Where sport becomes an art
It never ceases to amaze me that the top athletes in the world are frequently within less than a percent of each other. In swimming, they are often separated by mere hundredths of a second, despite obvious differences in genetics, training philosophy, technique, and diet, among other things.
I am always making it my business to find what how my competitors are training, what new ideas they may be working with, observing their technique, their views regarding nutrition etc. During the last few weeks as I have been competing in the FINA World Cup against the best in the world in the sport, I have continued to seek out more information about one of my very pertinent interests: human performance. I am constantly researching and learning about the newest training methodology, observing the best athletes and silently studying what they do well.
My swimming is always a work in progress. People in the sport are often interested in how I train, in what I am doing down there all alone in Trinidad. I am very open about my views and opinions on training methodology, technique, nutrition, recovery and the like; I keep no secrets. I don’t have all the answers, but what I know, I have patiently learnt over time from different coaches and athletes along the way and through years of research and experimentation.
I believe ultimately that sport is about being the best that one can be, and not necessarily about beating anyone else. When it is all over, I hope to be able reflect back on it all with satisfaction, believing that had I reached my full potential, done justice to the hand I was dealt, and to know that I was as good as I could get.
At the top level of any sport, you will find that most people are in it because they love it and are extremely passionate about everything pertaining to it. I have no problem sharing what I think works for me, and almost all of my competitors that I have come to know have the same attitude. Perhaps this generosity stems from confidence; knowing that the patiently acquired skill set is so finely tuned that no one else can quite match you, strength against strength. Also, it’s not as though the things one does well are a secret either. They are visible for all to see and are shown off in every performance, hence the use of the word performance.
Seeing this unique skill set of strengths and weaknesses playing out against opponents in matches, games and races like weapons used deftly in combat is one of the most enjoyable aspects of watching sport.
If everyone was the same, things would get a little stagnant and boring. There is also the fact to consider that by honestly sharing ideas, some of which the competition may try to implement, you challenge them to surpass you and at the same time you also challenge yourself to avoid complacency and seek to continually improve, staying one step ahead, thereby pushing the limits ever closer to perfection, so as to retain your relative position and stay one step ahead. Through this interaction and the sharing of ideas in and out of competition, we challenge each other to keep pushing the sport to new, never before seen heights.
Contrary to what one might think, these top level athletes who are all within less than one per cent of each other do not all train or approach their performance in the same way. Take swimming for example.
From a macro viewpoint, yes, in this case we all swim and do some strength and mobility work outside the pool, but there are many philosophies and approaches that are obviously working.
To say that one particular approach to training is the right way would be the same as saying that karate is right and that taekwondo, muay thai and every other martial art is wrong.
If these different approaches were not all justifiable, then why do they all produce such great results? For example the eight World Championship finalists in my event—the 50m freestyle, which is the closest race in sport—are all separated from each other by mere hundredths of a second. Yet all year, the finalists are dedicated to working almost equally hard in very different ways.
Some of the finalists swim great distances and pride themselves on the speed endurance. Others train more like track and field sprinters, with shorter more intense workouts, while a couple of the finalists merely do technique work in the water and almost all conditioning and power work outside on dry land.
For argument’s sake I will dive into to swimming esortica here.
Firstly, the finalists are utilising different techniques such as classic freestyle, straight arm, shoulder driven stroke and hip driven, some even seem to thrash around in no real form at all. A few utilise the underwater dolphin. Others, like myself, don’t stay under very long, but quickly breach the surface and swim. Some endeavour to swim on top of the water, others to cut through it. The same can be said about the top eight finalists in track and field, I am sure. There seems to be so many right ways to do things that it is confusing.
The real question here is what is the right way for you?
Everyone is different, we all move differently with slightly different bio mechanics, we all have different physiques, metabolisms, are subject to different conditions, and have different strengths and weaknesses. Anyone who has seen the unique way that Usain Bolt runs can attest to this.
I had an epiphany a while back as I was now coming onto the world stage. I decided to swim like me. Growing up I naturally tried to emulate the swimming greats of the time such as Popov and Biondi, carefully studying their precise technique in the art of moving that was uniquely theirs.
At that stage of my career, it was the perfect thing to do. I believe that anyone now starting out should seek to emulate the best that there is. However there comes a point when you have gained enough experience and start to compete against the people you emulate and are forced to build upon what you have learned with innovation in order to beat them, since your idols have now become your rivals.
At this juncture, you can’t keep trying to be like the greats before you, but must instead have the courage to take ownership of your approach and create your own style that is subjective to your own unique body, the way it moves, responds, recovers, to push the limits with your strengths and to continually develop your weaknesses.
To do this requires a deep understanding of the many elements involved, a humble ego to accept that you haven’t got it all figured out and an open mind to be willing to embrace new ideas.
In my technique I am solid all around, there are some things I am great at and others that I am painfully and frequently reminded of, that I need to focus and work on. I am always learning, tweaking, fine tuning my technique and training while seeking feedback. I never fully embrace an idea or disregard it, I just use it if it works for me. I question everything and think for myself.
Ultimately to improve, due to the law of diminishing returns and the inability to recover, there comes a point where it is impossible to increase the output of effort. In order to progress at this level the endless subjective possibilities of right ways to do things must be embraced along with innovation to push the limits of human performance. This is the beautiful point where sport becomes more of an art than a science. If you are a good artist, others who are just beginning will seek to emulate your style.