathing exercises as part of it. I’ve tried it. It works.
Floating ‘Therapeutic Floating’ has been done for centuries in places like the highly saline Dead Sea. Its modern uses were pioneered by Dr John Lilly. Dr. Lilly found that floating in a low-distraction environment led him to a deeply relaxed, meditative state that put the brain in a highly receptive state. Floating has been used to accelerate learning of music, languages and other cognitive skills.
Rehearsed Movements Besides breathing, yoga and t’ai chi are based on series of positions or linked movements, which practice has made deeply familiar. These bring you to alpha state because your actions are clearly defined, mindful, and committed to memory through repetition. Learn T’ai Chi for TI via this DVD.
This combination of Alpha-State-Promoting activities leads us to a highly dependable way to prepare yourself for Superlearning in the Pool. I.E. A ‘ritual’ in which you spend the first 8 to 10 minutes of practice repeating linked series of Balance drills like Superman Glide, Superman-to-Skate and Superman-to-Skate-to-SpearSwitches. Exhaling quiet “nose bubbles” as you do.
Create your own Alpha State series from Lessons One, Two, Three (breathing exercises), and Four of the Self-Coached Workshop DVD.
Or learn the Alpha State series — and all Balance and Streamlining skills — at special 1-day intensive Freestyle Made Easier classes Dec 13 and 15 in Coral Springs FL. These classes will be led by Terry Laughlin, Shinji Takeuchi and Shane Eversfield.